Irony in Othello

As is the case with many Shakespeare plays, Othello contains a great deal of dramatic irony. In Othello, Iago is the source of nearly all irony, a direct result of the lies and deceptions he spreads. While the honesty of numerous characters is called into question, Iago’s never is. Iago presents two distinct sides: the plotting villain he shares with the audience alone, and the faithful officer he shares with the other characters. While Othello calls him “honest Iago,” his honest side is the malevolent persona Othello sees only at the play’s conclusion.

Irony Examples in Othello:

Act I - Scene I 1

"I am not what I am...."   (Act I - Scene I)

This classic line brings the audience in on Iago’s schemes. There is a deep dramatic irony at the core of this statement: while Iago declares that he is not what he appears to be, he admits to the nature of his façade. Thus the audience knows who Iago is, even if the rest of the play’s characters do not.

"I lack iniquity..."   (Act I - Scene II)

This statement perfectly encapsulates Iago’s character. Iago is deeply iniquitous—or immoral—and all the more so for the fact that he claims not to be. A great many of Iago’s words are steeped in irony.

"Now, for want of these required conveniences, her delicate tenderness will find itself abused, begin to heave(245) the gorge, disrelish and abhor the Moor;..."   (Act II - Scene I)

Iago takes on an ironic tone to convince Roderigo that Desdemona will soon fall out of love with Othello. As Iago puts it, she will grow tired of Othello’s war stories, not to mention his old age, lack of manners, and unattractive appearance. Iago has no good reason to believe any of this, but he must give Roderigo hope in order to pull the man—and his money—into his schemes.

"The heavens forbid But that our loves and comforts should increase, Even as our days do grow!..."   (Act II - Scene I)

In a moment of distinct dramatic irony, Desdemona calls to the heavens for a continued increase of “loves and comforts.” The audience, of course, knows of Iago’s plots and thus knows that such an increase is unlikely.

"who stands so eminently in the degree of this fortune as Cassio does? A knave very voluble;..."   (Act II - Scene I)

Iago paints an ironic portrait of Cassio as the right “knave” to steal Desdemona’s heart: he is charming, sly, handsome, and young. Good qualities aside, Iago’s personal hatred for Cassio finds its way into the description: “a devilish knave!… a pestilent complete knave.” Despite Iago’s speech in Act I about using reason to control the emotions, Iago often allows his emotions to guide his words and actions.

"Now, for want of these required conveniences, her delicate tenderness will find itself abused, begin to heave(245) the gorge, disrelish and abhor the Moor;..."   (Act II - Scene I)

Iago takes an ironic tone to convince Roderigo that Desdemona will soon fall out of love with Othello. As Iago puts it, she will grow tired of Othello’s war stories, not to mention his old age, lack of manners and unattractive appearance. Iago has no good reason to believe any of this, but he must give Roderigo hope in order to pull the man—and his money—into his schemes.

"The heavens forbid But that our loves and comforts should increase, Even as our days do grow!..."   (Act II - Scene I)

In a moment of distinct dramatic irony, Desdemona calls to the heavens for a continued increase of “loves and comforts.” The audience, of course, knows of Iago’s plots, and thus knows that such an increase is unlikely.

"Reputation is an idle and most false imposition; oft got without merit and lost without deserving...."   (Act II - Scene III)

In another moment of dramatic irony, Iago adds insult to injury. Not only did Cassio lose his rank “without deserving” as a result of Iago’s scheming, Iago subtly indicates that Cassio achieved his rank in the first place “without merit.”

"Touch me not so near: I had rather have this tongue cut from my mouth Than it should do offense to Michael Cassio;..."   (Act II - Scene III)

Ever the brilliant orator, Iago takes the outward stance of defending Cassio while revealing the man’s identity as instigator. As is the case with much of Iago’s scheming, this speech pulsates with dramatic irony, for the audience alone knows Iago’s purposes.

"I never knew(40) A Florentine more kind and honest...."   (Act III - Scene I)

Iago is from Venice; Cassio, Florence. In this remark, Cassio compares Iago to his fellow Florentines, finding the man just as kind and honest. This reiterates one of the play’s central sources of irony: despite his intentions, Iago is consistently praised for his upright moral character.

"Not to affect many proposed matches Of her own clime, complexion, and degree, Whereto we see in all things nature tends—(260) Foh, one may smell in such a will most rank,..."   (Act III - Scene III)

Iago fuels Othello’s concerns, claiming that nature’s course would guide Desdemona to choose someone of the same clime—or social status—and race. According to Iago’s lies, Desdemona found neither characteristics in Othello, suggesting a “will most rank.” In other words, Iago characterizes Desdemona as deceitful and manipulative.

"But he that filches from me my good name(180) Robs me of that which not enriches him And makes me poor indeed...."   (Act III - Scene III)

On one level, Iago speaks of himself hypothetically. He expresses his concern that his reputation would be ruined should he freely give his thoughts away. His words also ironically reflect on Othello’s situation. If Iago’s false allegations of adultery between Cassio and Desdemona were true, Othello’s reputation would be destroyed. In Elizabethan times, to be a cuckold was a severe embarrassment.

"And didst contract and purse thy brow together, As if thou then hadst shut up in thy brain Some horrible conceit...."   (Act III - Scene III)

Othello’s words reveal a trace of dramatic irony. Othello wishes to know the “horrible conceit” about Cassio that Iago has “shut up in [his] brain.” In truth, the horrible conceit in Iago’s brain is a much deeper one than Cassio’s fictional adultery. The horrible conceit is Iago’s larger plan to exact revenge on Othello and Cassio.

"But for a satisfaction of my thought; No further harm...."   (Act III - Scene III)

Iago’s tactic in this exchange with Othello is to give away slight inclinations of distrust in Cassio. He then pretends not to have reasons for distrusting Cassio. Iago’s tactic is meant to cultivate Othello’s doubts about Cassio without behaving as if he intends to do so.

"For if he be not one that truly loves you, That errs in ignorance and not in cunning, I have no judgement in an honest face: I prithee, call him back...."   (Act III - Scene III)

Desdemona’s case for reinstating Cassio is that his crime is one of ignorance, not cunning. Her method of argument is fascinating because it contains an unseen irony: the qualities she brings up are those which separate Cassio and Iago. Cassio, the ignorant one, is condemned. Meanwhile Iago, the cunning one, runs free.

"Cassio, my lord! No, sure, I cannot think it, That he would steal away so guiltylike, Seeing you coming...."   (Act III - Scene III)

Iago knows well that Othello saw Cassio exit, and yet he shrouds Cassio’s presence in intrigue. Ever the master of irony, Iago’s goal here is to sow seeds of jealousy in Othello. Iago understands that Cassio spoke to Desdemona about his reinstatement. By pointing to the man’s “guiltylike” movements, though, Iago introduces the idea that Cassio is guilty of some other indiscretion.

"But jealous for they are jealous. 'Tis a monster(170) Begot upon itself, born on itself. DESD: Heaven keep that monster from Othello's mind!..."   (Act III - Scene IV)

Emilia’s words cut to the heart of the play’s message about jealousy. Jealousy is “a monster/Begot upon itself.” Jealousy does not need to be founded on any external cause; rather, it fuels itself. The audience knows Emilia is correct, for Othello’s jealousy is based on Iago’s fictions. The dramatic irony increases in Desdemona’s response: a plea to “keep that monster from Othello’s mind!” We know it is too late.

"Fetch me the handkerchief, my mind misgives...."   (Act III - Scene IV)

In the ensuing exchange is an acute example of dramatic irony. Each character entirely misreads the other’s intentions. Othello believes Desdemona cares about Cassio’s cause out of love. Desdemona fails to realize that Othello is obsessed with the handkerchief because he is suspicious.

"This hand is moist, my lady...."   (Act III - Scene IV)

Determined to get to the truth, Othello begins to test Desdemona. By referring to her hand as moist, he is accusing her of being nervous and thus having sweat on her hands. His manner on the surface remains polite—he calls her “my lady” as usual—but his intentions are pointed.

"O, hardness to dissemble!..."   (Act III - Scene IV)

Othello utters this sentence as an aside to the audience in a moment of dramatic irony. The “hardness” he means to set aside is his “hardness of heart,” a common Shakespearean phrase for ill intent. This moment marks the visible fracturing in the relationship between Othello and Desdemona. When Othello must turn to the audience for solidarity, it is clear his intimacy with his wife is shattered.

"but my noble Moor Is true of mind and made of no such baseness As jealous creatures are, it were enough To put him to ill thinking...."   (Act III - Scene IV)

This is a passage of intense dramatic irony. If Desdemona had said these words in Act II, the audience would be inclined to agree. In the context of the changes in Act III, Scene III, Desdemona’s miscalculation is enormous.

"I know not, madam...."   (Act III - Scene IV)

In a moment of dramatic irony, the audience understands Emilia’s loyalties. Emilia knows precisely where the handkerchief is, for she delivered it to Iago. It is clear that Emilia puts more value in her role as Iago’s wife than her role as Desdemona’s attendant.

"Fire and brimstone!..."   (Act IV - Scene I)

This line marks the moment in which Othello makes his anger for Desdemona clear to her. The reference to “fire and brimstone” frames Desdemona’s actions as sinful. The dramatic irony is at a peak here; Othello entirely misunderstands what Desdemona means by “the love I bear to Cassio.”

"This is some minx's token, and I must take out the work?..."   (Act IV - Scene I)

The handkerchief serves as another convenient source of confusion in this scene. Othello believes that Desdemona gave the kerchief to Cassio as a token of love and that Cassio in turn insolently gave the kerchief to the prostitute Bianca. The dramatic irony is sharp here, for only Iago and the audience understand that Iago is the culprit. It is also interesting that Bianca refers to Desdemona as a “minx” shortly after Cassio calls Bianca a “fitchew”—another type of weasel.

"Lie—(40) OTHELLO: With her? IAGO: With her, on her, what you will...."   (Act IV - Scene I)

In this exchange, Iago plays with Othello’s imagination. He lingers on the word “lie” before supplying “with her, on her” to evoke sexual images in Othello’s mind and thus enrage him. The irony is that “lie” takes on an additional meaning: Iago is lying about the relationship between Cassio and Desdemona.

"Her honor is an essence that's not seen; They have it very oft that have it not:..."   (Act IV - Scene I)

Iago discusses the intangible nature of honor, and he adds a twist of dramatic irony. By saying that “they have it very oft that have it not,” Iago admits that honor is often attributed to those without honor. This is true of Iago himself, who is repeatedly referred to as “honest Iago.”

"Here I kneel: If e'er my will did trespass ‘gainst his love Either in discourse of thought or actual deed, Or that mine eyes, mine ears, or any sense, Delighted them in any other form,(175) Or that I do not yet, and ever did, And ever will, though he do shake me off To beggarly divorcement, love him dearly, Comfort forswear me!..."   (Act IV - Scene II)

In this passage, Desdemona frames her repentance to Othello as a prayer to God. In fact, Shakespeare draws some of the language of her repentance from the Catholic Eucharist, specifically the section devoted to the confession of sin. There is an irony to this moment, because Desdemona confesses to a sin she did not commit.

"Some cogging cozening slave, to get some office,(150) Have not devised this slander; I'll be hang'd else. IAGO: Fie, there is no such man; it is impossible...."   (Act IV - Scene II)

Emilia’s accusation of a hypothetical rogue, followed by Iago’s dismissal of her claim, is one of the play’s most pointed moments of dramatic irony. Emilia’s description of Iago as a “cogging cozening slave” is humorous; “cozening” means deceiving and comes from the Italian “cozzone,” which means “horse trader.” Emilia even accurately guesses the purpose of Iago’s plans—“to get some office”—which heightens the irony.

"O damn'd Iago! O inhuman dog!..."   (Act V - Scene I)

Upon this line, Iago stabs Rodrigo. As always, Iago’s actions are entirely self-serving for he has no true allegiances. There is an irony in Rodrigo’s choice to call Iago a dog, an animal known for its loyalty, during this act of complete disloyalty.

"Strumpet, I come! Forth of my heart those charms, thine eyes, are blotted; Thy bed, lust-stain'd shall with lust's blood be spotted...."   (Act V - Scene I)

In a rhyming couplet, Othello addresses Desdemona from afar. He claims that her hold on him, represented by her eyes, has been “blotted,” or removed. The second line is highly ironic. While Othello plans to spill Desdemona’s lustful blood on their bed, the sheets are already stained with her matrimonial blood—the symbol of her faithfulness.

"’Tis he. O brave Iago, honest and just, That hast such noble sense of thy friend's wrong! Thou teachest me. Minion, your dear lies dead,(35) And your unblest fate hies...."   (Act V - Scene I)

Othello fails to understand the situation before him. He believes Iago has slain Cassio as a punishment for his adultery. The dramatic irony is sharp here, for the audience understands that Iago is not “honest and just” in his intentions nor acting on Othello’s behalf. The word “hie” means “hasten,” suggesting that Cassio is hastening towards his death.

"It is the very error of the moon;(130) She comes more nearer earth than she was wont And makes men mad...."   (Act V - Scene II)

Shakespeare uses the movements of the moon as a metaphor for the relationships between men and women in the play. Shakespeare casts the moon as a “she” whose closeness to the earth drives “men mad.” The irony is that the events of the play are not caused by the “error” of women but rather by the schemes of men, chiefly Iago.

"Have you pray'd tonight, Desdemona?..."   (Act V - Scene II)

In this chilling exchange, Othello offers Desdemona a chance to repent for her actions. The conversation is built on a tense dramatic irony, because Othello does not understand, as the audience does, that Desdemona is innocent.