Pursglove on Rhetoric

Some Observations on the Uses of Rhetoric in a Couplet from Othello

Glyn Pursglove

For the website www.delightedbeauty.org in August 2011

“If virtue no delighted beauty lack,

Your son-in-law is far more fair than black.”

It is an obvious truth that strategies of reading and the pleasures to be anticipated (and experienced) in reading have changed from historical period to historical period (just as they change across the periods of an individual life). There are surely, for example, few modern readers of Spenser’s Shepheardes Calendar (1579) who, on reading these two lines from the first poem, ‘Januarye’

I love thilke lasse, (alas why do I love?)

And am forlorne, (alas why am I lorne?)

would exclaim as ‘E.K.’ does in his contemporary annotations on the poem:

a prety Epanorthosis in these two verses, and withal a Paronomasia, or playing with the word, where he sayth (I love thilke lasse (alas &c.

The mere enumeration of rhetorical figures seems insufficient to the modern reader, little more than a literary version of train-spotting; nor are many of the modern reader’s pleasures likely to be bound up with the conscious recognition of the rhetorical figures used by the writer (whatever forces that use might exert on the reader unawares). But there are times when recognition of the writer’s rhetorical means opens up distinctive modes of critical understanding.

In the couplet from Othello (I.iii.288-289) quoted above, Shakespeare can be recognised to be using a variant on the figure Renaissance rhetoricians called enthimema (sometimes ‘enimema’; the modern spelling is ‘enthymeme’). It is discussed by Henry Peacham in his splendidly titled book The Garden of Eloquence Conteyning the figures of Grammer and Rhetorick, from whence may be gathered all manner of Flowers, Colours, Erornations, Formes and Fashions of speech, very profitable for all those that be studious of Eloquence, and that reade most Eloquent Poets and Orators, and also helpeth much for the better understanding of the Holy Scriptures (1577):

Enthimema, is also a kind of sentence, which standeth of contraries, thus: Cicero. Our Elders made war not only that they might be free, but also that they might rule, but thou thinkest warre may be lefte of, that we might be made bondslaves to serve. If wicked men so much commend you, good men must neades dispraise you: if great wealth bring carefulnesse, & needy poverty wretchednesse, the ye meane betweene those extremytyes is the greatest happinesse. This is not here an argumentation dialectical, for that is used to deck the Oration, but if it be used for cause of probation, then it is not a figure, but is reckoned among arguments.

(It is worth noting what Peacham adds by way of “Caution” in his revised second edition of 1593: “In the use of this figure it behoveth to have this care, that the premises be true, wherupon a right conclusion may be inferred”).

Quintillian (the major source for pre-Ramist ideas on rhetoric) in his discussion of enthymeme, relates it to the syllogism:

… the majority hold the view than an enthymeme is a conclusion from incompatibles: wherefore Cornificius styles it a contrarium or argument from contraries. Some again call it a rhetorical syllogism, because its parts are not so clearly defined or of the same number as those of the regular syllogism, since such precision is not specially required by the orator.

In our couplet from Othello we might usefully regard the Duke’s ‘judgement’ as a “rhetorical syllogism” since it lacks an explicit second premise. We might (however unsatisfactorily) expand the Duke’s syllogism in something like the following fashion: “If virtue is not deficient in delightful beauty, [and if beauty/fairness is the opposite of blackness], then your son-in-law is far more fair than black”. Of course the Duke’s syllogism depends on several equivocations concerning his key words.

‘Virtue’, after all, may be understood as referring primarily to high moral fineness or superiority; or to a soldier’s quality of masculine power and dutifulness; even perhaps to the distinguishing power of an individual or object. All three significances can be evidenced elsewhere in Shakespeare. In The Comedy of Errors (III.i) Balthasar praises Adriana, in advising her jealous husband to be patient:

Have patience, sir, O, let it not be so;

Herein you war against your reputation,

And draw within the compass of suspect

Th’unviolated honour of your wife.

Once this,—your long experience of her wisdom,

Her sober virtue, years and modesty,

Plead on her part some cause to you unknown[.]

In Coriolanus (II.ii) praises Coriolanus’s qualities as a soldier thus:

I shall lack voice: the deeds of Coriolanus

Should not be uttered feebly. It is held

That valour is the chiefest virtue and

Most dignifies the haver: if it be,

The man I speak of cannot in the world

Be singly counterpoised. At sixteen years,

When Tarquin made a head for Rome, he fought

Beyond the mark of others: our then dictator,

Whom with all praise I point at, saw him fight,

When with his Amazonian chin he drove

The bristled lips before him: he bestrid

An o’er-press'd Roman and i’ the consul’s view

Slew three opposers: Tarquin’s self he met,

And struck him on his knee: in that day’s feats,

When he might act the woman in the scene,

He proved best man I’ the field, and for his meed

Was brow-bound with the oak.

Earlier in the same play (I.i) – it is a play much concerned with the slippery meanings of ‘virtue’ – Coriolanus’s rant against the Citizens (the “dissentious rogues” as he calls them) identifies their distinguishing quality through his use of the word:

He that will give good words to thee will flatter

Beneath abhorring. What would you have, you curs,

That like nor peace nor war? the one affrights you,

The other makes you proud. He that trusts to you,

Where he should find you lions, finds you hares;

Where foxes, geese: you are no surer, no,

Than is the coal of fire upon the ice,

Or hailstone in the sun. Your virtue is

To make him worthy whose offence subdues him

And curse that justice did it. Who deserves greatness

Deserves your hate. And your affections are

A sick man’s appetite, who desires most that

Which would increase his evil.

Other of the key terms in the Duke’s words are similarly multivalent – of particular interest are ‘fair’ and ‘black’.

We might consider the relevance of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 127:

In the old age black was not counted fair,

Or if it were, it bore not beauty’s name;

But now is black beauty’s successive heir,

And beauty slander’d with a bastard shame:

For since each hand hath put on nature’s power,

Fairing the foul with art’s false borrow’d face,

Sweet beauty hath no name, no holy bower,

But is profaned, if not lives in disgrace.

Therefore my mistress’ eyes are raven black,

Her eyes so suited, and they mourners seem

At such who, not born fair, no beauty lack,

Sland’ring creation with a false esteem;

Yet so they mourn, becoming of their woe,

That every tongue says beauty should look so.

(The rhyme on ‘lack’ and ‘black’ will seem familiar!). Here the use of ‘fair’ chiefly puns on the meanings “light in colour of hair and skin” and “beautiful”. But there may also be overtones of ‘fair’ in the sense that Hamlet uses the word (III.iv) when he speaks to the terrified Gertrude of “actions fair and good” – actions of unspotted moral purity. ‘Fair’ and ‘virtue’ are words which (as in the Duke’s couplet) often appear in close proximity in Shakespeare – whether in the absurdity of Titania’s sudden love for Bottom:

Mine ear is much enamour’d of thy note;

So is mine eye enthralled to thy shape;

And thy fair virtue’s force perforce doth move me

On the first view to say, to swear, I love thee

(A Midsummer Night’s Dream, III.i)

or in Archbishop Cranmer’s prophetic praise (Henry VIII, V.iv) of the new-born Elizabeth (I leave aside any questions as to the authorship of the lines):

This royal infant (heaven still move about her)

Though in her cradle, yet now promises

Upon this land a thousand thousand blessings,

Which time shall bring to ripeness: she shall be

(But few now living can behold that goodness)

A pattern to all princes living with her,

And all that shall succeed: Saba was never

More covetous of wisdom and fair virtue

Than this pure soul shall be: All princely graces

That mould up such a mighty piece as this is,

With all the virtues that attend the good,

Shall still be doubled on her.

The Duke’s use of ‘black’ similarly draws on a range of significances. Most obviously and simply it refers to the Othello’s physical colour. But of course this, too, is a word which inescapably carried moral overtones. One need think only of Aaron’s talk (Titus Andronicus, V.i) of “murders, rapes and massacres, / Acts of black night, abominable deeds” or of the penultimate line of Sonnet 131, where the poet distinguishes between the dark lady’s appearance and her character: “In nothing art thou black save in thy deeds”.

The Duke’s couplet, in its use of the pseudo-syllogistic figure of enthymeme, invites (requires?) those who hear it to assent to his opinion, while purposefully blurring distinctions between physical and moral meanings. The sense of his opinion’s correctness is, for listeners, confirmed by the affirmative nature of the shape his statement takes. Shakespeare sometimes uses rhyming couplets, with their greater formality than the blank verse or prose which surrounds them, for the expressing of sententious ‘wisdom’. A lengthy exchange of such sententious couplets, between the Duke and Brabantio, occupies a full eighteen lines earlier in this same scene (beginning at line 202). Having announced that he will “lay a sentence”, the Duke proceeds to present a series of self-contained, moralising couplets, such as

When remedies are past, the griefs are ended,

By seeing the worst, which late on hopes depended


The robb’d that smiles, steals something from the thief,

He robs himself, that spends a bootless grief.

Brabantio replies in kind, as in:

He bears the sentence well, that nothing bears

But the free comfort which from thence he hears[.]

In the couplet chiefly under consideration here, the Duke “lays” another “sentence”, where “sentence” carries one of the senses of the Latin noun sententia (a saying or sentiment, expressed aphoristically, a maxim), as in Lucrece’s reference to “a sentence or an old man’s saw” (The Rape of Lucrece, l.244) or Portia’s observation on Nerissa’s platitudes (“Good sentences, and well pronounc’d” (I.ii)).

But we need also to consider a further significance in Shakespeare’s deployment of the couplet at this point in the play. Shakespeare frequently uses a rhyming couplet to mark the end of a scene. He does so in closing I.ii of Othello, providing the cadence (and sense of completion) Shakespeare so often employs for the purpose. Indeed, the first time hearer of the Duke’s words might take them too to be an act of closure, a structural affirmation that Brabantio’s complaint has been satisfactorily dealt with, especially given the words that precede it. But the couplet sets up a new phase as well as closing a previous one.

The couplet needs to be seen/heard in context:

Duke. Let it be so.

Good night to every one; and, noble signior,

If virtue no delighted beauty lack,

Your son-in-law is far more fair than black.

First Sen. Adieu, brave Moor, use Desdemona well.

Bra. Look to her, Moor, have a quick eye to see:

She has deceiv’d her father, may do thee.

[Exeunt Duke, Senators, Officers, &. c

Oth. My life upon her faith: honest Iago,

My Desdemona must I leave to thee.

The most striking thing here is the symmetrical placement of the antithetical rhyming couplets, that spoken by the Duke and that spoken by Brabantio, separated only by the First Senator’s brief (but meaningful) speech. Seeing the Duke’s couplet in this context invites a slightly different reading of it.

Brabantio’s lines (so perfectly contrasted, in their simple language and utterly personal sentiments, with the Duke’s complex and impersonal language) look forward in time: she has deceived me, she may go on to deceive thee. Taking the hint from Brabantio, the Duke’s lines look a little different. The “If” which opens them need not necessarily be read as the beginning of a syllogistic formulation (if x and if y then z). It might simply mark the beginning of a conditional statement, dependent on the future events of the play (just as Brabantio’s statement is), which might be paraphrased thus: “If Othello proves to lack none of the delightful beauties of virtue, then your son-in-law will prove more fair than black”. Both rhyming couplets (the Duke’s and Brabantio’s) are propositions whose truth (or otherwise) can only be made clear by subsequent events, by what happens in the next four acts as the scene shifts from Venice to Cyprus. The First Senator’s injunction “adieu, brave Moor, use Desdemona well” will take on, retrospectively, great poignancy. Here it may, at the very least, disturb us in its suggestion of a very different possibility.

Othello has listened to both rhyming couplets. It is not, surely, hard to guess which of them is likely to have resonated with greater force in his mind. He has already described himself as “rude” in his “speech” and declared to the Duke “little of this great world can I speak, / More than pertains to feats of broil, and battle”. Even if we understand some of these disclaimers as forms of courtly politeness, one’s sense is still that Othello is likely to identify more easily with the bluntness of Brabantio’s statement than with the complexity and obliquity of the Duke’s. This, it might be argued, is evidenced by the fact that in his response he repeats one of the rhyme words Brabantio has just used (and also, in his use of “leave”, echoes Brabantio’s “deceiv’d” and thus ties the two couplets together yet more tightly):

Bra. Look to her, Moor, have a quick eye to see:

She has deceiv’d her father, may do thee.

[Exeunt Duke, Senators, Officers, &. c

Oth. My life upon her faith: honest Iago,

My Desdemona must I leave to thee

so as to produce a quatrain rhymed aaba – the one unrhymed line-ending (which thereby takes on an odd kind of emphasis) being “Iago”. The name is emphasised as Othello adds to it the epithet “honest”, when the play’s audience have already seen and heard enough of Iago to know that the adjective is, to put it mildly, undeserved. The audience’s recognition of that fact fulfils, one might say, the symmetry set up by the two rhyming couplets heard in quick succession. That Othello is so willing to trust Iago with the fate of Desdemona constitutes an unmistakable clue that later events will show that Othello’s “virtue” (in whatever precise sense we take the word to be used) will indeed be deficient, will “lack” some “delightful beauty”. The painful demonstration of that “lack” will (as the rhyme with “black” suggests) serve to reveal that Othello is (in senses which transcend his ethnic origins) at least as much “black” as “fair”.

Swansea University, August 2011