Words carry equal potency in Othello and the idea that they can “poison in the ear" is also just as fitting. The purveyor of poison, Iago, is constantly polluting Othello’s understanding of his reality, especially as it relates to his wife. The reader cannot help but feel disgusted with Othello on occasions, however, because we see that the power of words is being invoked and although Othello demands to have “ocular proof" of his wife’s infidelity, he is content with words alone. It is clear from the very first act that Iago has a vendetta against Othello, and although the reasons are not clear he tells us, “I follow him to serve my turn upon him" (I.i.42).
As the plot of Othello progresses, it is clear that he is not only having success using carefully chosen words to persuade the other characters to act according to his plans, but he is able to do so based on his skillful observations of their weaknesses. For example, he uses words to encourage Cassio to meet with his prostitute, knowing full well the implications. It seems that even Iago himself is not entirely convinced of his motivations or of a direct plan, but he realizes that through the power of manipulation of words he can lead both the reader as well as the other characters when he states, in one of the important quotes from Othelloby William Shakespeare, “by the nose / As asses are led" (I.iii.383-384). Although nothing like Hamlet in personality or motivations, both characters are similar because they understand the potential power of language.
The reader, especially at the beginning of the play, does feel as though she has been led around by the nose “as asses led" and this is also the result of language. While there are numerous examples of words poisoning the actual characters within the play, we too have been unwittingly poisoned in the ear through Iago’s unsavory descriptions of Othello. For instance, the play opens in the darkness as two characters—one of whom we will discover to be a villain—discuss their enemy, Othello. Strangely, there is no mention of Othello’s name and the reader can only define him by the powerful and often frightening words they use to describe him. In this opening scene, Roderigo and Iago frequently refer to him merely as “the Moor" but also imply that by his color he is not even human or worthy of a name. Roderigo calls him “thick-lips" (I.i.61) which puts a grotesque image in the reader’s mind and later goes on tell Desdemona’s father, “you’ll have your daughter covered with a Barbary horse, you’ll have your nephews neigh to you" (I.i.106-110). Between these two images, the reader, unfamiliar with Othello’s “true" stature would be more likely to equate him physically to an actual horse, especially since horses have big lips. By stating that he would have grandsons that would become half-horses due to this “animal" blood is absurd and frightening and it would seem that these two characters consider Othello to be nothing more than an ill-formed animal.
The theme of the parallels of animals with those of a darker race is further solidified when Iago follows Roderigo’s description on the “dangers" of Desdemona’s union with Othello by saying that the act of this union (sex) between the two forms the “beast with two backs" (i.i.112). Before the reader is ever given a clue about the identity of Othello, there are only the images of animals and beasts. This is also relevant because it demonstrates a perceived parallel between black men and animals—that they are not fully human, thus undeserving of the humanizing use of a name instead of such images. There is certainly an element of savagery and a lack of civilization that is infused into such description and although it becomes apparent later that Othello is in fact, quite civilized, well spoken, and respected, the reader is forced into the same racist mindset of the characters simply because of the descriptions they offer. In many senses, our reality has been skewed based on words and language and oddly enough, it is language again that reconciles us to Othello.
It is revealing to juxtapose all of the unflattering and racist descriptions of Othello with the first time the reader is introduced. Instead of babbling or seeming like an uncouth and uncivilized animal, Othello’s first full lines convey a depth of personality, intelligence, and cultivation. He encourages his accuser, “Keep your bright swords, for the dew will rust them / Good signor, you have more command with your years than with your weapons" (I.ii.58). One can only imagine these lines to be delivered with grace and excellent diction and now the reader is faced with two differing perceptions of Othello—the one based on the cruel representations of him offered by Iago and Roderigo and the second the “proof" of Othello’s gentleness and civility. Because of language we find that we too have been duped by powerful language and see that Iago’s power with words extend far beyond the central characters to the actual readers.
Overall, the power of language in Othello and Hamlet, both plays by William Shakespeare, has a direct impact on the outcome of each play. The tragic endings were simply the culmination of the “poison in the ear" and reflect the immense power of language. Furthermore, it is apparent that the reality, both for the reader and the central characters, is mutable and susceptible to the influence of manipulative words. In both texts these words from different characters could act as daggers, both on the reader as well as the characters. For Hamlet, the power of words was at once his greatest downfall as well as his most prized weapon. For Othello, the power of words had the same effect since because of his skillful use of language he was respected, even if he came to a tragic end because he believed too much in its power.