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Can you please explain the significance of the following quote from Shakespeare's...

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danielb77 | (Level 1) Valedictorian

Posted May 8, 2013 at 10:44 PM via web

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Can you please explain the significance of the following quote from Shakespeare's Othello while pointing out at least one literary device?

Othello: Maybe, because I am black,
And don’t have those soft parts of conversation
That gentlemen have; or because I am getting
Much older, still that's not much,
She's already unfaithful; I am abused, and my relief
Must be to hate her. O curses on marriage,...

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Karen P.L. Hardison | College Teacher | eNotes Employee

Posted May 9, 2013 at 12:33 AM (Answer #1)

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The actual quotation, in context and with uninterrupted punctuation--as the above is a slightly less than adequate paraphrase--is as follows:

If I do prove her haggard,
Though that her jesses were my dear heartstrings,
I'ld whistle her off and let her down the wind,
To pray at fortune. Haply, for I am black
And have not those soft parts of conversation
That chamberers have, or for I am declined
Into the vale of years,--yet that's not much--
She's gone. I am abused; and my relief
Must be to loathe her. O curse of marriage,
That we can call these delicate creatures ours,
And not their appetites! (Act III.iii)

A more adequate paraphrase of this passage goes more like this:

  • If I prove that she is unfaithful--
    Though what binds us it the love of my heart--
    Then I would immediately send her away, and let her take her chances
    To find good or trouble. It so happens--maybe because I am a black Moor
    And haven't the elegant education and conversation
    Of a gentleman, or maybe because I am getting Older (but not that much older)--
    She has so soon strayed from loving me; I am mistreated, and my relief
    Must be hatred for her. Oh curses upon marriage
    Because we claim wives as our own,
    Yet we cannot control their emotions and desires!

What Othello is saying here is that (1) he has not yet proven to himself that Desdemona is truly unfaithful but that if she were (2) he would instantly cast her away from him because (3) women's faithfulness cannot be controlled. Literary devices (specifically literary techniques) used are Renaissance idioms, as in "I'ld whistle her off and let her down the wind," and metaphor, in which unlike things are compared to make the least familiar one more understandable, as in the implied metaphor "the vale of years." This metaphor implies that aging is like going into a narrow valley where darkness comes sooner than on youthful ridges.

The significance of this quote is that it shows Othello's development as Iago unleashes his plan and it shows the violent anger he knows would feel if Desdemona's's unfaithfulness were to be proven. It also shows his fatalistic outlook: Men love wives but cannot control what wives love. In our society, this sounds like a good sentiment, but in a society where wives were the property of their husbands and where socially and religiously wives were meant to obey (as a servant might obey) their husbands, this comment of Othello's shows a fatalistic pessimism.

These things develop Othello's characterization and set-up the emotional and psychological (although Shakespeare predated thoughts of psychology considerably) circumstances for the extreme violence he displays toward Desdemona when he has what he believes is irrefutable proof of her infidelity.

IAGO
    What handkerchief?

EMILIA
    What handkerchief?
    Why, that the Moor first gave to Desdemona;
    That which so often you did bid me steal.
[...]

IAGO
    Nay, but be wise: yet we see nothing done;
    She may be honest yet. Tell me but this,
    Have you not sometimes seen a handkerchief
    Spotted with strawberries in your wife's hand?

OTHELLO
    I gave her such a one; 'twas my first gift.

Sources:

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