The antagonist, Iago, provides some of the most vibrant metaphors in Othello. He compares Othello to a black ram and Desdemona to a white ewe. Even Iago’s words to Desdemona’s father, Brabantio, are metaphorical. “I am not an old black ram,” says Iago to Brabantio as they talk about his daughter.
“I am one, sir, that comes to tell you your daughter
and the Moor are now making the beast with two backs.”
(Act 1, scene 1)
A variety of metaphors suggest racist and sexist preconceptions common in the era. In Act 1, Iago attempts to turn Desdemona’s father against Othello. He likens Othello to a barbary horse by comparing him to the former:
“Because we come to
do you service and you think we are ruffians, you’ll
have your daughter covered with a Barbary horse;
you’ll have your nephews neigh to you; you’ll have
coursers for cousins and gennets for germans.”
(Act 1, scene 1)
Iago mocks his skin color and depicts him as a mindless animal in order to drive a wedge between Desdemona and Othello. On top of that, the adversary refers to the pair as “the beast with two backs.” Such an insulting simile allows Iago to separate Desdemona’s father from his daughter, who goes on to fight Othello.
Meanwhile, Iago claims to be Othello’s greatest buddy when talking to him. He even warns the Moor about a “green-eyed monster,” which is known as envy. Iago frequently employs animal symbolism to degrade other characters. When speaking with Roderigo, Iago compares women to guinea-hens:
“I have looked upon the world for four
times seven years; and since I could distinguish
betwixt a benefit and an injury, I never found man
that knew how to love himself. Ere I would say, I
would drown myself for the love of a guinea-hen, I
would change my humanity with a baboon.”
(Act 1, scene 3)
Iago, on hearing Roderigo’s intent to kill himself, laughs it off because Desdemona has chosen another man. Furthermore, he claims that if he committed suicide because of a woman, he would be an ape rather than a guy. Emilia, Iago’s wife, and Desdemona’s close friend employs a metaphor to illustrate the status of women in society. She says in Act 3:
“’Tis not a year or two shows us a man:
They are all but stomachs, and we all but food;
To eat us hungerly, and when they are full,
They belch us.”
(Act 3, scene 4)
These words, which are spoken by Othello, turn out to be a prediction of Desdemona and her death. They both die at the hands of their spouses. The Duke, having been convinced by Othello’s account of how he won Desdemona’s love without witchcraft, employs this image to tell Brabanzio that his charge against Othello has just received a devastating blow; if Brabanzio has any chance of winning, he will have to counterattack with the weapons that Othello just destroyed.
Virtue? A fig! ‘Tis in ourselves that we are thus or thus. Our bodies are our gardens, to which our wills are gardeners. So that if we will plant nettles or sow lettuce, set hyssop and weed up thyme, supply it with one gender of herbs or distract it with many—either to have it sterile with idleness, or manured with industry—why, the power and corrigible authority of this lie in our wills. (1.3.307)
Iago advises Roderigo that suicide might be the greatest solution to his unrequited love for Desdemona when he says, “Suicide may be the best remedy for my unrequited love for Desdemona,” comparing our bodies to gardens and our free will to gardeners who have the power to select whether to plant weeds or produce crops of our own.
The food that to him now is as luscious as locusts shall be to him shortly as bitter as coloquintida. (1.3.309)
Iago compares Desdemona to “food” for Othello, assuring Roderigo that while Othello may find Desdemona as delectable as locusts (a delicacy) right now, she will soon taste like coloquintida (a bitter plant used as a laxative).
There are many events in the womb of time which will be delivered. (1.3)
In this comparison, Iago assures Roderigo that his future is bright by referring to events yet to occur as if they were unborn children.
For that I do suspect the lusty Moor
Hath leaped into my seat. The thought whereof
Doth, like a poisonous mineral, gnaw my inwards. (2.1.220–222)
Iago uses a euphemism (“leapt into my seat,” in these lines) to suggest that he believes Othello has slept with his wife, Emilia; next, he likens his doubt to a poisonous poison devouring him from the inside.
You are but now cast in his mood, a punishment more in policy than in malice, even so as one would beat his offenseless dog to affright an imperious lion. (2.3.227)
Iago calms despairing Cassio, who has just been removed from command, by telling him that Othello is not really furious with him but only making a dramatic example of him as someone who beats his innocent dog to scare off a lion.
Good name in man and woman, dear my lord,
Is the immediate jewel of their souls.
Who steals my purse steals trash. ‘Tis something, nothing:
‘Twas mine, ’tis his, and has been slave to thousands.
But he that filches from me my good name
Robs me of that which not enriches him
And makes me poor indeed. (3.3.160–166)
A good reputation, like a valuable jewel, is like a priceless treasure that, unlike money, has true and enduring value for its owner but is worthless to anybody who would try to steal it.
Oh, beware, my lord, of jealousy!
It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock
The meat it feeds on. (3.3.170–172)
Iago warns Othello that jealousy is like a green-eyed monster that ridicules its victims even as it is devouring them, ironically sowing envy in Othello.
I hope my noble lord esteems me honest.
Oh, ay, as summer flies are in the shambles,
That quicken even with blowing. (4.2.68–69)
Here Othello jocularly tells Desdemona that he believes she is as honest, or trustworthy, as flies in a slaughterhouse: simply blow on them and they will fly away.
Yet I’ll not shed her blood,
Nor scar that whiter skin of hers than snow
And smooth as monumental alabaster. (5.2.3–5)
In the play’s final scene, Othello compares Desdemona’s snow-white skin to snow and alabaster (a white mineral) for a brief time, doubting his desire to kill her and thus stain her whiteness with blood.