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Strong Dialogue And Subtext In Shakespeares Othello English Literature Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 856 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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The primary conflict in this scene is between Iago and Cassio. The conflict is not overt, rather Iago is subversively trying to manipulate Cassio into doing what he wants. Iago is disguising his intentions, appearing to join Cassio in trying to get him reinstated, whilst actually setting him up as part of a complex ploy to bring down Othello. The conflict within the text is brought out by the subtext. The scene uses a lot of binary and religious imagery. Cassio refers to drink as ‘the devil’ whilst Iago refers to it as a “good familiar creature”. This sets up a binary difference between Cassio and Iago. There is an argument between them as to the value of reputation which brings in a minor, and perhaps subtextual, conflict between Iago and himself. Iago previously states one of his primary motivations for setting up Othello is his wounded pride at Cassio’s promotion ahead of him. But here, when Cassio speaks of his own pride, his wounded reputation, Iago downplays reputation as “idle and most false”. It could be read that Iago is downplaying a flaw in himself when it is recognized in Cassio.

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Because the scene contains few stage directions, strong dialogue is essential. It must be functional as well as able to maintain the audience’s interest. Every line either establishes character, reinforces subtext, or moves the story. For example, Iago’s dialogue furthers the plot twice, first when suggesting that Cassio be reinstated, and second when he suggests how Cassio should go about being reinstated. The primary tool Iago uses to influence action is dialogue. The characters of Cassio, Othello and Desdemona are established through dialogue. Cassio’s fears about reputation can be seen as his defining characteristic, one that alludes to other virtues that the character may have, as does Iago’s answering comment “you are too severe a moraler”. His flaws are also revealed, as he shifts the blame of his actions to the influence of drink, (which, through clever use of binary imagery, also alludes to the influence of Iago) and concern for his reputation is also painted as a flaw, one which Iago will exploit. Othello’s character is hinted at by both Cassio and Iago. Cassio, in protesting his worthiness, indicates that Othello is morally superior, where Iago, in his line “our General’s wife is now the General” indicates that he is, for want of a better word, ‘whipped’. He also tells Cassio “sue to him again and he’s yours” which indicates that Othello is malleable. Desdemona’s virtues are also established through Iago’s dialogue, as he refers to them as a tool to be manipulated. Through Iago’s reactions to the virtues of others, his own character is built on.  The dialogue also hints at his intentions without explicitly stating them, for example “Reputation is…oft got without merit” is both directly referring to Cassio’s speech about his reputation and indirectly to Iago’s reputation as an honest man that is “without merit”.

Due to the imagery and themes, the dialogue does not lose meaning to a modern reader, although speech patterns have changes dramatically since the time Othello was written.

            “Drunk? And speak parrot? And squabble? Swagger? Swear?

            And discourse fustian with one’s own shadow?”

Although a modern reader/audience may not quite understand the meaning of “discourse fustian” the can relate to the sentiment of drunken stupidity.


Although through the current dialogue, Iago’s motivations appear to be the same as Cassio’s, we are aware of Iago’s true motivations, as opposed to those he is expressing to Cassio. Because we are aware and constantly reminded of this subtext, the author peppers the script with various in-jokes and ironic references. Iago entertains himself with the thought that he is fooling the others, and the audience is also entertained in this way. The audience is aware of Iago’s intentions from the beginning, therefore his motivations for suggesting Cassio talk to Desdemona are obvious. The scene relies heavily on the subtext to reveal the irony of the text, for example when Cassio says “You advise me well” at the end. Iago is a complex character and, although his motivations are stated early in the play, these motivations are often discredited and weakened by his own arguments, as seen in his spiel against reputation, and therefore pride. The repeated use of irony and in-jokes isolate his character from the others which, when combined with his view of other characters as tools, both controllable and expendable, creates a sociopathic personality that hints at a complex, and very human, reasoning process. This allows a director, and, to an extent the actor, the flexibility to portray Iago as very human or inhumanly demonic, depending on what other subtexts and themes they wish to accentuate.



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