How are the themes of knowledge of self and rhetorical power used in Shakespeare's Othello?

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vangoghfan | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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The themes of self-knowledge and rhetorical power can be seen in many places throughout Shakespeare’s tragedy Othello, and indeed Shakespeare’s treatments of these themes are so complex that they cannot easily be discussed here. One passage, however, invites particular attention.

In that passage, Othello has been summoned before the aristocrats of Venice and has been accused by one of these men, Brabantio, with the crime of using witchcraft to seduce and marry Brabantio’s daughter, Desdemona. Othello answers these charges in one of the most famous and rhetorically powerful of his speeches in the entire play. Othello begins by addressing the assembled aristocrats:

Most potent, grave, and reverend signiors,

My very noble and approved good masters,

That I have ta’en away this old man’s daughter,

It is most true; true I have married her. (1.3.76-79)

Othello speaks with quiet authority and genuine eloquence, even though he later wrongly claims, “Rude am I in my speech” (1.3.81). His rhetorical power derives from his strong self-confidence and his strong sense of self-knowledge.  At this point in the play, he knows who he is in particular and also the kind of person he wants to be. He knows his values; he knows his history; he knows his strengths; and he knows that Desdemona loves him. The speech that begins “Her father loved me” is extremely powerful rhetorically, partly for all the reasons just mentioned (1.3.127-169). Indeed, the speech is so powerful that when it concludes, the Venetian Duke comments, “I think this tale would win my daughter too” (1.3.170).  In this scene, therefore, Othello demonstrates the strong tie between self-knowledge and rhetorical power.

Ironically, another character in the first act who also demonstrates a strong tie between self-knowledge and rhetorical power is Iago.  After cleverly using rhetoric to manipulate Roderigo, Iago congratulates himself on his self-knowledge and worldly wisdom:

Thus do I ever make my fool my purse;

For I my own gained knowledge should profane

If I would time expend with such a snipe

But for my sport and profit. (1.3.372-75)

Iago is such a rhetorically powerful figure throughout the play because he knows himself so well and can therefore manipulate others so easily. His absolute self-assurance and self-knowledge allow him to use rhetoric to control others, especially those who are less and less sure of themselves, as later becomes true, ironically, even (or especially) of Othello.

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