- The Improbability of “Othello”: Rhetorical Anthropology and Shakespearean Selfhood
The subject of Joel Altman’s new book is the conflation of probability and truth in Othello, which it amplifies and makes cogent through a wealth of contexts— rhetorical, philosophical, dramaturgical, and social, to name a few. Supplemented with illustrations from Shakespeare’s other plays, especially those that circumscribe the writing of Othello, The Improbability of “Othello” describes aspects of early modern subjectivity that result from the “impact of Iago on Othello,” that is, from characters’ responses to the realization that truth is comprised of mere contingency and evidence of likelihood (22).
Like Altman’s earlier book, The Tudor Play of Mind (1978), which traces Elizabethan drama to the rhetorical tradition of arguing questions in utramque partem—on both sides—his new book also begins by connecting the classical and the early modern in what he calls the “rhetorical anthropology” of Shakespearean theater. Rhetorical anthropology is “an account of human behavior” that locates judgment between the tension of “ingenious” interpretation of material—extemporary, reliant on circumstance, and, importantly, subjectively “interested” in the outcome—and “apodeictic” interpretation—the demonstration of material as if it were self-evident, regardless of circumstance (21). The role of circumstance, here, is essential to Altman’s definition of the early modern self as it is dramatized in Othello. It is a self “determined by its address to the world” (20). He asserts that the play’s various fractures in evidence, judgment, race, and time are intentional and aim to tease out related fractures in early modern selfhood. Such fractures result from a subjectivity that is only ever intelligible in contact with particular circumstances. Therefore, embracing Thomas Rymer’s famous critique that the play is “fraught with improbabilities” yet rejecting the claim that it is “without salt or savour,” Altman argues that the conflation of probability and truth in Shakespearean drama is both a problem and a reality; it is a problem when its rhetorical manipulation allows Iago to incisively distort Othello’s perception [End Page 442] of the people and objects around him toward a tragic end, but it is susceptible to such sophistry precisely because knowledge on the Shakespearean stage is constituted by measuring probabilities.
The book is comprised of five parts, each with multiple chapters. Part 1 searches the rhetorical background of Iago’s and Othello’s respective speech habits, the one characteristically ingenious and the other apodeictic. Altman’s account of Shakespeare’s rhetorical inheritance examines the works of Greek sophists, especially Protagoras and Plato, to show how Iago’s rhetorical handle on Othello’s situation and disposition (kairos) causes Othello to abandon questions of probability for false certitude. Othello’s error also results from the rhetorical construction of ethos. Altman describes Shakespeare as “the perceptive heir to Cicero” on account of Othello’s ill-fated preference for the constancy of his reputation and ethics over the world of probability (69). Part 2 further explores the logic that confuses likelihood and truth by describing early modern education in the dialectical tandem of invention and judgment, particularly as articulated by Agricola. This section takes up the Shakespearean phrase most central to Altman’s book—the conflation of the “apt and true”—and explains it through a logic of rhetoric, namely, Iago’s linguistic maneuvers from the possible to the factual.
Part 3 can be thought of as the book’s transition from uncovering Shakespeare’s rhetorical heritage to integrating this reading with Shakespeare’s physical and social dramatic contexts. It begins with an especially elucidating chapter that introduces the Christian concept of the will into rhetorical anthropology. Through an extended comparison of the Pauline sentiment—that he wills what is good yet still does evil—with Iago’s inflections of “I am not what I am,” Altman resumes the threading together of rhetoric and ontology that he began in his discussion of ethos. He alleges that the distinctly Christian character of the play is found in this Pauline fragmentation of the self (ontologically) as it is...