Metaphor in Othello

Throughout Othello, Shakespeare puts his talent for diverse metaphors to use. Most often, metaphor is used to convey a character’s complex emotional state, particularly in the content of interpersonal relationships. For example, Brabantio uses the metaphor of a jewel to describe the two roles Desdemona plays in his life, as beloved daughter and as possession. Another example is Othello’s characterization of himself as a falconer to Desdemona’s falcon; he wishes to let her fly freely, but she is tethered to his heart.

Metaphor Examples in Othello:

Act I - Scene I 2

"an old black ram Is tupping your white ewe...."   (Act I - Scene I)

In Iago’s crude image, Othello is likened to an “old black ram” and Desdemona to a “white ewe”; the verb “tupping” here is slang for sexual intercourse. We can see an instance of the racial tensions which arise throughout the play: Iago brings up Othello’s race as a way to sharpen Brabantio’s anxieties.

"spinster..."   (Act I - Scene I)

Iago uses this metaphor to compare Cassio's knowledge to the knowledge of a spinster. Cassio has never actually been in battle and only knows about military matters from books and stories. Notice that the comparisons Iago uses to describe Cassio characterize him as effeminate.

"I have't. It is engender'd. Hell and night Must bring this monstrous birth to the world's light...."   (Act I - Scene III)

Iago ends Act I with a strange, dense rhyming couplet. In these two lines, Iago layers three separate metaphors to describe his plot. The three metaphors are initiated in the first line and completed in the second. The first metaphor uses a cycle of conception—or engenderment—and birth. The second uses a movement from hell, or the underworld, up to the living world. The third uses the transition from night to day. One could say that the use of “monstrous” is aptly metaphorical as well. After all, the mythological definition of monster—a composite creature—finds its parallel in the “double knavery” of Iago’s plan.

"If virtue no delighted beauty lack,(310) Your son-in-law is far more fair than black...."   (Act I - Scene III)

The Duke continues his pattern of issuing words of wisdom in the form of rhyming couplets. Using “black” as a double entendre to signify both virtue and race, he characterizes Othello as a virtuous man, no matter his race.

"For your sake, jewel,..."   (Act I - Scene III)

In other contexts, a father calling his daughter a “jewel” would register as a mark of affection. Considering Brabantio’s pattern of referring to Desdemona as valuable property, this line takes on a different meaning. Brabantio is lamenting the loss of a prized possession as well as a daughter.

"Take up this mangled matter at the best:(185) Men do their broken weapons rather use Than their bare hands...."   (Act I - Scene III)

The Duke employs an interesting metaphor for Brabantio’s clumsy handling of the situation. He calls for Brabantio to use his hands rather than “broken weapons” in dealing with the matter. It is fitting that he uses a military metaphor to describe the discussion at hand, for it is Othello the general who is winning this war of words at the moment.

"If after every tempest come such calms, May the winds blow till they have waken'd death! And let the laboring bark climb hills of seas Olympus high, and duck again as low(200) As hell's from heaven! If it were now to die, 'Twere now to be most happy; for I fear My soul hath her content so absolute That not another comfort like to this Succeeds in unknown fate...."   (Act II - Scene I)

Othello enters the port of Cyprus with an elegant and philosophically astute statement about the nature of happiness. Othello’s moment of joy, his “calms,” come only after the ordeal of the tempest. As many thinkers have remarked, happiness is most powerful when balanced by pain and sorrow. As Friedrich Nietzsche put it in The Gay Science, “What if pleasure and displeasure were so tied together that whoever wanted to have as much as possible of one must also have as much as possible of the other?”

"It gives me wonder great as my content(195) To see you here before me. O my soul's joy! If after every tempest come such calms, May the winds blow till they have waken'd death! And let the laboring bark climb hills of seas Olympus high, and duck again as low(200) As hell's from heaven! If it were now to die, 'Twere now to be most happy; for I fear My soul hath her content so absolute That not another comfort like to this Succeeds in unknown fate...."   (Act II - Scene I)

Othello enters the port of Cyprus with an elegant and philosophically astute statement about the nature of happiness. Othello’s moment of joy, his “calms,” come only after the ordeal of the tempest. As many thinkers have remarked, happiness is most powerful when balanced by pain and sorrow. As Friedrich Nietzsche put it, “What if pleasure and displeasure were so tied together that whoever wanted to have as much as possible of one must also have as much as possible of the other?”

"If she be black, and thereto have a wit, She'll find a white that shall her blackness fit...."   (Act II - Scene I)

Desdemona responds to Iago’s notion of “fairness and wit” with the idea of a woman with “blackness and wit.” In this case, “blackness” refers to ugliness, the opposite of fairness. Iago retorts with a clever pun, claiming that such a woman would use her wit to find a suitable “white”—in this case a play on “wight,” which means man.

"What ribs of oak, when mountains melt on them, Can hold the mortise?..."   (Act II - Scene I)

Shakespeare devises a distinctive metaphor for the stormy sea that Montano and his men face. Instead of waves, we have “mountains” which “melt,” which is an unusual metaphor in that the verb “melt” is an action that neither waves nor mountains technically perform. Shakespeare is known for such attention-grabbing twists of language. The “ribs of oak” refer to the beams of the ship, the “mortise” being the joints between beams and planks.

"Whose icy current and compulsive course Ne'er feels retiring ebb, but keeps due on To the Propontic and the Hellespont,(505) Even so my bloody thoughts, with violent pace, Shall ne'er look back, ne'er ebb to humble love,..."   (Act III - Scene III)

Othello offers a dense metaphor for his rage. This passage alludes to the Pontic Sea, today known as the Black Sea, a body of water without a balanced tide which flows in and out. Othello describes his anger as similarly ceaseless, without ebb. The image he produces likens his violent urges to an “icy current” as well as to “bloody thoughts,” a pair of contradictory images. This contradiction indicates the lack of clarity in his thinking.

"that was as fresh As Dian's visage, is now begrimed and black(430) As mine own face...."   (Act III - Scene III)

In an intriguing double metaphor, Othello characterizes Desdemona’s shift in reputation as a change in her face’s complexion. Her face was once “fresh as Dian’s”—an allusion to the Greek goddess Diana, whose virginity and moonlike skin are used to symbolize purity. Now her face is as “black” as Othello’s, an image that draws again on the play’s complicated association between racial blackness and moral blackness. Othello’s metaphor suggests that Desdemona’s fall from grace would place her at his level.

"Avaunt! be gone! Thou hast set me on the rack: I swear 'tis better to be much abused(375) Than but to know't a little...."   (Act III - Scene III)

Othello makes reference to “the rack,” an infamous medieval torture device which stretches the prisoner’s limbs in opposite directions. Othello’s point is that knowing just “a little” about Desdemona’s adultery is the greatest torture of all. Even full knowledge of the situation is manageable by comparison.

"Though that her jesses were my dear heartstrings, I'ld whistle her off and let her down the wind To prey at fortune...."   (Act III - Scene III)

Othello uses a falconry metaphor to explain his torn feelings for Desdemona. Part of him wishes to let her fly free and do as she wishes. As Othello describes it, however, Desdemona’s jesses—the cords that attach a falcon to its falconer—are his heartstrings. In other words, he loves her too deeply to let her go.

"What, keep a week away? seven days and nights? Eight score eight hours? and lovers' absent hours, More tedious than the dial eight score times?..."   (Act III - Scene IV)

Bianca misses Cassio to the point of counting the hours since they have been together: 168 in total. She claims that when lovers are absent, it is as if the hours are multiplied by eight score. Thus, the 160 hours feels to her like 26,880 hours.

"A liberal hand. The hearts of old gave hands; But our new heraldry is hands, not hearts...."   (Act III - Scene IV)

In this exchange, Shakespeare develops a metaphorical duality: the heart and the hand. The heart is the source of truth, whereas the hand is a tool which can either reveal the truth or deceive. Othello refers to the tradition of giving one’s hand as a promise of marriage. He then accuses Desdemona of having given her hand without involving her heart.

"Goats and monkeys!..."   (Act IV - Scene I)

In this humorous, final exclamation, Othello indirectly points to the source of his problems. Goats and monkeys are known to be demonstratively sexual animals. Relatedly, Othello’s concerns are around Desdemona’s promiscuity.

"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.

"and thither comes the bauble,..."   (Act IV - Scene I)

A “bauble” refers to a cheap piece of jewelry, and thus it becomes both a metaphor and metonym for Bianca. Cassio refers to her as a bauble, but a bauble is also something she is likely to wear. This line is one of several instances throughout the play in which women are referred to as objects of monetary value.

"Think every bearded fellow that's but yoked May draw with you. There's millions now alive That nightly lie in those unproper beds Which they dare swear peculiar...."   (Act IV - Scene I)

Iago attempts to calm Othello by saying how common jealousy is. Iago uses the metaphor of a team of oxen to describe the shared plight of suspicious husbands together drawing the heavy plough of jealousy. Shakespeare assembles a sonorous trio of rhyming words in “dare swear peculiar.”

"O, it comes o'er my memory, As doth the raven o'er the infected house, Boding to all..."   (Act IV - Scene I)

Othello’s simile alludes to the ancient practice of augury—predicting the future, often by reading the activity of birds. As with many of Shakespeare’s metaphors, there are multiple meanings to unpack. The example Othello uses—ravens flying over an infected house—points to an omen of death, which serves as an important piece of foreshadowing. The metaphor of his mind as an “infected house” bolsters the theme of jealousy as a monstrous, poisonous force.

"You, you, ay, you!(105) We have done our course; there's money for your pains:..."   (Act IV - Scene II)

When he says “there’s money for your pains,” Othello once again uses the metaphor of Desdemona as whore and Emilia as mistress. Othello thus frames his conversation with Desdemona as an exchange between a mistress and a client.

"No, as I am a Christian. If to preserve this vessel for my lord From any other foul unlawful touch Be not to be a strumpet, I am none...."   (Act IV - Scene II)

Desdemona’s characterization of herself as a “vessel” serves as a response to Othello’s description of her as “The fountain from the which my current runs.” Shakespeare chooses the word “vessel” for both of its meanings: a container and a ship. Desdemona’s vessel is her womb, and thus, a container. It is also a ship upon Othello’s “current,” carrying his seed to the next generation.

"Was this fair paper, this most goodly book, Made to write “whore” upon?..."   (Act IV - Scene II)

This is a fascinating and, in some ways, accurate metaphor. Othello compares Desdemona to a book upon whose pages “whore” has been written. We can indeed think of Desdemona’s reputation as a book that Iago has soiled with stories of adultery. Othello does not recognize that the word “whore” is a lie in Desdemona’s book.

"O Spartan dog, More fell than anguish, hunger, or the sea! Look on the tragic loading of this bed; This is thy work...."   (Act V - Scene II)

In these lines directed to Iago, Lodovico widens the scope of the tragedy. He compares Iago’s evil acts to “anguish, hunger, or the sea!” In this use, the word “fell” means cruel or malevolent, and it comes from the same Anglo-French root as “felon.” Shakespeare turns the play’s attention inward with the line “This is thy work.” On one level, the “work” refers to the bodies of Othello, Desdemona, and Emilia. On the another level, the “work” is the play itself. Iago is responsible for both.

"If heaven would make me such another world Of one entire and perfect chrysolite, I'ld not have sold her for it...."   (Act V - Scene II)

It is important that Othello compares Desdemona’s value to that of a “world/Of one entire and perfect chrysolite.” Shakespeare selects chrysolite because it is a green mineral, thus involving a connotation of envy. Envy is the very reason Othello believes the lies about Desdemona’s adultery in the first place.

"Not Cassio kill'd! Then murder 's out of tune, And sweet revenge grows harsh...."   (Act V - Scene II)

Having heard the news that Cassio has not died, Othello realizes that his murder of Desdemona is premature. After all, Cassio knows the truth of the adultery (or lack thereof). Shakespeare plays on the old saying that “revenge is sweet,” giving its flavor a sour turn.

"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.

"For to deny each article with oath Cannot remove nor choke the strong conception That I do groan withal. Thou art to die...."   (Act V - Scene II)

At this point, Othello commits to his course of action. He will kill Desdemona, no matter the evidence she offers in her own defense. The metaphor of “chok[ing]” the conception of her guilt adds a connotation of violence to the exchange. He also foreshadows the method by which he kills her.