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Essay/Term paper: Othello & king lear - a comparison

Essay, term paper, research paper:  Othello

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SHAKESPEARE; Othello & King Lear - A comparison

If Shakespeare was alive today it is certain that there
would be a lot written about him. We would read reviews of
his new plays in newspapers, articles about his poetry in
the literary papers, and gossip about his love life and his
taste in clothes splashed across the glossy magazines. His
views about everything under the sun, from the government to
kitchen furniture, would probably appear regularly in the
colour supplements. His face would be familiar on television
talk shows, his voice well-known from radio broadcasts.
There would be so much recorded evidence about his life and
his opinions that it would not be hard to write about him.
Shakespeare, however, lived some four hundred years ago
in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, when there was no tele-
vision or radio, nor even any newspapers as we know them
today. Although he was respected as an important person in
his own lifetime, nobody ever thought of writing about him
until well after his death. And Shakespeare did apparently
not believe in keeping a diary either. So it is largely by
luck that the little evidence we have, such as the entry of
his birth in the parish register, has survived at all.
And yet, by looking carefully at contemporary pictures, by
reading contemporary accounts, it is possible to get a good
idea of how the boy whose birth is recorded in the Stratford
register of 1654 grew up into the man who wrote such famous
plays still known all over the world, as we type.

Imagery used in Othello and King Lear.

In Othello and King Lear Shakespeare uses a lot of
imagery. The main image in Othello is that of animals in
action, preying upon one another, mischievous, lascivious,
cruel or suffering, and through these, the general sense of
pain and unpleasantness is much increased and kept constant-
ly before us.

More than half the animal images used in the play
Othello are of Iago, and all those are contemptuous or
repellent: a plague of flies, a quarrelsome dog, the recur-
rent image of bird-snaring, leading asses by the nose, a
spider catching a fly, beating an offenceless dog, wild
cats, wolves, goats and monkeys.

To these, Othello adds his pictures of foul toads
breathing in a cistern, summer flies in the shambles, the
ill-boding raven over the infected house, a toad in a
dungeon, the monster
`to hideous to be shown', Othello Act III, Sc iii
line 107
bird-snaring again, aspics' tongues, crocodiles'
tears and his reiteration of

`goats and monkeys'. Othello act III, Sc iii
Act IV, Sc i
line 403
In addition, Lodovico very suitably calls Iago

`that viper', Othello Act III, Sc iii
line 265
and the green-eyed monster

`begot upon itself, born on itself',
Othello Act III,
Sc iv
line 161, 163

is described or referred to by Iago, Emilia and Desdemona.

It is interesting to compare the animal imagery in
Othello with that in King Lear. The plays have certain
similarities; they were written near together (Othello

probably in 1604, King Lear about 1605), they are the most
painful of the great tragedies, and they are both studies of
torture. But the torture in King Lear is on so vast and on
so inhuman a scale, the cruelty of child to parent in the
doubly repeated plot is so relentless and ferocious, that
the jealous and petty malignity of Iago shrinks beside it.

This difference in scale is expressed in the animal
imagery. In Othello we see a low type of life, insects and
reptiles, swarming and preying on each other, not out of
special ferocity, but just in accordance with their natural
instincts, mischievous and irresponsible wild cats, goats
and monkeys, or the harmless, innocent animal trapped. This
reflects and repeats the spectacle of the wanton torture of
one human being by another, which we witness in the tragedy,
the human spider and his fly; whereas as in King Lear our
imagination is filled with the accumulated pictures of
active ferocity, of tiger, wolf, wild boar, vulture, serpent
and sea-monster, all animals of a certain dignity and
grandeur, though seen here only when their desires

Are wolfish, bloody, starved and ravenous.
Merchant of Venice Act IV
Sc i
line 137
This represents the terrific scale of the suffering in King
Lear, which makes us feel, as we never do in Othello, that
the vileness of humanity is so great, so unchecked and
universal that if the gods do not intervene, the end of such
horrors must come and

Humanity must perforce prey on itself,
Like monsters of the deep. King Lear Act IV
Sc ii
line 49
But the gods, who `keep this dreadful pother', do not

intervene, and the most terrible lines in Shakespeare are
those breathed by Gloucester in his agony, when he attribu
tes to the gods themselves in their dealings with men, not
only indifference and callousness, but the sheer wanton
delight in torture, which, in Othello, we see exercised only
by one human being on another.

If animal in action symbolise the main motive in
Othello, there is another recurrent image which gives
atmosphere and background. As is fitting, with a setting of
two seaports, play an important part throughout.

Iago, as the soldier of a city which owed its dominance
to sea-power, uses sea imagery easily; when complaining that
Othello had passed him over for Cassio, he describes himself
`be-lee'd and calm'd; Othello Act I, Sc i
line 30
he knows the state has not another of Othello's
`fathom'; Othello Act I, Sc i
line 153
he says he must
`show out a flag and sign of love'; Othello Act I, Sc i
line 157
that Brabantio will take action against Othello to whatever
extent the law
`will give him cable'; Othello Act I, Sc ii
line 17
later, he coarsely describes his general's marriage in the
terms of a pirate taking a prize galleon; he declares to
Roderigo he is knit to his deserving
`with cables of perdurable toughness';
Othello Act I
Sc iii
line 343

and when he sees his plots shaping well, he murmurs with

My boat sails freely, both with wind and stream.
Othello Act III
Sc iii
line 63
The opening of Act II, when those in Cyprus are anxiously
awaiting the arrival of Desdemona and of Othello, is full
of sea pictures and personifications, 'the ruffian wind upon
the sea', the `chidden billow', and the `wind-shaked surge',
so that it is well in keeping with the setting and atmosphe-
re when Cassio, in high rhetorical terms, pictures the seas
and rocks as traitors concealed to waylay the ship, who, on
catching sight of the beauty of Desdemona, `do omit their
mortal natures', and let her go safely by.

Othello's use of sea images is noteworthy; `they come
naturally, for on each occasion they mark a moment of
intense emotion. The first, at the height of his happiness,
when he rejoins Desdemona, is an exclamation which to us,
who know what lies before them, is, in its opening, one of
the most poignant and moving in the play:

O my soul's joy!
If after every tempest come such calms,
May the winds blow till they have waken'd death!
Othello Act II,
Sc i
line 186

The next is at the height of torture, when, having been
shown the handkerchief, suspicion become certainty and he
vows vengeance. To clinch this, Iago urges patience, and
suggests that perhaps his mind may change; to which Othello

instantly reacts as his torturer intends, and affirms the
unalterable quality of his resolve by comparing it to the

`icy current and compulsive course' Othello act III,
Sc iii
line 453
of the ebbless Pontic Sea.

And at the end, when he has carried out his resolve, and
has suffereand realised all, again it is in sea language
that he expresses his equally set determination to follow
Here is my journey's end, here is my butt
And very sea-mark of my utmost sail. Othello Act V,
Sc ii
line 267

Literatuur: Shakespeare, His Life, His Language, His
S. Schoenbaum

Shakespeare's Imagery, and what it tells us
Caroline Spurgeon

Shakespeare and his theatre
Phillipa Stewart


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