Rhetoric vs. Poetry and “Othello”

June 21, 2014 § Leave a comment

When I read Othello in high school I didn’t like it, and I had a sneaking suspicion its reputation was based on something self-perpetuating, and on the seriousness and topicality (especially in the racial element) of its subject matter.

I’m reading it again and I feel I have a better idea of why I don’t like it: it’s a story of rhetorical manipulations that are pretty straightforward. I don’t see much life or strangeness in the characters or their interactions. Instead, one character fools another through a crude manipulation, and one character calls another honest when they’re actually not, etc.

Contrast this with what I’d call the poetry of characterization and interaction in other plays, say in King Lear which has amazing scenes balancing madness and pseudo-madness between characters, where the dramatic medium becomes a very strange and fluid substance.

In Othello the drama is made of rather square blocks. Here’s a typical scene, in Act 3 Scene 3, where Iago, by playing innocent, guides Othello into suspicion of Cassio:

IAGO
My noble lord–

OTHELLO
What dost thou say, Iago?

IAGO
Did Michael Cassio, when you woo’d my lady,
Know of your love?

OTHELLO
He did, from first to last: why dost thou ask?

IAGO
But for a satisfaction of my thought;
No further harm.

The rhetorical device here is that Iago ceases thinking aloud innocently, as if he were satisfied, with the obvious intent of leading Othello on.

OTHELLO
Why of thy thought, Iago?

IAGO
I did not think he had been acquainted with her.

The word “think” repeats, and its repetition suggests something gnawing.

OTHELLO
O, yes; and went between us very oft.

IAGO
Indeed!

OTHELLO
Indeed! ay, indeed: discern’st thou aught in that?
Is he not honest?

IAGO
Honest, my lord!

OTHELLO
Honest! ay, honest.

Othello’s repetitions of Iago’s words, “indeed” and “honest”, show that he’s ensnared.

IAGO
My lord, for aught I know.

OTHELLO
What dost thou think?

IAGO
Think, my lord!

OTHELLO
Think, my lord!
By heaven, he echoes me,
As if there were some monster in his thought
Too hideous to be shown.

Some horrible conceit: if thou dost love me,
Show me thy thought.

IAGO
My lord, you know I love you.

OTHELLO
I think thou dost;
And, for I know thou’rt full of love and honesty,
And weigh’st thy words before thou givest them breath,

IAGO
For Michael Cassio,
I dare be sworn I think that he is honest.

OTHELLO
I think so too.

“Think” keeps repeating, around more plain rhetorical ironies: that there is some “monster” in Iago’s thought, and that Iago “weigh”s his words.

There’s just not much to these devices, and the whole play is constructed of such scenes where plain conflicts are brought about by plain manipulations. I’m a little baffled by its reputation, to be honest.

This is the same reason I can’t enjoy a movie where the main thrill is to see the bad guy eventually toppled by the good guy. I mean, who cares? We all know it’s coming and the whole story is basically a stalling tactic before the big payoff. (That the bad guy wins in Othello doesn’t really change the formula.)

Othello is put together with utter cleanness and precision, but not much strangeness. It’s drama, for sure, but Shakespeare’s best drama is really poetry.

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