Today, it is not uncommon to hear someone being referred to as a “pig” or a
“dog” when talking about a man being dirty or referring to how he treats women. It is definitely an insult, but does not hold as much weight as it did back in the Elizabethan era. In the Elizabethan Era, when Shakespeare wrote this play, there was a strong belief in the Great Chain of Being concept. The Great Chain of Being is a hierarchy system of the divine order of the universe. The most divine on the “top” and the least worthy at the “bottom.” In order from top to bottom there are: God, Angels, humanity, then animals, plants, minerals , down to nothingness. Within each level there are subdivisions, for instance, within humanity, royalty is thought to be highest divine ranking and the nobles being higher than commoners. Even in a family system, it was the father, mother, son, daughter, and then servants. Wild animals were considered higher in divinity ranking than domesticated animals, and domesticated animals, higher than an oyster. The Great Chain served as a way to keep order, and everything is in its natural place.
In Othello, Shakespeare displayed examples of Animal Imagery all throughout this piece of literature. Iago says to Barbantio”…an old black ram is tupping your white ewe…” (1.1.97-98) when talking about Othello. These derogatory terms hold a lot of meaning in them. By referring to Othello as an “old black ram”, it is obviously referring to his age, as he is older than Desdemona, and he is a “Moor”; so it is referring to race as well, but by calling him a ram, it is (as mentioned above in the Great Chain of Being) of less value than human. When he refers to Desdemona as a “white ewe” he is showing a contrast between black and white, as white symbolizes innocence and purity, therefore even further degrading Othello. He goes on to say, “you’ll have your daughter covered with a Barbary horse, you will have your nephews neigh to you…” (1.1.24-26) The words used here show the hatred toward their interracial relationship, in saying that their children will be horses (again, less than human.) Iago was not the only one to react this way, as the marriage between the moor and the daughter of the senator was looked upon as unnatural, and completely against nature and the Great Chain of Being.
(Diego Valades) – Rhetorica Christiana, Public Domain,