Comparison of humans to animals has been an interesting and powerful tool that has been effectively used by many authors and playwriters. Shakespeare used it in many of his plays, and it is still used today.

It is ever so influential and is very easily understood. In Shakespeare’s play Othello, beast imagery is used throughout the entire play. Animal imagery helps show who the characters truly were. It also makes everything said a lot more dramatic.

Vivid images are placed in the reader’s head, which makes the play a lot easier to understand. Animal imagery also helps show a contrast between things; especially characters.

In Shakespeare’s tragic play, Othello, animal imagery is a convincing device used throughout the play to further develop the devastating tale.

  • The use of animal imagery in Othello helps differentiate the characters from one another,

This is illustrated at the very beginning through the character Iago. Iago is evil and manipulative. He decides to tell Brabantio about his daughter, Desdemona, leaving him to marry the Moor, who is Othello. Iago says to him, “…You’ll have your daughter / covered with a Barbary horse.” (I, i, 112-3) Iago obviously wants Othello to seem eviler and wants Brabantio to take action against him. His evilness is evident throughout the entire play. His devilish ways are particularly illustrated by his use of beast imagery.

At the beginning of the play, Othello was seen to be a lot different from Iago.  Othello was a noble gentleman and was known for his greatness. He never compared people to animals or used animal imagery in his everyday language. This changed once Iago began to manipulate and lie to him. As Othello’s character changes from good to evil, he too starts using animal imagery.

After Iago planted more lies about Desdemona and her relationship with Cassio, Othello’s lieutenant, Othello said to himself, “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 vapor of the dungeon / than keep a corner in the thing I love / for others’ uses.” (III, iii, 270-5) In this quote, Othello is talking very negatively about his wife Desdemona. He says to himself that he would rather be a toad, than stay in a relationship with her.

Othello is tricked into believing that she is cheating on him, and is disgusted by it. This is why he would rather be so many other things than stay with her. He is also insinuating that being a toad, or living upon the dungeons air would be preferable to his current situation. Dungeons were often the sewers of the castle which proves how desperate and hurt Othello felt. This quote is only the beginning of his evilness, and it worsens from there.

Desdemona, on the other hand, is a very different character from Othello and Iago. Her purity and goodness are apparent in the beginning and continue to shine through the entire play. She never truly changes, even after all the hardships she faced throughout. Her final words illustrate how powerful and loyal she was. She says to Emilia, “Nobody; I myself. Farewell. Commend me to my kind lord. O farewell.” (V, ii, 125-6) Before these words, Othello strangled and tried to kill Desdemona.

He thought that she was dead, but just as Emilia came in, Desdemona said her last few words. What Emilia asked her was what had happened and who had done this to her. In response, Desdemona uttered the quote above. Although Othello was the one who killed her, she did not want to expose her husband. She remained loyal to him even after terrible things that he had done to her.

Desdemona never said anything negative about Othello throughout the play and did not use animal imagery once. Although not every character was evil, the ones who used animal imagery were truly differentiated from those who never used it.

  • As said above, the use of animal imagery in Othello made everything said a lot more powerful and dramatic.

When Iago informs Brabantio of Desdemona leaving with Othello, he puts explicit images into her father’s mind. Iago says to him, “I am one, sir, that comes to tell you your daughter and / the Moor and now making the beast with two backs.” (I, i, 116-7) – where “making the beast with two backs” is a euphemism for sexual intercourse. Iago wants Brabantio to get extremely angry with his daughter and especially with Othello and knows that telling him that they are having sex, and comparing them to beasts, would make Brabantio or any other father furious.

Another instance where using animal imagery made the statement more effective was when Roderigo was stabbed by Iago. Roderigo was played by Iago throughout the story, and in the end, Iago killed him. After Iago stabbed him, Roderigo said, “O damn’d Iago! O inhuman dog!” (V, i, 62) He calls him an inhuman dog because of all the people that Iago betrayed. Roderigo thinks that no human could ever do things Iago had done. Calling him a dog was the worst thing that Roderigo could have called him, and he knew how powerful it would be.

After Othello finds out about the terrible things Iago had done to him, Othello talks to some of the soldiers and says to them, “I look down towards his feet; but that’s a fable. If thou be’st a devil, I cannot kill thee.” (V, ii, 283-4) In this quote, Othello is referring to Iago as the devil.

The devil is known for having cloven feet, and when Othello looked down at Iago’s feet he was surprised and disappointed to see that he didn’t have them. Othello was so angry that he stabbed Iago after saying this. This is a very strong quote that exemplifies animal imagery perfectly. Although some references to animals can seem immature, in this play, they serve a great purpose and are very powerful.

  • Animal imagery is a powerful tool in Othello because it helps make certain points in the play, and shows contrast.

At the beginning of the play, when Iago is telling Brabantio about Desdemona and Othello, Iago says to him, “Even now, now very now, an old black ram / is tupping your white ewe.” (I, i, 89-90)

This quote illustrates the major difference between Desdemona and Othello. He refers to her as a white ewe, meaning pure and young. And to Othello Iago refers to as an old black ram. The act of them running off together seems a lot worse when Iago uses animal imagery – the difference between them is much more obvious.

A contrast is similarly shown when Iago talks about Cassio, Othello’s lieutenant. Iago begins all his scheming when he notices the close friendship between Desdemona and Cassio. As Iago sees them greet each other, he says to himself, “He takes her by the palm. Ay, well said; whisper. With as little a web as this will in ensnare as great a fly as Cassio.” (II, i, 163-5) Iago calls Cassio a great fly because of how noble Cassio is.

The web he is referring to is all the lies that Iago will cast around Cassio. This quote helps contrast the evilness of Iago with the greatness of Cassio.

Later in the play, when Othello and Desdemona were fighting, Othello hits her in the heat of an argument. As they continue to argue, Othello says to her, “If that the earth could teem with woman’s tears, each drop she falls would prove a crocodile.” (IV, i, 142-3) Desdemona is referred to as a crocodile because of her tears.

Crocodiles use fake tears to deceive their prey, and by Othello saying this, he is implying that Desdemona’s tears were fake. She is very pure and noble, and should never have been compared to a crocodile. In this part of the play, Othello begins to lose his sanity. By showing the contrast between characters, through beast imagery, the play further develops and becomes more powerful.

The play Othello, written by William Shakespeare, has a major theme of animal imagery, which is used throughout the play to intensify and deepen the underlying meanings. Animal imagery helps further develop the play by showing who the characters truly were, makes everything said a lot more dramatic and the points a lot clearer.

Lastly, it shows the contrast between the characters. Shakespeare uses animal imagery very powerfully and intelligently. Although the play is in Shakespearian language, it is easily understood through animal references.

By comparing people to beasts, their true evilness or goodness is nicely illustrated. A common person, as well as a well-educated one, would be able to understand that comparison. It is present in many intelligent pieces and is continually used. What other device is as powerful as that?! Could animal imagery be one of the strongest tools in literature?

author avatar
William Anderson (Schoolworkhelper Editorial Team)
William completed his Bachelor of Science and Master of Arts in 2013. He current serves as a lecturer, tutor and freelance writer. In his spare time, he enjoys reading, walking his dog and parasailing. Article last reviewed: 2022 | St. Rosemary Institution © 2010-2024 | Creative Commons 4.0


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Post comment