Words are used as forms of power – language both expresses and hides the truth e.g. Othello isn’t tricked by action, but by Iago’s manipulation of words. Desdemona dies because of the words spoken about her and Iago directly tells us that his lies are merely free and honest advice.
The word ‘honest’ is used 52 times in the play, and ½ of those times are used to describe Iago. In the Renaissance, ‘honest’ meant different things for men and women, for the former meaning trustworthy and loyal, and for the latter meaning chaste and virtuous. However, there are also references to ‘honest’ not being an entirely positive word – Iago describes Cassio as an ‘honest fool’, as if the trait is a sign of weakness or ignorance.
‘Moor’ is used instead of Othello’s true name. It reduces his identity and emphasises his position as an outsider. He’s identified as an outsider from the very title of the play: ‘Othello: The Moor of Venice”, showing the oxymoron between ‘Moor’ and ‘Venice’ and the conventional barriers broken by the protagonist. Moors were typically associated with Islam and the Ottoman Empire, supported as Othello’s name connotes to ‘Othman’, the founder of the Ottoman Turkish Empire, lending irony to Othello’s final self-identification with the “malignant and… turbaned Turk” (5.2.351) whose killing is re-enacted in his own suicide. This is additionally symbolic, as it reflects Othello killing his own cultural and ethnic heritage, finally being consumed by Iago’s whiteness and fulfilling the tragedy of the play.
It isn’t just that his ethnicity that results in Othello being seen as an ‘other’, evidenced through his progression from slave into general, and his religion from Islam to Christianity. Othello is the only character given a clear backstory by Shakespeare, in part to humanise his creation as more than a solider and also to demonstrate his character growth and undeniable success. This lends itself to the disappointment felt with Othello’s descent into madness, but also continually supports his humanity in contrast to Iago’s ambiguity that removes him from the audience’s emotional sympathy.
All of the damage done in the play is caused by language and words. In the end, Shakespeare silences Iago (“From this time forth I will never speak a word”), producing a cathartic resolution as never again can Iago cause destruction with his lies and manipulation. Despite this, the audience may also feel a tragic irony in Iago’s silence as it his motive is still unclear. So while all action is motivated by words, the final lack of action and catharsis is motivated by a lack of words, never fulfilling the audience expectation of Iago’s character.
The danger of isolation
The action of Othello moves from the metropolis of Venice to the island of Cyprus. Protected by military fortifications as well as by the forces of nature, Cyprus faces little threat from external forces and so Othello, Iago, Desdemona, Emilia and Roderigo have nothing to do but prey upon one another. Isolation enables many of the play’s most important effects: Iago frequently speaks in soliloquies; Othello stands apart while Iago talks with Cassio in Act 4 Scene 1 and is left alone onstage with the bodies of Emilia and Desdemona for a few moments in Act V Scene 1. Roderigo seems attached to no one in the play except from Iago and, most prominently, Othello is visibly isolated from the other characters by his physical stature and colour of his skin. Iago isolates his victims so that they fall prey to their own obsessions, but Iago, too, falls prey to his own obsession with revenge. The characters cannot be alone, the play seems to say: self-isolation as an act of self-preservation leads ultimately to self-destruction. Such self-isolation leads to the deaths of Roderigo, Iago, Othello and even Emilia.