Asyndeton and Enjambment
Rhetorical Conventions in 5.2
Shakespeare always has the most entries in any dictionary of famous English-language quotations. Sometimes his quotations are twice as voluminous as the Bible and four times that of Milton. In addition, books introducing classic and medieval rhetorical terms often use his plays to illustrate the various devices. This mini-essay has two rather simple ends: to introduce and illustrate two important rhetorical terms/devices that are probably not familiar to you which appear in 5.2.
Asyndeton--"Without the Fastening"
Asyndeton in grammar and rhetoric is the use of brief sentences and phrases without intervening conjunctions. It contrast to polysyndeton, which is best captured by the child's recitation of a story, "And then this happened, and then that happened, and then the other thing happened....," asyndeton eliminates all conjunctions in an attempt to create a choppy and "out of breath" feeling in the speech. Some rhetorical scholars differentiate asyndeton and brachyology (accent on second syllable) by stressing that the former eliminates conjuctions between phrases/clauses/sentences and the latter between words. In any case, asyndeton stresses the rapid fire action of what is being narrated or the extreme emotional agitation of the speaker.
Thus, it is probably not unexpected that Shakeseare uses a brilliant example of asyndeton just after Othello has killed Desdemona and Emilia is knocking at the door:
"Yes.--'Tis Emilia.--By and by.--She's dead./ 'Tis like she comes to speak of Cassio's death;/ The noise was high. Hah, no more moving?/ Still as the grave. Shall she come in? Were't good?/ I think she stirs again. No. What's best to do?/ If she come in, she'll sure speak to my wife./ My wife, my wife! what wife? I have no wife./ O insupportable! O heavy hour (5.2.91-98)!"
Othello first recognizes he needs to respond to Emilia and shouts out to her, "By and by." Then he returns to look at Desdmona. "She's dead." Then his thoughts jerk back to Emilia and that she has arrived to talk about Cassio's death. The mention of Cassio's death makes him think of the wild stabbing scene in 5.1. Next, his attention jolts back to the "still" Desdemona. He thinks about Emilia's insistent knocking. What should he do? He sees he has an immediate dilemma and realizes that Emilia will want to speak to Desdemona. But it is not Desdemona whose name he mentions. It is "my wife." But use of "wife" makes him think that he has just killed his wife. He no longer has a wife. Finally, the floods overcome him, and he is weighed down with heaviness.
In a mere eight lines he is swept down jagged corridors of the mind and left in complete intellectual and emotional disarray. He jumps from one topic to another, with no sense that he is either controlling his mental process or knows where it is going. He is riding a wave of despair and terror whose destination is utter destruction. By making his sentences short and eliminating all intervening conjunctions, Shakespeare successfully portrays Othello's mental collapse. His strategy of smothering his emotion is crushed under the unexpected "insupportable" load of what he has done.
Enjambment (sometimes spelled 'enjambement') is taken from the French "enjamber" meaning to straddle or encroach upon, and is the continuation of the sense in a phrase or phrases beyond the end of a verse. It is a "run-on" thought, an idea that continues to flow because either it exceeds in power the prosodic or poetic meter of the line or because the idea deserves examination from more than one angle. In contrast to asyndeton, where the sentences are short and choppy, in enjambment the sentences are long and full. One of the reasons for having a person speak in this way is to prevent interruption. But often a person doesn't want to be interrupted for two reasons: one is that s/he wants to make sure the idea is fully explained before it is open for attack or consideration, and the other is that the person is afraid of interruption because of the insubstantial nature of the argument he or she makes.
We already saw an example of enjambment in 3.3.453-460, where Othello asserts that his resolve against Desdemona is as cold and irreversible as the flow of the Pontic Sea. Shakespeare's use of enjambment in 3.3 is a prelude to the sacred covenant Othello enters into with Iago to kill Desdemona and Cassio. In 5.2, Shakespeare uses enjambment to let Othello tell his story and give a final "spin" on his life. Just as enjambment in 3.3 preceded the solemn pledge to kill, in 5.2 is precedes Othello's suicide. Surely it is meant to draw attention to the significance of the assertions made. Othello tells his hearers that he wants them to tell his story without extenuating or slandering his conduct. Here is what he wants them to say:
"Then must you speak/ Of one that lov'd not wisely but too well;/ Of one not easily jealious, but being wrought/ Perplexed in the extreme; of one whose hand/ (Like the base [Indian]) threw a pearl away/ Richer than all his tribe; of one whose subdu'd eyes,/ Albeit unused to the melting mood,/ Drops tears as fast as the Arabian trees/ Their medicinable gum (5.2.343-351)."
Othello's self-defense flows like the Pontic Sea of 3.3. It is not a whitewash of his actions, however. Indeed he "lov'd not wisely" and became "perplexed in the extreme." He "threw a pearl away" of great value and wept without ceasing. By putting this into one sentence, with scarcely a pause, Shakespeare does not permit others to interrupt or seek clarification from Othello. Nor can they add something to what he says. For example, one would think that they might want to add that Desdemona was killed during Othello's jealous rage and not just say that he became "perplexed in the extreme" through jealousy.
But Othello will not permit this. He doesn't want to hear or entertain an alternative construction of the meaning of his life. Before anyone has a chance to object, affirm or add anything, Othello stabs himself and "dies upon a kiss (5.2.359)."
Asyndeton and enjambment are two sophisticated rhetorical devices that stress Othello's desperation and desire for interpretive rehabilitation. One simply has to memorize the speeches to get the full effect of them.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long