Othello's Manner of Speaking
"Rude am I in my speech (1.3.81)"
The classical rhetorical tradition identified three kinds of speeches: the epideictic, the forensic and the deliberative. The first was given to honor someone, perhaps at a funeral or great civic celebration. Forensic oratory was practiced in the law courts, and had the goal of persuading by appealing to both the mind and the emotions. Deliberative oratory had its home in the political arena. Ancient handbooks of rhetoric as well as more theoretical treatises (such as Aristotle's Rhetoric) gave speakers advice on how to fashion their speech to the occasion.
When Othello tells the Venetian Senate--in answering the charge leveled against him by Brabantio that he had unlawfully spirited away Desdemona--that he is "rude" in speech, he speaks in the context of the classical rhetorical tradition. He is not trying to suggest that he possesses no eloquence of his own, only that he is not steeped in the accepted deliberative methods of speaking. In contrast to Antony in Julius Caesar (3.2), who speaks deceptively to the crowd at Caesar's funeral and says, "I am no orator, as Brutus is (3.2.217)," when in fact he has just delivered an astonishingly effective epideictic speech, there is no guile or deception in Othello. He means, in as straightforward a manner as possible, that he is untutored in the finer points of addressing the Venetian Senate.
It is this distinction that enables us to appreciate the statement of Professor A.C. Bradley, whose 100 year-old book on Shakespearean Tragedy captures like no other the power of Othello. Bradley comments about Othello's speech:
"And he is not a merely romantic figure; his own nature is romantic. He has not, indeed, the meditative or speculative imagination of Hamlet; but in the strictest sense of the word he is more poetic than Hamlet. [Then follows several examples of Othello's speech]..if one places side by side with these speeches an equal number by any other hero, one will not doubt that Othello is the greatest poet of them all [because Bradley's work is now in the public domain, the copyright having expired, the full text is online at http://sunflower.singnet.com.]
Othello, then, can both be "rude" in speech and also Shakepeare's best poet. Indeed, his rudeness still enables him to win the day in the Venetian Senate against Brabantio in 1.3, and his romantic and adventurous narrative wins over the Duke's heart (1.3.171), but he would not long survive, one surmises, in the rough and tumble of Venetian politics.
Othello's Poetic Speech
Now we have a context to "hear" Othello as he speaks. He will speak a sort of different language from other characters in the play. His use of words is strange and arresting, almost as if Shakespeare is trying to match his rather remote persona with provocative speech. For example, rather than saying he is descended from kings, he says he fetches "my life and being from men of royal siege (1.2.21-22)." He will "provulgate" (the language of the Quarto rather than the 1623 Folio's "promulgate") his honor when it is appropriate. His "demerits" (rather than merits, even though demerits was so used in Shakespeare's time) will speak for him and he can speak "unbonneted" (most commentators would rather see "bonneted"--meaning, without taking the hat off in deference) to people (1.2.22-24). But for the love of Desdemona (meaning, except for the love he bears toward her), he would not put "into circumscription and confine" his "unhoused" free condition. This is a rough but alluring way of saying that Desdemona alone has won his heart and persuaded him to come in from his military life.
As a matter of fact, in each of his major speeches in Act I, there are twists of language that make one pause and realize that Othello is stretching the language in a way that his presence is probably attempting to stretch the consciousness of the Venetian people. Language, therefore, will be Othello's means of staying an outsider. It will emphasize his marginality, at the same time that it stresses his nobility and exotic character. When his language is combined then with a man of great dignity, personal power and military accomplishment, we have a person who, like Coriolanus, is the "rarest man i' th' world (Coriolanus 4.5.171)."
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long