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'Dangerous Conceits Are in Their Natures Poisons': The Language of Othello In his perceptive review ofM.M. Mahood's Shakespeare's Wordplay G.K. Hunter makes the provocative suggestion that there is a book to be written, 'a Romantic and moving tale of love and hate between the Bard and the Word - Shakespeare's verbal vision of evil, when words cease to mean what they say." Although such a publication is still to emerge, when it does a notable chapter will surely be devoted to Othello, the play which perhaps more than any other 'words' us. In Othello language itself is made a Janus. Words are inverted, perverted, and ultimately even rendered meaningless, and with the corruption of the real worth of language comes that of the honour and honesty in the nature of the men who hear and speak it. Significant contributions in word studies have already been made. Mahood, for example (although surprisingly she deals with Othello only in passing), has noted the verbal shift from safety to peril in Othello's expression of confidence in lago: A man he is of honesty and trust. To his conveyance I assign my wife (I.iii.284-S)2 when conveyance adopts its 'secondary Elizabethan meaning' - ' trickery ,'3 The shift becomes even more ominous when more explicit nuances of the word are allowed to spill out: 'deceit'; 'riddance'; and, most important, 'stealth,' because of the implications of illicit sexuality.4 And to this does the Moor assign Desdemona; he not only 'transfers' her, hands her over to his ancient, but 'points her out,' 'designates'S her to be the means for lago's obscene assault. If this vision of evil in conveyance and assign seems overwhelming, examine other key words in the passage and the linguistic floodgates open to even darker depths of verbal and thematic interplay. Consider the word honesty in the preceding line. Its immediate irony is grotesque. Although this is the first time the word is applied to lago (he is again called honest a mere ten lines later), the audience has not seen him as anything other than a dangerous hypocrite. In addition, for the Elizabethan audience the word honesty had specific connotations. Paul Jorgensen has traced the development in the language of dramatic and UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO QUARTERLY, VOLUME XLIX , NUMBER 4, SUMMER 1980 0042-0247/80/0800-03°4 $01.50/0 © UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO PRESS 1n1::. LANl.:i UAGE OF Utnello 305 non-dramatic English literature into the seventeenth century of a dichotomy between honesty and knavery. He shows that the question 'How may one know an honest man from a knave?' was an urgent Elizabethan concern and concludes, 'The play of Othello must, then, have represented a provocative study in a subject of current interest, with a special connotation added by the popular drama, A Knack to Know a Knave.'" Certainly Shakespeare's presentation of the subject depends upon an accepted substitution for the true meaning of the word honesty with that of its linguistic opposite 'knavery.' The word had simply ceased to mean what it said. And what about and trust in the same line? I suggest that by elision the words become perverted to 'untrussed: meaning 'with the points untied : 'sexually exposed." Autolycus uses the same word association and bawdy innuendo in The Winter's Tale (VI, iv, 595-6). Thus, the Moor's lines become a mental vision of the evil to come: A man he is of knavery freed from sexual restraint, For his unlicenced stealth do Ipoint out my wife. Iago's targets for his knavery will be, in turn, Roderigo, Brabantio, Cassia, and, finally, Othello, each of them a man with strong conceptions of his own worth and manhood. The common denominator between them is a relationship with Desdemona. Linguistic hypocrisy will be the method of Iago's assault on their sense of personal and public merit and Desdemona the instrument. Hilda M. Hulme in her study Explorations in Shakespeare's Language repeats a truism which one of her mentors used: 'A word is known by the company it keeps.'8 In this case honesty is the initial virus and the other words in proximity 'take...


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