A Silver Tongue

When we first discussed Twelfth Night we spoke of how language can be used as a kind of disguise. It was interesting to see how characters used wordplay to disguise themselves and their true intentions. However, if one truly wanted to see proof of language being the ultimate disguise and even a kind of weapon one need only look toward Iago’s character within Othello.

Iago uses language to disguise himself as whoever he needs to be in a specific moment. He uses language to manipulate people into roles he has designed for them in his sinister plot to bring down Othello. In the beginning of act four, scene one we see Iago feed into Othello’s doubts and angers concerning Desdemona by using baiting questions or adding a snide remark here or there that would only further fuel the anger of Othello. He even has mastered the art of lying and makes falsities seem as facts to Othello because he has played him so well throughout earlier events within the play. An example of this is when Iago lets slip that Cassio has told him the story of his affair with Desdemona, “He hath, my lord. But, be you well assured, No more than he’ll answer” (4.1.30-31). After that Iago skirts about the subject and answers sparingly about what Cassio has said, but enough that Othello fills in the blanks and is so overcome with emotion that he passes out.

Iago’s clever use of language does not stop there, though. When Cassio does appear, Iago has Othello stand some distance away so he cannot hear Cassio speak. He convinces Othello to watch Cassio’s face because they are speaking of his wife. After convincing Cassio to tell his story involving Bianca only then does Iago summon Othello closer to listen. Now he hears the story of Bianca, but under the guise of it being about Desdemona. Cassio makes sure that the conversation leaves out names and we see the power of language and how when some of the story is missing it can become a completely different tale indeed. As Iago himself says about his plan so far, “Work on; my medicine works. Thus credulous fools are caught, And many worthy and chaste dames even thus, All guiltless, meet reproach (4.1.41-43). He knows that his masterful use of language and manipulation has ensnared everyone into his trap and made saints look like villains and he, the villain, look like a hero to Othello. Once again, we see the power of language and a silver tongue that perhaps does more damage than brute force and a few swords. 

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2 thoughts on “A Silver Tongue

  1. Jordan White

    I like how you illuminate this recurrent theme in both Twelfth Night and Othello that language is used as a disguise to deceive. For argument’s sake, I think we can even bring A Midsummer Night’s Dream into this discussion about language as deceptive, or rather, lack of linguistic knowledge as a deficiency. The Mechanicals do not have a high regard or sense of language– they are literalists when it comes to language, and I would argue that A Midsummer Night’s Dream critiques this idea of not having linguistic knowledge. The Mechanicals are depicted as incompetent fools. When you contrast the idea of the Mechanicals not having enough language knowledge, to the theme in Othello and Twelfth Night of having superior knowledge skills, but using those skills for to deceive, we can see that Shakespeare is asking us to consider how language affects our lives. Being a literalist and having a lack of knowledge about language can bind you to a lower social class, but manipulating language for bad purposes can make you a villain who causes tragedy.

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  2. Crystal Vaccaro

    I also like the connection that you made between Othello and Twelfth Night. Iago, like Feste, is a “corrupter of words” and does use language “to disguise himself as whoever he needs to be in a specific moment.” I think that Iago, however, is different from any other character in either play in that we, the audience, don’t know much about his character beyond his deceptions. He is defined by the disguise that he creates for himself, and he is a different version of himself with every person that he speaks to. I can’t help but wonder who the true Iago is, or if there is anything more to him beyond just jealousy, lies and manipulation.

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