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Symbols & Symbolism 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 explains how symbolism works, particularly in literature. After working through real-world examples of symbols, it takes up several key symbols that Iago, the villain of Othello, uses to accomplish his plot and communicate with the audience.

What Is Symbolism?

A symbol stands for something else. It is an image, a sign, or a gesture that comes to represent something in the world because of its resemblance or connection to that thing.

For example, the red, white, and blue flag is one symbol of the United States of America. It is the banner that flies in all government buildings and is attached to all military uniforms. An eagle has come to be another symbol for the USA. The freedom of a rare, powerful bird in flight easily represents important political ideals like liberty to many people.

Many confuse symbolism for metaphor, which is an easy mistake to make! A metaphor is any comparison between two ideas that goes beyond literal description. Examples include: 'Lucy is a tigress on the dance floor.' 'Mark towered above his brother.' In each example, the people are compared to other animals or objects: powerful but graceful tigers and tall towers.

Symbols also imply these kinds of comparisons, but not all metaphors are symbols! If I say, 'You're so dumb, Terry, you red, red rose!' I may have made a metaphor to represent Terry, but the rose is not exactly a symbol for stupidity. A symbol becomes a symbol by being commonly used and accepted. If, instead, I said 'I love you Terry, my red, red, rose!' then I'd be working with a symbol. There are many to choose from! Below are some examples.

The dove symbolizes peace.

A large X could mean 'No', or 'buried treasure'.

The Star of David symbolizes Judaism.

Uncle Sam is a symbol of patriotism in the USA.

Symbolism in Literature

Symbols appear frequently in literature. Writers and dramatists know that certain images or concepts weigh heavily on their audiences' minds. They can use that to make important commentary on the world or to deliver a clear message.

In Edgar Allan Poe's famous poem, 'The Raven', the speaker, alone in his house at night, hears a tapping on his door, only to eventually discover a great, black bird is the cause. Without a little bit of context, this is still an alarming enough event! It becomes even more foreboding, however, when we know that the raven has come to represent oncoming death in many cultures, both in myths and popular stories.

Shakespeare uses symbols frequently in his plays and poetry. In his famous 'Sonnet 130', he makes fun of common symbols for beauty by trying (and failing) to find them in a real person:

My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun.

Coral is far more red than her lips' red.

If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun.

If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.

Symbolism in Othello

Othello is rife with symbolism. Its characters use symbols to a variety of purposes. Perhaps no character uses them more frequently--or nefariously--than the play's villain, Iago.

In the first scene, Iago and Roderigo wake Desdemona's father to inform him that Othello and Desdemona have eloped. Iago describes the event in heavily symbolic language:

Even now, now, very now, an old black ram

Is tupping your white ewe. Arise, arise!

Iago not only belittles Othello for his ethnicity and age with the phrase 'old black ram', he uses the words 'white ewe' to describe Desdemona. White has long represented purity and innocence. A ewe is a female sheep, which evokes the idea of a sacrificial lamb, innocent and unaware of its impending slaughter.

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