In William Shakespeare’s play “Othello” the use of
animal imagery was evident throughout the telling of
the story. Shakespeare explained several characters
actions by comparing them to similarities in animals.
The characters in “Othello” were often depicted as
having animal-like characteristics. Some characters
were even compared to animals by other characters in
the play. By defining characters in terms of these
characteristics one can get a clear description of what
the character is doing or saying as compared to certain
In this paper I hope to give examples of animal
imagery used in “Othello” that assist in explaining the
play. The specific examples I present will describe a
character either as seen by himself or by a fellow
The first use of animal imagery I noted occurred
came in Act One when Iago, Othello’s standard bearer,
has awaken Brabantio, who was a Venetian senator and
the father of Desdemona, to tell him that Othello has
taken his daughter Desdemona, and as they speak is
making love to her. Iago was attempting to instigate a
fight between Othello and Brabantio, using Desdemona as
the bait. Iago stated, “Your heart is burst. You have
lost half your soul. Even now, now, very now, and old
black ram is tupping your white ewe” (p. 13). In that
statement Iago was comparing Othello to an old black
ram by comparing Othello’s skin color to that of the
black ram’s, and the white ewe, a young female sheep,
to Desdemona.Shakespeare was trying to illustrate in
his writing the act of and old black man making love to
a young white woman. The use of a black ram and a
white ewe to compare Othello and Desdemona helped in
the visualization of their affair.
Shakespeare displayed animal imagery again in Act
Two when Cassio was explaining to Iago that if he had
as many mouths as Hydra, a many headed monster slain by
Hercules, he could silence the many questions asked of
him. In this Shakespeare presented Cassio as being
burdened by many questions that he could not answer all
at once, but if he had as many mouths as Hydra it would
be more accessible for him to do so. Cassio said, “I
will ask him for my place again; he shall tell me I am
a drunkard! Has I as many mouths as Hydra, such an
answer would stop them all” (p.101). Cassio was
explaining to Iago that if he went to Othello now to
speak with him, Othello would call him a drunk because
he had been drinking all night. This is exactly what
Iago wanted. His plan was to get Cassio drunk and have
him mutter words of hate and disgust to Othello, a
person who Cassio had great respect for, until he was
drunk and then fed him lies told to him by Iago.
Shakespeare’s animal imagery in this paragraph helps
one to understand Cassio’s burden of having too many
questions and not enough answers. In using the
comparison of Hydra, the many headed monster, to Cassio
explained how Cassio’s burden would be lifted if he
only had more mouths to explain everything he had to
In Act Three Iago once again tries to manipulate
another character in the play. This time he told
Othello of an alleged affair that Cassio and Desdemona
were having. The affair that Iago spoke of was a
complete lie, for the two were nothing more than
friends. Upon hearing of this alleged affair though,
Othello went into a fit of rage yelling,
“Arise, black vengeance, from hollow hell! Yield
up, O love, thy crown and hearted throne To
tyrannous hate! Swell, bosom, with thy
fraught, for ‘tis of aspics’ tongues” (p. 149).
Shakespeare was attempting to illustrate a man, who was
torn between his good friend, someone who he respected,
and his lover. Shakespeare portrayed a man going
through an almost metamorphosis of emotions into this
animal that he could not control. Othello yelled for
this side of him to rise from hell, which had aspics’
tongues, a tongue from a poisonous snake. Shakespeare’s
depiction of a man changing from good to evil provided
a very vivid description of animal imagery. One can
only imagine Othello, who is generally of calm and
collective nature, turning into this ravaging beast.
Finally, in Act Four Othello slapped Desdemona
because he felt that she had wronged him. Desdemona
began to explain to Othello that she had not wronged
him and thus does not deserve this treatment. Othello
nevertheless, yelled at her and continued to call her
the devil. Othello believes that her tears are not of
true nature, and that she is only crying to cover
something up. He believes that she was crying to make
him feel that she was truly sorry, or that she had not
done anything wrong. Othello proclaimed, “O, devil,
devil! If that the earth could teem with woman’s tears,
Each drop she falls would prove a crocodile” (p. 189).
The crocodile was a creature thought to shed
hypocritical tears. This statement that Othello made
referring to a crocodile meant that the tears she shed
were deceptive tears. Desdemona, in the eyes of
Othello, was not sorry, but was rather hiding something
from him. Shakespeare’s use of animal imagery here was
similar to his earlier uses. Shakespeare was trying to
display a woman, who in the mind of her husband, was
crying tears of deception. Othello had let his mind be
so altered by Iago’s lies, that he had even began to
believe everything he said. This action of Othello was
fueled by his earlier animal-like change caused by
In conclusion, Shakespeare’s use of animal imagery
in “Othello” was crucial to the description of the
story. In “Othello” certain scenes would have been
harder to understand or relate to if it was not for the
animal imagery related to it. Shakespeare’s comparison
of characters to certain animals is unlike any other’s.
Shakespeare’s portray of a character’s emotions and
thoughts through animal imagery helped in the
understanding of that particular scene. Lastly,
without the vivid comparisons of animals and
characters, this play would undoubtedly have been more
complicated to both interpret and understand.