Language and character


It is interesting that, although a ‘gentleman’, Roderigo speaks almost entirely in prose after Act 1 Scene 1 (when his gullibility has not yet been fully revealed). This may well be Shakespeare’s way of showing us that Roderigo is a shallow, ignorant character with few redeeming moral qualities: he is determined to woo or seduce Desdemona by bribery, even when she is married, and is easily duped by Iago into doing anything, including murder, to achieve his goal.


In general, Iago speaks in blank verse, except when he is lying, arguing or persuading others to follow his treacherous advice. In such passages he uses prose, reinforcing the idea that prose is the language associated with low moral behaviour, and helping the audience to recognise and reject the character who is speaking. 
In Act 2 Scene 1, Iago is challenged to offer a paean of praise to Desdemona – a skill a Renaissance gentleman would regularly expect to demonstrate. He displays his verbal dexterity by speaking in rhyming couplets and is perhaps trying to add proverbial weight to his observations, but the overall effect is one of shallow aphorisms. 
When he does engage in the exercise more seriously, speaking of an ideal female in rhyming couplets, his cynicism about women undercuts the image and his conclusion is ‘lame and impotent’. The whole exercise has a hollow ring to it. Shakespeare later gives Iago a traditional ballad to sing (using iambic tetrameter) in Act 2 Scene 3, when he is trying to make Cassio drunk. Again, Iago undertakes a socially acceptable linguistic form yet seems to stand aside from the atmosphere he is meant to be creating.
Iago’s complexity is demonstrated by his facility with language and the ability to question its meanings. His soliloquies are often in verse yet, rather than giving us access to noble emotions, demonstrate his ability to undercut generous ideas: 
And what’s he then that says I play the villain,
When this advice is free I give, and honest,
Probal to thinking, and indeed the course
To win the Moor again? For ’tis most easy
The inclining Desdemona to subdue
In any honest suit; she’s fram’d as fruitful
As the free elements. And then for her  

To win the Moor, were’t to renounce his baptism, 
(Act 2 Scene 3)     
Perhaps it is the fact that so many of his lines contain an extra syllable (11 rather than 10) that gives an unsettling edge to his observations.


Othello’s speech changes dramatically in the concluding scene of the play. Until then he speaks predominantly in blank verse, with the occasional prose passage when dealing with business. At the beginning of Act 5 Scene 2 Othello’s tight self-control and iron resolve is reflected in the regularity of the iambic pentameter he uses as he philosophises on the need for Desdemona to die: 
Yet she must die, else she’ll betray more men.
Put out the light, and then put out the light.     
Yet there are ‘cracks’ in his resolve, lines which slip in extra syllables as he contemplates his wife’s beauty (‘And smooth as monumental alabaster.’; ‘Thou cunning’st pattern of excelling nature,’) or which contain both caesurae and extra syllables as he switches thought:
‘Should I repent me; but once put out thy light,’
‘That can thy light relume. When I have pluck’d the rose,’
‘It needs must wither: I’ll smell it on the tree.’
‘Be thus when thou art dead, and I will kill thee,
 And love thee after. One more, and this the last:’
‘But they are cruel tears; this sorrow’s heavenly,’     
It leaves us with the impression that even Othello is struggling to be convinced by his argument. His emotional turmoil is reflected by the increasing disintegration of the iambic rhythm, most obvious when he is disturbed by Emilia’s knocking:
         Ha! No more moving.
Still as the grave. Shall she come in? Were’t good ?
I think she stirs again. No. What’s best to do?
If she comes in, she’ll sure speak to my wife.
My wife, my wife! What wife? I ha’ no wife. (Act 5 Scene 2)     
After all the revelations of evil and error, Othello seems only to recover his equilibrium as he talks to Gratiano of military exploits (‘Behold! .. should Othello go?’) – until he looks again at the dead body on the bed, when the pentameter breaks down again as violent imagery engulfs his mind.
It is only in his final speech (‘Soft you .. him thus’), once he has determined on effective ‘military’ action (the noble self-sacrifice associated with Roman soldiers), that he speaks evenly, even reflectively. At the end it is as if he has reverted to the bluff, impervious, emotionless soldier he was before he courted Desdemona. He dies, speaking of his former life of soldiering when men killed and were killed and acted of necessity, without regret.
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