Symbols and Motifs

Introduction

In the play Othello, there are certain symbols and some recurring motifs which help us to understand the crucial aspects of the play. Symbols are concrete images whereas Motifs are abstract devices to develop thematic concerns of the play. 

Symbols

The Handkerchief

In any human relationship, there are always objects which are assigned with meanings derived from the essence of the relation itself. It is a universal attribute of human beings.

In the relationship of Othello-Desdemona, the handkerchief is such an object because Othello gave it to Desdemona in their first meeting. Desdemona cares about it as much as Othello but before losing it, she didn’t know its inherited significance.

For Othello, it is something which bears the history of his lineage as it comes down through his mother from 200 years with sacred ingredients which helps maintain fidelity.

So, for him, it becomes a symbol of fidelity where for Desdemona it is a token of love which she treasures the most. In the hands of Iago, the handkerchief becomes a weapon to exploit all these symbolisms.

The Willow Song

For Desdemona, it is too hard to believe the disruption in Othello’s affection for her. We try to come to terms with incomprehensible heartbreaks through songs and such arts.

Towards the end of the play, Desdemona sings a song which she learned from Barbary who was a maid to her mother. Her sufferings found expression in the song which is primarily about the unfaithfulness of men and women.

The song symbolises the shattered faith of Desdemona. This also marks the point where Desdemona starts questioning her own fidelity and its worth to which Emilia answers in her own commonplace and questionable ways.

Motifs

Plants

Throughout the play, Othello, as a poetic figure, keeps invoking the imageries of plants and metaphorically contemplates. He says, “though other things grow fair against the sun, yet fruits that blossom first will first be ripe.

Earlier in the play, he says, “Our bodies are our gardens, to which our wills are gardeners; so that if we will plant nettles or sow lettuce, set hyssop and weed up thyme…

Similarly, the play invokes the imageries of the plant as per the nature of the character. Othello notices beauty whereas Iago uses such images for poison.

Animals and Monsters

When the play begins, Iago shows Othello as an old black ram. All is images for Othello are mostly animals. Ironically, when Othello is under Iago’s manipulation, he thinks of himself as “a horned man” who becomes a monster and a beast.

Iago rebukes Cassio in relation to Baboon or Cats and blind puppies. This recurring return to animal imagery tells us of the age in which the play was written and performed and the sensibility of such an audience.