Creatures and beasts

Human superiority over animals

Great Chain of BeingAt the time Shakespeare was writing, the universe was seen as a hierarchy, known as the Chain of Being:
  • God, the Creator, was at the top
  • Next were the angelic spirits
  • Below these spirits were human beings, who were thought to be unique in having both a creaturely body, like animals, but also a spirit (or soul) like angels
  • Below mankind came animals, having body but no soul.
Just as God is at the top of the hierarchy in the universe, so is the head, the seat of reason, within the human body. Indeed, Shakespeare frequently stresses that it is reason which informs the soul of man and makes humans higher than animals:
  • Because people have a soul, they can aspire to reach beyond their body and mortality
  • If they debase their soul, and lose their reason – especially through drunkenness (like Cassio) or by giving way to extreme passion (as does Othello) – then they are no better than animals.
In Othello, Shakespeare therefore conveys the tragedy of a great person’s degradation by frequent use of animal imagery.
There are forty-five mentions of creatures or beasts in the play: dog (x5), hound, horse, hobby horse, jennet, toad (x2), ass (x2), monkey (x2), baboon, cats, wildcats, wolves, puppies, ram, ewe, goats, flies (x2), locusts, moth, snipe, (jack)daws, raven, parrot, lion, crocodile, bear, minx (x2), cod, salmon, asp and viper (both snakes), beast (x4), and monster or monstrous.

Iago’s use of animal terms

In the first two acts, almost all the animal references come from Iago, and the majority of the creatures mentioned are not particularly attractive ones. This helps convey the degradation of his own character. We agree with Brabantio’s reaction, ‘What profane wretch art thou?’ after Iago has compared Othello’s relations with Desdemona to the copulation of animals: 
‘an old black ram
Is tupping your white ewe’    

‘You’ll have your daughter covered with a Barbary horse: ..
you’ll have coursers for cousins and jennets for germans.’ 
Iago’s own low moral nature is reflected in the way in which he alludes to those creatures with negative connotations. Animals he mentions include goats and asses, which both had reputations for low intelligence and sexual voracity, as well as snipe (Act 1 Scene 3) which has a double meaning of a wild bird or a fool/contemptible person. He also refers to animals known for being either mischievous or dangerous, such as monkeys, baboons and also wildcats, whom he likens to housewives (Act 2 Scene 1). 
It is clear that Iago has a contemptuous view of other people by the animals to which he likens them. He is supercilious in likening both Desdemona and Cassio to demeaning dogs (Act 2 Scene 3). His greater contempt towards Othello is demonstrated by twice comparing him to an ass, a creature used as a metaphor for a stupid, worthless person:
‘The Moor is of a free and open nature .. 
And will as tenderly be led by th’ nose
As asses are.’ (Act 1 Scene 3)
‘Make the Moor thank me, love me, and reward me
For making him egregiously an ass,’ (Act 2 Scene 1)     

Othello’s degradation

In the first half of the play, Othello speaks respectfully and demonstrates wisdom and diplomacy. Once Iago has tormented him with the idea of Desdemona being unfaithful, Shakespeare alters Othello’s language and thought processes. The wellspring of love becomes filled with the poison of deadly snakes (‘aspics’). Othello calls his wife a ‘minx’, a pejorative term (derived from the name for a small dog) for a perverse or flirtatious, untrustworthy woman. In Act 4 Scene 1 he refers to his wife’s ability to lie by callously claiming she can ‘sing the savageness out of a bear!’ He states that her tears were all ‘crocodile tears,’ and finally claims that her actions have poisoned his love and imagination so that it becomes ‘a cistern for foul toads / To knot and gender in!’ His mind has been contaminated by Iago’s lies and now he imagines for himself the sordid images of hateful, unpleasant, dangerous creatures associated with his ensign’s perspective.

Terms of hatred and abuse

The words dog, monstrous and beast are used pejoratively by Othello, Iago, Roderigo and even Cassio. A person likened to one of them would be hated and scorned. Thus Roderigo calls Iago an ‘inhuman dog’ just as Iago murders him (Act 5 Scene 1). Lodovico calls Iago a dog, and Othello calls himself a ‘monster and a beast’ for becoming a cuckold. Montano describes Desdemona’s murder as a ‘monstrous act.’ Iago describes Othello’s and Desdemona’s love-making as ‘making the beast with two backs.’ But perhaps Cassio summarises the play’s tragedy best when he says:
O God, that men should put an enemy in their mouths to steal away their brains! That we should …transform ourselves into beasts! (Act 2 Scene 3)     
Although he is referring to the detrimental effects of alcohol, the sentiment can be applied to the poison Iago feeds Othello.
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