Othello: Rude in speech?

The man at the center of the play, Othello says of himself, “Rude am I in my speech” (I.iii.81), and claims that “[his] services…shall out-tongue” (I.ii.18,19) the words of others. But just how “unskilled” (“rude, adj.; 3a” Oxford English Dictionary Online. Oxford University Press, December 2015. Web. 24 January 2016.) is his speech? Or is he more skilled than he lets on?

I’m going to dissect some of Othello’s speeches later in our discussions, but for now I just want to talk about readability, an objective score as to the reading level, which takes into account a passage’s complexity based on word count, words per sentence, syllables per word, and the like. And for the Project’s readability entries, I use the web application at readability-score.com.

First of all, I like to grab a baseline, something I can measure against (particularly if I anticipate–as I do with this play–a shift in linguistic complexity over the course of the play). But how to do that? My take–at least for this character–is to start with a representative soliloquy. Not an easy task with Othello, as he has only three soliloquies. The lack of soliloquies raises some questions and concerns, but we’ll use the first one–which occurs in the mid-point scene of the play, Act Three, Scene Three–to create our baseline:

This fellow’s of exceeding honesty,
And knows all qualities with a learnèd spirit
Of human dealings. If I do prove her haggard,
Though that her jesses were my dear heartstrings,
I’d whistle her off and let her down the wind
To prey at fortune. Haply, for I am black
And have not those soft parts of conversation
That chamberers have, or for I am declined
Into the vale of years—yet that’s not much—
She’s gone, I am abused, and my relief
Must be to loathe her. O curse of marriage,
That we can call these delicate creatures ours
And not their appetites! I had rather be a toad
And live upon the vapor of a dungeon
Than keep a corner in the thing I love
For others’ uses. Yet ’tis the plague of great ones;
Prerogatived are they less than the base.
’Tis destiny unshunnable, like death.
Even then this forkèd plague is fated to us
When we do quicken. Look where she comes.
  • III.iii.258-77

The reading grade level for this speech is 7.5 and Othello uses an average of 18.8 words per sentence. At this point, he’s succumbing to the pestilence Iago has poured into this ears and mind. So obviously we don’t expect him to be at his linguistic peak in this speech. At the same time, I would also assume that since this is a soliloquy–without Iago present to disrupt the outpouring of thought–this would be more complex than what we’d find in his set speeches with Iago.

If this is our baseline, what do his major speeches tell us about his language and trajectory of his expression?

In his first major speech, in Act One, Scene Two, he responds to Iago’s warnings about Brabantio:

 Let him do his spite.
My services which I have done the signiory
Shall out-tongue his complaints. ’Tis yet to know
(Which, when I know that boasting is an honor,
I shall promulgate) I fetch my life and being
From men of royal siege, and my demerits
May speak unbonneted to as proud a fortune
As this that I have reached. For know, Iago,
But that I love the gentle Desdemona,
I would not my unhousèd free condition
Put into circumscription and confine
For the sea’s worth. But look, what lights come yond?
  • I.II.17-28

While the words per sentence are a comparable 19.0, the reading grade level is a more difficult 8.2. At this point, he is speaking to a comrade, an underling but a trusted ally. This makes me believe that this speech’s grade level is closer to his natural linguistic complexity.

In Act One, Scene Three, his next major speech has a more elevated audience (the signiory of Venice), and displays a more elevated diction:

Most potent, grave, and reverend signiors,
My very noble and approved good masters:
That I have ta’en away this old man’s daughter,
It is most true; true I have married her.
The very head and front of my offending
Hath this extent, no more. Rude am I in my speech,
And little blessed with the soft phrase of peace;
For since these arms of mine had seven years’ pith,
Till now some nine moons wasted, they have used
Their dearest action in the tented field,
And little of this great world can I speak
More than pertains to feats of broil and battle.
And therefore little shall I grace my cause
In speaking for myself. Yet, by your gracious patience,
I will a round unvarnished tale deliver
Of my whole course of love—what drugs, what charms,
What conjuration, and what mighty magic
(For such proceeding I am charged withal)
  • I.iii.76-94

This is the speech of a man who, despite what he says even in this speech, is not “rude in speech.” He knows his audience, knows their status and education, and crafts his message accordingly. The reading grade level is 12.5 and he’s using nearly twice the number of words per sentence than he does in his baseline soliloquy, 34.4. In a sense, this speech is the linguistic equivalent of “shock and awe.” This is the attention grabber for both his audience in the play and the play’s audience as well.

Once he has their attention, however, he can lower his verbal complexity to actually tell his story:

Her father loved me, oft invited me,
Still questioned me the story of my life
From year to year—battles, sieges, fortunes
That I have passed.
I ran it through, even from my boyish days
To th’ very moment that he bade me tell it,
Wherein I spoke of most disastrous chances:
Of moving accidents by flood and field,
Of hairbreadth ’scapes i’ th’ imminent deadly breach,
Of being taken by the insolent foe
And sold to slavery, of my redemption thence,
And portance in my traveler’s history,
Wherein of antres vast and deserts idle,
Rough quarries, rocks, and hills whose heads touch heaven,
It was my hint to speak—such was my process—
And of the cannibals that each other eat,
The Anthropophagi, and men whose heads
Do grow beneath their shoulders. These things to hear
Would Desdemona seriously incline.
But still the house affairs would draw her thence,
Which ever as she could with haste dispatch
She’d come again, and with a greedy ear
Devour up my discourse. Which I, observing,
Took once a pliant hour, and found good means
To draw from her a prayer of earnest heart
That I would all my pilgrimage dilate,
Whereof by parcels she had something heard,
But not intentively. I did consent,
And often did beguile her of her tears
When I did speak of some distressful stroke
That my youth suffered. My story being done,
She gave me for my pains a world of sighs.
She swore, in faith, ’twas strange, ’twas passing strange,
’Twas pitiful, ’twas wondrous pitiful.
She wished she had not heard it, yet she wished
That heaven had made her such a man. She thanked me,
And bade me, if I had a friend that loved her,
I should but teach him how to tell my story,
And that would woo her. Upon this hint I spake.
She loved me for the dangers I had passed,
And I loved her that she did pity them.
This only is the witchcraft I have used.
Here comes the lady. Let her witness it.
  • I.iii.128-70

If the “shock and awe” speech was an opening argument, then this is the case he makes. And he makes it relatively simply. Still more advanced in reading grade level than the baseline (here 9.1), it is nowhere near as adorned as the previous speech. Its word-per-sentence count, too, is smaller than the attention-grabbing opening, but still larger than the baseline at 23.1. The diction and syntax are still crafted to a more educated audience, but he’s not showing off here, at least not linguistically.

When the action of Othello moves to Cyprus, Iago begins to dominate the conversations between general and ensign, and when we get our next major speech in Act Three, Scene Three, the effects are obvious:

“Think, my lord?” By heaven, thou echo’st me
As if there were some monster in thy thought
Too hideous to be shown. Thou dost mean something.
I heard thee say even now, thou lik’st not that,
When Cassio left my wife. What didst not like?
And when I told thee he was of my counsel
In my whole course of wooing, thou cried’st “Indeed?”
And didst contract and purse thy brow together
As if thou then hadst shut up in thy brain
Some horrible conceit. If thou dost love me,
Show me thy thought.
  • III.iii.105-16

Maybe it’s that Othello is talking to his subordinate, and he simplifies his diction for that audience; only that theory doesn’t hold up since Othello’s Act One, Scene Two major speech to Iago is more complex. More likely, then, the verbal authority that Iago has begun to impose is having its effect. The reading grade level drops to a low 4.9, and uses on average 50% fewer words per sentence that the baseline soliloquy (12.1). This is a man, desperate for knowledge and love, and that desperation is taking a toll on Othello’s power of expression.

His next major speech is our baseline soliloquy. Alone and to himself, he’s recovered somewhat. By the time Othello delivers his next major speech to Desdemona in the next scene, however, Iago’s words have had an effect on Othello and his language:

That’s a fault. That handkerchief
Did an Egyptian to my mother give.
She was a charmer, and could almost read
The thoughts of people. She told her, while she kept it,
’Twould make her amiable and subdue my father
Entirely to her love. But if she lost it,
Or made a gift of it, my father’s eye
Should hold her loathèd, and his spirits should hunt
After new fancies. She, dying, gave it me,
And bid me, when my fate would have me wived,
To give it her. I did so; and take heed on ’t,
Make it a darling like your precious eye.
To lose ’t or give ’t away were such perdition
As nothing else could match.
  • III.iv.54-68

Here, the reading grade level drops almost to where it was a few scenes back with Iago, 5.3, with fewer words per sentence as well (15.1). His messaging is direct and forceful, and his language and sentence structure is simplified and unvarnished.

This lack of verbal complexity continues through the next scene when Iago’s accusations of Desdemona’s infidelity with Cassio cause Othello to fall into his fit:

Lie with her? Lie on her? We say “lie on her” when they belie her. Lie with her—Zounds, that’s fulsome! Handkerchief—confessions—handkerchief. To confess and be hanged for his labor. First to be hanged and then to confess—I tremble at it. Nature would not invest herself in such shadowing passion without some instruction. It is not words that shakes me thus. Pish! Noses, ears, and lips—is ’t possible? Confess—handkerchief—O, devil!
  • IV.i.34-43

It’s not just a mental or physical fit he suffers, but an emotional and linguistic one as well. Obviously, Othello is reduced from verse to prose, and while the reading grade level stays the same as the previous speech, 5.3, the number of words per sentence drop to a mere 6.4. Here, even the sentences have fragmented. He is a broken man.

When Othello next soliloquizes, it’s in Act Five, Scene Two, when he enters the bedchamber and spies the sleeping Desdemona, his soon-to-be murder victim:

It is the cause, it is the cause, my soul.
Let me not name it to you, you chaste stars.
It is the cause. Yet I’ll not shed her blood,
Nor scar that whiter skin of hers than snow,
And smooth as monumental alabaster.
Yet she must die, else she’ll betray more men.
Put out the light, and then put out the light.
If I quench thee, thou flaming minister,
I can again thy former light restore
Should I repent me. But once put out thy light,
Thou cunning’st pattern of excelling nature,
I know not where is that Promethean heat
That can thy light relume. When I have plucked the rose,
I cannot give it vital growth again.
It needs must wither. I’ll smell it on the tree.
O balmy breath, that dost almost persuade
Justice to break her sword! One more, one more.
Be thus when thou art dead, and I will kill thee
And love thee after. One more, and this the last.
So sweet was ne’er so fatal. I must weep,
But they are cruel tears. This sorrow’s heavenly:
It strikes where it doth love.
  • V.ii.1-22

Repetitious and with short words (the first multi-syllabic word–“whiter”!–doesn’t appear until the third line), the speech has the lowest reading grade level of Othello’s major speeches: only 4.2. And save for the “fit” speech, it has the lowest average sentence length, just 10.8 words per sentence. Even though he speaks only to himself, his language is simple, as if he believes his audience has no intelligence, no divine spark, no “Promethean heat” (V.ii.12). Despite a final line that could be interpreted as a statement of God-like power, his diction and syntax in this speech belie such a reading.

After he has killed Desdemona, learned that he has become Iago’s dupe but not the reason why, and has wounded but not killed his predator, Othello delivers one last speech:

Soft you. A word or two before you go.
I have done the state some service, and they know ’t.
No more of that. I pray you in your letters,
When you shall these unlucky deeds relate,
Speak of me as I am. Nothing extenuate,
Nor set down aught in malice. Then must you speak
Of one that loved not wisely, but too well;
Of one not easily jealous, but being wrought,
Perplexed in the extreme; of one whose hand,
Like the base Judean, threw a pearl away
Richer than all his tribe; of one whose subdued eyes,
Albeit unused to the melting mood,
Drops tears as fast as the Arabian trees
Their medicinable gum. Set you down this.
And say besides, that in Aleppo once,
Where a malignant and a turbanned Turk
Beat a Venetian and traduced the state,
I took by th’ throat the circumcisèd dog,
And smote him, thus.
  • V.ii.338-356

Othello still has linguistic sense enough to use more elevated diction and syntax for his audience of Venetian and Cypriot authorities. But his micro-baseline for this speech is no longer that mid-play soliloquy, but pre-killing one just 300 lines earlier. So, yes, the reading grade level (6.9) and average sentence length (16.9 words per sentence) are higher than his most previous major speech, but they are still lower than the play’s macro-baseline. By this final moment in the play, that macro-baseline is a linguistic level he can only aspire to and fail to achieve.

By the end of the play, Othello truly has become “rude in speech.” And it’s all because of the master verbal manipulator, Iago, a man who has destroyed Othello’s power of expression, then perversely refuses to speak at all at the end of the play.

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