More coursework: 1 - A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H | I - J | K - L | M | N - O | P - S | T | U - Y

Othello & king lear a comparison

SHAKESPEARE; Othello & King Lear - A comparison

If Shakespeare was alive today it is certain that there

would be a lot written about him. We would read reviews of

his new plays in newspapers, articles about his poetry in

the literary papers, and gossip about his love life and his

taste in clothes splashed across the glossy magazines. His

views about everything under the sun, from the government to

kitchen furniture, would probably appear regularly in the

colour supplements. His face would be familiar on television

talk shows, his voice well-known from radio broadcasts.

There would be so much recorded evidence about his life and

his opinions that it would not be hard to write about him.

Shakespeare, however, lived some four hundred years ago

in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, when there was no tele-

vision or radio, nor even any newspapers as we know them

today. Although he was respected as an important person in

his own lifetime, nobody ever thought of writing about him

until well after his death. And Shakespeare did apparently

not believe in keeping a diary either. So it is largely by

luck that the little evidence we have, such as the entry of

his birth in the parish register, has survived at all.

And yet, by looking carefully at contemporary pictures, by

reading contemporary accounts, it is possible to get a good

idea of how the boy whose birth is recorded in the Stratford

register of 1654 grew up into the man who wrote such famous

plays still known all over the world, as we type.

Imagery used in Othello and King Lear.

In Othello and King Lear Shakespeare uses a lot of

imagery. The main image in Othello is that of animals in

action, preying upon one another, mischievous, lascivious,

cruel or suffering, and through these, the general sense of

pain and unpleasantness is much increased and kept constant-

ly before us.

More than half the animal images used in the play

Othello are of Iago, and all those are contemptuous or

repellent: a plague of flies, a quarrelsome dog, the recur-

rent image of bird-snaring, leading asses by the nose, a

spider catching a fly, beating an offenceless dog, wild

cats, wolves, goats and monkeys.

To these, Othello adds his pictures of foul toads

breathing in a cistern, summer flies in the shambles, the

ill-boding raven over the infected house, a toad in a

dungeon, the monster

`to hideous to be shown', Othello Act III, Sc iii

line 107

bird-snaring again, aspics' tongues, crocodiles'

tears and his reiteration of

`goats and monkeys'. Othello act III, Sc iii

Act IV, Sc i

line 403

In addition, Lodovico very suitably calls Iago

`that viper', Othello Act III, Sc iii

line 265

and the green-eyed monster

`begot upon itself, born on itself',

Othello Act III,

Sc iv

line 161, 163

is described or referred to by Iago, Emilia and Desdemona.

It is interesting to compare the animal imagery in

Othello with that in King Lear. The plays have certain

similarities; they were written near together (Othello

probably in 1604, King Lear about 1605), they are the most

painful of the great tragedies, and they are both studies of

torture. But the torture in King Lear is on so vast and on

so inhuman a scale, the cruelty of child to parent in the

doubly repeated plot is so relentless and ferocious, that

the jealous and petty malignity of Iago shrinks beside it.

This difference in scale is expressed in the animal

imagery. In Othello we see a low type of life, insects and

reptiles, swarming and preying on each other, not out of

special ferocity, but just in accordance with their natural

instincts, mischievous and irresponsible wild cats, goats

and monkeys, or the harmless, innocent animal trapped. This

reflects and repeats the spectacle of the wanton torture of

one human being by another, which we witness in the tragedy,

the human spider and his fly; whereas as in King Lear our

imagination is filled with the accumulated pictures of

active ferocity, of tiger, wolf, wild boar, vulture, serpent

and sea-monster, all animals of a certain dignity and

grandeur, though seen here only when their desires

Are wolfish, bloody, starved and ravenous.

Merchant of Venice Act IV

Sc i

line 137

This represents the terrific scale of the suffering in King

Lear, which makes us feel, as we never do in Othello, that

the vileness of humanity is so great, so unchecked and

universal that if the gods do not intervene, the end of such

horrors must come and

Humanity must perforce prey on itself,

Like monsters of the deep. King Lear Act IV

Sc ii

line 49

But the gods, who `keep this dreadful pother', do not

intervene, and the most terrible lines in Shakespeare are

those breathed by Gloucester in his agony, when he attribu

tes to the gods themselves in their dealings with men, not

only indifference and callousness, but the sheer wanton

delight in torture, which, in Othello, we see exercised only

by one human being on another.

If animal in action symbolise the main motive in

Othello, there is another recurrent image which gives

atmosphere and background. As is fitting, with a setting of

two seaports, play an important part throughout.

Iago, as the soldier of a city which owed its dominance

to sea-power, uses sea imagery easily; when complaining that

Othello had passed him over for Cassio, he describes himself


`be-lee'd and calm'd; Othello Act I, Sc i

line 30

he knows the state has not another of Othello's

`fathom'; Othello Act I, Sc i

line 153

he says he must

`show out a flag and sign of love'; Othello Act I, Sc i

line 157

that Brabantio will take action against Othello to whatever

extent the law

`will give him cable'; Othello Act I, Sc ii

line 17

later, he coarsely describes his general's marriage in the

terms of a pirate taking a prize galleon; he declares to

Roderigo he is knit to his deserving

`with cables of perdurable toughness';

Othello Act I

Sc iii

line 343

and when he sees his plots shaping well, he murmurs with


My boat sails freely, both with wind and stream.

Othello Act III

Sc iii

line 63

The opening of Act II, when those in Cyprus are anxiously

awaiting the arrival of Desdemona and of Othello, is full

of sea pictures and personifications, 'the ruffian wind upon

the sea', the `chidden billow', and the `wind-shaked surge',

so that it is well in keeping with the setting and atmosphe-

re when Cassio, in high rhetorical terms, pictures the seas

and rocks as traitors concealed to waylay the ship, who, on

catching sight of the beauty of Desdemona, `do omit their

mortal natures', and let her go safely by.

Othello's use of sea images is noteworthy; `they come

naturally, for on each occasion they mark a moment of

intense emotion. The first, at the height of his happiness,

when he rejoins Desdemona, is an exclamation which to us,

who know what lies before them, is, in its opening, one of

the most poignant and moving in the play:

O my soul's joy!

If after every tempest come such calms,

May the winds blow till they have waken'd death!

Othello Act II,

Sc i

line 186

The next is at the height of torture, when, having been

shown the handkerchief, suspicion become certainty and he

vows vengeance. To clinch this, Iago urges patience, and

suggests that perhaps his mind may change; to which Othello

instantly reacts as his torturer intends, and affirms the

unalterable quality of his resolve by comparing it to the

`icy current and compulsive course' Othello act III,

Sc iii

line 453

of the ebbless Pontic Sea.

And at the end, when he has carried out his resolve, and

has suffereand realised all, again it is in sea language

that he expresses his equally set determination to follow


Here is my journey's end, here is my butt

And very sea-mark of my utmost sail. Othello Act V,

Sc ii

line 267

Literatuur: Shakespeare, His Life, His Language, His


S. Schoenbaum

Shakespeare's Imagery, and what it tells us

Caroline Spurgeon

Shakespeare and his theatre

Phillipa Stewart

Source: Essay UK -

About this resource

This coursework was submitted to us by a student in order to help you with your studies.

Search our content:

  • Download this page
  • Print this page
  • Search again

  • Word count:

    This page has approximately words.



    If you use part of this page in your own work, you need to provide a citation, as follows:

    Essay UK, Othello King Lear A Comparison. Available from: <> [30-05-20].

    More information:

    If you are the original author of this content and no longer wish to have it published on our website then please click on the link below to request removal: