Clown in William Shakespeare's The Tragedy Of Othello:
Comic relief and symbolism
The Elizabethan playwright William Shakespeare is the author of some of the most famous tragedies every written. The Tragedy of Othello is one of the rawest of all of his works, given that it is a romantic drama that hinges upon one of the most primal emotions of all human beings -- the sensation of jealousy. The jealousy of Iago for the great Moorish general Othello, and Othello's debilitating fear that his young wife Desdemona has been unfaithful is frustrating for the audience to watch, given the unjustified nature of both Iago's and Othello's emotions. However, as he does with all of his dramas, Shakespeare uses humor to provide comic relief during tense situations. This can also be seen in the character of the gravedigger in Hamlet and the use of the Porter in Macbeth. In Othello Shakespeare also uses a Clown, to please the 'groundlings' watching the tragedy with light humor and a representation of themselves who 'sounds' like a lower class individual. The use of comic figures, like the Clown in Act III, Scene 1 also contains important foreshadowing of the tragic events to come.
The Clown's function in the plot is simple -- he tells the musicians outside of Othello's quarters to stop playing. However, his language and use of humor and puns is quite elaborate. The impressive nature of his verbal panache is not purely functional. The Clown mocks the musician's playing ability, suggesting they sound nasal: "Why masters, have your instruments been in Naples, / that they speak i' the nose thus?" (3.1). The Clown's humor softens the impact of scene that immediately preceded it, when Iago tricks Michael Cassio into behaving in a drunk and unseemly fashion.
The previous scene is extremely significant for the plot of the play. It demonstrates how, although his primary vehemence is reserved for Othello, Iago also loathes Cassio, because Cassio has been promoted instead of him. Iago easily tricks Cassio, as the younger man has no tolerance of wine, to drink more than he should. Iago knows of Cassio's "infirmity" of his intolerance for alcohol (2.5). Cassio becomes drunk, quarrels, and outrages Othello with his behavior.
Iago's actions intentionally cause Cassio to lose his new position, and worse, make him more beholden to Iago. Iago urges Cassio to use Desdemona to become endeared to Othello. Iago wants to make Othello believe that Desdemona was unfaithful to Othello with Cassio. Cassio hopes that even by creating an innocent relationship between Cassio and Desdemona, simply making it seem as if Desdemona is sympathetic to a perceived rival, Othello will become suspicious.
It is Cassio who asks the musicians to play outside of Othello's door. "Masters, play here; I will content your pains; / Something that's brief; and bid 'Good morrow, general'" (3.1). This is exactly what Othello does not want to hear, however, as the Clown orders them to leave. Just as Cassio will later use the precisely wrong way to importune Othello's favor to get back his position and reputation, he symbolically does the same with the musicians. Othello wants silence, to enjoy his first night with his bride, not to hear music. This silencing of the musicians, however, will symbolically parallel Othello's silencing of the truth from his wife and from Emilia, Iago's wife and Desdemona's handmaid. It will also be a symbolic action mimicking Othello's later smothering of his wife.
One of the most interesting aspects of the Clown's speech is that it is notable for its lack of poetic imagery, in contrast to the speech used by Othello, Cassio, and Desdemona. When Iago is trying to trap Roderigo or Cassio, like the Clown he often uses wit and plain-spoken verse. This is typical of other lower-class characters, such as Iago's wife Emilia. Emilia also often uses prose, except when she is speaking formally in public or to a member of a higher social class. Iago's lower class and that of the Clown make their speech much more similar than any other characters in the play, such as when Iago makes jokes about the nature of women to Desdemona or English drinking habits. In the latter example, Iago's use of prose in joking would have obviously delighted the English audience, who may have actually been drinking during the play, as was customary at the time. The Clown similarly uses prose to be rude and cutting like Iago, although his purposes are humorous rather than under-handed, unlike Iago. When rebuking the musicians the Clown says: "Marry. sir, by many a wind-instrument that I know. / But, masters, here's money for you: and the general so likes your music, that he desires you, for love's / sake, to make no more noise with it" (3.1). In other words, Othello likes music so much; he would rather not hear the bad 'music' of the players!
And like Iago, not all of the Clowns' communications are purely humorous in intention. For instance, when the Clown comments "O, thereby hangs a tail…by many a wind-instrument that I know," he references the double-meaning of the word 'tale' as a reference to dishonesty, which is rife throughout the play. Iago is a kind of faulty wind-instrument who tells a tale, and Desdemona is a kind of wind instrument whose means of communication is silenced. The notion of a 'tail' has a sexual reference, underlining the predominant theme of the play, and suggests that sexuality and dishonesty are interconnected. The Clown, along with Iago, seems to be the most clear-sighted member of the cast. Iago sees clearly because he is the primary force behind the evil doings; the Clown either because he is of Iago's class or simply because he is observant.
Another interesting point about the Clown is that his role is unclear. He does seem to have some power in the household. The musicians at first refuse to cease playing. But the Clown persists, underlining the seriousness of Othello's request in a witty fashion: "If you have any music that may not be heard, to't/again: but, as they say to hear music the general/does not greatly care" (3.1). Othello in other words, has been upset because of the fracas with Cassio as well as the impending military activities, and does not desire to hear any more music -- only 'silent music.'
Although his title suggests a jester, in Shakespeare, the word 'clown' could also be used in reference to an individual from the lower orders of society, like a rude clown. The Clown's actions suggest that he is a servant in Othello's household, but he, is many ways, the most perceptive character in the play. The Clown, despite his small role, is shown to perceive Iago's deceit more clearly than anyone else in the audience, and before anyone else. When Cassio, who has called Iago his 'honest friend' calls the Clown by saying "Dost thou hear, my honest friend?" The Clown responds to Cassio: "No, I hear not your honest friend; I hear you," referencing Iago's lack of honesty" (3.1). Even Emilia's future status as a 'stirrer' of trouble is referred to by the Clown, when he says: "She is stirring, sir: if she will stir hither, I/shall seem to notify unto her" (3.1). The Clown has not overheard any of Iago's speeches detailing what he intends to do, but clearly he understood that Iago is not a purely honest man.
The question arises, however: if the Clown sees through Othello's deceit, why does he not bring this matter to Othello's attention? Why does he remain a bystander? Even Emilia is initially duped into giving Desdemona's handkerchief to Othello, unlike the Clown, but she does reveal the plot when she realizes her unintentional role in bringing about her mistress' death. The…