Othello, 3.3.347-75 (“give me the ocular proof”)

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 plumèd 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.

Is’t possible, my lord?

Villain, be sure thou prove my love a whore!
Be sure of it; give me the ocular proof;

[He seizes Iago by the throat]
Or, by the worth of mine eternal soul,
Thou hadst been better have been born a dog
Than answer my waked wrath!

Is ’t come to this?

Make me to see ’t, or at the least so prove it
That the probation bear no hinge nor loop
To hang a doubt on, or woe upon thy life!

My noble lord—

If thou dost slander her and torture me,
Never pray more. Abandon all remorse;
On horror’s head horrors accumulate;
Do deeds to make heaven weep, all Earth amazed;
For nothing canst thou to damnation add
Greater than that.

There are so many iconic music/sound moments in this play that I hope we’ll get to talk about, hopefully via people’s exercises (the drinking songs, the Willow Song, the importance of vocal dynamics to Iago’s trickery, the handkerchief refrain, etc.). But this moment of Othello the orator caught my attention, particularly the lines I’ve bolded above (which I also used for my sound representation below.)

I was struck how Othello here creates an aural soundscape in his lament (/valediction?/elegy?), with quasi-onomatopoeic descriptors of the sounds of war: the syncopated /s/s and /r/s of “spirit-stirring,” the bray of “neighing.” Why is it sound that Othello ultimately latches onto, contrasted against the other lesser-developed senses of taste (“tasted her sweet body”) and sight (“plumed troops,” “royal banner”)? (We’d do well to recall that it is Othello’s visuals “of antres vast and deserts idle,” rendered enchanting by his eloquence, that make his life story in 1.3 so memorable.) Of course, this intense inventory of sound here highlights by contrast Othello’s call for “ocular proof,” and his obsession with “seeing” Desdemona’s treachery, a treachery that has its basis only in false words, which in turn warp the visual reality Othello “sees.”

In a description extending two full lines, cannons (“mortal engines”) are personified as having “throats” that mimic the sound of thunder, an image swiftly followed by a literal throat: Iago’s, seized by Othello in a stage direction. The supreme irony is that through this action, Othello unwittingly identifies the very “mortal engine”—Iago’s vocal cords—that is the instrument of his demise; to dovetail off of Yan’s post, Othello, for a brief moment, silences the whispering devil that has been pouring lies into his ear, with Iago managing only to squeak out impotent half-lines at best. (The Kenneth Branagh film version makes this dynamic all the more explicit by cutting Iago’s lines entirely and having Othello steamroll through his speech at an increasing pitch, as he chokes and nearly drowns Iago.)

I was curious as to how phonemes are operating in this passage that takes up sound as its subject and voice in its staging, and thought I’d take a stab at testing Smith’s claim that “volume control is written into scripts for the stage” (226). Given Othello’s affective range in this passage (as opposed to the level-headed storyteller we see in Act 1), how does the passage’s phonemic composition script volume? Using Smith’s chart on p. 226, I came up with the following color coding system for visualizing the relative intensities of the various phonemes:

I encountered many methodological challenges, and this is a rough approximation for sure, riddled with errors and best guesses. But it shows some connections I may not have made as a reader otherwise: the least intense phonemic combinations are concentrated in the beginning and end of the passage, giving the overall passage the visual shape of a bell curve; the first two lines I analyzed lack the intense /o/ sounds that pepper the rest of the lines and reach an apex arguably in “whore”—a keyword in the play that comes to describe each female character. “Whore” is doubly emphasized by echoing the sounds of Iago’s “lord” in the previous line and offsetting the high volume vowel with the low volume fricative /h/. We can also draw connections between words based on their comparable intensities (“all” and “war”) or sound progression (e.g., those words like “steed,” “trump,” “spirit,” “pride,” and “pomp,” beginning and ending with low-volume consonants).

I think we could productively question how far this exercise is useful or practical for depicting the sound/volume of lines that have so many other factors determining their shape; I’m interested in the tension between such an idealized phonemical analysis and the overall delivery choices that go into an actor’s performance, not to mention complicating factors like historical linguistic changes and regional accents. I’m wondering, though, if this sort of phonemical analysis could help us broaden literary concepts such as alliteration or assonance to encompass the physiological similarities between sound families, which give the line its sonic texture and seem to call for a certain kind of delivery? (One can hear Othello bitterly spitting out the plosives and fricatives that begin each word in “hadst been better have been born a dog.”) In other words, how do phonemes generate an affective register? How much is predicated on the contextual/relational?

I’m interested to hear people’s thoughts on how phonemes, onomatopoeia, and soundscape are functioning here, alongside or against Othello’s other oratorical moments in the play.


MND Passage: Fairy Speech (Mary)

I’ve chosen another Puck (+ fairies) passage, starting some lines up from Puck’s famous epilogue, but I think it dovetails nicely with Eli’s. 

Enter Robin Goodfellow with a broom


Now the hungry lion roars,
And the wolf behowls the moon,
Whilst the heavy ploughman snores,
All with weary task fordone.
Now the wasted brands do glow,
Whilst the screech-owl, screeching loud,
Puts the wretch that lies in woe
In remembrance of a shroud.
Now it is the time of night
That the graves, all gaping wide,
Every one lets forth his sprite,
In the church-way paths to glide;
And we fairies, that do run
By the triple Hecate’s team
From the presence of the sun,
Following darkness like a dream,
Now are frolic. Not a mouse
Shall disturb this hallowed house.
I am sent with broom before
To sweep the dust behind the door.

Enter Oberon and Titania, King and Queen of Fairies, with all their train


Through the house give glimmering light.
By the dead and drowsy fire
Every elf and fairy sprite
Hop as light as bird from brier,
And this ditty after me
Sing, and dance it trippingly.


First, rehearse your song by rote,
To each word a warbling note;
Hand in hand, with fairy grace,
Will we sing, and bless this place.

[The song. The fairies dance]


Now until the break of day,
Through this house each fairy stray.
To the best bride bed will we,
Which by us shall blessèd be,
And the issue there create
Ever shall be fortunate.
So shall all the couples three
Ever true in loving be,
And the blots of Nature’s hand
Shall not in their issue stand.
Never mole, harelip, nor scar,
Nor mark prodigious, such as are
Despisèd in nativity,
Shall upon their children be.
With this field-dew consecrate,
Every fairy take his gait,
And each several chamber bless,
Through this palace, with sweet peace;
And the owner of it blessed
Ever shall in safety rest.
Trip away, make no stay,
Meet me all by break of day.

Exeunt all but Robin Goodfellow


If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended:
That you have but slumbered here,
While these visions did appear;
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend.
If you pardon, we will mend.
And, as I am an honest puck,
If we have unearnèd luck
Now to ’scape the serpent’s tongue,
We will make amends ere long;
Else the puck a liar call.
So, good night unto you all.
Give me your hands, if we be friends,
And Robin shall restore amends.                Exit       (5.1.362-429)

If we’re thinking about what makes a character’s speech distinctive, I chose this passage because at this point, all the fairies sound the same; this is generic fairy-speak at its fairy-est. Part of this is the meter—the tripping catalectic (thank you Hope & Witmore for this word) trochaic tetrameter is earlier in the play employed mostly by Puck, but also by Oberon, whenever they do something incantatory or mischievous; for “serious” matters or conversations, as in Eli’s passage, they use a more courtly iambic pentameter. The former is, of course, the same meter used by the witches in Macbeth; my question is, is the effect of a “sickening see-saw rhythm” that L. C. Knights describes an intrinsic quality to the meter? My hunch is no. The insistent stress of “Now…” that opens many of the lines above feels instead like it’s keeping the time for the dance. I wish I could use Wordhoard for prosodic concordance, to see where else Shakespeare employs this meter, but alas, this feature isn’t available for Shakespeare’s corpus.

Diction might also contribute, and this leads me to more DH findings. I ran two log-likelihood comparisons on Wordhoard: MND against Shakespeare’s corpus (first two figures), and MND against the comedies only (third figure).

MND against corpus
MND against corpus (cont.)
MND against comedies

These charts show that this passage incorporates many of the words that make up the unique verbal texture of the play: brier, lion, through, fairy, elf, night, to name a few. It makes sense that the most unique words are those uttered by either the fairies or rustics. (Note the words that made the list by virtue of Bottom’s repetition, e.g. “monsieur.”)

“Through” is an interesting case, at least for a non-Early Modern-specialist like me. At the beginning of 2.1, the unnamed Fairy uses the disyllabic spelling “Thorough” instead of “Through.” I used the EEBO N-gram browser to graph which spelling was more common, and found that “through” really spiked after ~1510.

That the lemma “through” should be more commonly found in MND than in the rest of Shakespeare’s corpus is perhaps notable, too; it’s one of those common words we probably wouldn’t notice an increase in without stylometrics. As its usage in the passage above shows, the preposition suggests the “fairy” qualities of quickness, transparency, permeability.

Just a final note. I felt like I kept hearing the fairies drop “be” in interesting ways all over the place, so I used Wordhoard’s nifty “mortality” filter to compare how often “immortal or supernatural” creatures in the play use it, versus use by “mortals.” Well, the mortals use it almost twice as often (66x verses 39x). But looking at the concordances of these instances showed that the fairies more frequently use “be” at the end of a line (cf. “Lord, what fools these mortals be!” as well as instances by Oberon in the passage above.) This stress on the word, and the propensity to pair it with a rhyming word in a couplet, made “be” stand out in the fairy speeches during my first-pass reading—something I misinterpreted as word frequency before looking at the numbers.

I had many failed experiments with CQPweb. While it seems powerful in theory, I can’t seem to get it to function properly.

Thanks for reading this far. Looking forward to hearing everyone else’s findings in class!