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The Improbability of OthelloRhetorical Anthropology and Shakespearean Selfhood$

Joel B. Altman

Print publication date: 2010

Print ISBN-13: 9780226016108

Published to Chicago Scholarship Online: February 2013

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226016122.001.0001

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“Yonder's Foul Murders Done”: Place, Predicament, and Grammatical Space on Cyprus

“Yonder's Foul Murders Done”: Place, Predicament, and Grammatical Space on Cyprus

(p.119) FOUR “Yonder's Foul Murders Done”: Place, Predicament, and Grammatical Space on Cyprus
The Improbability of Othello

Joel B. Altman

University of Chicago Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter focuses specifically on the spatial implications of dialectical predicaments and rhetorical topics, showing how Shakespeare's deployment of these analytical tools, coordinated with an oscillation between conditional and indicative grammatical moods, effects a dramatization of acoustic effects that gradually erode distinctions between mental and exterior space and are responsible for the play's claustrophobic eeriness as it draws to a close. It addresses the “ingenious” and “apodeictic” aspects of rhetorical anthropology through contemporary understandings of the way language situates the self in the world.

Keywords:   dialects, rhetorics, acoustic effects, mental space, rhetorical anthropology, language

Sometime after 1567, Gabriel Harvey noted in his copy of Quintilian's Institutes that Thomas Wilson's Rule of Reason and Art of Rhetoric were “the dailie bread of owr common pleaders & discoursers.”1 These books were the first full treatments of logic and rhetoric to be written in English. Wilson, who had taken his B.A. at King's College, Cambridge, in 1545–46, and his M.A. in 1549, published the logic in 1551 and the rhetoric in 1553. Both were issued at the behest of Richard Grafton, the King's Printer, who was also responsible for the printing of the first Book of Common Prayer in 1549 and played an important role in printing the English Bible and the English chronicles. Wilson's works on logic and rhetoric were thus part of a wider effort to disseminate religious and secular learning to an un-Latined but influential Protestant readership.

Though Harvey was given to hyperbole, Wilson's Rule of Reason ran through six editions between 1551 and 1580, by which time the phenomenon that Walter Ong terms the “pedagogical juggernaut” of Ramism had brought the older humanist version of scholastic dialectic into disfavor (Ong, 149). It remained the only Aristotelian logic in English widely available for the remainder of the century; Ralph Lever's Witcraft saw only one edition in 1573, while Thomas Blundeville's Logic, published in 1599, was not reprinted until 1619.2 As a Cambridge scholar associated with John Cheke, Roger Ascham, Sir Thomas Smith, and Walter Haddon; as protégé of the Earl of Leicester; a near-martyr to the Roman Inquisition in the late 1550s; a holder of the degree of L.L.D. from Padua, Cambridge, and Oxford; and a man who later served as advocate, diplomat, and secretary of state under Queen Elizabeth, Wilson played a significant role in the political, religious, and educational life of England during the third quarter of the sixteenth century.3 His work in logic and rhetoric is therefore especially (p.120) meaningful as evidence of what a strong intellect, motivated by deep moral and religious fervor, could accomplish as popularizer of the learned art of discourse. More important, his work reveals what he himself apparently did not discern—his participation in the growing ideological conflation of the probable and the necessary, the apt and the true, in common thought and speech. In the present chapter, I will argue that this vernacular conflation of the predicables, predicaments, and places—and the complementary development in dialectic and rhetoric that transformed invention into a kind of physical topography—found a local habitation and a name in Shakespeare's tragedy of Othello.


If Wilson's books were the food upon which lawyers and discoursers dined daily, it is disconcerting to consider what the unwary reader of his Rule of Reason, be he country gentleman, professional, or tradesman, would immediately chew upon as introductory remarks. First, under the rubric, “The Definition of Logique,” he would read, “Logique is an Arte to reason probably, on both partes, of al matiers that be putte foorth, so ferre as the nature of every thing can bear,” which we will recognize as Rudolph Agricola's definition of the discipline.4 Then, in “A brief declaration in Metre, of the seven liberal Artes, wherin Logique is comprehended as one of theim,” one would read these verses:

  • Logique by Arte, settes foorth the trueth,
  • And dooeth tel what is vain.
  • Rhethorique at large paintes wel the cause,
  • And makes that seme right gale,
  • Which Logique spake but at a woorde,
  • And taught as by the wale.
  • (10)

The last four lines are conventional rephrasings of the often repeated comparison of the two disciplines and not incompatible with Wilson's Agricolan definition of dialectic. The first two lines, however, emphasizing “trueth,” seem to be lifted from Philip Melanchthon, and contradict that definition. The contradiction is repeated a few pages later when, under the rubric “The Office of Logique,” Wilson writes, “Logique professeth to teache truely, orderely, and plainly,” adding that its task is fourfold: “To define the nature of every thing, to devide, to knit true arguments, and unknit false” (12). This (p.121) is pure Melanchthon, as is the accompanying claim: “And here wee maie see, how universall this commoditie is, and how largely it extendeth, not onely to knowe worldely affairs, but also to knowe God and all his heavenly woorkes, so farre as nature maie comprehende.” To a reader holding Agricola in one hand and Melanchthon in the other, these contrary descriptions might be intelligible, but it is not likely that such a posture was assumed by many of Wilson's consumers. We may infer, therefore, that a reader would either be puzzled by the contradictions or, more often than not, simply assent to his author's bifold authority and swallow the two descriptions without paying much heed to their difference.

Wilson is symptomatic, however, not only because he conveys contradictory theses concerning the nature of dialectic to his readers, but because he further obscures the boundaries among words, concepts, and things When, for example, he distinguishes the predicaments (the “mooste generall woordes”) from the predicables (“the five commune wordes”), he asserts that in analyzing a proposition, “if one will bestowe a litle diligence herein, searchyng where every woorde is settled, and knowyng to whiche of all these moste general woordes he maie best referre it: he shall faiethfully knowe the Nature of all thinges, no man better, then the whiche, nothing is more necessarie, and this difference is betwixt the five commune woordes, otherwise called the Predicables, and these mooste generall woordes, called Predicamentes, that the Predicables, set foorth the largenesse of woordes, the Predicamentes dooe name the very nature of thinges, declarying (and that Substauntially) what thei are in very dede” (22–23). Here Wilson's language unselfconsciously performs the task Sidney will allocate to the poet: it buildeth substantially, for it suggests to the reader that knowing the word is knowing the thing and that there is a one-to-one correspondence between them. If knowledge is power, the study of dialectic holds out the promise that a world of profit and delight awaits the studious artisan.5

This hint is corroborated as Wilson refers the reader to the table he had provided earlier to show the usefulness of the predicables (figure 1; Rule, 16). He had introduced his schema illustrating the substances of genus and species in the following manner: “This Table sheweth the ordre of every Substaunce, and kinde, as thei are appoincted by Nature, what the chief generall words are, what the middle generall are, what the lowest kindes in every thing are, and what the kindes betwixte both are” (15).6 Now, in explaining the predicament substance, he suggests that the reader go back and “marke the ordre of Substaunces, sette foorth in a Table a litle before: for we maie by the same, divide severally every Substaunce of al things in this world the which, when we knowe, and remembre in our mindes, we (p.122)

“Yonder's Foul Murders Done”: Place, Predicament, and Grammatical Space on Cyprus

Figure 1. “This Table sheweth the order of every substance …” from Thomas Wilson's Rule of Reason (1553).

perceive evidently, the difference, betwene God and his creatures, and seyng the thing created of God, and the propreties therewithall, we rest upon the same, and learne the use and propre commoditie of many thinges here in yearth. We maie define many thinges by the same table, as we maie define Godde, manne, heaven, yearth, beaste, stone: and any thing els that is a Substaunce" (25–26). This is more than a claim that rote memorization of classes of substance helps one form correct propositions: to “perceive evidently” means to see luminously, and he promises that once seen in their hierarchical ranking, the things of the world will become available for the (p.123) reader's needs and comforts. The table atop the page, as recorded in the mind, becomes part of a user's guide to the fundamentals of existence.

Perhaps the most telling feature of The Rule of Reason, however, is Wilson's conflation of the predicables, predicaments, and logical topics or places. It has often been noticed that these three systems, which were widely believed to mirror the structure of God's creation, tend to be redundant in humanist dialectic because the same aspects of that creation necessarily recur in discussions of words, propositions, and arguments. We have already seen that predicables are words used to classify other words hierarchically, most frequently in definitions—and predicables include the class called accident.7 Accidents also constitute nine of the ten predicaments, entities that indicate the relationship between words in propositions. In turn, an accidental predicament like quality includes intellectual and moral habits, natural dispositions, and fleeting passions, which modify the substance in a proposition, but also qualify a matter examined in dialectical discourse and ornament a matter expounded in an oration, and are therefore found among the places as well.8 Other predicaments, such as Quantitas (quantity), Ubi (where), Quando (when), and Habitus (which Wilson Englishes as “the apparailyng”) add further circumstantial detail to a proposition, yet also furnish data for qualifying or embellishing a subject matter. In Wilson, this redundancy becomes all the more problematic because he has joined in one volume Agricola's dialectic of probability, in his treatment of the topics, and Melanchthon's dialectic of truth, in his treatment of the predicables and predicaments, thereby creating the impression of a double cross-reference: the predicables and predicaments are somehow like the topics, and the truth value of the first two systems is somehow like the analytic value, based on probability, of the third.

Why are these conflations potentially so troublesome? Because theoretically, at least, the predicables and predicaments describe the relations of words, while the places describe aspects of things (res), ambiguously subject matter or existents. Their intermingling contributed to that loss of distinction between res and verba that Bacon believed lay at the heart of humanist culture.9 These topics or places are more usefully thought of as “commonplaces” for, as Agricola puts it:

there is in all things, although each of them is distinct in its characteristics, a certain shared likeness, and they all incline to likeness of nature; each thing, for instance, has a substance, all arise from certain causes, and all achieve something. And so the most ingenious of men, out of that diversity spread out over all, have singled out those common headings such as substance, (p.124) cause, effect, and the others…. Hence, when we turn to consider any matter in our minds, by following these we may survey the entire nature, parts, compatibilities and incompatibilities of a thing, and may draw thence an argument suitable to the matters proposed.10

The system followed a pattern similar to those of the predicables and predicaments in that its members also consisted of substances and accidents, although they were greater in number. Cicero's Topica, used widely in the sixteenth century for both dialectical and rhetorical discourse, describes seventeen places; Agricola's De inventione names twenty-four; Melanchthon's Erotemata dialectices specifies eleven topics of persons and twenty-eight of things; Wilson, following Agricola, offers twenty-four. They are often presented in a table, where the most general topics are ramified, by means of brackets, into more specific topics, and these, in turn, exfoliate into particular topics, as indicated in Wilson's table, shown here. It is assumed that all three systems—predicables, predicaments, and places—mirror the structure of reality (figure 2).

When, therefore, Wilson uses language that conflates a predicament with a place, he does not simply blur the distinction between res and verba, he erases it. This phenomenon is often accompanied by the introduction of a rhetorical term into the discussion of dialectic, further suggesting that persuasion (which relies on the transformation of language into mental image) and demonstration (which relies on clear, abstract distinctions within language) are similar operations. For example, in his discussion of the predicament Quando (when), Wilson writes: “This predicament quando, conteineth the diffrence and diversitie of times, as nunc, now, heri, yesterday, noctu, in the night time, interdiu, in the daie time. This place also giveth light to confirm causes. As to prove that one is peinfull, I maie saie soche a one studieth daie and night, so moche as nature can beare: therefore he is a peinfull man” (36). Here, “predicament” is equated with “place,” and is therefore useful in proving “causes,” that is, in arguing cases, as Wilson slips from expounding the relationship of words in a sentence to suggesting how a topical circumstance can prove something about the character of a man. He does this again and again. In explaining the predicament Ubi (where), he writes: “Ubi is an ordre, or predicament, whiche comprehendeth the descripcion of places, wherin some thing is reported, either to be dooen, to have been dooen, or els hereafter to be dooen. As to be at London, to bee at Cambrige, to be at home, to be in a chambre, to bee above, beneth, on right hande, left hande, before, or behinde, and whatsoever is aunswered to this question, when I aske where any thing is, or where any thing is dooen. (p.125)

“Yonder's Foul Murders Done”: Place, Predicament, and Grammatical Space on Cyprus

Figure 2. “The diuision of the places, whiche are xxiii, in nomber …” from Thomas Wilson's Rule of Reason (1553).

This place serveth for conjectures, either in praisyng or dispraisyng” (35). Here, the predicament ubi begins as a qualifier in a proposition; then, as a “place,” it is associated with conjectural speeches in rhetoric, which concern “any such thing bee, or no,” on the basis of probability,11 and finally with encomium and invective. Indeed, in the second part of Rule, when Wilson explains the topics of invention and comes to those called “time,” “place,” and “things annexed,” he confesses that “these three are nothing els, then the three predicaments, or most generall places, which I rehearsed before. Ubi. Where. Quando. When. Habitus. The araiyng” (115). If his remark reveals a teacherly impulse to reinforce learning, it also obliterates the distinction between verbal predication and the topical analysis of (p.126) subject matter. Verba and res fall toward each other and seem to inhabit the same territory.

There is a moment in Othello when something similar seems to happen. It is when Emilia cries out, after the brothel scene, “Why should he call her whore? who keeps her company? / What place, what time, what form, what likelihood?” (4.2.139–40). Her outrage is focused on Othello's predication of Desdemona as “whore.” And her discourse, too, shifts from predicate to topic: whore, company, place, time, form, likelihood. But in her demands we hear an attempt to restore the distinction between speech and world that has been lost by Othello, as she tries to negotiate the grounds that justify the name he has called his wife. So tenuous is the distinction between word and thing, however, so “sticky” the application, that even Desdemona is apt to acquiesce in the characterization, which as Emilia remarks, was “thrown in such despite, and heavy terms upon her”:


  • Am I that name, Iago? What name, fair lady?
  • DES:

  • Such as she said my lord did say I was. He call'd her whore. A beggar in his drink Could not have laid such terms upon his callat.
  • (4.2.120–23)

    We have seen earlier how accidents are “thrown” about in this play. But they are also applied, “laid on,” and this increases the complexity of an accident's relationship to a substance. For within the table of places is a class called “Applicita … things outwardly applied to a matier, whiche are not the cause of thesame matier, and yet geve a certain denominacion to it” (115). The three subtopics in this class—“time,” “place,” and “thinges annexed, or knitte together”—are the very ones that Wilson tells us correspond to the predicaments quando, ubi, and habitus. The last of these—“thynges [or “woordes”] annexed,” otherwise called connexa (116)—is most critical because it lies logically, if not ontologically, between the topic “woordes adioined,” which belongs to the class of “inwarde places” that are not “in the very substance” but “incident to the substance,” and the topic “thinges chauncing,” or contingentia, which belongs to the class of “outward places,” described as follows: “Those accidents are called thinges chauncyng, whiche chaunce aboute a thing so, that whether these thinges chaunce, or no, the thing it self maie bee, or though the thing be not, these maie so chaunce to be” (118; see figure 2 for visual locations).

    (p.127) In a play like Othello, where what one is called has mortal implications, the distinctions among these three topics, and the uncertainty as to whether they represent words or things, can be crucial. The one most closely incident to a substance is “woordes adioigned.” These are accidental words, Wilson tells us, that “happen” to a substance and are different from the word denoting the substance—“as unto Cato (which of his substaunce is a man) wisedome dooth happen, whereby he is called wise” (100–101). To unify his teaching (thereby reinforcing the conflation of predication and subject analysis), he notes that “all quantities, qualities, and those that are comprehended, in the predicament of relacion, are referred to this place, when thei are considered to be comprehended in a substaunce” (101). “Wordes adioigned” may be perceived by the senses or by the understanding, for sometimes an accident is not visible, as when a man known for his swiftness is sleeping, but we remember having seen him run, and recognize the accidental nature of the “word adjoined” by the fact that the quality is not manifested at present.

    “Woordes [or “thynges”] annexed,” however, which are “knit to the substance, [and] called Connexa … are ioigned outwardly to the subject, and geve a name unto him, according as thei are” (117). An example is Crassus, who is called a man according to his substance, but a rich man insofar as he is rich; similarly, a married man is a man by substance but a husband because he has a wife, just as he who has a master is called a servant and he who has a father is called a son. If the topic “words adjoined” is like the predicaments quantity, quality, and relation, this topic connexa is a version of the predicament habitus, what a substance holds or contains and what covers it. Following Agricola's lead, Wilson subdivides connexa into those which are said to be placed close to or nearly touching the substance and those which survey the res as if from a distance. Characteristically he reifies the topic in his translation:

    Woordes knitte, are divided diversly, for some are called soche as are nigh, and touching the substaunce. As to bee full of fishe, is agreyng to the water, to bee full of grasse, is annexed or agreyng to the yearth, to bee cloudie is annexed or agreyng to the aire. Again woordes knit, are called those thinges, that a man weareth, as to weare a coate, a jacke, a harneis, to have shoen, to be merie, to be dustie, and al soche as are casuall to man. Some are called annexed or agreyng, whiche are knit to man, and yet not thinges worne upon his backe, but farther of, and rather perceived by understandyng, then knowen by yie sight. As nobilitie, powre, fame, aucthoritie. (117)

    (p.128) The difference between “woordes knit” or “annexed” and “woordes adioigned” is that the latter accidents cannot exist without the subjects in which they inhere: when a wise man like Cato dies, wisdom dies with him. Should a wife die, however, “the housebande maie be onlive still, savyng that he loseth his name, to be called housbande,” because husband is only a “woorde annexed” (117). As we shall see in a moment, the ontological distinction between these two terms becomes crucial in the final scenes of Othello.

    The topic most loosely linked to a substance is “thinges chauncyng, called contingentia.” These accidents “chaunce about a thing” in such a way that when they are present the thing itself may be absent, and when they are absent the thing itself may be present. For example, the “thinge chauncyng” called pallor sometimes appears before a sickness, but it often appears without any sickness about to occur. Correlatively, a man may be falling ill yet is not at all pale (118). Iago exploits this uncertain connection between accident and substance when he spies Bianca quaking beside the wounded Cassio:


  • What, look you pale?—O, bear him out o'the air.
  • —Stay you, good gentlemen.—Look you pale, mistress?
  • ……………… Go know of Cassio where he supp'd tonight: What, do you shake at that?
  • BIAN:

  • He supp'd at my house, but I therefore shake not.
  • (5.1.104–5, 117–19)
  • Iago would like to infer a guilty conscience from Bianca's pallor and trembling, though they are contingentia that may be present in the absence of such a substance or may indicate a different substance, in this case an in-nocent conscience fearful for Cassio and herself. She argues stoutly that her appearance is not a sign of criminal wrongdoing, but is arrested anyway, because the contingency “sticks” in the minds of the onlookers.

    All three topics are called accidents by Wilson, though it is clear that in relation to their respective substances they reveal subtle differences. Quid ergo? Would anyone but a sixteenth-century logician or his ambitious merchant reader give these any heed? The differences Wilson points out are more than mere logical quibbles if, as I have been suggesting, dialectical thinking informs one's sense of being, in Shakespeare's play. Let me demonstrate by focusing on three important moments of Othello's self-representation.

    (p.129) As noted in chapter 1, when we first meet Othello listening to Iago's selective tale of how Roderigo accused him to Brabantio, he refuses to hide on hearing the voices of men who presumably approach to arrest him because he believes his ethos is self-evident:


  • You were best go in.
  • OTH:

  • Not I, I must be found. MY parts, my title, and my perfect soul Shall manifest me rightly….
  • (1.1.30–32)

    Othello speaks of himself here as the theme of a discourse whose main topics, which he readily supplies, will reveal him truly. This is appropriate, since he is soon to be precisely that—a matter of debate between Brabantio and the Duke. But see what happens if we take him as seriously as he seems to take himself. If he thinks of himself as a subject matter, the substance Othello may be known only by his accidents—we know that much from the doctrine of the predicables. And these accidents are conceived by him as topics: we can read “parts” literally as those places that are “in the very substaunce,” or figuratively as his achievements, in which case they fall in the predicament of quality or among the “inwarde places” that are “partelie incident to the substaunce”: the “maner of dooing” (91). By title he may mean his legal right to Desdemona, which we may locate in the predicament habitus —the having or holding of something—and among the “outward places… that is not in the substaunce, or nature of the thing but without it”: namely, the topic connexa, “things annexed.” Or he may mean his title of Captain or General, which, as a style of power, is dependent on another substance, for “to be an Officer, a Maior, a Sherief, Lorde Chauncelour, Comptroller, or any other officer in the common weale, al these are annexed to their inferiour, over whom they have aucthoritie” (117). Othello's perfect soul, by which he presumably means his moral integrity, is a more difficult argument to sustain, for “perfect” is a “woorde adioined.” Like Cato's wisdom, it may be perceived by the senses or the understanding and, under the circumstances, is not likely to be perceived at all by Desdemona's father, though in the event, for reasons of expediency, it does linger in the memories of the Duke and his Council.

    The question is, how stable is the self thus invented? Othello speaks of himself as though these accidents are both self-evident and permanent, but it is in the nature of accidents that they befall a substance, chaunce to it or about it, and may be thrown off, augmented, or diminished. And if (p.130) one conceives of oneself as a theme enriched by topics, one should also be aware that he may be argued in utramque partem—that is, his matter yields a wide variety of places that may be applied to him with quite contrary results.

    This may be thought of as the discursive vulnerability of a self subjected to dialectical construction. But there is also another vulnerability, one that results not from being talked about in an unwanted manner but from feeling that one's selthood depends upon accidental acquisitions. We find this moment when Othello is suddenly convinced that Desdemona has been unfaithful to him, and feels the qualities of his life departing from him:

    • I had been happy if the general camp,
    • Pioneers and all, had tasted her sweet body,
    • So I had nothing known. O now for ever
    • Farewell the tranquil mind, farewell content!
    • Farewell the plumed troops, and the big wars
    • That makes ambition virtue! O farewell,
    • Farewell the neighing steed and the shrill trump,
    • The spirit-stirring drum, th' ear-piercing fife,
    • The royal banner, and all quality,
    • Pride, pomp, and circumstance of glorious war!
    • And, O you mortal engines whose rude throats
    • Th' immortal Jove's dread clamours counterfeit,
    • Farewell: Othello's occupation's gone.
    • (3.3.348–60)

    This valedictory—similar to Richard II's abdication, save that Richard proposes to assume spiritual attributes as he gives up those of royalty—is rhetorically a painfully moving speech, made vivid by Othello's amplification of the accoutrements of war. As we noticed in chapter 2, it marks his fear that his pursuit of a heroic life has masked less honorable passions. Dialectically, however, it is a peeling-away of the accidents of a heroic military life that leaves the self a nullity, or at least an essence that's not seen.12

    Why is Othello's occupation gone? And what does it mean that it is gone? Is it that housewives now can make a skillet of his helm, as he had vowed when he asked the Duke to allow Desdemona to accompany him to Cyprus and promised that feathered Cupid would not foil his speculative and active instruments? Not likely, since he has performed his duties well. Rather, it must be because he has most fully experienced his occupation in the tale he told to Desdemona, who confirmed it in her sighs, her pity, and her admiration, which now have fallen into taint.13

    (p.131) But if it is gone, what does it mean for the substance of Othello? In the brothel scene, he provides a clue, when he tries to express the pain he feels by comparing it to Job's plagues and to public scorn, both of which would be more bearable:

    • But there where I have garnered up my heart,
    • Where either I must live or bear no life,
    • The fountain from the which my current runs
    • Or else dries up—to be discarded thence!
    • Or keep it as a cistern for foul toads
    • To knot and gender in!
    • (4.2.58–63)

    The first two lines blend two biblical sources: Matthew 6:20–21, “But lay up treasures for your selves in heaven … For where your treasure is, there wil your heart be also”; and Acts 17:28, “For in him we live, and move, and have our being.” The last four lines recall Proverbs 5:15–18: “Drinke the water of thy cisterne, and of the rivers out of the middes of thy owne well. Let thy fountaines flowe forthe, and the rivers of waters in the stretes. But let them be thine, even thine ownely, and not the strangers with thee. Let thy fountaine be blessed, & rejoice with the wife of thy youth.” Othello conceives of Desdemona as the repository of his faith and the source of his being. But the deification suggested in the first lines is absorbed into images of sexual thirst, satisfaction, and disgust. We find here that ambivalence Othello feels about Desdemona in its most condensed form—marriage is spiritual, refreshing, debased. But what is faith in one's wife, her infidelity, and sexual disgust to one who feels himself to be a theme? They are accidents that may be cast away, as Othello realizes when Emilia knocks on the door after the murder:

    • 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!
    • Methinks it should be now a huge eclipse
    • Of sun and moon, and that th' affrighted globe
    • Should yawn at alteration.
    • (5.2.95–100)

    Here chaos is come again, for as Theobald noted, the last three lines refer to the darkening of the earth and Christ's descent into hell during the Crucifixion:14 (p.132) when one sheds a deity, what remains? A substance without a name or, more accurately, a man without qualities. His occupation's gone and his wife is gone. And this is why, when Lodovico enters and asks, “Where is this rash and most unfortunate man?” Othello can only reply, “That's he that was Othello; here I am” (5.2.284–85). What remains is a bare substance that is alienated even from his proper name.15

    Or is he even that? The dialectical ontology we have been studying suggests that something more foundational has occurred. For if Desdemona is the source of Othello's being and he has felt “discarded thence” (4.2.61); and if, in his casting her away he has destroyed his source of being, then he must feel that he is an accident without a substance, for as Wilson tells us, “it is propre to every Accident, to be in some one thing conteinyng him. If there be nothing conteinyng, then the accident cannot bee” (117). In his dialectical imagination, Othello has seen his own substance reduced to invisibility and then to an adjunct of Desdemona. This is why, nameless, he attempts to restore the substance that was Othello by demanding new predications from those who, in their report to Venice, will these unlucky deeds relate:


  • O thou Othello, that wert once so good, Fall'n in the practice of a cursed slave, What should be said to thee?
  • OTH:

  • Why, anything; An honourable murderer, if you will….
  • (5.2.288–91)
  • As Othello's reply indicates, Lodovico's “to thee” means “of thee”—that is, what should be said about thee? And a few moments later Othello fleshes out the substance that had been lost, as he instructs the Venetian to report his actions aright:

    • Speak of me as I am. Nothing extenuate,
    • Nor set down aught in malice. Then must you speak
    • Of one that loved …
    • Of one not easily jealous …
    •     of one whose hand …
    •     of one whose subdued eyes….
    • (5.2.340–46)

    Recent critics have observed that Othello, a man who seems to understand himself best within a narrative, is here reinscribing that self within a story. (p.133) I make a similar argument, even more radically, later in this book. But prior to narrative comes predication, and it is this dialectical act of self-resuscitation that Othello undertakes in the first instance.


    Thus far, I have been suggesting that to read Othello with a sixteenth-century dialectical cast of mind may help us to account for some peculiar discursive phenomena in the play: why the probable tends to collapse into the necessary, words become confused with things, and beings as substantial as Othello and Desdemona come to appear “much changed” both to themselves and to those who encounter them. In doing so, I have tried to discover a specific cultural ground that might foster the psychological events Shakespeare dramatizes. I shall now take this a step further by exploring a related phenomenon: the way in which the boundaries between mind and world are permeated and rendered indistinct through a grammatical ambiguity associated with a spatial or locative ambiguity. This occurs in the play chiefly by means of a shift in which the indicative mood slips into the conditional or the subjunctive and those into the indicative, thereby conflating a statement of fact with a statement of possibility or expectation or desire. These utterances, coming from different places, as it were, within an individual speaker, have dialogic counterparts in encounters where wish, conviction, and likehood seem interchangeable and thought is reified, as well as topographical counterparts in voices and sounds whose places of origin onstage are uncertain. Such ambiguous verbal and acoustic phenomena contribute to that odd threshhold experience we recognize as characteristic of the world of Othello.

    Many years ago Madeleine Doran remarked that in this play, perhaps even more than in others, Shakespeare uses conditional sentences to inform dramatic structure. She offers this description of the way they introduce the realm of possibility into that of the given: “The conditionals of possibility are verticals coming up from below, first touching, then penetrating, the horizontal movement, distorting and disrupting it. They are like molten rock which, thrusting itself up from below into old sedimentary beds, heaves up, twists, cracks, and dislimns their level plains' (Dramatic Language, 64). In designating what is disrupted as horizontal, she is referring to both sentence and plot—the metonymic movement that proceeds laterally, but always “under” a certain metaphoric register of meaning and expectation that informs the linear progress of an action. Although she does not pursue the point, her language suggests a certain locative component in the contrast between the indicative, in which a person expresses what (p.134) he believes are the facts of his situation, and the conditional, in which he entertains the possibility of another situation in a counter-factual world. Whether that difference is conceived in terms of time, will, or chance, the world in which the envisioned action takes place is a hypothetical “as if” domain located in a mind that is entertaining an alternative to what is. It is this movement between actual and suppositional moods—and their physical counterparts—that I will explore here.

    As Doran observed, the irruption of the conditional into the indicative is epidemic in the play. It is chiefly associated with Iago at first, then gradually spreads in various forms to the other characters. It is most intense in that portion of the play where Othello's certainties are breaking down, the third and fourth acts. The most striking early example, however, is in the first scene, when Iago is distinguishing for Roderigo two kinds of servants—selfless followers and self-serving followers—and professes himself one of the latter:

    •     For, sir,
    • It is as sure as you are Roderigo,
    • Were I the Moor, I would not be Iago.
    • In following him I follow but myself:
    • (1.1.54–57)

    The tenor of this remark is intelligible because of its context, but its language is unsettling. We expect the lines following “Roderigo” to conclude the dependent clause with an asseveration in the indicative like “the only way for a man to thrive in this world is to pursue his own good.” Instead, we hear a detour into a hypothetical identity that introduces a conditional assertion of nonidentity, which is followed by an assertion in the indicative that collapses the two separated identities into one, effectively destabilizing the identity of Roderigo that was invoked originally.

    Can we articulate the oddity we feel about this turn of the argument? Iago has begun by staking Roderigo's identity—a fact expressed in the indicative mood—against the truth of a claim he is about to make. But when that claim is heard, it is logically self-evident: were I the Moor, I would not be Iago. So why stake the truth of Roderigo's identity against it at all? The stake can only be needed if Iago isn't simply stating his non-identity with Othello but is saying something like, “As sure as you are who you are, if I had Othello's fortunes, which I don't, I would not act like the subservient fellow I appear to be.” This statement is different from the logically self-evident one because Iago is posing against a fact (“It is as sure as you are Roderigo”) a contrary-to-fact condition (“Were I the Moor”) that, once proposed, functions (p.135) as a new reality or fact that allows him to envision a new way of being (“I would not be Iago”). But this new way of being is itself ambiguous, since the word would can signify both being and willing—that is, “Under these (new) conditions I would not be the Iago you see” or “I would not choose to be the Iago you see.” He then goes on to use this bivalent conclusion, couched in a doubly conditional clause, to confirm a proposition in the indicative that engages in the same kind of double-speak: one that makes no sense logically, because as a simple declarative sentence it violates the rule of identity—in following him I follow me—but that also does make sense because it expresses a choice—in following him I follow my secret advantage, that is, to “serve my turn upon him” (1.1.41).16

    Heard one way, then, Iago affirms Roderigo's identity, distinguishes between Othello's identity and his own, and claims Othello's identity for himself. In so doing he unmoors all three identities, for the “surety” of Roderigo's identity must be contaminated by the time Iago collapses himself into Othello. Heard another way, Iago stakes a present fact against a contrary-to-fact condition, then uses this “would-be-but-isn't” situation to explain his actual behavior. In effect, he moves from the world of “what is” to the world of “what isn't” in search of an argument and, having found it, returns to the first world to corroborate “what is” by means of “what isn't,” the latter residing only in his head. The domains of fact and imagination are thus mutually implicated.

    By contrast, Othello's early use of the conditional does not conflate the hypothetical and actual worlds:

    • But that I love the gentle Desdemona
    • I would not my unhoused free condition
    • Put into circumscription and confine
    • For the sea's worth.
    • (1.2.25–28)

    The skeletal form of this sentence reads, “If not for the fact that I love, I would not put” By making the condition positive, Doran has remarked, Othello stresses the fact of his love and does not entertain the possibility of not loving Desdemona. That love is the given of his life (Doran, 74). But his sentence also permits him to glance at the lost alternative—“my unhoused free condition”—as if it were desirable, yet at the same time to keep it a distanced fiction, for the uncircumscribed, unconfined life, we are to learn, is not all it's made out to be when it lacks the shape and teleology given to it by Desdemona. That is, he wants circumscription and confine. Othello's (p.136) conditional, then, is not only positive; it is also a form of psychological containment.

    Iago's cryptic intermingling of moods, however, is a characteristic trick of speech. In the third act we hear another provocative exchange, this time between the two principals:


  • For Michael Cassio, I dare be sworn, I think[,] that he is honest.
  • OTH:

  • I think so too.
  • IAGO:

  • Men should be what they seem, Or those that be not, would they might seem none.
  • OTH:

  • Certain, men should be what they seem.
  • IAGO:

  • Why then I think Cassio's an honest man.
  • (3.3.127–32, brackets mine)
  • Against Othello's growing anxiety, Iago places a series of wordy obstacles to knowing Cassio's mind. Cassio's honesty is presented not as a fact, nor even as what Iago thinks, but (in the F text quoted above) a thought that might be hazarded in an oath but isn't.17 In the Q text (“I dare presume, I think that he is honest”) Iago offers not an oath, which he might hazard yet does not, but only a presumption that he thinks a thought. Which is to say that Iago creates a series of verbs in the subjunctive—“I dare be sworn / presume I think”—that postpones and weakens the indicative “is honest” until the actual is absorbed into the putative. When Othello, evidently mystified by such verbal circumstancing, concurs (“I think so too”), Iago offers an aphorism of general application that throws his presumption into still greater uncertainty, for it is a statement in the subjunctive, governed by an ambivalent “should”: a “should” of obligation (“Men ought to be what they seem”) and a “should” of probability (“Men are likely to be what they seem”). Othello apparently picks up the first “should” in his reply, which Iago accepts as sufficient ground for declaring—in the indicative—that he thinks Cassio's an honest man. Othello is not comforted. How can a “should” from the world of moral ideals confirm what a man is in the world of actuality? Especially if we already suspect his stability because he's proved to be a drunkard?

    And what of the cryptic hypothetical proposition that follows “Men should be what they seem,” which Othello ignores? Again, we hear a combination of indicative and subjunctive—“Or those that be not, would they”—what? Might seem not to be what they seem to be? Might seem not to be at all? Iago is flirting with that dialectical ontology that is to have such a devastating effect on Othello, if he is wishing that men who are not what they (p.137) seem might not seem at all—that is, might lose their accidents and become invisible. In the event, his wish becomes a curse.

    Later in this scene, when Iago has done much to destabilize Othello's assumptions, the Moor's own conditional has changed: “If I do prove her haggard, /Though that her jesses were my dear heart-strings, /I'd whistle her off and let her down the wind / To prey at fortune” (3.3.264-67). By this time the possibility of Desdemona's infidelity has become a future-more-vivid condition in the indicative, but its consequence—that he cast her off if she proves haggard—is expressed as a subjunctive “would,” as though he were trying to stave off what must follow. He gets there, it would seem, through a mediating “though” clause, whose counter-factual condition contaminates and thus mitigates the consequence. Othello's faith has been broken and he is aware of the cost to his life, but that mortal possibility is yet contained. Indeed, the whole metaphor of hawking is a defensive, self-ennobling figure, whose tenor is developed only a few lines later when Othello concludes that ‘tis the plague of great ones to be destined from birth to be cuckolded.

    The fall from faith to suspicion, to what Iago would call a healthy skepticism—“Wear your eyes thus, not jealous nor secure” (3.3.201)—to flat dogmatism recapitulates in small the history of humanist inquiry we have been following and which has one more relevant episode that we shall notice shortly. For the present, however, I shall pursue the fortunes of conditionals and their ramifications in Othello.

    One moment after Othello proclaims that cuckoldry is destiny, Desdemona enters, and we hear a new note: “Look where she comes: /If she be false, O then heaven mocks itself, / I'll not believe't” (3.3.281–83). Here the condition is Desdemona's falsity, but its conclusion is projected as a cosmic impossibility so incredible that it temporarily restores Othello's equilibrium. He can now say to Iago:

    • If thou dost slander her and torture me
    • Never pray more, abandon all remorse;
    • . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
    • . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
    • For nothing canst thou to damnation add
    • Greater than that!
    • (3.3.371–76)

    His stake in Desdemona is clear: she is his absolute, the source from which his current runs. Divorcing him from her is effecting apostasy. When Iago pretends to be frightened by this attack on his candor and vows never again (p.138) to speak honestly and directly to a friend, he once again calls into play that ambiguous miscellany of “shoulds”:


  • I thank you for this profit, and from hence I'll love no friend, sith love breeds such offence.
  • OTH:

  • Nay, stay, thou should be honest.
  • IAGO:

  • I should be wise, for honesty's a fool And loses that it works for.
  • (3.3.382–86)
  • Othello's is a moral “should,” Iago's a prudent, self-regarding “should,” though they sound alike, and this clash of optatives leads Othello to a double aporia: “By the world, / I think my wife be honest, and think she is not, / I think that thou art just, and think thou art not” (3.3.386–88). At this point the alternative possibility that is normally offered by the subjunctive within a hierarchical structure has invaded the domain of the indicative, which now holds both possibilities simultaneously in contradiction. Here Iago's influence is fully heard for the first time, for it is Iago's manner of entertaining contrary assumptions, of mingling would with is, that marks his ability to speak fluently from different regions of his mind.18 From here it is not a far distance to what we have earlier described as a contradiction between what Othello thinks Desdemona “is” and what she has been “proved” to be: “A fine woman, a fair woman, a sweet woman…. Ay, let her rot and perish and be damned tonight, for she shall not live” (4.1.175–79). What has happened, and what continues to happen virtually to the end of the play, is that Iago's capacity literally to influence the indicative with the subjunctive results in an overflow, whereby Othello's awareness is flooded with parallel possibilities, sometimes causing him anguish, sometimes causing him to repress the pain, as in his contemplation of the sleeping Desdemona: “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” (5.2.3–6). This strange speech, in which Desdemona both is and is not chaste, has elicited a powerful psychoanalytic reading from Stanley Cavell, and in chapter 7 I will offer a complementary “magical” reading. In the context, however, of the apt and true, which we are following here, it is clear that the apt, in the guise of the conditional if, has coalesced with the true, in the form of the indicative is.19

    This isomorphism is not absolute in Othello or permanent. It slowly undoes itself under the pressure of Emilia's tongue following the murder: “O, I were damned beneath all depth in hell / But that I did proceed upon (p.139) just grounds / To this extremity” (5.2.135–37). Though the order is inverted, Othello's just proceeding is the condition, one that is stated positively as a fact, while the ominous consequence is safely confined in a contrary-to-fact presumption. His next assertion is less sure and gives the impression of greater defensiveness because he fortifies the conclusion with a double condition: “Had she been true, / If heaven would make me such another world/ Of one entire and perfect chrysolite, / I'd not have sold her for it” (5.2.139–42). He is saying, “If she had been true and, in addition, if heaven,” in order to emphasize his own fidelity and probity. As the evidence of his error comes pouring in, however, this kind of verbal bulwarking ceases, and Othello's conditionals are no longer contrary to fact. He is back, arguably to the very end, in the world of actuality.

    Now the immediate result of this invasion of the indicative by the subjunctive is to focus Othello's attention on something called thought. For as Iago proceeds to undermine Othello's assumptions about Cassio and Desdemona, he not only introduces possibility into the given, as Doran suggests; he brings to Othello's consciousness the mediated nature of his understanding, a fact that the Moor in his self-certainty seems hardly to have considered. This begins to occur in the sequence that precedes the “I dare be sworn, I think, that he is honest” passage in Act III. In this sequence, Iago asks Othello whether Cassio knew of his wooing, and their dialogue produces a series of echoes that begins as follows:


  • Did Michael Cassio, when you wooed my lady, Know of your love?
  • OTH:

  • He did, from first to last. Why dost thou ask?
  • IAGO:

  • But for a satisfaction of my thought, No further harm.
  • OTH:

  • Why of thy thought, Iago?
  • (3.3.94–98)

    The dialogue continues, the two of them repeating one another's words until Othello exclaims: “By heaven, thou echo'st me, / As if there were some monster in thy thought / Too hideous to be shown” (3.3.109–11). The effect of these reverberations is to make Othello aware of—or more accurately, to make him construct—Iago's interiority. Iago says Cassio is honest “for aught I know,” but that is not enough for Othello; he wants to hear what he thinks, and from then on the prying loose, the opening-up of Iago's thought is Othello's object. I say “construct,” because it is not clear that what Iago (p.140) utters when Othello asks him to “give thy worst of thoughts / The worst of words” (135–36) is really thought in the usual sense. What Othello wants to hear are Iago's convictions or at least his strong suspicions, but Iago doesn't have any. What Iago has, or rather generates, are verbal probabilities—commonplaces that are only thought-possibilities. Othello, however, construes these topics as thoughts issuing from a truly proairetic psyche, one that weighs, balances, and chooses the evidence it presents to another as serious judgments (3.3.114–23).20

    This has some important consequences. As a result of the persistent catechism Othello imposes on an apparently reluctant Iago, the truth about Cassio changes its character and venue. It is no longer a simple intuition—the unexamined result of Othello's engagement with Cassio—but neither is it seen as a belief produced from the presentations Cassio offers to Othello's eye and ear to be negotiated by his judgment. Instead, it is a thing that is identified with thought—at first Iago's thought, conceived of as a kind of transitory resident: “As where's that palace whereinto foul things / Sometimes intrude not” (140–41)? Alternatively, thought can be a thing one can lock up (116–18) or hold in one's hand (165–66). Thus, even as Iago makes Othello aware that his presumptions about Desdemona and Cassio are only that, his cunning recalcitrance provokes Othello to relocate the truth from one kind of res—the object itself—to another: the thought itself. Instinctively Othello resorts to the immediate, realistic, and locative, rather than to the mediate, intellective, and processual. Thought is thing.

    This transformation lies behind one of the great paradoxes in the play—that experiential apprehension is supplanted by thinking, but thinking is really not a dianoetic activity that develops along a continuous line of metaphoric and metonymic interaction to produce new apprehensions. It is a thing of circumscription and confine, a kind of holding place for a specific content. For all that we hear Othello say, “speak to me, as to thy thinkings,” what he really means is, “Show me thy thought” (3.3.134, 119). Which is why his later remark, “I think my wife be honest, and I think she is not,” is so poignant. True, he is expressing a dilemma, but what he is saying is that he possesses think-units, for it is not thinking that has brought him to this pass, if we mean by that the activity of comparing evidence that might lead one to subordinate one thought to another, even if one must then “act as if for surety.” It is thought as product, as acquired content.

    This locative instinct is further exploited by Iago just a few moments later when he offers his own perception as a mirror in which Othello may view himself beginning to decompose:

    (p.141) IAGO:

  • I see this hath a little dashed your spirits.
  • OTH:

  • Not a jot, not a jot.
  • IAGO:

  • I'faith I fear it has.
  •     . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
  •       But I do see you're moved;
  •     . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
  • My lord, I see you are moved.
  • OTH:

  • No, not much moved. I do not think but Desdemona's honest.
  • IAGO.

  • Long live she so; and long live you to think so.
  • (3.3.218–30)
  • First it was Iago's unspoken thought, now it is his spoken observation, that becomes the constituted source of knowledge. Othello's last line registers the weakness of what he now acknowledges is his thought, and Iago's rejoinder emphasizes the potential distance between that thought and what Desdemona is. But Iago reassures him that what he can do, Othello can do; it's simply a matter of looking: “Note if your lady strain his entertainment / With any strong or vehement importunity, / Much will be seen in that” (3.3.254–56). And he exits once more to follow Othello's previous instructions:


  • Farewell, farewell. If more thou dost perceive, let me know more: Set on thy wife to observe. Leave me, Iago.
  • (3.3.242–44)
  • The hunt is up; but what is the game they are looking for?


    The answer is topics, commonplaces; or rather, arguments of Desdemona's infidelity. And here we must switch from text to context in order to make the proper historical link. Topics, as we have seen, were considered aspects of matter—and, as described by the dialecticians, they mirrored the structure of reality. By the early seventeenth century, however, they had acquired a more explicitly amphibious nature. On the one hand they were concepts, ways of analyzing and expounding matters; on the other hand, they were sometimes thought of as having a real existence: were one to describe the world, one might literally write a topography.

    (p.142) The origins of this conceptual ambiguity are found in Cicero. In his Topica, a common Elizabethan school text, purportedly modeled on Aristotle's work of the same name, a spatial metaphor already colors Cicero's account of the topics: “It is easy to find things that are hidden if the hiding place is pointed out and marked; similarly if we wish to track down some argument we ought to know the places or topics: for that is the name given by Aristotle to the ‘regions’ [quasi sedes], as it were from which arguments are drawn. Accordingly, we may define a topic as the region of an argument [argumenti sedem], and an argument as a course of reasoning which produces conviction about some doubtful matter.”21 Agricola, we may recall, admiring the fecundity and amplitude of nature, had praised those ingenious men who “cut out from this profuse variety of things these common headings” called loci. He added that since the loci are themselves “things” that “contain whatever can be said on any matter, they therefore contain all arguments, and were called by these men places because all the instruments of establishing conviction are located within them as in a receptacle or a treasure chest” (Ong, 117–18, translation modified).

    By the time Wilson's Rule of Reason came along, the securing of a topic had become a more homely and familiar activity:

    A Place is, the restyng corner of an argumente, or else a marke whiche geveth warning to our memorie what wee maie speake probably, either in the one parte, or the other, upon all causes that fal in question. Those that bee good harefinders will soone finde the hare by her fourme. For when thei see the ground beaten flatte round about, and faire to the sighte: they have a narrowe gesse by al likelihode that the hare was there a litle before. Likewise the Huntesman in huntyng the foxe, wil soone espie when he seeth a hole, whether it be a foxe borough, or not. So he that will take profeicte in this parte of Logique, must bee like a hunter, and learne by labour to knowe the boroughes. For these places bee nothing elles, but covertes or boroughes wherin if any one searche diligently, he maie finde game at pleasure. And although perhappes one place faile him, yet shal he finde a dousen other places, to accoumplishe his purpose. Therefore if any one will dooe good in this kinde, he must goe from place to place, and by searchyng every boroughe he shall have his purpose undoubtedly in most parte of them, if not in al. (Wilson, 90)

    Wilson gives his reader the impression that inventing (coming upon, discovering, finding) a topic is like sharply observing the habits of small game in the English countryside: you must track your prey to the natural (p.143) burrows where they are hidden, waiting to be flushed out by the skilled sportsman. And what do you have when you catch your prey? The resting place of a probable argument, which can be used on either side of an issue.

    Places are thus constituent parts of a geography in which nature and intellect mutually participate. This lends them a certain givenness and the construction of an argument, a certain inevitability, since cause, effect, whole, parts, adjuncts, and circumstances are there for the inventing and adaptable to any cause, pro or contra, that may be argued probably. Though Wilson makes this last point clearly enough, we have already seen that there is a presumption in the dialectics of the period that commonplaces are a means of discovering the true, not simply the apt. For it was commonly believed that probabilities depend upon a priori truths. In his De instrumento probabilitatis, for example, Vives describes certain inborn anticipationes or informationes, which he associates with Platonic ideas, in accordance with which truth may be actualized by collecting and judging verisimilitudes and probabilities (3.82–86). Melanchthon takes a similar position in the Erotemata dialectices when he describes the power of inference as a divine gift. Wilson himself makes explicit use of these ideas in the sample exordium he offers to readers of his own popular Arte of Rhetorique:

    As Nature hath ever abhorred Murder, and God in all ages most terribly hath plagued bloodshedding, so I trust your wisdoms (most worthy Judges) will speedily seek the execution of this most hateful sin. And where as God revealeth to the sight of men the knowledge of such offenses by diverse likelihoods and probable conjectures: I doubt not, but you being called of God to hear such causes, will doe herin as reason shall require, and as this detestable offence shall move you, upon rehearsall of the matter. (92, emphasis mine)

    Here even in a rhetoric, where we do not expect to find the veridical bias of dialectic, Wilson suggests that probabilities may be used in the discovery of truth. It should therefore come as no surprise to hear Iago repeating precisely the same idea to Othello: “If imputation and strong circumstances / Which lead directly to the door of truth / Will give you satisfaction, you may have't” (3.3.409–11, emphasis mine). Outrageous though this may sound, it is simply an extreme version of the paradigmatic conflation of apt and true that is pervasive in the discourse of the period. That Iago is able to make good on his word is due to his skillful exploitation of the rhetorical force of enargeia in the service of Othello's desire for res, as we shall see in chapter 6.

    (p.144) There is, then, not only an essentialist bias and a logical bias, but what we may call a locative bias complicit in the decline of the moderate skepticism that had inspired humanist dialectic and rhetoric in the previous century, and it is registered in Shakespeare's text. This trend to reification has been well documented by Ong and his student, Sister Joan Marie Lechner. In her study of Renaissance commonplaces, Lechner notes two important developments in the way topics are described: a tendency for them to be conceived of as “locations” of arguments in some sort of spatial field, and for the places themselves to be thought of as “containers” for arguments. “The orator,” she writes, “must be a hunter … who looks for places and, when he has discovered them, explores their ‘content’ for any possible treasure he might find there” (131–32).

    What seems to have developed in the course of the sixteenth century is a “realist” view of the topics of argument. Not only are they instruments for the analysis of a subject matter or for the enrichment of a discourse, describing aspects of things, as in the Ciceronian tradition, or philosophical “standpoints” used for debate, as in the Aristotelian tradition; they come to be regarded as things themselves, which either furnish arguments or contain arguments. But how does a topic become a real thing?

    The conceptual seeds were planted by Agricola. So great is the variety of res ipsae, he writes, that it is impossible for the human mind to embrace them all. But “there are certain dispositions present in all things and they all tend to a certain similarity in their natures”; this is why common headings could be “excerpted” from the dense fabric of natural things. Peter Mack suggests that Agricola's notion of a topic results from the convergence of two desiderata: “The arguer needs to discover connections between things; the things in the world need to have some common ways of being related. Agricola,” he observes, “keeps in mind Cicero's picture of the spaces marked and labeled but he makes a more sweeping claim for similar connections in the nature of reality. All that can be said about something and all that something is, must emerge from a consideration of the topics” (”Agricola's Topics,” 262).

    With such ideas in circulation early in the century, it is not surprising that Lechner finds topics localized as resting corners (Wilson), storerooms or pockets (Lever), ve3dlla (Neuheusius), a quiver containing arrows (Melanchthon), or a refuge from an opponent (Blundeville), and reposing in such localities as forests, gardens, military camps, and plains of battle (137). From here it is but a short way to Ramus's claim that the doctrine of discovering the places of invention is itself an imitation of nature. When the student of dialectic “has before his eyes the art of inventing by means (p.145) of these universal kinds [the places], like some mirror representing to him the general and universal images of all things, it will be much easier for him to recognize the singular species by this means, and consequently to find what he is looking for. But he must by many examples, by great exercise, by long usage shine and polish this mirror, before he can cause these images to gleam and be restored.”22

    Just as the discipline of dialectic itself is an imitation of natural dialectic, as it has been practiced by the greatest poets and philosophers, so its first part, invention, maps the topography of the natural world which those authors perceived (Ramus, 53). And what they saw were arguments, not merely “restyng corners of arguments.” That collapse of distinction among ideas, words, and things that had begun in Agricola has come to completion in Ramus. This is immediately apparent in the way he has absorbed predication into invention. At the beginning of his Dialectique, Ramus declares that “invention treats the separate parts of sentences, which were first named by the Euclideans, then by the other philosophers, ‘categories,’ and the precepts of these categories were thenceforth called ‘topics,’ or, as one might say, ‘locales,’ because such precepts are like ‘seats’ and ‘locations’ where all categories lie” (63). Absent from this brief history is any reference to the fact that “category” is a human “calling,” “accusation,” or “something I call to mind,” as Melanchthon had reported.23 It is the same as a topic and has become physical enough to lie down in a seat. Correlatively, the elements in a sentence are thought of not as being predicaments but as fitting into a hierarchy of topics. But topic is not the word used by Ramists; rather it is argument, conceived of as the individual word in a proposition: what today we would call the subject of a sentence “argues” what we would call the predicate, just as the latter part “argues” the former. And these arguments, if properly disposed in an axiom, which is the preferred Ramist term for proposition, possess an innate power to produce conviction. In the words of Roland Madlmaine, who introduced Ramus to English readers in 1574, “An argument is that which is naturally bent to prove or disprove any thing, suche as be single reasons separately and by themselves considered” (MacIlmaine, 10). Only if the arguments in an axiom seem to be doubtfully joined does one engage in syllogistic proof.

    This native power of arguments is illustrated by Abraham Fraunce, the friend of Sir Philip Sidney who produced The Lawiers Logike, a Ramist dialectic using examples from classical and contemporary poetry and from law. What MacIlmaine terms the natural “natural bent” of an argument, Fraunce calls an “affection.” “As all the force of consequence is in syllogismes,” he writes, “so all the vertue of arguing is in the several affection of every (p.146) argument to the thing argued: which affection is truely and artificially put down in Invention.”24 What he means by this is shown in the chart he provides of the different affections of the argument “man” as it argues other things:

    “Yonder's Foul Murders Done”: Place, Predicament, and Grammatical Space on Cyprus

    This looks not unlike Wilson's scheme of how one might analyze “magistrate” by reference to the topics (Rule, 135–38). The difference is in the emphasis on the affection, or what Alexander Richardson, a Cambridge lecturer in the 1590s, called the “disposition natural!” and “the glue to be affectioned” that is in arguments (58–59). The parts of the world are inclined to stick together, whether they are instantiated as verba or res, and since the doctrine of invention is an imitation of the actual world, putting axioms together so that their arguments agree is to clarify the structure of the world. As Fraunce remarks, echoing Sidney (and anticipating Hamlet), “Art, which first was but the scholler of nature, is now become the maystres of nature, and as it were a Glasse wherin shee seeing and viewing herselfe, may washe out those spottes and blemishes of natural imperfection” (Bii).

    Ramist dialectic, therefore, is a realistic and hylozoic philosophy, in which arguments are as much “out there” as on a person's tongue or in his mind. An expositor like Richardson takes pains to explain that an argument (p.147) is not really a thing but the reason or Logismos in the thing, and Fraunce insisted that logic explicates not the nature of things but the relationship of things. The impression conveyed by the popular Ramist texts, however, was not so subtle. As Perry Miller remarked, “The argument was the thing, or the name of the thing, or the mental conception of the thing, all at once. The charm of the system … was that it annihilated the distance from the object to the brain, or made possible an epistemological leap across the gap in the twinkling of an eye, with an assurance of footing beyond the possibility of a metaphysical slip” (149).

    Sixteenth-century dialectic, especially its later forms, is not a source but a component of the discourse in which Othello participates. We need not trace Shakespeare to Melanchthon or Wilson or Ramus to find similar habits of thought at work in his play. Sometimes they are manifested in linguistic sediments that have been deposited from the popular learning of the day and their signifying power as terms of art may go unnoticed; often they appear in more overt forms, such as Iago's bold proposal to follow circumstances to the door of truth. But they also take specifically theatrical forms, as Shakespeare exploits the resources of ensemble acting and stage space to register the confusion of mind, word, and world that becomes the tragedy of Othello.

    In the “echo” sequence we discussed earlier, for example, we might consider what psychological implications those rebounding words may represent. Clearly, Othello feels them as evasions on the part of Iago, who is returning his own words to him instead of revealing his thoughts. But the echoes have a deeper effect: they tend to disconnect words from their sources in persons and relocate them in the common space shared by their interlocutors. As in some verbal tennis match, Iago's “thought” (3.3.97) is returned in Othello's “thought” (98), his “indeed” (101) in Othello's “indeed” (102), and so on for twelve lines. A similar phenomenon occurs at the beginning of the fourth act, where Iago's “think so” (4.1.1) is echoed by Othello's “think so” (2), his “kiss” by Othello's “kiss,” his “harm” by Othello's “harm” (2, 4, 5). And we hear it again in the last scene of the play, where the word “husband” is exchanged for some fifteen lines (5.2.137–49) by Othello and Emilia. Though in this instance it refers to Iago, it has become an acoustic commonplace, which, in the circumstances of Othello's sudden recognition that he has no wife, assumes the eerie status of a floating signifier, or at least a polyvocal one temporarily unattached.

    These sound effects cannot be fortuitous or coincidental. In a play in which the only “truth” available is intuitive and as such is dependent upon the history that informs one's needs, the words a person uses, just as the (p.148) truth he assumes he holds, may indeed escape his possession and turn into a commonplace for anyone's use. So it is that Iago can place Cassio in such a way that Othello, concealed, may temporarily appropriate the late lieutenant's words and gestures according to his own conceit (4.1.108–42). Later in the scene, he is able to do the same with Desdemona's words, as she informs Lodovico of the unkind breach that has fallen between Cassio and her lord (4.1.224–32). Shakespeare is representing on his stage the communization of speech as a “thing heard.” It suggests both that loss of boundary between mind and world and the reification of thought and speech that we have noticed in sixteenth-century discussions of discourse—now represented theatrically in the verbal exchanges of actors on a stage.

    But that stage is also a space, and Shakespeare uses its spatial dimensions to further reveal the confluence of mind, word, and world in the tragedy. We noted earlier that conditional clauses normally signify alternative mental worlds but that in Iago from the outset, and then gradually in Othello, these mental worlds interfuse. What we did not remark is that “world” is frequently thematized in the speeches of nearly everyone in the play, usually as a given, stable presence to which they may refer. Brabantio submits himself to the world's judgment that Othello is “an abuser of the world” (1.2.72, 78); Othello tells the Senators Desdemona “gave me for my pains a world of sighs” (1.3.159), and later swears “By the world” that he thinks his wife is honest and is not (3.3.386); Iago has “look'd upon the world for four times seven years” (1.3.311–12) and asks, “Take note, take note, O world, / To be direct and honest, is not safe” (3.3.381); the Clown will “catechize the world” for Cassio upon Desdemona's request (3.4.16); and Desdemona allows her “downright violence and scorn of fortunes” to “trumpet to the world” her love of the Moor (1.3.251). Somewhere in the fourth act, though, the world becomes a hypothetical place. Othello cries, “the world hath not a sweeter creature,” even as he prepares to let her rot and perish in the actual world (4.1.178–81), and Emilia prays that heaven would unfold such men as the one who abused Othello, so honest men might “lash the rascals naked through the world” (4.2.145). In the same mood Desdemona wonders, “Wouldst thou do such a deed for all the world?” (4.3.63) and Emilia replies, “for all the whole world? … I should venture purgatory for it” (4.3.73–76).

    This last scene, where for once the two women speak their minds freely to one another, functions as a conditional preserve of time and place in the play, before the indicative action moves to its expected end. It is here that the memory of Barbary returns to Desdemona, and she retreats into a contrary-to-fact past to measure her situation, expressing her loss in Barbary's song (p.149) about yet another lovelorn maid. She even seems to quote herself when she sings, “Let nobody blame him, his scorn I approve” (4.3.51), recalling the words, “my love doth so approve him / That even his stubbornness, his checks, his frowns … have grace and favor in them” (17–19). If one part of her mind has merged the present with what has passed, another part is able to observe that “Lodovico is a proper man” while denying its implication by demanding whether “there be women do abuse their husbands” (35, 61). This introduces the softly bantering debate about doing the deed for all the world. Emilia, showing more of Iago in her than of Desdemona, pursues the implication of this challenge by pointing out that if you gain the world by doing a wrong, “tis a wrong in your own world, and you might quickly make it right” (80–81)—rousing Desdemona from her hypothetical inquiry, if not from her optative mood.

    It is in the final scene, though, that physical spaces on the stage actually seem to merge. Throughout his confrontation with Desdemona we see Othello imposing the hypothetical upon the actual, the apt upon the true—every sign of fear and resistance from Desdemona interpreted as evidence of her guilt. As he stifles her and she cries, “O Lord! Lord! Lord!” Emilia's voice outside the door echoes Desdemona's within: “My lord, my lord! what ho, my lord, my lord!” (51.83–84). Othello, hearing the echo as Desdemona's voice, mistakes what is outside for what is inside, and tries to hasten her death so she won't suffer. But the voice persists. This time he recognizes it as a call from without, and when Emilia says she'd like to speak with him, he answers he'll be with her presently. But his mind has not sorted out place or person yet:

    • Yes. ′Tis Emilia. [to Emilia] By and by.—She's dead.
    • 'Tis like she comes to speak of Cassio's death,
    • The noise was high. Ha, 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! (5.2.90–97)

    Although Othello hears the last call as Emilia's, her previous cry, upon which he acted, is still attributed to Desdemona. His confusion is expressed in the deictic shifts undergone by the pronoun Nshe“—first indicating Desdemona, then Emilia, Emilia again, then Desdemona, then Emilia. But it is (p.150) also heard in the literally extemporal fear that if he lets Emilia in she'll tell his wife about Cassio's death. His customary speech is suddenly contrary-to-fact, indeed trails behind the fact, which suddenly overtakes him, as he echoes Desdemona's early concern that in her husband's absence she will “a heavy interim support” (1.3.259).

    The locative ambiguity of the scene only gradually dissipates. When Emilia says, “yonder's foul murders done!” (5.2.105), it isn't clear whether “yonder” refers to outside the room or just beyond the bed curtains. For when he learns that Cassio has not been killed, Othello declares, “then murder's out of tune,” only to be echoed by Desdemona inside the curtains, “O, falsely, falsely murder'd!” It is Emilia who locates the voice in its own space and then begins the lengthy separation of apt from true that culminates in Lodovico's charge to Iago: “Look on the tragic loading of this bed: / This is thy work” (5.2.361–62).

    What Iago is asked to look on is the work of thoughts turned words and words turned things on Cyprus—a casualty of the dialectical epidemic of the sixteenth century.


    (1.) Harvey, 122.

    (2.) Howell, 57–63, 285–91.

    (p.389) (3.) On Wilson's career, see A. J. Schmidt; Wilson, Rule, v-xii; and the full-length study by Medine. Subsequent citations to The Rule of Reason will appear in the text.

    (4.) See chapter 3.

    (5.) I echo Dr. Faustus's rapturous contemplation of magic as an ironic reminder of his bathetic view of logic: “Bene disserere est finis logices. 1 Is to dispute well logic's chiefest end? / Affords this art no greater miracle?” (1.7–9). Though he apostrophizes Aristotle's Analytics, he is actually quoting Ramus's Dialecticae, which begins modestly enough, like Wilson, but proceeds to locate arguments in the world. He should have read further. On this development, see below.

    (6.) In figure 1, the “chief generall words” are the most inclusive and belong in the predicable genus. The “middle generall” belong to the predicable genus in relation to the “kindes” or species below them, but are species in relation to the “commune wordes” above them. The illustration is based on the 1553 edition used by Sprague.

    (7.) See chapter 3.

    (8.) See chapter 3.

    (9.) “Here therefore [is] the first distemper of learning, when men study words and not matter … for words are but images of matter; and except they have life of reason and invention, to fall in love with them is all one as to fall in love with a picture” (Proficience, in Works, 3.284).

    (10.) Rodolphi Agricolae Phrisii De inventione dialectica libri omnes (1539), 1.2, in McNally.

    (11.) Wilson, Rhetorique, 89.

    (12.) Cf. R2 3.3.147–59, 4.1.203–215.

    (13.) For theatrical and racial analyses of this moment, see chapter 11.

    (14.) Works of Shakespeare, 7.485.

    (15.) Recall that “although his wife die, yet the housebande maie be onlive still, sauying that he loseth his name, to be called housbande” (Wilson, Rule, 117). If in addition, he can't call himself general anymore, what is left is the bare “I” denoting a substance. Richard II is another instance of a substance feeling deprived of identity when the accident of his title is removed (R2 4.1.254–59).

    (16.) There is yet another important interpretation of these three lines, which is the theme of chapters 10 and 11, but I will not distract the reader with it now.

    (17.) Honigmann's addition of a comma after “think” further weakens the link between the fact of Cassio's honesty and Iago's knowledge of it: now Iago only thinks he might be sworn to it.

    (18.) We need only think of his most notorious shift between indicative and subjunctive:


  • Are his wits safe? Is he not light of brain?
  • IAGO:

  • He's that he is; I may not breathe my censure What he might be; if what he might, he is not, I would to heaven he were!
  • (4.1.269–72)

    (19.) See Cavell's suggestive discussion of Othello's stake in marriage and seventeenth-century skepticism, 125–42.

    (20.) The idea that Iago possesses an interior constructed by Othello is developed in chapter 7, where I discuss Shakespeare's imitation of Virgil.

    (21.) Cicero, Top. 1.7–8, translation modified.

    (22.) Ramus, Dialectique, 100, translation mine. Further citations will appear in the text.

    (23.) See chapter 3.

    (p.390) (24.) Lawiers Logic, Ciii verso. The following chart appears on Ciiii verso. Further citations will appear in the text.