Language in Othello

In a play dominated by heavy innuendo and characters with conflicting motives, Shakespeare uses register in his writing, as a strong determinant of characters’ perspective on themes such as reputation and power. The tone and diction, used in the set register, are often varying depending on who the character is conversing with and the characters’ goal which they wish to accomplish through the dialogue. The use of formal and informal language by Iago is a key element of Shakespeare’s portrayal of the character’s duplicity and villainous intents. Iago’s skillful manipulation of register during his interactions with different characters, is a salient feature of Iago’s emotional exploitation of other characters’ and getting his desired response from them.  This creates tension in anticipation of the inevitable discord and drama.

Shakespeare establishes Iago’s unscrupulous personality by juxtaposing elements of formal speech and colloquial language in his dialogue with Roderigo in the very first scene of the play. Iago’s response to Roderigo’s flustered prose, which is delivered in a lamenting and whining tone, is extremely cohesive and structured. Iago’s response is written in blank verse, suggesting that his delivery has a continuous structure unlike Roderigo whose dialogues are frequently broken by punctuation. Iago very diligently denies having prior information of Desdemona’s elopement with Othello: “‘sblood, but you will not hear me”. Iago’s religious oath by which he refers to Christ’s blood as a testament of his honesty, suggests that he wishes to have an honest reputation before Roderigo. Thus, Iago wishes to make certain that Roderigo feels that he is very significant to Iago and therefore, during this dialogue, he is granting considerable social stature to Roderigo by swearing in the name of ‘God’s Blood’ for the sole reason to console Roderigo so that he is continuous recipient of Roderigo’s trust and wealth. This sheds light on how the varied and adept usage of language by Iago establishes the theme of power as extremely transient. Iago, who has a higher social status than Roderigo, by his usage of formal language, is according Roderigo precedence and putting the facade of an honest man in service of his friend.


However, his next address to Roderigo by the use of the word “you” is in tremendous contradiction from his previous powerful religious oath which Iago took in his name to raise his own credibility and make Roderigo feel significant. This stark contradiction results in the transfer of power accorded to Roderigo by virtue of formal language in the religious oath, back into the hands of Iago by his address to Roderigo by “you”. Iago’s duplicity is also evident from when Iago makes demeaning remarks about Othello’s ornamented use of language and rhetorically inflated speech: “evades them with a bombast circumstance”. Iago employs a questioning tone, describing the general’s behavior as “evasive” and hardly substantial in terms of actual wisdom: “bombast circumstance”. These two traits possessed by Othello, as mentioned by Iago, are at odds with the practicalities of a soldier’s life . Shakespeare thus creates a successful air of uncertainty before the audience about Othello’s personality through Iago’s language. The audience has previously been skeptical of Iago’s truthfulness, due to the presence of an evident contradiction in his address to Roderigo, but furthermore is tantalizing with respect to Othello’s credibility as a general since the news of Desdemona’s elopement and Iago’s remark about Othello’s excessive pride and rhetoric. Therefore, by virtue of the antithesis of the words in Iago’s address to Roderigo, Shakespeare makes the audience aware of how Iago perceives his reputation before Roderigo, in spite of which Iago does not wish to yield any power to Roderigo, making the audience aware of Iago’s duplicity.

Shakespeare’s usage of informal language for humor and depiction of characters’ perception of their reputation and social dominion in Act 2 Scene 3 is extremely significant. It sheds light on Iago’s inclusion of colloquial and unornamented language as part of his dialogues, even when conversing with characters of greater prestige and social stature, which would be considered a diverging path from traditional usage of verse in dialogue. Iago asserts that his unbiased and honest perspective dictates his assumption that Cassio is lamenting due to a physical wound rather than loss of reputation: “As I am honest man, I thought you had received some bodily wound”. Iago’s standard for judging all human ideals including reputation, is purely physical. Iago who is aware of Cassio’s regret over the loss of his lieutenancy, displays masterful nimbleness over his language, using his “honesty” as a pretense for perceiving Cassio’s injury as purely in terms of “some bodily wound”. Iago’s conscious restriction of the nature of the “honesty” he possesses, by asserting that the abstract “imposition” of reputation is not worth lamenting, leads the audience to perceive that his honesty is fairly limited to affairs of corporeal existence, and thus by virtue of his language is contrasting the reality of physical pain and the worthless imaginative existence of reputation. Iago’s dialogue’s incoherent structure evidently speaks for a playful and frivolously delivery on stage, seeming to the audience like a subtle mockery of Cassio.

In spite of Iago’s negligence of reputation as worthy of concern, the audience is catching a glimpse of Iago demeaning Cassio. This is affirmed by Iago’s usage of the word “you” to address Cassio upon confrontation, the address of which is often bestowed on one who is of an inferior social stature. Therefore, by virtue of colloquial register during Iago’s speech, Shakespeare creates a contradiction between Iago’s intentions and actions on stage, evident in his choice of diction and tone. By his demeaning address to Cassio as “you”, Iago is himself affirming that Cassio has lost reputation as a result of loosing his lieutenancy. However, his consideration that only “bodily wounds” are “of sense” for lamenting, asserts that reputation is most false in its nature. Shakespeare by virtue of the usage of Iago’s language, captivates the audience with puns encompassing subtle instances of mockery, however places those puns in the mouth of the disingenuous Iago, which conveys to the audience Iago’s perspective on reputation and his rationale for judgment of human ideals.

Iago’s perception of the reputation changes when he is conversing with Emilia, deliberately belittling her to assert his dominance in their marriage. In spite of Desdemona’s interference and Iago’s transition from colloquial to formal register, the harsh diction and condescending tone stays the same. Shakespeare uses this to illustrate the transitionary theme of power in the play by virtue of the language used by the Iago. Iago’s demeaning remark about Emilia bestowing upon Cassio “as of her tongue she oft” bestowed on Iago, is uttered in prose. Desdemona’s exclamation towards Emilia’s soft spoken nature, is delivered with haste, rushing in defense of her maid: “Alas, she has no speech”. Desdemona’s blatant dismissal of Iago’s remarks is an evident case of upholding reputation before someone who is of an inferior social stature. Desdemona’s confident tone suggests that she is willing to assert her power in society as the general’s wife, since she was aware of the fact that Iago would not mock her.

Furthermore, when Desdemona questions Iago about his critique towards herself: “what wouldst thou write of me, if thou shouldst praise me?”, her tone is playful and inquisitive. Desdemona’s use of diction emphasizes herself as very different from Emilia. She is certain that her eminence does not qualify in the category of women Iago spoke of: “you are…and housewives in your beds”. The audience is uplifted by the playful tone of Desdemona by which she pacifies the conflict ensuing between Iago and Emilia, however they are also fascinated by Iago’s response to follow. Desdemona’s inquiry about “what praise coudst thou bestow on a truly deserving woman?” further enforces the idea that Desdemona has not yet heard from Iago, what she considers praise worthy of her own. Iago’s response is coherently structured in improvised verse, however his tone is scornful  ,deviating from his usual address to Desdemona, which is chivalrous and respectful: “her ladyship”. Iago’s ingenious speech is the result of conscious calculation of effect rather than an instinctive and subconscious utterance: “she that was fair, and never proud,”. The syntax in his improvised verse is structurally balanced with symmetrical phrases suggesting self-awareness and favored choice of language, which typifies all Iago’s actions. This dramatic irony where in Desdemona believes that Iago’s simply being a cynical man, shown by her exclamatory language “old fond paradoxes to make fools laugh”, whereas to the audience Iago is deliberately playing the of a male cynic expected of him; and the sententious couplets is a reflection of how the habit of thought is natural to him.

Shakespeare, in the tragedy Othello uses informal and formal language in order to convey to the audience the perceptions of characters about the themes such as reputation and power. The playwright employs antithesis in the dialogues of Iago, whereby Iago consciously delivers puns which offer the audience an insight into Iago’s outlook towards his perceived ‘honesty’ and the notion of Cassio’s loss of reputation. In order to create anticipation from the audience, Shakespeare creates ambiguity in Act 1 , Scene 1 by introducing Iago as manipulative, through his nimble use of register in his speech. He both makes Roderigo feel significant but also establishes himself as superior.




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