Like many other Shakespearean plays, Othello has a graphic and articulate use of literary devices that sculpts out both the characters and the play itself, with specific devices used in creating specific effects. Shakespeare has relied on irony through and through with the majority of his plays, Othello being no different, where he uses about three fundamental uses of irony – situational, verbal and dramatic – to create suspense, feed the play’s motive as well as keep things interesting.
Irony can be seen as chiefly carried out through Iago’s character as he contributes significantly to the three uses of ironies present in the play. Shakespeare divides the human personality with two identities – the inner and the outer – which is epitomised through Iago as he swears by the Greek god of two-facedness, ‘By Janus’. To present this duality of nature, Shakespeare assigns verbal irony to Iago’s character, where he is constantly regarded as ‘Honest Iago’ by almost all the characters in the play, of which Othello regards him the most, trusting him completely as he is his envoy. This acts as a verbal irony because the audience clearly knows Iago’s true intentions and that is to hurt Othello, where he does that by lying to all the characters, the complete opposite of what his name denotes. Iago too complies with the verbal irony, using it to base plans, as he says to Othello how much he loves him, ‘My lord, you know I love you’ to which Othello replies, ‘I think thou dost; / And, for I know thou’rt full of love and honesty,’. Iago’s blatant lie acts as a catalyst that adds to Othello’s trust on him, which not only fuels the play’s tragic ending, but also creates the suspense that builds up the dramatic irony in the play. Another one of Iago’s most famous use of verbal irony is when he alerts Othello of developing jealousy, ‘O, beware, my lord, of jealousy! It is the green-eyed monster, which doth mock the meat it feeds on.’ The effect that this line creates is almost humorous in a poignant manner, for Iago is the one unleashing the metaphoric ‘green-eyed monster’ of jealousy onto Othello, and he is also the one warning him about it, yet even with his warning, Othello becomes consumed by jealousy. Iago is masterful in lacing up words to psychologically manipulate the other characters – a trait that signifies him as the best villain to exist in literature – where this effect is partly achieved by his use of verbal irony and the way the other characters assign him as well.
Another prominent use of irony is the dramatic irony which is he most effective at creating suspense. Dramatic irony is constantly stirred up in the play, as audiences are completely aware of Iago’s devious plans, yet all the other characters seem to be blind to it. This is achieved by Shakespeare with the use of soliloquies voiced by Iago, in which he becomes candid about his plans, almost breaking the fourth wall as he shares this secret with the audience whom, it seems like he knows, won’t be able to interfere in his plans. Shakespeare’s use of dramatic irony in this play is so precise, there has even been an incident where in one screening of the play, an audience member stood up and tried to warn Othello about Iago’s plans. This presents how dramatic irony has manifested so vividly within the play that is builds up this gut-wrenching suspense and grips audience’s attention.
Adding with Iago’s soliloquies being a part of dramatic irony build-up, Desdemona’s innocence is another portrayal of this rhetoric device being used. Iago’s plan to hurt Othello was to prove that his wife was an infidel, which he does by giving Othello an ‘ocular’ proof of Desdemona’s handkerchief that he had given her, which Iago claims was with Cassio. This handkerchief symbolises Desdemona’s chastity, with the embroideries of two strawberries in a white fabric – representing the marriage bed. This infuriates Othello to the point where he kills his wife, yet audiences know that the handkerchief was stolen by Emilia for Iago and that Desdemona was completely innocent and was totally unaware of all the incidents revolving around her. Thus, audiences knowing what had actually happened and what had truly taken place in the play conjures up the dramatic irony that introduces suspenseful events in the play.
Situational irony occurs through the events that take place, where Shakespeare differentiates the actual intention with the resulted action. Iago’s true motivation to hurt Othello was because he had chosen Cassio as his lieutenant over him, and he tries to exert this anger by attempting to kill Cassio to take his position. But this does not happen as towards the end of the play, Cassio is the only one left alive and is given a higher official position. Iago does not achieve his ultimate goal where eventually he is imprisoned and lowered from his position, rather than attaining a greater one. Othello also intends to love Desdemona at the beginning of the play and to care for her, as one does in a marriage, yet by the end of the play, even if he does love her, he kills Desdemona and even before that, behaves crudely with her. The course in which the fundamental purpose is diverted to a completely opposite result also fuels the acting suspense in the play.
Shakespeare also uses thematic irony in the way where a key theme only takes place superficially, that is, despite the play being based off on love and war, there are little instances of these actually taking place, where the war between the Venetians and the Turks are deterred by a natural event – the storm – and thus war doesn’t truly take place in the play. Othello has also been renowned as the only mediaeval war-related protagonist to take part in very little actions, as we see him in the role of a peace-maker in the first Act, stopping violence instead of participating in it, ‘Put up your bright swords, for the dew will rust ‘em’. Love is also not vividly portrayed in the play, despite it being the catalyst for the tragic ending, where we only see Othello and Desdemona kissing after they land on Cyprus but no more. Othello and Desdemona’s consummation of their marriage is also constantly disturbed, and eventually does not take place at all – where Desdemona is killed for Othello thinking she wasn’t a virgin, rather she died a virgin, “Othello: Cold, cold, my girl? / Even like thy chastity.”
Shakespeare’s mastery in playing with words is not unlike that of Iago’s, where he cultivates his words and actions to achieve the most effective result on both the audiences and the characters in the play. Suspense is pivotally experienced by audiences and readers alike, and underlines the sense of drama and heightens the tragedy of the play of Othello and his wife, Desdemona.