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The nature of humanity is a reflection of nature itself and we often see the relationship between humans and the creatures of nature. For example, an athlete is thought to be as swift as a cheetah, a child being curious as a monkey, a grandmother being wise as an owl and a murderer being treacherous like a snake. The vivid images placed in the heads of Othello’s readers make it easy to understand the story and depict the nature of the characters and contrast between many things. Shakespeare’s Othello uses animal imagery in many characters to depict the darkest sides of human nature and to build up the roles of each character in the story.
In the first act of the story, the villain Iago reports the elopement of Othello and Desdemona to Brabantio-Desdemona’s father- with an aim of stirring a conflict. Iago utilizes animal imagery to disgrace and dehumanize Othello and sparking Brabantio to act. Iago refers to Othello and Desdemona to animals by telling Brabantio that, “Even now, now, very now, an old black ram / Is tupping your white ewe” (1.1.85-96). He continues to compare Othello to a horse by saying “…you’ll have your daughter covered with a Barbary horse. / You’ll have your nephews neigh to you.” (1.1.108-109). the two metaphors utilize animal terminologies connected to Othello’s descent which is Moorish. The “black, barbaric” reference shows the discrimination against Othello’s ethnic descent and the hostility towards interracial marriages. The relationship between Othello and Desdemona is far from being approved and seen as normal because of the ethnic disparity; Iago creates a horrifying picture of the two using animals which is a clear indication of his perception on the relationship.
The insinuation creates a horrific picture that Brabantio leaves to look for his daughter. Iago makes the picture so vivid so that the anger of Brabantio can lead him to take immediate action and he says “I am one, sir, that comes to tell you your daughter and / the Moor and now making the beast with two backs.” (I, I, 116-7) “Making the beast with two back” is used by Iago as a euphemism of sex and this-he was certain- would make Brabantio furious. Comparing anybody to a beast is an insinuation of how the person is dangerous and any father would get furious if their daughter was involved with one.
Additionally, references to animals are used to depict the dark human characters in the story and specifically Iago’s. Brabantio gives a reluctant blessing to Othello and Desdemona, Roderigo, who desired to marry Desdemona, becomes distressed and tells Iago that he will drown himself because of the lamentation. Iago laughs at what he say stating that “Ere I would say I would drown myself for the love of a guinea hen, I would change my humanity with a baboon.” (1.3.310-311) His statement means that he would not kill himself over a woman’s love while he is still a man, he would only do so as an ape. The reference is a depiction of his disdain for women and love and this is further proven through his future relationship with his wife. Iago believes that love is an illusion and a lie that people hide behind to benefit from and he thinks that every woman is a two-faced witch and unfaithful. Shakespeare develops Iago into a character that does not see value in many things and amongst them women, animals, and love.
Additionally, his reference to animals shows how he disregards them when he says “Come, be a man. Drown thyself? Drown cats and blind puppies!” (1.3.331-332) He belittles the lives of animals which is somehow classical Elizabethans, who qualified to the Great Chain of Being idea. The concept created a hierarchy of creatures’ importance and animals were far beneath humans. In the end, Iago betrayed Roderigo and stabs him to death. Iago played him throughout the story and in his last words; Roderigo says “O damn’d Iago! O inhuman dog!” (V, I, 62) Calling someone a dog is powerful because it is dehumanizing, however, Roderigo knew what he was saying because of the treacherous things that Iago had done to everyone he had betrayed.
Shakespeare’s Othello uses animal imagery to show the traits of its characters based on different perspectives. Othello who is the protagonist has been referred to different animals in different contexts. The reference has been used to dehumanize him and depict that he is different from everyone else and does not deserve Desdemona. The character of Iago, on the other hand, has been developed through animal imagery. What he says to other characters builds his traits and in many cases, his words were centered on animal imagery. This depicted is hatred for animals, women, and love, this helps in understanding his character and where he stands in the story.
Shakespeare, William. Othello: The Oxford Shakespeare: The Moor of Venice. OUP Oxford, 2006.
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