Othello: heaven and hell

Well, you know me, I love a good concordance, an exhaustive listing of the uses of any word within a given body of work. And if you’ve been following along for any length of time (or have just checked out the not-so-digital tools of the trade), I dig the one over at OpenSource Shakespeare. And as we wind down the discussion of a play (especially after our hiatus), I like to take a dive into it. In recent months, I’ve looked at “nothing” in Much Ado, “gulling” in Twelfth Night, “man” and “play” in As You Like It, and “noble” and “honor” (twice) in Julius Caesar. You probably could have guessed that Othello would be no different. And you’d be right.

So, what brings this up (‘specially since we’re nowhere near the end of the month)?

Yesterday, I wrote about Emilia’s midplay soliloquy after finding the handkerchief. The speech ended with an interesting statement.

 What [Iago] will do with [handkerchief]
Heaven knows, not I;
I nothing but to please his fantasy.
  • III.iii.297-299

It’s interesting that the middle line is so short–two and a half metric feet, and not a one iambic (a trochee [HEAven], a spondee [KNOWS NOT], and an additional stressed “I”). It almost shines a spotlight on the word “heaven.”

Which got me thinking…

“Heaven” is used 486 times in the plays; the different forms of heaven (including “heavenly” and “heaven’s”) appear 698 times. “Heaven” is found 59 times in Othello, more than ten percent of all usages, with King John a distant second-place with 43 instances. As far as all the collected variations of “heaven,” again Othello leads the way with 71, more than ten percent of all usages (Hamlet here is second with 51).

If you flip that coin, “hell” and its variations also appear more in Othello than any other play: 16 usages (with Richard III a close second with 15), nearly ten percent of the Canon’s 174.

And in related news, “devil” and its variations appear more in Othello than elsewhere in the Canon: 24 usages (with Henry IV, Part One a close second with 22), again nearly ten percent of the Canon’s 258.

The dichotomy of heaven and hell (as well as nice little crossovers like Iago’s exclamation of “Divinity of Hell!” [II.iii.338]) is fascinating on an intellectual level, and makes me wonder: with these extremes, is Othello meant to be taken realistically, or is this a kind of morality play or allegory?

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