The Motif of the Devil in Shakespeare's Othello

An annotated list of relevant passages.





In the dark street before Brabantio's house, Iago shouts, "Arise, arise; / Awake the snorting [snoring] citizens with the bell, / Or else the devil will make a grandsire of you" (1.1.89-91). Iago means that if Brabantio doesn't do something, Othello -- the black devil -- will have children with Desdemona, so that Brabantio will be grandfather to a little devil.

Moments later, when Brabantio starts making threats, Iago says to him, "'Zounds, sir, you are one of those that will not serve God, if the devil bid you" (1.1.108-109). Sarcastically, Iago is making the point that even if Brabantio thinks he's talking to ruffians, he should listen to what they have to say, because they're trying to do him good. A little irony is that Iago, who is a devilish person, is not trying to do anyone any good. [Scene Summary]


Joking around, Iago tells Desdemona that she and women in general are "Saints in your injuries, devils being offended" (2.1.112). He means that when women injure another person they are oh-so-nice, as though they were saints, but when they feel themselves injured they get revenge like devils.

Later in the scene Iago, trying to convince Roderigo that Desdemona will soon get tired of Othello, says, "Her eye must be fed; and what delight shall she have to look on the devil?" (2.1.225-227). Continuing the same argument Iago tells Roderigo that Cassio is the man who will attract Desdemona's attention next, because Cassio is too nice, too slick, "a devilish knave" (2.1.244). Therefore Cassio must be gotten out of the way. [Scene Summary]


After Cassio has gotten drunk, gotten into a fight, and lost his job, he sobers up and is angry at himself. While drunk he has swaggered, sworn, and babbled nonsense; now he exclaims, "O thou invisible spirit of wine, if thou hast no name to be known by, let us call thee devil!" (2.3.281-283). When Iago asks him why he's sober now, Cassio answers "It hath pleased the devil drunkenness to give place to the devil wrath; one unperfectness shows me another, to make me frankly despise myself" (2.3.296-298). His point is that his anger at devil drink is also devilish; he despises himself both for the drunkenness and the anger. Thus Cassio seems to think of the devil as a psychological state that makes us act out destructive impulses. Iago tries to get Cassio to calm down, but he once again exclaims against drunkenness and drink: "Every inordinate cup is unblessed and the ingredient is a devil" (2.3.307-308).

Iago convinces Cassio that the best way to get his job back is to appeal to Desdemona, then sends him off. Alone on stage, Iago asks us why we think he's a villain, since his advice to Cassio is free and "honest." Answering his own question, he comments, "When devils will the blackest sins put on, / They do suggest [tempt] at first with heavenly shows, / As I do now" (2.3.351-353). Iago knows that he is a devilish hypocrite, but he seems to be getting a kick out of it. [Scene Summary]


Just before he questions Desdemona about the handkerchief, Othello engages her in some talk that has a double meaning to him. He tells her that the moistness of her hand indicates the presence of "a young and sweating devil" (3.4.42). The "young and sweating devil" is sexual appetite, and Othello is implying that she has too much sexual appetite, but Desdemona could take what he says as just a lover's teasing.

In the same scene, after Othello storms out when Desdemona can't produce the handkerchief, Iago pretends surprise at Othello's anger. He says, "Can he be angry? I have seen the cannon, / When it hath blown his ranks into the air, / And, like the devil, from his very arm / Puff'd his own brother:--and is he angry?" (3.4.134-137). In this comparison it's the "cannon" which is "like the devil" because it suddenly snatches away one of Othello's brothers-in-arms.

At the end of the scene, when Cassio asks Bianca to copy the handkerchief, Bianca gets jealous. She angers Cassio by saying that the handkerchief must be a gift from Cassio's most recent lover. Given the way Cassio treats Bianca, her guess about the handkerchief is a reasonable one, but Cassio -- full of his own sense of innocence -- tells her to "Throw your vile guesses in the devil's teeth, / From whence you have them" (3.4.184-185). [Scene Summary]


Iago is torturing Othello by suggesting that it will be very hard to prove that Desdemona has done anything wrong. Is it possible, Iago asks, that she just gave Cassio an innocent kiss? Or could it be that she was just "naked with her friend in bed / An hour or more, not meaning any harm?" (4.1.3-4). Othello exclaims, "Naked in bed, Iago, and not mean harm! / It is hypocrisy against the devil: / They that mean virtuously, and yet do so, / The devil their virtue tempts, and they tempt heaven" (4.1.5-8). A person who commits "Hypocrisy against the devil" deliberately puts himself in the presence of temptation. You can't go to a bar to drink soda, then get drunk and say "the devil made me do it!" If you do such a thing, you're tempting heaven to throw a thunderbolt your way.

Iago keeps up his psychological torture until Othello's head is spinning. The thought of Desdemona lying with (having sex with) Cassio gets mixed up with the thought that someone is lying about Desdemona, which gets mixed up with the handkerchief which Desdemona supposedly gave to Cassio, and the thought of the handkerchief summons up the idea of Cassio confessing and being hanged, or being hanged first, and then confessing. Finally Othello cries out, "O devil!" (4.1.43) and then "Falls in a trance." We don't know, any more than Othello does, whether "O devil" refers to Cassio, Desdemona, or the Prince of Darkness himself.

Later in the scene Bianca reappears to confront Cassio. He asks, "What do you mean by this haunting of me?" (4.1.147). She retorts, "Let the devil and his dam haunt you" (4.1.148). She has decided that she was a fool to agree to copy the handkerchief, and a fool to accept Cassio's story that he found it in his room. She now throws it back at him, tells him that he should give it to the whore he got it from, and declares that no matter where he got it, she's not about to copy it.

In the last part of the scene Othello, hearing Desdemona express pleasure that Cassio has been appointed Governor of Cyprus, thinks that she is parading her love for Cassio. Othello shouts, "Devil!" (4.1.240) and strikes her. Lodovico is shocked and tells Othello that he should make it up to her because she is crying. Othello, however, has no pity for Desdemona's tears. He says, "O devil, devil! / If that the earth could teem with woman's tears, / Each drop she falls [lets fall] would prove [prove to be] a crocodile" (4.1.244-246). Crocodiles were thought to shed hypocritical tears as they ate their victims; crocodiles were also supposed to grow spontaneously out of the mud of the Nile. Othello is saying that if the earth were covered with the tears of women, Desdemona's tears would give birth to crocodiles. In other words, Desdemona is not only a hypocrite, she's the mother of all hypocrisy, as the devil is the father of all lies. [Scene Summary]


In the appalling scene in which Othello accuses Desdemona of being a whore, he asks her what she is, and she answers that she is his loving wife. He then says, "Come, swear it, damn thyself / Lest, being like one of heaven, the devils themselves / Should fear to seize thee: therefore be double damn'd: / Swear thou art honest" (4.2.35-38). She is "like one of heaven" because she looks like an angel, and the devils would be afraid to seize an angel. Therefore he wants her to prove that she's a sinner by lying. [Scene Summary]


In the last scene of the play, after Desdemona uses her last breath to protect her husband by saying that she killed herself, Othello says, "She's, like a liar, gone to burning hell: / 'Twas I that kill'd her" (5.2.129-130). In other words, Desdemona lied, and like a liar she's gone to hell for her sins. Emilia immediately springs to Desdemona's defense, saying "O, the more angel she, / And you the blacker devil!" (5.2.130-131). Still trying to justify himself, Othello says that Desdemona was a whore. Emilia answers, "Thou dost belie her, and thou art a devil" (5.2.133).

Later in the scene, when Emilia is about to reveal the truth about the handkerchief, Iago tells her to shut up. She answers, "No, I will speak as liberal as the north: / Let heaven and men and devils, let them all, / All, all, cry shame against me, yet I'll speak" (5.2.220-222). Emilia pays for her courage with her life. Iago stabs her to death.

After Emilia reveals the truth about Iago and the handkerchief, Othello looks at the body of Desdemona and is so possessed by the image of his dead love that he feels it would be better to be in hell:

Whip me, ye devils,
From the possession of this heavenly sight!
Blow me about in winds! roast me in sulphur!
Wash me in steep-down gulfs of liquid fire!
O Desdemon! Desdemon! dead!
O, O!   (5.2.277-282)

A little later, Lodovico calls Iago forth to stand beside his victim, Othello. Othello says of Iago, "I look down towards his feet; but that's a fable. / If that thou be'st a devil, I cannot kill thee" (5.2.286-287). Then he swings his sword at Iago, wounding him. The "fable" which Othello mentions is the one that says that devils have cloven feet. Because it's only a fable, Othello can't tell if Iago is a devil by looking at his feet, so he swings his sword at Iago, to see if he's human and can be killed. Then a few moments later, Othello says to Lodovico, "Will you, I pray, demand that demi-devil / Why he hath thus ensnared my soul and body?" (5.2.300-302). Iago's reply is famous. He says, "Demand me nothing: what you know, you know: / From this time forth I never will speak word" (5.2.303-304). [Scene Summary]