“Othello”: unmissable quotations (part 1)

I recently created a list of my unmissable quotations from “The Kite Runner”, aimed to help students revise key concepts and analysis. As a follow-on from that, here is the first half of my list of top quotations from “Othello”.

1. “Even now, now, very now, an old black ram is tupping your white ewe.” (Iago, 1.1)

This line encapsulates the racist and misogynist context of the play. Found in the midst of Iago’s prejudiced tirade in Act 1 Scene 1, it helps to establish the oppressive culture which Othello and Desdemona defy in sealing their love with marriage vows – and so we see love and hope pitched against hate, purity against debasement, lifelong commitment against animalistic passion, and society against the individual. If Shakespeare demonstrates that the protagonists believe that their commitment to one another might triumph over society’s prejudices, then this line undercuts any attempt to break free from hierarchies based on race, gender, and social class, informing the audience that Othello and Desdemona have made a naïve misjudgement.

What is striking about this line is its urgency. Through the repetition of the adverb “now” and the present tense, Shakespeare establishes Iago’s insistent and forceful tone – used to elicit the strongest possible emotional response from Brabantio. The animalistic imagery suggests that this act of passion is bestial and uncontrolled, whilst through the use of the coarse verb “tupping” Iago implies that Desdemona is a passive victim of brute force. However, just as Othello is described as a “ram”, so too is Desdemona depicted as a “ewe”, indicating that Shakespeare presents Iago as misogynistic as well as racist. This is compounded by the pronoun “your”, which reveals the patriarchal norms to which Iago and Brabantio adhere; Shakespeare shows us that Desdemona is regarded as a possession who has been “stolen” from her father. The impact of this line is, therefore, a sense that the natural order of things has been overturned, and that the very structures which uphold Venetian society are being shaken. The use of prose, the night-time setting, and the juxtaposition of the anarchy of the street with the domestic order of the house consolidate the idea that the marriage has triggered a descent into chaos.

Whilst Shakespeare uses this opening scene to establish the pressures which society places upon our tragic hero, Othello, he also uses these lines to introduce Iago’s manipulative and opportunistic nature. It could be argued that Iago’s attitude to the reprehensible ideas he articulates is ambiguous. Although it is clear later in the play that Iago despises Othello, he is presented as having this attitude towards all the characters, regardless of ethnicity, gender, or social class. And in this opening scene, there are indications that Iago only launches into this increasingly offensive list of debased acts because Roderigo is not doing a sufficiently successful job at arousing Brabantio’s anger. So does Iago describe Othello and Desdemona in these terms because it is useful to him to do so? An alternative interpretation is that Shakespeare is presenting Iago as enjoying the chaos he is causing and the language he is using. Coleridge famously described Iago’s “motiveless malignity”, and here there is a suggestion that the tragic villain relishes the act of destruction, and that this enjoyment is an end in itself. After all, one of the key messages of tragic texts is that mankind is fundamentally at war with itself, and that evil impulses are continually fighting for dominance.

2. “I am not what I am.” (Iago, 1.1)

Iago’s assertive statement is perhaps paradoxical, as he honestly admits his deceptive nature. The blunt monosyllables and simplistic language (in contrast to the complexity of the imagery and grammatical structures in the preceding speech) contributes to the sense of sincerity,  whilst the repetition of the present tense verb “am” indicates that Iago is presented as being at ease with his dual nature, and that he has no intention of changing this state.

In this line, we also note Shakespeare’s use of Biblical allusion. In Exodus 3:14, God tells Moses that “I am who I am”, and refers to himself by the phrase “I AM”. Through Iago’s inversion of this statement, Shakespeare presents him as a “demi-devil” (to borrow Othello’s words from Act 5 Scene 2) who joyously embraces “hell and night”. Thus, from the very outset of the play, the audience is aware of the dramatic irony which defines Shakespeare’s characterisation of Iago; because we are aware of his villainy and determination to “set down the pegs” of Othello and Desdemona’s relationship, we realise that the tragic outcome of the marriage is inevitable. Yet, unlike plays such as Macbeth – in which the agents of darkness are supernatural and associated with the concept of fate – in Othello, this sense of inescapable downfall is created by a human mind. It is clear, therefore, that Shakespeare is exploring the profound evil which might reside within each individual in a world which seems to be relatively removed from religion.

3. “She has deceived her father, and may thee.” (Brabantio, 1.3)

As one half of a rhyming couplet, this line is clearly intended to be remembered and to resonate throughout the play. Indeed Iago (who is present when this is said, but says little himself) echoes Brabantio in Act 3 Scene 3, telling Othello that “She did deceive her father, marrying you”. What is interesting here is that it is Brabantio – not Iago – who is presented as sowing the first seeds of doubt in Othello’s mind, and then Iago capitalises on this; this is further evidence of Iago’s opportunism, as he is portrayed as noticing and exploiting details discussed by those around him, weaving them into his web of deception and false representation. The use of the rhyming couplet also has a sense of finality which indicates that the newly-married couple’s fate is sealed.

The line also indicates a sense of dissociation, as Brabantio is shown to be rejecting his child due to her defiance of patriarchal expectations. Brabantio speaks in the third person when he says “her father”, a phrase which conveys a sense of distance and formality, as if the legal relationship between parent and child is now all that remains, and any emotional bond has been dispensed with. Whilst the audience might feel a modicum of pity for Brabantio – who later dies of “pure grief” – it is clear that it is his prejudices and rigid view of the world which destroys this relationship. Kiernan Ryan argues that Desdemona and Othello “act … as if they were already free citizens of a truly civilized future, instead of prisoners of a time when racial prejudice and sexual inequality are so ingrained that even their heroic hearts are tainted by them”. If this is the case, then Brabantio symbolises the traditional ideologies that prevent progress towards a brighter future.

4. “O my soul’s joy.” (Othello, 2.1)

Othello speaks these words on being reunited with Desdemona after the journey from Venice to Cyprus, and in doing so he is shown to express a deep-seated and pure passion for his new wife. Whilst Shakespeare has emphasised Iago’s debased attitude to sexual relationships by using animalistic diction in Act 1, here there is only a glimmer of a physical connection between the lovers and the marriage seems to be one in which the emotional and psychological connection are foregrounded. The exclamation “O” highlights the depth and honesty of Othello’s feelings, and hints at his lack of self-understanding. Whilst Othello is presented as believing in the profundity of his love for Desdemona, the audience are aware that the relationship is built on precarious foundations and that the emotions Othello experiences are more akin to infatuation than lifelong love.

The word “soul” is mentioned 40 times during the play, and is used as a motif to symbolise a range of concepts. This includes the pure love mentioned above, as well as the idea that the soul persists after death, going to either heaven or hell (Othello “would not kill [Desdemona’s] soul” in 5.2). The soul is also connected with the attributes of integrity and honesty – such as when Othello insists that his “perfect soul / Shall manifest [him] rightly” when he appears in front of the Sagittary in 1.3. In a wonderful phrase later in the play, Iago describes men who are “loose of soul”, indicating that maintaining this level of integrity is associated with self-discipline and order – and this is precisely the state which Iago wishes to disrupt in the other characters. Whilst the idea of the “eternal soul” might be one which is associated primarily with religion, within this relatively secular play, Shakespeare suggests that the characters believe they have control over their own souls. Othello’s use of the pronoun “my” in the quotation from 2.1 is echoed in many mentions of the word – and through the repetition of “my” and “your” an idea which is arguably conceptual and abstract becomes concrete and definite. The soul is therefore presented as being within the ownership and control of each individual, and it is their responsibility to safeguard its purity. Thus, the word “soul” becomes a shorthand for honesty, purity, integrity, and self-control – and 2.1 is the pinnacle of these qualities, a moment of order and calm before the descent into chaos in 2.3.

5. “And out of her own goodness make the net / That shall enmesh them all.” (Iago, 2.3)

2.3 is a key turning point in the play as the action starts to move from personal and social order to barely controlled chaos. Othello loses his grip on his rational mind, realising that ‘my blood begins my safer guides to rule’, whilst Cassio laments that he has ‘lost the immortal part of’ himself ‘and what remains is bestial’. Left alone onstage, Iago then commits to ‘make the net’ in which he will ensnare the other characters. In using the image of the net, Shakespeare casts Iago as the hunter intent on bringing down his prey – an image which is perfectly suited to this Machiavellian, opportunistic, and ruthless villain who consistently uses animalistic language to describe others. The net also resonates with other images of constraint found in the play, such as the ‘web’ in which Iago imagines catching Cassio; for Iago, this vendetta is as much about control and power as it is about triumphing. The confidence of the modal verb ‘shall’ allows Iago to proclaim his certainty that he will prevail, whilst the indiscriminate word ‘all’ implies that the scope of his revenge is broad – Shakespeare is at pains to remind us that this vengeance is not simply against Othello, but that it is about dismantling a social system which Iago believes does not recognise his value.

Of course, we should not forget that these lines are spoken as the conclusion of a soliloquy, and that they contribute to the development of dramatic irony throughout the text. However, due to the nature of the soliloquys in this play, this is also about making the audience complicit with the tragic villain’s agenda. Whilst in plays such as ‘Macbeth’ and ‘King Lear’, the audience witnesses the tragic hero battling their own minds, fears, ambitions, and doubts, here the very directness of Iago’s speeches forces the audience to engage with his plotting. Like the character of Satan in Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’, the figure of Iago is more compelling than the heroes of the piece, and so the audience finds themselves torn between repulsion at the villain’s immortality and interest in his undeniable charisma. In the next blog post I will explore this idea in greater depth as I look at my top 5 quotations from the second half of the play.

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