Imagery in Othello

Instructor: Adam Hembree

Adam has an MA in English. He has taught a range of literature and theatre subjects at the university level. He has also worked as a writing tutor and academic advisor.

This lesson will explain a bit about imagery in literary works. It will specifically delve into Shakespeare's usage of the device in his play, Othello, identifying the purpose of imagery in some key examples.

Pictures with Words

We often say that a picture paints a thousand words. As it turns out, a few words are also sufficient to paint a verbal picture. Writers use imagery in their work to help the audience paint such pictures in their minds. Imagery is one very prominent example of figurative language, the language writers use to convey meaning beyond literal explanation.

If I simply wanted to communicate literally, I could tell my friend that the seasons are changing and leaves are beginning to turn colors and fall. If I wanted to write more figuratively, I could incorporate some imagery:

'The old oaks are bleeding red and orange today! The wind catches the bright drops and whirls them into crisp tornadoes scented by chimney smoke and the sweet death of summer.'

Notice the difference. The literal description might call to mind your memories of autumn and describe the situation quite adequately. The second, however, invites your imagination to do some extra work. Imagery makes you apply your memory to the creation of new mental pictures.

Shakespeare's Othello, like all of his plays, makes ample use of imagery. Since plays use dialogue to convey information, all imagery is spoken aloud between characters. This can have several purposes on stage.

Telling a Story

There are many times on Shakespeare's stage when a character tells us of events that happened offstage. Since there are no flashbacks in Shakespeare's plays, we must rely on that character's words to paint the picture for us. The lines below occur early in Othello, when a gentleman recounts the massive storm that drowned the Turkish fleet:

'The chidden billow seems to pelt the clouds,

The wind-shaked surge, with high and monstrous mane,

Seems to cast water on the burning Bear

And quench the guards of th' ever-fixèd pole.'

The picture the gentleman paints is one of the seas attacking the sky. The waves are so high that they seem to put out the stars (including Ursa Major, the bear constellation). Notice how active and terrifying the words make the water: it 'pelts' the clouds and 'quenches' the stars with its 'monstrous' mane.


Imagery can very effectively manipulate our emotions. It would be horrifying enough to threaten to kill a child, for example, but Lady Macbeth famously declares the following in Macbeth:

'I would, while it was smiling in my face,

Have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums

And dashed the brains out.'

Lady Macbeth's words clearly evoke disgust and horror. She manipulates her husband by challenging his manhood and then his commitment to their bloody plot. Othello contains similar instances of imagery-heavy manipulation. Iago in particular favors this strategy. He tells Othello that Cassio confesses his love for Desdemona in his sleep (a lie!) with the following lines:

'And then, sir, would he gripe and wring my hand,

Cry 'O sweet creature!' then kiss me hard,

As if he plucked up kisses by the roots

That grew upon my lips;'

Though Iago tells the story as if it happened to him, he clearly wants Othello to imagine Cassio kissing Desdemona so passionately. The word 'plucking' evokes the image of a flower, as though the formerly innocent Desdemona were being deflowered by the smooth-talking Cassio.

Further Examples from the Text

When Iago pushes Othello over the edge with jealousy, Othello explodes with the following:

'Arise, black vengeance, from the hollow hell!

Yield up, O love, thy crown and hearted throne

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