- Shakespeare, William
- 1564 - 1582: William Shakespeare's Stratford Beginnings
- 1582 - 1592: William Shakespeare's Marriage, Parenthood and Early Occupation
- 1592 - 1594: William Shakespeare's Life In London, part 1
- 1594 - 1611: William Shakespeare's Life In London, part 2
- 1594 - 1611: William Shakespeare's Life In London, part 3
- 1611 - 1616: William Shakespeare - Back to Stratford
- Religious/ philosophical context
- Theatrical context
Language and social status in Othello
The language of power
Nearly all the characters in Othello speak the educated English that the audience would expect their betters and noble folk to speak. This is true even of Emilia and Bianca, a servant and a prostitute.
It is a mark of Othello’s ‘civilisation’ that a Moor, whose origins are in North Africa, has an excellent command of language, even whilst he disclaims this. As a commanding officer in Venice’s army he has learned to speak in the same way as others of senior rank. His nobility of speech accentuates his heroic stature. Even in the midst of later psychological torment, he maintains his cultured language.
There is only one point at which Othello forgets his elevated status, when Iago finally convinces him of Desdemona’s adultery. He cries out in torment, ‘Damn her, lewd minx! O damn her, damn her!’ (Act 3 Scene 3). For some in Shakespeare’s audience, this would be taken as evidence of his intrinsic Moorish ‘savagery’.
Language and sex
Shakespeare is no prude, and in Act 2 Scene 1 he gives Cassio a speech about Othello’s imminent arrival on Cyprus and his welcome by his wife which is full of sexual imagery:
And swell his sail with thine own powerful breath,
That he may bless this bay with his tall ship,Make love’s quick pants in Desdemona’s arms,
Spoken in a refined way by a refined young officer, this is unlikely to cause offence to a discerning audience.
In contrast, Iago, who is the equivalent of an NCO or sergeant major and not of officer rank, refers to sexual matters in a coarse and offensive manner. In Act 1 Scene 1 he speaks to Desdemona’s father, referring to Othello’s behaviour towards his newlywed wife in these words:
an old black ram is tupping your white ewe .. your daughter covered with a Barbary horse .. your daughter and the Moor are now making the beast with two backs.
Such bestial imagery gives the clear impression that Iago is from a lower social class, as well as being full of bitterness and vile thoughts, deliberately offending Brabantio’s feelings. Iago is attributed with degenerate language to signify his moral degeneracy, setting the audience against him from the start.
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