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The following addresses ‘personal response’ (AO1), ‘how meanings are shaped’, and ‘explore texts informed by other interpretation’ (AO5).

Othello is a tragedy full of shock, bemusement, and peripeteia. In Iago, Shakespeare has created a character whose contempt for virtue results in all the main characters either dying or suffering a shocking peripeteia. It is fitting therefore that the ‘O!’ is exclaimed many times and by most characters. In my article, ‘Who is Othello?’, I explored the idea that Othello’s identity is constructed through the narratives he tells about his life, something he refers to as ‘My story’ (Act I scene iii). The other characters have no knowledge of this outsider, other than that of his military achievements.

The exclamatory ‘O!’ comes first from Brabantio. Wound up to a fury by Iago’s audacious and vulgar public announcement of Desdemona’s secret marriage, Brabantio comes out in his night-gown, exclaiming, ‘O unhappy girl! O, she deceives me.’ He feels his daughter’s deceit keenly, continuing with, ‘O heaven! O treason of the blood!’ When confronted with Othello, his agitation turns to anger as he accuses him, ‘O thou foul thief.’ This is followed by a father’s grief, as he cries, ‘’O my daughter!’ His journey from shock to agitation, followed by anger and grief, will soon be experienced by Othello. In a phrase echoed later by Iago in Act III scene iii, Brabantio warns Othello to ‘Look to her, Moor, if thou hast eyes to see She has deceived her father, and may thee.’ Iago’s later warning that Othello should ‘Look to [his] wife…Wear your eyes thus,’ creates one of many echoes Shakespeare uses to present the sheer scope of Iago’s poisonous influence. The repetition of ‘eyes’ signifies the ability to see proof of wrong-doing – ‘ocular proof’ – and serves to emphasise not only Desdemona’s innocence, but the irony that nobody, save the audience, can see Iago’s deceit.

In his first appearance, Othello is articulate and controlled. With Iago already tempting him to look guilty –  his slippery, passive construction of ‘Those are the raised father and his friends. You were best go in,’ (I ii) advising retreat – Othello stands firm in his belief that ‘My parts, my title, and my perfect soul Shall manifest me rightly.’ Through the triplicate of possessive pronouns, Shakespeare presents Othello as an assured character whose identity and self-belief appear unshakable. Most marked is Othello’s preceding refusal to run away, insisting, ‘Not I; I must be found.’ The repetition of ‘I’, separated by a caesura, emphasises Othello’s control under pressure as well as confidence (or arrogance) in his ability to navigate his way out of trouble. But this line also syntactically splits the ‘I’ – mirroring the later, ‘monstrous birth’ of Othello the ‘green-eyed monster’. Othello acknowledges this split at the end of the play, not just in speaking about himself in the third person, but in his re-enactment of the killing of an enemy in a former battle – the original ‘I’ killing the new enemy of the state, the jealous, wife-murdering ‘I.’

Othello’s initial exclamations are joyful. In Act II scene ii, he is reunited with Desdemona. The audience have just witnessed a particularly revolting aside from Iago involving reference to ‘clyster-pipes,’ and are in no doubt of the depth of his loathing. Othello’s language in greeting Desdemona not only contrasts with Iago’s depravity, but hints at his own potential volatility in love. Exclaiming, ‘O my fair warrior’ and ‘O my soul’s joy!’ what follows are not so much references to love but to extremes, including ‘tempest,’ ‘hell’s from heaven,’ and ‘unknown fate.’ Desdemona’s response contrasts with and highlights Othello’s intensity, advising that their ‘loves and comforts should increase,’ providing not just a feminine response but a calmer, more balanced view of love.

Even when he is in control, Othello’s language seems overblown and rehearsed, carrying with it an undertone of bombast or arrogance. We see him calling on the power of the elements and earthly terrain (rather than his own substance) to express himself. From the hyperbolic ‘Olympus-high’ in a happier Act II scene i to the menacing ‘icy current’ of the ‘Pontic sea’ of Act III scene iii, Othello seems to perform rather than speak. When convinced of Desdemona’s supposed infidelity, his language is not just corrupted by Iago’s, but reduced on several occasions to the hollow, monosyllabic ‘O!’.

Of course most of the despairing exclamatives in Othello are a direct result of Iago’s manipulation, and this also applies to the suave and normally assured Cassio. After losing his Lieutenantship in a drinking game arranged by Iago, he exclaims, ‘Reputation, reputation, reputation! O I have lost my reputation!’ Here, the ‘O!’ is an expression of grief and despair at losing the thing he values most – and Iago is quick to discern that which every character holds most dear. His skill in shocking and disorientating his victims is soon reflected in their language. Cassio is nonplussed at how his fate could so suddenly turn, his exclamation expressing bemusement in, ‘O strange!’ He is not the only character to experience a peripeteia at the hands of Iago. The speed and effectiveness of Iago’s work is thoroughly visited on Othello whose ‘joy’ quickly turns to ‘O misery!’ The tragedy is that nobody can see the evil lurking right in front of them; the man able to turn ‘virtue into pitch.’

In contrast to the despair he creates, Iago’s use of the of ‘O’ is always calculated to fake sincerity or indignation. He warns Othello, ‘O beware my lord of jealousy.’ Acting the role of friend and confidant, his language is carefully crafted to deceive and convince. Othello begins to doubt himself, echoing Iago’s vulgar, racist references from scene Act I scene i, as he declares his colour and age the reason for Desdemona’s ‘infidelity.’  We hear Iago’s ‘old black ram’ in Othello’s ‘for I am black’ and ‘declined into the vale of years.’ Where are his ‘parts,’ ‘title,’ and ‘perfect soul’? His faith in Desdemona and in love itself has evaporated as he exclaims ‘O curse of marriage!’ Shortly after, he descends into chaos, reflected in repetition, exclamations and the beginning of his tendency to speak of himself in the third person. The strong ‘I’ of Act I scene ii now turns to despair. ‘O now, for ever Farewell the tranquil mind; farewell content…Othello’s occupation gone.’ (Act III scene iii 343 – 356) The relinquishing of his military career gives Iago the opportunity to attack Othello’s manhood and dismantle him further. Now Iago employs exclamations to echo and mock him with, ‘O grace! O heaven defend me! Are you a man?’ He exclaims regret at being ‘honest’, skilfully shifting himself into the position of victim with his disingenuous, ‘O monstrous world! To be direct and honest is not safe.’ With masterful manipulation, Iago reduces Othello to a quivering wreck of uncertainty and then torments him with a sudden and vulgar sexual reference, asking if the proof Othello wants is to see Desdemona ‘topped?’ Of course, the very mention of this means Othello already ‘sees’ it in his mind. As a result, his language disintegrates into the disjointed, alliterative exclamation of ‘Death and damnation! O!’ Sensing Othello is near to his edge, Iago, in full panto villain mode, recounts in delicious detail the fictitious dream which is proof enough for Othello; his language then echoes Iago’s in ‘O monstrous! Monstrous!’ In an action which mirrors Iago’s linguistic echoing, and the degree to which he has occupied Othello’s psyche, the audience witness both men kneeling in an awful pact. For Othello, ‘love’ has turned to ‘tyrannous hate,’ and his verbless ‘O blood, blood, blood!’ shows the audience how jealousy has reduced him to a savage, incoherent killer.

The witchcraft Brabantio suspects in Othello more accurately describes the effects of Iago’s manipulation. In Act  IV scene i, Othello is tormented to the point of a seizure as he ‘falls in a trance’ exclaiming (ironically) ‘O devil!’ while Iago celebrates the effect of his ‘medicine.’ Soon, Iago is able to discuss not just the murder of Desdemona, but the method. Othello swings from the self-pity of ‘O Iago, the pity of it, Iago!’ (Act IV scene i) to a final disintegration in stating his brutal intention to ‘chop her into messes’ – the language of hatred and revenge. (Consider the recent alleged comments attributed to George Osborne that he won’t rest until Theresa May is “chopped up in bags in [his] freezer.” !)

Iago’s performance in Act V scene i is perhaps his most impressive. In choreographing a murder, he is quick to mimic the genuine exclamations of others. Bianca’s ‘O Cassio, Cassio, Cassio!’ brings a swift and incriminating retort of ‘O notable strumpet’ from Iago, and then his appeal of ‘O, a chair, chair!’ in fake concern for Cassio who he has tried to have murdered by the hapless dupe Roderigo. Part of Iago’s devilry is that of all great deceivers – the ability to hide in plain sight through adopting the role expected by those around them. His audacious, ‘Yes, by Janus’ to Othello in Act I scene ii is an early indication to the audience not just of his enjoyment in deceiving those who trust him, but of the inability of Othello and others to see the evil in front of them. Through such comments and asides, Shakespeare insists we journey with Iago – like it or not. Admire him or hate him, we are astounded by Iago’s skill in getting Othello to kill the thing he loves the most. Shakespeare’s understanding and exploration of jealousy is unmatched in its intensity and accuracy.

As he enters his wife’s bedroom to commit murder, Othello’s language reflects his oscillation – his instinctive but hopeless impulse to return to the ‘I’ who is the loving Othello. His mesmerising, if somewhat mindless, refrain of ‘It is the cause, it is the cause,’ is soon followed by a faltering resolve, such is the love he still feels for her. After kissing her, he declares sorrowfully, ‘O balmy breath..One more. One more.’  Having been ‘on trial’ at the start of the play, he affords his young wife none of the fair hearing he himself both expected and enjoyed. Now the ‘O’s come from a terrified Desdemona, and for good reason. She tells the truth to Emilia with ‘O falsely, falsely murdered!’ This is followed by her final utterance of ‘O farewell.’ Even at this solemn moment the ‘O’ conveys not just grief but disbelief at how these events have come to pass. Virtually all the characters have become victims of Iago’s deceit. Even his wife, the worldly Emilia, is deceived, repeating disbelievingly, ‘My husband?’ ‘O villainy!’  Her fury at Othello quickly reverts to the racism established by her husband in the opening scene, with ‘O the more angel she, And you the blacker devil.’  So many of these exclamations are verbless in their expression of shock and incomprehension. As Desdemona’s murder is made known, All cry, ‘O heavens forfend!’ followed immediately by another chilling echo of Iago in Montano’s, ‘O monstrous act!’ Iago’s plan, the ‘monstrous birth,’ has indeed been brought ‘into the world’s light,’ and in hearing Iago’s words through other characters, Shakespeare keeps him on stage even after he has exited – he is in our consciousness as much as he is in Othello’s. At the sight of the dead Desdemona, Othello Falls on the bed, exclaiming, ‘O, o, o!’ Words, for the moment, elude him.

The exclamatory ‘O’ carries a range of emotions in Othello’s last speeches. He moves from anguish and self-recrimination in ‘O cursed, cursed slave!’ to utter sorrow and grief with ‘O Desdemona! Desdemona! Dead!’ Here we see the beginning of his return to who he was before the ‘green-eyed monster’ infected his mind and heart. No longer in the grip of Iago, the assonantal ‘O fool, fool, fool!’ reflects the empty, hollow Othello; the Othello whose elevated rhetoric and monumental love for Desdemona was so easily unravelled and defiled by the only character who lacks virtue.