Othello, the Image Machine
Shakespeare’s drama Othello presents a full panoply of diverse imagery that cannot be described briefly. Let’s spend some attention on this subject which has so many examples in the play.
Alvin Kernan’s “Othello: an Introduction” explains how the “symbolic geography” imagery of the play create a particular image of space and time:
We can begin to see this pattern in the “symbolic geography” of the play. Every play, or work of art, creates its own particular image of space and time, its own symbolic world. The outer limits of the world of Othello are defined by the Turks – the infidels, the unbelievers, the “general enemy” as the play calls them – who, just over the horizon, sail back and forth trying to confuse and trick the Christians in order to invade their dominions and destroy them. Out beyond the horizon, reported but unseen, are also those “anters vast and deserts idle” of which Othello speaks. Out there is a land of “rough quarries, rocks and hills whose heads touch heaven” inhabited by “cannibals that each other eat” and monstrous forms of men “whose heads grow beneath their shoulders.” (76-77)
There is no shortage of imagery in the play; this is for certain. Critic Caroline Spurgeon in “Shakespeare’s Imagery and What it Tells Us” sorts through the plethora of imagery in the play:
The main image in Othello is that of animals in action, preying upon one another, mischievous, lascivious, cruel or suffering, and through these, the general sense of pain and unpleasantness is much increased and kept constantly before us. More than half the animal images in the play are Iago’s, and all these are contemptuous or repellent: a plague of flies, a quarrelsome dog, the recurrent image of bird-snaring, leading asses by the nose, a spider catching a fly, beating an offenceless dog, wild cats, wolves, goats and monkeys.
To these Othello adds his pictures of foul toads breeding in a cistern, summer flies in the shambles, the ill-boding raven over the infected house, a toad in a dungeon, the monster ‘too hideous to be shown,’ bird-snaring again, aspics’ tongues, crocodiles’ tears, and his reiteration of goats and monkeys.’ In addition, [. . .] . (79)
Just how strong a force is the imagery in this drama? Is it more powerful than the chorus in ancient Greek tragedy? H. S. Wilson in his book of literary criticism, On the Design of Shakespearean Tragedy, discusses the influence of the imagery of the play:
It has indeed been suggested that the logic of events in the play and of Othello’s relation to them implies Othello’s damnation, and that the implication is pressed home with particular power in the imagery. This last amounts to interpreting the suggestions of the imagery as a means of comment by the author – the analogy would be the choruses of Greek tragedy. It is true that the play contains many references to “heaven and hell and devils.” as Wilson...