How Iago manipulates language to achieve his aims

Iago is often described as the narrator of ‘Othello’, he directly speaks to the audience, and they enjoy the privileged exposition of Iago’s intricate schemes as he intertwines his network of lies around the rest of the unsuspecting characters. The audience witnesses this through soliloquy, and in the speeches early in the play, he gives several clues as to his motives, modus operandi and intentions. He is open to their scrutiny who, throughout the play, admire, horrified, the progress of his scheming.

The first main speech of Iago’s is directed to Roderigo in I. i. 40-65.

This speech exposes Iago’s explicit delight in his treachery. The inferiority complex from which he undoubtedly suffers is most obvious at the beginning of the speech; he openly ridicules the ‘duteous and knee-crooking knave’ in a fashion that is both patronising and contemptuous. He sees men who are faithfully devoted to their masters as no more than a mere donkey, who ‘wears out his time much like his masters ass’.

Iago uses bestial imagery throughout the play (for example when he referring to Othello and Desdemona as a ‘black ram’ and ‘white ewe’ respectively) in a manner that is often very aggressive and insulting.

In the Arden edition, this passage consists of several lengthy sentences; his manipulation of their structure reflects cunning nature that he possesses. It suggests that it is Iago’s train of thought and as the prolonged sentences unfold, the intensity of his feeling builds to climax at the lines 66-7.

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He makes use of the now clichi?? ‘But I will wear my heart on my sleeve’ to convey how both his heart and his show of emotions are false by adding a sinister edge of ‘for daws to peck at’. Daws are carrion birds, scavengers of dead flesh; Iago has created a powerful image of them tearing at his heart.

This ablitiy to twist language to convey an obscene or vile meaning is a techinique which Iago often makes use of as can be seen later in the play. The speech climaxes with Iago’s proclamation ‘I am not what I am. ‘, a rephrasing of Saint Paul’s, ‘By the grace of God, I am what I am’, with a very sinister twist. This confession is perhaps not only directed towards Roderigo, but a warning to the audience that his thus far open admissions are also not what they appear to be, an invitation to search for a deeper mtoive.

Despite the truth of that line, Roderigo still choses to trust his ‘confidante’ who swears ‘by Janus’ and yet sows such misery and destruction. This seemingly throws Rogerigo into the open accusations of gullibility, however, it is not only he that is convinced of Iago’s ‘honest’ nature. His speech describing Cassio’s attack on Montano (2. 3. 216) has a simple quality, with plain everyday vocabulary, fluently arranged. The report he gives is accurate, bar a few minor discrepencies – too subtle to dispute, but conciously inserted.

For example Iago reports, ‘He, swift of foot, outran my purpose’, untrue, but cleverly prevents Iago from beign able to idenitfy the ‘crying fellow’ and the parenthesis,’,as it so fell out,’, is skillfuly placed to remind Othello of the results of the fight. He speaks in verse to indicate the formality of the situation. Iago is often praised for his honest nature, (without which, the lies would never have been believed) and he is careful to ensure that reputation continues and his plainess of speech and grammatical clarity support this.

The idea that a plain speaker tells the truth and the more eloquent speaker is not to be trusted is commonplace and through the conversations between Iago and Othello Shakespeare proves this to be false. In fact, plain speaking does not merely accompany Iago’s malice, it is the very medium through which it operates. Put in a clearly difficult position, Iago ablely manages to stay in the good opinion of both Othello and Cassio. Hhis phrases, ‘Touch me not so near’ and ‘Yet surely, Cassio… recieved… some strange indigity’ convince Cassio that Iago is still loyal to him, this is essential to the next ‘stage’ of Iago’s plot.

He also includes a weak justification for Cassio’s actions, ‘But men are men’ which prompts Othello to believe that Iago’s ‘honesty and love doth mince this matter’, further placing Cassio out of Othello’s good opinion and confirming Iago’s good and ‘honest’ nature. Iago is able to keep the image of his honest public persona with all the characters by altring his language style to the situation, eg, the informal prose of his advice to Cassio regarding reputation, ‘As I am an honest man, I thought you had recieved some bodily wound.

There is more sense in that than in reputation. , the comic rhyming in his description of the ideal woman ‘If she be black and thereto have a wit, / she’ll find a white that shall her blackness fit’. Iago’s shocking ability to hold on the his honest repuation lies in his masterfull manipulation of rhetorical skills. Through his soliloquies and subsequent dialogues, he reveals himself to the audience to be anything but honest, a master of connotative and metaphoric language, inflammatory imegery, emotional appeals, well placed hesitations, leading questions and meanignful repition, he has all of the skills required to carry out his vast quantity of lies.

Indeed, Iago is so good at lying, it seems he is able to convince even himself that he has sound reason to destroy those around him (He ‘believes’ that both Cassio and Othello have slept with his wife for example). After ‘honest Iago’ is bid ‘Good-night’ by Othello in Act 2, scene 3, he speaks directly to the audince in a speech which is both powerful, full of dramatic irony and repulsive. He is completely aware of the feeling he evokes and appears to relish them.

He opens with a line that is simply dripping with sarcasm, ‘And what’s he that says I play the villian? ‘ ,it appears that he enjoys teasing the audience in this manner, he has the audacity to claim that his advice to Cassio to appeal to Desdemona to get his job back was exactly what a genuine friend would advise, and, frustratingly, the audience knows that he is right, horrified, they hear how this ‘good advice’ will be turned against Cassio.

By revealing to the audience his plan to ‘enmesh them all’, they can watch the terrible consequences of his lies unfold helplessly and Iago seems to be proud of the situation he is creating. One feels that he is only revealing his plan to them so that his twisted genius can be apprciated. This follows Samuel Coleridge’s view (Omniana, 1812) that Iagos motives for action were his ‘keen sense of intellectual superiority’ and his ‘love of exerting power’, he does take great delight in his ability to control those around him with such appaerent ease.

ANother soliloquy in which he reveals further plot developmet to the audience is in Act 3, scene 3, it begins with his dismissing his wife Emilia, “Go, leave me” he says after she has just given him the handkercheif which is integral to his furthering the demsie of Othello (his all-consuming goal), and yet recieves no thanks or praise from him showing the poor condition of their relationship.

Iagos is perceptive and is very aware of the mechanics of human emotion and expliots these, and the character flaws of those around him, mercilessly to his advantge (eg, Roderigo’s infatuation with Desdemona, Cassio’s weak tongue for wine and reputation for womanising and Othello’s ‘free and open nature’), he explains to the audience in lines 325-7, ‘Trifles light as air are to the jealous confirmations strong as proofs of holy writ’ and it is on this principle he intends to plant the handkercheif on Cassio.

To a critical and reasoning thinker, the evdience which the handkerchief supplies would be deemed weak however, for Othello’s broken mind, coruppted by Iago’s ‘poison’ of words, it becomes irrefutable truth. Iago goes on to reflect upon the effect he is having on Othello, that the thoughts he is implanting in him ‘burn like mines of sulphur’, this evokes a pwerful image of Othello’s sanity and mental stability aflame and destroyed. In 3. 3. 12, Othello seems to have grown tired of Iago’s unfounded talk of Desdemona’s infidelity, ‘Give me a living reason she’s disloyal’ he asks of Iago. This is a precarious situation for him, if he cannot succesfully convince Othello that he speaks the truth, all his workings thus far could be ruined. Nevertheless, Iago retains his calrity of thought and responses in a way which leave Othello unable to reply tih anything but ‘O montrous! montrous! ‘. Iago pleads that he does ‘not lke the office’ and is spurred on helplessly like a beast ‘by foolish honesty and love’.

He has already laid the foundation of evidence for his claim by ensuring he has been portrayed as ‘honest’ in other situations and so, from past experience, it is not surprising that Othello supposes him truthful this time also. Iago knows that this will be the case and tells a story, believable, but false, of Cassio dreaming of Desdemona. He, as has become expected, describes and develops his lies in a very powerful manner which forces Othello to imagine his wife and Cassio togeter, ‘kiss me hard’, ‘lay his leg over my thigh’, troubling for any person in a relationship to consider.

Iago combines this with copious repitition, ‘kiss me’, ‘kisses by’, ‘and kiss’, to ensure there is no way that Othello can avoid these destructive thoughts. Act 4, Scene 1 is the scene which sees the complete errorsion of Othello’s mental faculties, his language becomes fractured and inarticulate ‘Noses, ears, and lips. Is’t possible? Confes! -Handkercheif! -Oh, devil! -‘, revealing his own fragmented state of mind, this, from an Elizabethan playwright, is quite a stylistically modern technique.

Iago abuses Othello’s obvious growing weakness ruthlessly, using all manner of lingustical tachnique to destroy him completely, reducing him to a fit of epilepsy. In lines 2-3, he uses very explicit and detailed language to force Othello to visualise the situation, making it much more immediate and real to him and therefore alos more distressing. Another technique used to manipulate Othello’s thought pattern is in the mulittude of unfinshed sentences used from lines 10-32, ‘He did -‘, ‘give my wife a handkerchief -‘ as just two examples.

This is an incredible clever usage of ‘hanging’ sentences as not only does it spur Othello to naturally proced to finish the sentence, but it also means that he forms his own conclusions, leaving Iago free from blame. Iago feeds Othello informations little by little, he does not simply say all that is needed at once, but prolongs his speech. This is an incredibly effective manipulative technique and ensures that from the begining of the scene riht up until Othello falls into aq trance is a conversation of increasing suspense, with Iagp almost gently prompting him into his epilepsy and the unintelligable speech beforehand.

The complete destruction of Othello’s articulation shows the possesion and control that Iago now has over Othello. Language is inextricably linked with identity, it is the form in which we communicates and interacts with the world and people surrounding us. That Othello has lost the ability to control his own language reflects how he has also lost his identity – which now belongs to and is being controlled by Iago. Othello is aware that he is ‘no longer the man he used to be’ so to speak, as this speech reveals;

I had been happy if the general camp, Pioneers and all, had tasted her sweet body, So I had nothing known. Oh, now forever Farewell the tranquil mind! Farewell content! Farewell the plumi?? d troops and the big wars That makes ambition virtue! Oh, farewell! Farewell the neighing steed and the shrill trump, The spirit-stirring drum, th’ ear-piercing fife, The royal banner, and all quality, Pride, pomp, and circumstance of glorious war! And O you mortal engines, whose rude throats The immortal Jove’s dead clamors counterfeit, Farewell!

Othello’s occupation’s gone. (3. 3. 360) One of the finest examples of this prompting technique is shown with the one word sentence ‘Lie’. The double entendre and ambiguity this sentence posseses makes for an incredibly dramtic moment which completes Othello’s humilating demise from the honourable war hero he once was. Iago, unsuprisingly, manages to cover himself against every lie that he utters, after all he is not providing Othello with any factual evidence, merely hearsay, which is ‘no more than he [Cassio] will unswear’.

For a man as broken as Othello now is, it seems fact is no longer a condition required for judgement and decision, even that of murder. Throughout the play, Iago has skilfully displayed his ability to control the actions, and in Othello’s case, the thoughts of the other characters in the play, all of which has been done through his control of lanaguage, he has updated the auidence throughout, with his ongoing plans with a sadistic enthuisiasm.

So when, in the final scene, the plotting and scheming which he has wholeheartely devoted himself to unravels around his feet, Iago always eager to have the upper hand, tries to retaing what little control he still can by vowing silence. This ensures that neither the charcters, nor the audience, can know Iago’s true motivations for his seeming inherent desire to do evil.

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How Iago manipulates language to achieve his aims. (2017, Aug 01). Retrieved from

How Iago manipulates language to achieve his aims
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