by Zachary Lewitton
Symbolism is a literary element in which an author uses a symbol to represent a larger ideas or character. In Shakespeare’s tragedy, Othello, the Clown is used as a symbol for the antagonist, Iago. In his conversation with the Musician, the Clown is used by Shakespeare as a symbol for Iago.
Through his timing and wordplay, Shakespeare is able to symbolize Iago through the Clown. In the previous scene, tensions were high as Cassio had fought Roderigo and was released from Othello’s service. However, in the very next scene, the Clown uses excellent comedic timing to lighten the mood. Whilst talking to the Musician, the Clown says, “Are these, I pray you, wind instruments?” … “O, thereby hangs a tail.” … “Marry, sir, by many a wind instrument that I / know.”(III.i.7-11). In this dialogue, the Clown uses puns regarding wind instruments to crack a joke regarding flatulence — often resulting in cheap laughs from the audience. Here, Shakespeare uses the Clown and timing in order to create a perfect moment to relieve the audience of the previous scene’s tension. The Clown’s timing is used to symbolize Iago, as Iago always has impeccable timing to aid his quest of defaming Othello. In Act Three, when Iago tells Othello that Desdemona has been cheating on him, Othello asks for definitive proof before he believes Iago. Shortly thereafter, Emilia, Iago’s wife, presents Iago with Desdemona’s handkerchief — which was entrusted to her by Othello. Iago then uses the handkerchief to convince Othello of Desdemona’s affair (this then spirals into a tragedy based on false evidence). The Clown’s excellent comedic timing symbolizes the serendipity and good fortune that timing provides Iago.
Another way in which the Clown symbolizes Iago is through his belittlement and mockery. During his conversation with the Musician, the Clown cannot help but tease the Musician through clever wordplay and puns. In the conversation, in addition to the previous quotes, the Clown says, “Why masters, have your instruments been in / Naples, that they speak i’ th’ nose thus?”(III.i.4-5). Although the quote is difficult to interpret for modern readers, the quote alludes to the fact that syphilis was often contracted in Naples, rotting away noses. With this wordplay, it means that the music being played sounds grotesque. However, this insult goes unnoticed to the Musician making the Clown’s belittlement of the Musician undetected. The Clown’s undetected belittlement represents the various ways in which Iago insults and slanders Othello. Although Iago does not belittle Othello directly to his face, he often does in his asides, or with other characters. On one occasion Iago calls Othello “a Barbary horse” and “an old black ram” (I.i.97,125). By calling Othello these names, he contradicts all that he does while with Othello. By Othello’s side, Iago acts as a servant and loyal friend who is always there to aid Othello. However, Iago is able to mock and trick Othello by giving him false advice in hopes of destroying his reputation and military career (which he successfully does). In a similar position as the Musician, Othello does not know of this deceit and mockery and follows Iago’s advice. The Clown’s mockery of the Musician is a smaller scale version of Iago’s mockery of Othello.
While only written into a very brief scene, the Clown symbolizes Iago’s characteristics and mannerisms. Also, the Clown symbolizes not only Iago’s amazing luck and timing in the play, but also his relationship with Othello. In a way, the scene between the Clown and the Musician foreshadows the entirety of the play. The Clown meets the Musician; the Clown mocks and belittles the Musician; the Clown forces the Musician out of the picture. Through his literary knowledge, Shakespeare is able to represent a major character in the play through one small scene of dialogue.