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Iago's Beast Imagery


Iago tells Roderigo that they can get a measure of revenge upon Othello by telling Desdemona's father and kin of the elopement. Thus, though Othello may be happy at the moment, they can "Plague him with flies" (1.1.71). When they carry out this plan, Iago repeatedly uses beastly vulgarity to describe the sexual relationship between Othello and Desdemona. He shouts out to Brabantio that "Even now, now, very now, an old black ram / Is tupping your white ewe" (1.1.88-89). Moments later, he yells to Brabantio, "you'll have your daughter covered with a Barbary horse; you'll have your nephews neigh to you; you'll have coursers for cousins and gennets for germans" (1.1.111-114). "Barbary" is northern Africa; "nephews" here means "grandsons"; "coursers" are swift horses; "gennets" are Spanish horses; and "germans" are close relatives. In short, if Brabantio doesn't do something, his whole family will be nothing but horses. Brabantio, who can only hear Iago, not see him, asks who he is, and Iago replies, "I am one, sir, that comes to tell you your daughter and the Moor are now making the beast with two backs" (1.1.116-117). [Scene Summary]


When Roderigo says that he will drown himself out of disappointed love for Desdemona, Iago scornfully comments, "Ere I would say, I would drown myself for the love of a guinea-hen, I would change my humanity with a baboon" (1.3.314-316). A "guinea-hen" is a kind of large, spotted, noisy chicken, and Iago uses the word the way we use "dumb cluck." After Roderigo has left, Iago assures us that Roderigo is beneath contempt, "For I mine own gain'd knowledge should profane, / If I would time expend with such a snipe. / But for my sport and profit" (1.3.384-386). A snipe is a bird notorious for its flightiness and its tendency to run right into traps. Then, as Iago is laying his plans to make Othello dangerous, he says of Othello, "The Moor is of a free and open nature, / That thinks men honest that but seem to be so, / And will as tenderly be led by the nose / As asses are" (1.3.399-402). [Scene Summary]


At the end of the scene in which everyone arrives in Cyprus, Iago has a soliloquy in which he boasts that he will "Make the Moor thank me, love me and reward me. / For making him egregiously an ass" (2.1.308-309). [Scene Summary]


When Othello demands some proof of Desdemona's adultery, Iago tells him that he will never be able to catch Desdemona and Cassio in bed together, while at the same time describing their coupling in a most lurid and bestial way: "It is impossible you should see this, / Were they as prime as goats, as hot as monkeys, / As salt as wolves in pride [in heat], and fools as gross / As ignorance made drunk" (3.3.402-405). [Scene Summary]


Iago works Othello into such a state of jealousy that Othello falls into a trance. When he wakes up, Iago asks, "How is it, general? Have you not hurt your head?" (4.1.59). Othello answers, "Dost thou mock me?" (4.1.60), because he thinks that Iago might mean that cuckold's horns have "hurt" his head. A cuckold was a man whose wife was having a sexual affair with another man; folklore said that cuckolds grew horns on their heads. This silly myth portrays such men as dumb animals deserving of scornful laughter. Iago denies that he was mocking Othello, and urges him to "bear your fortune like a man!" (4.1.61). Iago's point is that Desdemona's unfaithfulness is just a matter of "fortune," bad luck, and that it's nothing to swoon over. Othello replies that "A horned man's a monster and a beast" (4.1.62), which probably describes how he is feeling--strange, non-human. Iago replies that Othello has plenty of company because every city is full of cuckolds.

Othello then asks if Iago has heard Cassio confess that he had sex with Desdemona. Rather than give a direct answer to Othello's question, Iago keeps talking about the difference between a beast and a man. He says, "Good sir, be a man; / Think every bearded fellow that's but yoked / May draw with you" (4.1.65-67). "Think," like "be," is a command; Iago is again telling Othello that there are many other men who are cuckolds, and that he should take it like a man. At the same time, his metaphor suggests that Othello is a beast after all. Oxen are yoked so that they can pull ("draw") a plow, and Iago uses the oxen's yoke as a metaphor for marriage. In short, any married is likely to be a beastly cuckold.

At the end of the same scene, after Othello thinks he has overheard Desdemona confess her love for Cassio, Othello exits with the exclamation, "Goats and monkeys!" (4.1.263), which is an echo of Iago's earlier assertion to Othello that "It is impossible you should see this [Desdemona and Cassio having sex], / Were they as prime as goats, as hot as monkeys" (3.3.402-403). Thus we see how Iago's beastly imagery has taken root in Othello's mind. [Scene Summary]

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