Shakespeare uses in Othello are allusion, symbolism, dramatic irony, and metaphor. These literary devices help the author to emphasize the central conflicts of the story. Moreover, they depict the themes of jealousy, compromised morality, and appearance vs. reality in a more vivid way.
In Othello, Shakespeare frequently uses allusion. This is an effective literary device applied to “allude” to another piece of literature. For instance, Othello makes biblical references telling that Desdemona would be “guarding the gates of hell.” In the Bible, St. Peter guards the gates of heaven, while no such a guardian of hell exists. Othello rages at Desdemona, who, he believes, cheats on him with Cassio. As adultery is a sin, Othello implies his wife will be going to hell for her actions. Thus, this literary device, Shakespeare emphasizes Othello’s outrage and a disconnect between the spouses. The image of hell makes the readers understand how this misplaced rage leads to Othello’s demise. The Moor eventually admits his mistake. However, it’s too late. Being shocked and lost in his feelings, he sorrows about Desdemona’s death:
“O cursed slave!
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 Desdemona! Desdemona! dead!
Oh! Oh! Oh!”
(Act 5, scene 2)
Then, not seeing the reason for continuing his life, Othello stabs himself.
Symbolism is another prominent device in Othello. Shakespeare skillfully utilizes it to convey the main themes of the play. The most important symbol in the text is arguably Desdemona’s handkerchief. Here is a deep meaning behind this piece of tissue. The accessory symbolizes Desdemona’s and Othello’s love and marriage. Its white color emphasizes the purity of their relationship at the beginning of the play.
However, Desdemona loses this love token presented to her by Othello. The loss of the accessory reflects the loss of trust and the decay of their relationship. Through the immoral scheming of Iago, the sacred union of marriage is besmirched.
Did an Egyptian to my mother give;
She was a charmer, and could almost read
The thoughts of people: she told her, while
she kept it,
‘Twould make her amiable and subdue my father
Entirely to her love, but if she lost it
Or made gift of it, my father’s eye
Should hold her loathed and his spirits should hunt.”
(Act 3, scene 4)
Ironically, the handkerchief becomes the object that solidifies Othello’s suspicion regarding Desdemona’s affair. After seeing the accessory at Cassio, the outraged Moor proclaims:
“’Tis pitiful; but yet Iago knows
That she with Cassio hath the act of shame
A thousand times committed; Cassio confess’d it:
And she did gratify his amorous works
With that recognizance and pledge of love
Which I first gave her; I saw it in his hand:
It was a handkerchief, an antique token
My father gave my mother.”
(Act 4, scene 2).
Another important device in the play is irony. Particularly the dramatic irony that Shakespeare frequently used in his works. It is a form of irony emphasized through the characters’ speeches and actions related to the plot development.
Usually, the characters themselves are not aware of the ironic circumstances. Yet, the audience can easily observe them. Such a literary device leads to a more robust emotional response as the events unfold. In Act 3, Othello tells Iago:
“I think thou dost;
And, for I know thou’rt full of love and honesty,
And weigh’st thy words before thou givest them breath,
Therefore these stops of thine fright me the more.”
(Act 3, scene 3).
From this part of the play, it’s clear that Othello thinks Iago is an honest and kind man. However, in reality, Iago is plotting against Othello. The audience is already aware of this fact. This creates a strong ironic effect.
Metaphors are also frequently prevalent in Shakespeare’s texts, including Othello. In Act 4, Othello exclaims that “A horned man’s a monster and a beast…”. This example is a metaphor because Othello does not literally become a beast. Rather Desdemona’s speculated adultery turned him into something similar to a monster. What makes this metaphor especially potent is that it roughly summarizes the central theme of the play. Blinded by rage and jealousy, a man loses his human qualities of compassion and rational reasoning. Instead, he reduces himself to animal impulses.