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Use of Symbols by William Shakespear in His Works Twelfth Night and Othello

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In exploring these two works, Twelfth Night and Othello, we see that deception is of considerable causality in the damnation of the othered characters Malvolio and Othello through significant tokens of a counterfeited letter and an embroidered handkerchief.

As both Maria and Iago are aware of their foes’ hamartia, they can prey on their weaknesses in bringing about their foes’ downfall. In the Twelfth Night, Maria refers to Malvolio as being ‘sometimes… a kind of puritan’ for criticizing her for not chiding Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, and the clown for disrupting the tranquillity of the house, while in Othello, Iago is already aware of his hold over Othello says, ‘ Trifles light as air/ Are to the jealous confirmation strong/ As proofs of holy writ’. . Maria knows that Malvolio’s puritan trait will never favor him in the eyes of Olivia, as although he is only a steward to the lady of the house, he is pretentious enough to assume he is of more importance than other characters in the household. The Elizabethan audience would understand Malvolio’s character trait as a parody of Puritans back in the Elizabethan era that criticized theatre of its links with ‘paganism, idleness and sexual license’. These accusations came as a threat to Shakespeare who it could be argued is taunting them. Similarly, Iago is aware that Othello’s insufferable jealousy and his perplexing gullibility will set him down a path he is never able to retract from, as Othello is also quick to wrong judgment. Iago knows that just serving Othello ocular proof of Desdemona’s infidelity will be the final touch needed in bringing an end to his master plan, as he knows how Othello is quick to anger. Iago has been planting ideas of doubt in Othello, building it up to the point that Iago is only the person Othello could trust. It could be argued that because Malvolio and Othello are socially othered (Malvolio being a puritan and Othello a moor), they are at a higher chance of falling victims to the trap of their hunters, Maria and Iago. For Malvolio, he is surrounded by people that are against his puritan lifestyle, even going as far as accusing him of ‘[thinking] thou art virtuous’. Malvolio to the other characters is a constant reminder of their non-sobriety, as he is the only character in the entire play not in the elated spirit linked with the Twelfth Night (the coming of the Epiphany). Bakhtin argues laughter and mockery are initiated during a carnival as ‘The satirist [Malvolio] whose laughter [sobriety] is negative, places himself above the object of his mockery [his puritan lifestyle], he is opposed to it. The wholeness of the world’s comic aspect is destroyed [Malvolio’s discipline upsets the celebratory spirit], and that which appears comic becomes a private reaction [Malvolio’s disciplines are taken in but processed in their own subjective time, instead they project out statements in mockery of Malvolio to ease their conscience]. On the other hand, Othello is placed in a position of acquiring enemies with Iago being one of them, as Iago’s detestation and hatred towards Othello lies in the fact that Othello assigned Iago a second-rate job, promoting Cassio before him. For this reason, he goes decides to go get vengeance on Othello, even if it means taking down those he trusts. He decides to use a token of Othello’s love for Desdemona, a handkerchief to bring about his downfall. Malvolio and Othello are surrounded by people with ill thoughts towards them, and not people with synonymous identify to them, to make them aware of their impending perdition.

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Symbols are used to give deeper meaning to an object. In this case, as the tokens are possessed by different characters in Twelfth Night and Othello, they convey various meanings. But the tokens serve as ocular proof for all of the characters. In Twelfth Night, for Maria, the letter is a symbol for her ‘revenge [to] find notable cause to work’ and to also transform Malvolio from a ‘horse’ to ‘an ass’. For Malvolio, the letter is a symbol of social domination, translating that he ‘will wash off gross acquaintance’. Likewise, in Othello, for Iago the handkerchief is ocular proof for Desdemona’s infidelity to Othello, as Othello constantly demands that Iago ‘gives [him] ocular proof, [lest he will] answer [his] waked wrath’. For Othello, the handkerchief is a symbol of Desdemona’s chastity and faith, as while his mother had it, ‘Twould make her amiable, and subdue [his] father/ entirely to her love’. And for Desdemona, the handkerchief was a token of Othello’s love for her as it ‘was her first remembrance from the Moor’. In the Twelfth Night, the letter is ocular proof of Olivia’s [forged] undying love for Malvolio which Maria uses to cause Malvolio to present himself as a fool not just before Olivia, but before the onstage and offstage audience, which led to him being scapegoated for his outrageous fantasy. Theatre triumphs over Puritanism, even though different was the case in reality, as Puritans closed down theatres. With Malvolio, the forged letter is also ocular proof of Olivia’s love for him, however, he saw the letter as an opportunity out of his current social standing, allowing himself to bask in a decadent fantasy of social domination. A cliché of Puritans being power-hungry is being played on in this scene, which points Malvolio out to be a hypocrite, falling victim to one of the many things he accuses others in the household of doing. In the same way, the letter is an ocular proof, the handkerchief in Othello is also ocular proof but with different symbolism in the hands that possesses it. Iago’s possession of the handkerchief contaminates the ‘innocence’ the handkerchief holds. He manipulates the handkerchief so that Othello comes to view I as a symbol of chastity to a symbol of infidelity. The handkerchief was the first object ever gifted to Desdemona by Othello, as he got it from his mother, who got it from an Egyptian Sibyl, who wove the handkerchief from sacred worm and dye extracted from mummified maidens. Othello claims that his mother used the handkerchief to keep his father faithful to his mother [underlyingly, he expects the same from Desdemona, as a sign of her chastity]. Due to Iago’s incessant hinting of adultery, Othello has seized to see the handkerchief no other way, then as a symbol of adultery. This small object has such a hefty weight in the play that confirms the fragility of the jealous mind, and it also confirms that small incidents can be escalated psychologically into ‘proofs’ of love or betrayal. 

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