Exploring The Power In Shakespeares Othello English Literature Essay
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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016
Language plays a very important role in all of Shakespeare’s plays. When Shakespeare performed his plays, no scenery and very few props were used. This meant that the language had to set an atmosphere, whether it is high in tension or a light hearted conversation. Use of language was also very important, as the vast majority of the audience was made up of common people. This meant that he had to make the language compelling and accessible. He does this by including jokes and curses, even in his tragedies. This comic relief is also used to create contrast and highlight the tragic sections, for example the Clown in Othello directly after act 3 scene 3, a very serious emotional part of the play. Language is also used to distinguish between the important characters and the lesser roles. The main characters like Othello tend to speak mostly in verse; this gives them a sense of superiority and elegance, while the less important speak in short, un-poetic sentences highlighting the difference. In this essay, I will look at how power and control influences the play and how the different characters use it, in particularly Iago. I will also look at how power and control shifts between the characters.
Power plays a very important role in the plot and overall outcome of this play. Power is used to create control and vice versa. This is very important as it allows Iago, who is lower ranking than Othello, to generate power through controlling Cassio and ultimately Othello. The fact that the play is set within the higher ranks of the Venetian army allows clear divisions in power to be highlighted immediately, and Othello being the General automatically puts him at the top of the triangle of power. However, as the play unfolds, the power seems to shift to Iago, the villain of the play. Right at the very beginning, Iago’s manipulative nature is revealed when he convinces Roderigo to give Iago all of his money in return for helping Roderigo win Desdemona’s hand, which is obviously a false promise. This allows Shakespeare to show that although Iago lacks power socially and within the army, he is adept at controlling others.
Controlling others is something which Iago repeatedly does throughout the play. In act 2 scene 3, he displays his control over Cassio, when he tries to make him drink. Like the beginning, even though Cassio is a higher rank that Iago, he still lets Iago bully him into drinking. At first, Iago suggests that he should drink for Othello and Desdemona and when Cassio refuses he implies that he is therefore a bad friend ‘O, they are our friends’. When Cassio still refuses Iago becomes more aggressive in his speech ‘What, man! ‘Tis a night of revels; the gallants desire it.’ When Cassio leaves to fetch the men at the door Iago has his first soliloquy, in which he reveals his intentions. ‘If I fasten but one cup upon him, with that which he hath drunk tonight already, He’ll be as full of quarrel and offence’ (II, iii, 41-43). In this soliloquy, Iago moves into verse, this could be to show the real Iago to the audience, not just the manipulative acting which he puts on. Another reason for Iago going into verse is to make him appear more important in the play.
Othello also controls others of a higher rank, albeit not in the manipulative nature of Iago, in Act 1 Scene 3 when Brabantio accuses him of stealing Desdemona and corrupting her using ‘spells and medicines’. Othello stays calm, also demonstrating his self control and talks his way out of it using long speeches in blank verse. In this speech, Othello repeatedly refers to the fact that he has a common tongue, ‘Rude am I in my speech and little bless’d with the soft phrase of peace’, ‘little grace I shall cause by speaking for myself’. The reason for this self-criticism may be to emphasise that that what he is saying comes from the heart not the brain, demonstrating his love for Desdemona. This also reduces the sense of power and it makes Othello appear as just a man in love. Othello states that he is rude in speech, but he actually speaks very well, this could also be Othello showing his false modesty and trying to show off to Brabantio, questioning Othello’s honesty. In stark contrast, Othello ends his speech with a contrasting last line, ‘I won his daughter’. This powerful last line restores his authority in the eyes of the Duke and the Senators.
This scene shows the power that accompanies self control, Iago also utilises this by showing a great deal of restraint when trying to convince Othello that Desdemona is unfaithful in act 3 scene 3. ‘Did Michael Cassio, when you woo’d my lady, know of your Love?’ (III, iii 95-96) this question does not have any real meaning. However it gets Othello impatient and curious. ‘He did from first to last. Why dost thou ask?’ to which Iago replies ‘But for the satisfaction of m thought; No further harm.’ Iago’s could have easily told Othello about Desdemona, but instead he resisted, this meant that Othello wanted to know even more. By putting Othello in this situation Iago used Othello’s persistence to gain control and power over the situation. In unwillingly giving the information, Iago is laying down a false sense of trust. Throughout the scene Iago repeatedly reminds him of this, with constant remarks about how much he loves the moor. ‘To show the love and duty that I bear you’, ‘I humbly do beseech you of your pardon for too much loving you’.
During this scene, Othello’s language is always changing. Sometimes he speaks in short broken up sentences, but then he composes himself and speaks in verse again. This shows the way that Othello is fighting jealousy. However when he finally gets ‘proof’ that Desdemona is cheating in him, he loses all control and allows jealousy to take control of him, ‘O monstrous! Monstrous!,’ ‘I’ll tear her all to pieces’.
‘Look here, Iago,
all my fond love thus do I blow in heaven:
Arise, black vengeance, from the hollow hell!
Yield up, O love, thy crown and hearted throne
to tyrannous hate!’. (III, iii, 447-450)
In this speech, Shakespeare shows that Othello has lost his self control by using punctuation to break up his once flowing sentences. The punctuation however would have only been visible to the actors. This means that they are more like stage directions than literary devices. Shakespeare used other stage directions to create a sense of power and superiority in this scene, like when Othello kneels at the end of his speech, (443-451). This shows visually Othello breaking down, and the fact that Iago is still standing symbolizes that Iago is the most powerful in this scene. In kneeling down, Othello also loses his stature and authority, as he is now below Iago. ‘Do not rise yet.’ Here Iago shows his influence over Othello, Iago did not want Othello to rise by himself, it would make Othello feel more in control and powerful. Instead Iago joined him; this meant that Iago would conform to his position of sharing Othello’s pain.
One very prominent statement made by Iago, in which he compares jealousy to a ‘green eyed monster’ (III,iii, L. 166) can be seen as an attempt to further his control over Othello by warning him of Jealousy. He goes on to say that the monster ‘Mocks the meat it feeds on’, in this he is suggesting that if Othello gives in to jealousy it will ‘mock’ him. The word mock in this context may mean destroy and the meat could symbolize Othello’s love for Desdemona.
Friendship and trust is what holds the story together, and Iago knows this. By constantly reminding the characters of this and by showing his devotion to them, he gets into a position of having more influence over what they do and how they behave to a certain situation that they do. When Iago is trying to force Cassio to drink, he reminds him that ‘O, they are our friends’ (II, iii, 32). They fact that he refers to them as ‘our friends’ gives the impression that they share something in common, bringing them closer and also increasing the amount of trust that Cassio has for Iago. Trust is a major fact of that scene, as well as trying to gain trust with Cassio, he is also trying to break up the trust between him and Othello. At the beginning of the scene, you get a strong sense of friendship between Othello and Cassio. ‘Good Michael, look you to the guard tonight.’ (II, iii, 1) by using Cassio’s first name it shows that they are close friends.
In this play, Iago is a bit of an outsider, and has no relationships other than with his wife Emilia. When Iago is with Emilia, it shows his real persona attitude. Unlike with all the other characters, he shows no effort to show his devotion and love for her even though he is her wife. This is prominent in act 3 scene 3 when Emilia gives Iago Desdemona’s handkerchief. When asked ‘what will you do with’t’, Iago snatches it defensively and says ‘Why, what’s that to you?’ In this part of the scene, it shows Iago’s lack of control and patience, something which is not evident in the rest of the play. This is very important, as this section of the play is very high paced and full of big events and big powerful scenes. This part of the scene also shows the real nasty side of Iago which you only previously saw in his quite frequent soliloquies outlining his plans.
In this play, power and control is a very important and ever changing factor, ultimately influencing the outcome of the play. Iago stays quite constantly emotionless showing his self control and Othello is the complete opposite, staying emotionally attached to almost every aspect. This in due course led to his death. This plays shows the power of the rumour, love and jealousy, not only in the play but in Elizabethan and modern day society. This is why; much like a lot of Shakespeare’s plays it shall always stay relevant.
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