The Power of Langauage in Othello
The Power of Langauage in Othello
In Othello, Shakespeare explores the relationship between words and events. Spoken thought, in the play, has all the power of
action; speaking about an event will make that event become reality for those who hear - it will affect reality as if that event had
taken place. Shakespeare demonstrates the power of words poignantly through Othello’s monologues. Othello struggles with the
reality that Iago creates for him. When Othello speaks, he reveals that he is unable to stop himself from carrying out acts that
Iago’s and his own words have prophesied and initiated. Othello’s monologues further demonstrate that even the knowledge of the
power of words cannot protect the characters from the consequences which the words demand. Speaking about an event is
prophecy in Othello, but it is more than just an objective foretelling of the future. Words become the all powerful initiators of
action, once spoken they cannot be counter-acted , they alone determine the course of the future.
Othello’s monologue before he murders Desdemona is an excellent passage to study Shakespeare’s thesis of how words relate to
7 Put out the light, and then put out the light!
8 If I quench thee, thou flaming minister,
9 I can again thy former light restore
10 Should I repent me. But once put out thy light,
11 Thou cunning’st pattern of excelling nature,
12 I know not where is that Promethean heat
13 That can thy former light relume: when I have plucked the
15 I cannot give it vital growth again,
16 It needs must wither. Ö
(Othello, 5.2.7-16, p. 306)
Shakespeare sets the tone of the passage with one simple introductory line, “Put out the light, and then put out the light!” The line
begins: “Put out the light,” perhaps it is an imperative, perhaps it is a simple declaratory remark. Whatever the case, it was spoken,
and the second part of the line “and then put out the light!” turns the simple statement into a chronological phenomenon with a
specific message about thought and action. First an event is described and then it becomes reality by action. The brevity of the line
emphasizes the straightforward and unbreakable relationship of words and action.
Throughout the play there are numerous examples of words which become self-fulfilling prophecies for those who hear them.
Barbantio’s words in the first Act, “Look to her, Moor, if thou hast eyes to see: / She has deceived her father, and may thee.”
(Othello, 1.3.293-294, p.154) become essential reality for Othello. The prophesy of the old Egyptian woman to Othello’s mother in
regards to the handkerchief Othello gave to Desdemona also becomes Othello’s reality, even though Desdemona did not actually
give it away. (Othello, 3.4.56-65, p.244) Finally Iago fulfills the prophecy of his own words, “I have’t, it is engendered! Hell and
night / Will bring this monstrous birth to the world’s light.” (Othello, 2.1.402-403, p.161) All of these instances fall into the pattern
of words becoming essential realities as understood through “Put out the light, and the put out the light!”
Even though there is a such a powerful statement about the inevitability of words leading to action at the beginning of the passage,
there is doubt and hesitation following it directly. If Othello follows his own model in “Put out the light, and then put out the light!”
then there should be no contemplation or questioning how he should act once the idea has been “engendered”, to use Iago’s
phrasing. It is difficult to reconcile the next five lines of contemplating action to the bold statement in the first line; however I think
there are some interesting supporting points which can be drawn from the next five lines.
Firstly, while Othello does consider the abstract nature of what he is about to do, he never once gives voice to a thought of
dissuasion. He fascinated by what he is about to do, attracted to it (perhaps the candle metaphor for killing Desdemona is itself a
metaphor for Othello’s moth-like attraction to the flame spoken ideas)- he moves towards his action fully conscious of the finality
of his decision. Othello speaks of repenting when he talks of re-lighting the candle in only the vaguest terms, “Should I repent me.”
When he speaks of killing Desdemona his language becomes solid, “But once put out thy light, / Thou cunning’st pattern of
excelling nature,.” Here, Othello comes close to questioning his resolved course of action. Interestingly, the language he uses turns
his question into a declaration, instead of using “if [I]” or “should [I] put out thy light [kill you]”, he says “once [I] put out thy light
[kill you.]” Othello turns what could be contemplation of diverging from his spoken course of action into a solidification of his
decision to act. His words again confirm and renew his inevitable murder of Desdemona.
I use the word “inevitable” deliberately. There is a finality and a directness in the relationship between words and action which
Shakespeare renders in Othello. The concluding lines of the passage speak to this finality. “When I have plucked the rose / I
cannot give it vital growth again,” is a metaphor for the consequences of killing Desdemona, but it is also a metaphor for finality of
putting a thought into words. The moment when Othello puts his thoughts into words, when his fate is “born”, he uses the following
460 my bloody thoughts, with violent pace,
461 Shall ne’er look back, ne’er ebb to humble love,
464 In the due reverence of a sacred vow
465 I here engage my words.
(Othello, 3.3.460-465, p.239)
It was at this moment when Othello “plucked the rose,” this was the point of no return - Othello spoke his thoughts and now his
actions will bring “into the worlds light” what he spoke. The living rose which was the opportunity of choosing different paths,
different words and actions is dead. Desdemona’s fate too was concrete from the moment Othello put it to words; “When I have
plucked the rose / it needs must wither.”
There is a dark message of human prophecy in Othello. Instead of divinities or supernatural forces controlling fate (as in
Macbeth), only men and women have the power through the spoken word to choose their destinies and the destinies of others.
Shakespeare’s language in all of his writing is incredibly forceful, but in Othello he makes a statement about the powerful impact
the spoken word has on reality. It is a message of responsibility and warning, Othello is a tragedy of powerful words spoken