Figurative Language in Othello

Instructor: Emily Russell

Emily has taught writing and literature at the college level and is currently pursuing a PhD (ABD) in medieval and early modern literature.

In Shakespeare's ''Othello'', characters use figurative language to evoke emotion and describe their actions, feelings, and intentions. This lesson explains how figurative language is used in some key scenes in the play.

Why Don't They Just Say What They Mean?

When was the last time someone asked you 'What's up?' Or told you that they were feeling 'down in the dumps'? These are common examples of figurative language. They are phrases that have a meaning other than their literal one.

Instances of figurative language can be tricky to understand the first time you come across them. Many people understand 'what's up' to mean 'what have you been doing' because they have heard it many times before, but to someone hearing it for the first time, it could be quite confusing. People, especially writers, use figurative language because it paints a picture that adds meaning to the original idea. For example, the phrase 'down in the dumps' paints a picture of someone being in a dump, which is not usually a very pleasurable place to be!

Shakespeare loved using tools like metaphors and personification, which are kinds of figurative language, to make people use their imagination. In the play Othello, Iago, the bad guy, and Othello, the good guy turned not so good guy, both use figurative language to describe their actions, intentions, and emotions.

The Beast with Two Backs

In Act I, scene 1, Iago, an expert troublemaker, tells Brabantio that his daughter is making the 'beast with two backs' and has run away with Othello, who is a soldier and a friend of Brabantio. It's a particularly creative way to tell daddy that his little girl is having sex with his army friend! He makes Brabantio imagine two people having sex. At the same time, he implies that it is animalistic by using the term 'beast.'

This isn't the only image Iago uses to upset Brabantio. He also tells him that 'an old black ram is topping your white ewe.' The imagery is still animalistic. He is describing a black male goat having intercourse with a white female goat, but he is also adding to this imagery some information specific to Othello and Desdemona. Othello is older than Desdemona and his skin color is darker because he is a Moor, which is someone from the area around the Iberian Peninsula. The images do the trick. Brabantio is enraged and goes off to find Othello and reclaim his daughter.

You Are Well Tuned Now

Iago doesn't just use figurative language to stir up trouble. He also likes to use metaphors when bragging about how manipulative he is. In other words, he makes a comparison between what he is doing and something else that might initially seem unrelated. For example, in Act II, scene 1, he calls Othello a 'well-tuned' instrument and then basically says he'll put him out of tune. By talking about Othello as if he were an instrument he can tune as he desires, Iago paints a picture of Othello as someone who is easily manipulated or, well, played.

Later, in Act IV, scene 1, Iago says, 'Work on, my medicine, work!' He didn't actually give Othello any medicine. And, by the way, medicine actually means poison here - but he didn't give Othello any poison either. Instead, he told Othello lies that are poisoning his relationships and his mental well-being. Iago understands that there's more than one way to make someone sick.

The Green-Eyed Monster

Both Iago and Othello use figurative language to describe emotions. In Act III, scene 3, Iago calls jealousy a 'green-eyed monster.' This description takes something that is abstract and gives it a form. Jealousy is a scary monster! Not only that, but by describing jealousy as a monster, Iago is pointing out that it's something that can't be controlled.

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