Last Updated 05 Jan 2023

A Literary Analysis of Figurative Language in Othello by William Shakespeare

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In William Shakespeare's "Othello," the titular character is manipulated by the machinations of who he considers to be his close friend, Iago, into murdering his faithful and loving wife, Desdemona. Before committing the reputable act, Othello rationalizes his actions in an inner monologue. During this monologue, Othello uses colorful figurative language, allusion, and repetition to reassure himself and say his final goodbyes to the soon-departed Desdemona.

Initially, Othello says to himself that “it is the cause,” it referring to Desdemona's supposed infidelity, of his impending crime. He repeats this phrase three times within the first three lines of the passage. Othello's continued repetition of “it is the cause" serves to reassure himself of the righteousness and apparent justice of his deed. By repeating the phrase, Othello makes certain that there are no lingering doubts in his mind that Desdemona does not deserve to die. Later, Othello claims he will “put out the light, then put out the light" both lights referring to Desdemona's candle light and the light of her life, respectively. He claims by "quenching" her light, he can restore her former light, indicating that he believes killing her is not good only for himself, but for Desdemona as well.

Othello's boisterous use of figurative language shows that, while he wholeheartedly wishes to kill Desdemona, he still holds her in generally high regard, or at least, used to. By claiming that he'll not shed her blood in the interest of preserving her skin that is "whiter than snow" and "smooth as monumental alabaster”, Othello shows that he still views his wife as beautiful and fair. He views the murder as similar to plucking a rose, and once he has done so, it cannot be undone. By describing Desdemona as a rose, that “needs must wither" Othello cites the inevitability of death as a reason for her ultimate fate.

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Othello's sense of justice can be gleaned from his words before the act. Claiming that “she must die, else she betray more men," Othello feels that he is doing all men a service, not just himself. His allusion to the Promethean legend to describe Desdemona's inner flame also gives insight into his own supposed righteousness. Prometheus was a traitor to the gods and deserved to be punished. Here, Othello views himself as a betrayed character, and sees the killing of Desdemona as a just and moral action, equating it with the capital punishment of a criminal.

Through Othello's usage of both literal and symbolic phrase,

Shakespeare shows the reader/viewer that Othello is an emotionally complex and sophisticated character. Though he is flawed in many ways, Othello's keen sense of duty and morality make him appear as a tragic character as he commits a crime that is almost of no fault of his own.

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