The Analysis of Irony in Shakespeare’s ‘Othello’

Irony: Harmon and Holman in A Handbook to Literature define irony as “a broad term referring to the recognition of a reality different from appearance.” Othello is an essentially ironic play in that Shakespeare creates such a wide divide between what appears tobe real to the characters in the play and what appears to be real to the audience in the theater. He does this through several devices. In the first place, Shakespeare offers Iago some of the best language in the playwright’s whole body of work. Consequently, Iago appears to the other characters as well spoken, appealing, and attractive. His language makes him someone they trust. This is evident from the number of times a character (particularly Othello) refers to Iago as “honest.” Iago does not look like the villain he is. In this, Shakespeare deviates from the traditions of the Middle Ages in which evil characters always exhibit some degree of the evil on the surface. Indeed, in medieval romance, characters are as they appear: an ugly character is inevitably evil. Shakespeare plays with both audience and character horizon of expectation here. The first gap, then, is between what the characters and audience expect from such an attractive and well-spoken character and what he really is. Shakespeare also structures his scenes so that the play becomes increasingly ironic.

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