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Home :: Archive :: 2008 :: October ::
A Fragment of Style
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 19.0579  Saturday, 4 October 2008

From:       Felix de Villiers <
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Date:       Thursday, 2 Oct 2008 16:50:34 +0200
Subject:    A Fragment of Style

The concept of style has never had the immediate capacity to take in the quality 
of works (of art); those who seem most capable of representing their style 
precisely, have always realised it in its conflict with the work: style is 
closely united to its suspension.

T.W. Adorno

I was reading Titus Andronicus and Othello to study the evil characters in 
Shakespeare, when Othello swept me quite out of my mind, making the deepest 
impression. And I feel as though I have only touched the surface of an almost 
unfathomable adventure. That five-letter word 'style' was still hovering in my 
mind and certain stylistic features struck me. I will limit myself to the 
devices of repetition and phrasing.

At this point of the 4th act, Othello has publicly humiliated Desdemona. 
Lodovico asks him to call her back, and he replies

Ay, you did wish that I would make her turn:
Sir she can turn, and turn, and yet go on,
And turn again, and she can weep sir, weep;
And she's obedient, as you say, obedient;
Very obedient.  Proceed you in your tears,
Concerning this sir:  O well painted passion:
I am commanded here: --- get you away,
I'll send for you anon: --- Sir, I obey the mandate
And will return to Venice: ---hence, avaunt!
                                          Exit Desdemona
Cassio shall have my place; and sir to night
I do intreat that we may sup together,
You are welcome sir to Cypres, ---goates and monkies.
Exit.

Lod.
Is this the noble Moore, whom our full Senate
Call all in all sufficient? Is this the noble nature,
Whom passion could not shake? Whose solid virtue,
The shot of accident nor dart of chance
Could neither graze, nor pierce?

Iag.
He is much changed.

Lod.
Are his wits safe? is he not light of brain?

Iag.
He's that he is, I may not breathe my censure,
What he might be, if as he might, he is not,
I would to heaven he were.

The word 'turn' is repeated 4 times, 'weep' twice, 'obedient' 3 times. 'is 
this?' comes three times, really, because it is implicit before 'whose.' 'Sir' 
is repeated 5 times In Iago's words there is a play on the verb to be, put into 
the present, the conditional and the subjunctive. We also have the sequence of 
'whom, whom, whose.'

One has to have read the whole play to feel the full impact of these thickly 
packed repetitions. They derive mainly from Othello' state of mind; he is going 
mad with rage, grief and confusion and all the repetitions fall on different 
feet in the iambic pentameter. 'Turn' reflects more the confusion of Othello's 
own mind going around in circles, than a request for Desdemona to return. He 
tries to make polite conversation but cannot. The repetition of 'sir' is 
feverish and mocking in its deference -- the counterpoint to 'goats and 
monkeys.' The third repetition of 'obedient' is laden with bitterness and 
sarcasm. The repetitions are irregular heart-throbs beating on Othello's brain 
and they reduce him to inarticulacy; he cannot express himself coherently. A 
normal invitation to supper becomes nightmarishly surreal.

By contrast, the repetitions and variations on them in Richard II are elegantly 
managed in the abdication scene and the prison monologue, but brimful of content.

That Shakespeare broke up the smoothness of the iambic pentameter is something 
one can read in schoolbooks. This has to do with the stylistic device of 
phrasing and I don't know if I am adding anything new to the subject. Othello's 
words are punctuated by caesuras, his phrases shortened, almost gasping. He is 
battering in a confused manner to both Desdemona and Lodovico in a kind of 
musical counterpoint. Depending on the actor, these contradictory phrases might 
follow fast on one another, be almost superimposed, but the caesuras open up an 
abyss between them .It would require a consummate actor to get this right. Even 
the minor characters are drawn into the maelstrom. Ludovico's question about 
Othello's state of health are punctured by sharp words like 
'shot.dart.graze.pierce.' His lines are almost equivalent to musical phrasing: 
two short phrases followed by a long one. His first clause has 8 accents in it; 
the second 6; the third 10, which, drawn out, gives a musical or metrical 
satisfaction to the ear, although the longer line here is disturbed by the sharp 
words. Even Iago's persistent cunning gets into a syntactic tangle.

The stylistic devices bite into the jagged texture of the verses and become its 
essential content, breaking up the smoothness of blank verse, almost devouring 
it and any external appearance of style. Style and content are turned inside 
out. Language itself threatens to disintegrate and to break up into 'a thousand 
shivers,' as Richard II put it. Shakespeare gets rid of style with stylistic means.

Felix

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