Shakespeare's Language by Frank Kermode

Shakespeare's Language by Frank Kermode

Author:Frank Kermode
Language: eng
Format: epub
ISBN: 9780141939483
Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd
Published: 2013-03-03T16:00:00+00:00


I therefore apprehend and do attach thee

For an abuser of the world, a practicer

Of arts inhibited and out of warrant.


There is another trace of the device in the senators’ war council (“Neglecting an attempt of ease and gain / To wake and wage a danger profitless” [I.iii.29–30]). Later instances are Brabantio’s “a judgment main’d and most imperfect” (99), “thin habits and poor likelihoods” (108), “indirect and forced courses” (111). The Duke calls the proposed expedition “stubborn and boist’rous” (228) and Othello refers, in Hamletian vein, to “the flinty and steel couch of war” (230), asking for Desdemona “such accommodation and besort / As levels with her breeding” (238-39); and, in a very strained expression, referring to his sight as “My speculative and offic’d instruments” (270). Desdemona, addressing the Senate, catches the habit in her speech proclaiming her part in the wooing: “That I did love the Moor to live with him, / My downright violence, and storm of fortunes, / May trumpet to the world” (I.iii.248-50). Here her own sense that the unconventionality of her choice amounts to a kind of social violence is emphasised by hendiadys (“My down-right violence, and storm”). Later we have “quality and respect,” “honesty and trust” (I.iii.282,284), “worldy matter and direction” (299), and so on. The habit has spread to almost every character, but examples become harder to find as the play discovers and develops its own dialect, becomes less fond of semantic collision and contraction.

Hamlet can be coarsely bawdy, and seems to mean to offend Ophelia by being so, but although in future plays Shakespeare was to be capable of rendering deep sexual disgust (for example in Troilus and Cressida, Timon of Athens, and The Winter’s Tale, and in one or two sonnets) Iago is probably his most disgusted and disgusting character, claiming precedence over Thersites and Apemantus by virtue of his centrality to an action of which he is indeed the sole agent. Mention of Desdemona having sex is all that is needed to make him talk dirty: Othello “hath boarded a land carract” (I.ii.50) means that he has gone aboard her, almost as an act of piracy or rape, as if any other explanation of the relationship were out of the question. The scene ends with a prose discussion between Iago and Roderigo, and here Iago offers the young man he means to push deeper into corruption an account of his beliefs and habits. Although it may suggest a similar self-hatred, this confession in no way resembles the Credo written by Boito for Verdi, which makes of Iago a gloomy nineteenth-century atheist. Yet it does offer a kind of philosophy.

Roderigo is in love with Desdemona, and Iago cannot think of love as anything but lust: the beloved object is a guinea hen, a loose or worthless woman; the lover is behaving like a baboon. Roderigo claims that it is not in his “virtue” or nature to stop being “fond,” whereupon Iago delivers an extraordinary speech comparing the body to a garden, considered as a piece of coarse nature that the gardener, or human will, can amend.


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