Othello: reading irony


You can listen to this blogpost at podomatic.

Othello: Reading Irony

When someone says, “Oh, that’s ironic!” what do they mean?  These days irony doesn’t mean much more than saying one thing and meaning another.

“Oh, you’re so witty,” you say.  And might add, “not” at the end to point out the fact that you are being ironic.

There is a lot of play in the game of saying one thing and meaning another and Shakespeare is a master of it.  He had a different idea of irony: for him it was a crafty way of slipping words into his characters’ mouths that say one thing on the surface and something else beyond.  Those words often hint at tragic outcomes.

In this short talk, I am going to examine a speech by Othello, to pick out the levels of irony and suggest how it should be read.  Our read performances at Shakespeare in the Mountains aim to bring out these nuances.

Iago has wormed his way into the confidence of Othello and insinuated that Desdemona is having an affair with Cassio.  He presents himself as the honorable and worldly-wise servant looking out for his master’s benefit and offers him advice on how to proceed.  He urges caution, whilst at the same time pumping at the bellows to inflame Othello’s jealousy.

Here is Othello’s speech in Act 3, Scene 3, line 262.

This fellow’s of exceeding honesty,

And knows all qualities, with a learned spirit,

Of human dealing.  If I do prove her haggard,

Though that her jesses were my dear heart-strings,

I’d whistle her off and let her down the wind

To prey at fortune.  Haply, for I am black

And have not those soft parts of conversation

That chamberers have, or for I am declin’d

Into the vale of years- yet that’s not much-

She’s gone; I am abus’d;  and my relief

Must be to loathe her.  O curse of marriage,

That we can call these delicate creatures ours

And not their appetites!  I had rather be a toad,

And live upon the vapour of a dungeon,

Than keep a corner in the thing I love

For others’ uses.  Yet ‘tis the plague of great ones;

Prerogativ’d are they less than the base;

‘Tis destiny unshunnable, like death:

Even then this forked plague is fated to us

When we do quicken.  Look where she comes.


Dramatic irony has a character say something that is true when he does not know how or why it is true.  This speech starts with a wonderful piece of irony:  Iago is about as far from an “honest fellow” as you can get.  It is true that he seems to know “all qualities… of human dealing” but not in the sense that Othello thinks.  It is ironic that Othello should praise him for the very quality that is picking him apart.

Othello can foresee the fate that lies ahead but cannot see the reasons of it.  At the end of the speech he gives a neat description of what a tragedy is: “destiny unshunnable… fated to us when we do quicken.”  It is as though he were standing outside the action commenting on what a stage tragedy is in Shakespearean England: great men born with a fatal flaw that will draw them inexorably towards their demise; hamartia.

Can we say thank you to Othello, then, for enlightening us?  Not really.  He is not an academic, or a Shakespeare enthusiast sitting in his mountain home in Spain writing about irony.  He is a character caught in an impossible situation.  He has just been told that his young wife is unfaithful to him.  Knowing what is going to happen we think, “Yes, it is true.  You are going to slide down the slippery slope of jealousy and kill Desdemona.”  This is not what he means at this point, however.  He means that since he is a “great one” he has less prerogatives over his own wife than a common man would have.  The last phrases, pregnant with tragic irony, reveal how pompous he is.  He is saying that great ones are more susceptible to marital infidelity.

This is ironic, of course, because Desdemona is not unfaithful to him.   The irony works because we know both what he is saying and what is being pointed at in his speech.  He is saying, in crude modern diction, “Poor little me, to be a great one.  We can own our wives.  In that we can command, but we cannot command their affections.  I am not a sweet-talking lover boy and I am getting on a bit, so that is probably why she looked over the fence at the neighbor. We great ones are always fated to be cheated on by our wives.”

We enter the play with Iago, Othello’s deceiver.  He is our eyes from the beginning and we watch from his perspective as he takes the great general apart with his clever cunning.  Our first view of Othello is of a proud man:

‘Tis yet to know-

Which, when I know that boasting is an honour,

I shall promulgate- I fetch my life and being

From men of royal siege.

Here he is, harking on his nobility and his royalty.  The consciousness of his own merit is, ironically, his fatal flaw.   He is royal, he is a great soldier, he has won the respect of the signory in Venice.  He is an orator who can string together long phrases of poetic diction.   And none of this is going to help him against his tormentor.  He cannot see it, but we can, particularly if we are in the pit at the Globe looking on, perhaps rather taken with the idea that Iago, for all his evil spite, can take this noble down a peg or two.  Just listen to that language.  In order to read that well you have to fill your chest and deepen your voice with pompous sonority.  I think you should be aware of the situation as well: puffed up noble on a stage talking to a common rabble who, ironically, probably have more natural sympathy with the villain than with you.

Othello has a terrible weakness for subsidiary clauses and high-sounding polysyllabic words.  He starts the speech here with these words:

And knows all qualities, with a learned spirit,

Of human dealing.

Shakespeare tells us how he wants us to read.  Just changing the order to say “knows all qualities of human dealing with a learned spirit” makes it sound less… well… pompous.  So, we are being told to read this with a mouth full of marbles.

Othello is aware there is a problem with the way he speaks.  He says he does not have the soft parts of conversation that chamberers have.  There is another level of irony here.  By chamberer I think he means a soft-voiced courtier who hangs around ladies’ chambers.  He thinks that their “soft” language will appeal more to the girls.  The irony is that Desdemona was seduced by his poetic descriptions of his martial valor; he does have the kind of language that will get the girl.  Look at that metaphor of the hawk:

… whistle her off and let her down the wind

It is a beautiful and striking image.  When he gets going Othello has a stunning range of metaphor.  And again it is ironic.  We know he is not going to let Desdemona go like a hawk, don’t we?  He won’t let her go free to “prey at fortune.”  Preying at fortune is not a good thing, sure, but it is significantly better than being killed.

Now look at the way Othello’s language breaks down in the middle of the speech:

Into the vale of years- yet that’s not much-

She’s gone; I am abus’d;  and my relief

Must be to loathe her.

This is the clearest expression in the whole speech.  There is no metaphor or grand-sounding words.  This part demands that we stumble across the words as we read; that we break down.  There is nothing that tells us quite so clearly that Shakespeare was an actor-poet as the moments, like this one, where the language collapses.  This is where we can put in the emotion!  Then see how quickly he comes back with more grand-sounding language.  We have to pick up the sonorous rhythm again.  Othello is back to tricking himself.  We almost feel like calling out to him from the pits: “Stop using all that grand language and have a straightforward conversation with your wife!”

So here is the deeper level of irony that I like to play around with as I am reading.  Shakespeare, the wordsmith-extraordinary, shows us the tragic ineptitude of poetic language for expressing real feeling.  He breaks the rhythm and throws away the images when he wants to show us glimpses of the heart.  That is deeply ironic, isn’t it?

Listen and read at Podomatic.  https://www.podomatic.com/podcasts/shakespeareinthemountains/episodes/2016-12-02T08_07_47-08_00



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