In Othello, Shakespeare repeatedly uses strong imagery for literary effect. We constantly read about heaven and the heart, each with a multitude of meanings. The word soul is another symbol used very often in the play. This essay is dedicated to the word soul, and the different ways Shakespeare uses it to depict characters, and set scenes.
The first reference to soul is very early in the play. In Act One, Scene One, Lines 50-51 Iago states, “Do well thrive by them, and when they have lined their coats / Do themselves homage. These fellows have some soul.” These lines are in the middle of a 30-line rant, and Iago uses soul to mean audacity. He is saying that there are many false soldiers who fight for the glory they might later receive. He is also saying these soldiers have a lot of nerve to address their kings as honest men, instead of glory-seekers. Ironically, Iago turns out to be the most dishonest character in the play.
Shortly after, Iago uses the word soul to mean family. He has alerted Brabantio that Desdemona has absconded from their home. He tells Brabantio, “Your heart is burst, you have lost half your soul” (I.i.79). Simply, he is saying that of the two people who should be asleep inside, only one (half) of them is there. Again, Iago is a frequent user of the word soul, but in this line he is, again, being duplicitous.
By Scene 2, Othello is using the word soul. He says to Iago, “Not I. I must be found. / My parts, my title, and my perfect soul / Shall manifest me rightly. Is it they?” (I.ii.29-30). Here, Othello is referring to his conscience. He is saying that he has a clean conscience. Iago turns Othello’s clear conscience into a murderous one; so, again, it is ironic that Othello is using the word in this manner.
Othello uses the world soul interchangeably with the word life, too. He tells Iago, “He that stirs next to carve for his own rage / Holds his soul light; he dies upon his motion “ (II.iii.172-73). Othello’s tone is ominous in this scene. This is a part of Othello’s charm – his ability to take control of the battlefield, and the men under his command. Emilia uses the word to mean life, as well. Vouching for Desdemona’s fidelity, she tells Othello that she will “lay down my soul at stake” (IV.ii.13). She is offering to give up her life in testimony to Desdemona’s faithfulness. Both these characters use the word soul to mean life, but in each case death is at the heart of their comments.
In Act 3, soul is used instead of discretion. Iago says to Othello, “There are a kind of men so loose of soul / That in their sleeps will mutter their affairs” (III.iii.413-14). Iago is setting Othello up to believe that he has proof of Desdemona’s indiscretion with Cassio. There seems to be a pattern of irony in many of the scenes where the word soul is used. Iago is talking about men who lack discretion, or morality, as he is actively engaged in tricking Othello into believing that his wife is unfaithful.
These three characters are not the only ones who use soul to symbolize something else. The references to soul, and with definitions that are different, still, than the ones listed above, leave room for the theory that soul is important to Shakespeare. His frequent reuse of any word is a hint that there is something that needs to be paid attention to, even if he isn’t saying the exact same thing each time.