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Voice Potential: Language and Symbolic Capital in Othello

(Shakespearean Criticism)

'Voice Potential': Language and Symbolic Capital in Othello

Lynne Magnusson, University of Waterloo, Ontario

Before Brabanzio complains to the Venetian senators of Othello's marriage, Iago warns Othello that 'the magnifico is much beloved, / And hath in his effect a voice potential / As double as the Duke's'. Brabanzio's words will exert power—the power to 'divorce you, / Or put upon you . . . restraint or grievance' (1.2. 12--5). Their power, however, will depend not upon Brabanzio's rhetorical skill but instead upon his social position—that is, both on his aristocratic status ('magnifico') and on the accumulated credit he has with his auditors ('much beloved'). How his speech is received will depend less on what he says than on the social site from which it is uttered. Othello rebuts Iago's position, but he does not dispute Iago's pre-supposition that linguistic competence counts for less than rank or otherwise attributed status in this matter of 'voice potential': 'My services which I have done the signory', he responds, 'Shall out-tongue his complaints' (1.2.18-19). In the event, Othello's voice does outweigh Brabanzio's, with an unanticipated element affecting the reception of their discourse and the outcome of the scene: that is, the exigency of the military threat to Cyprus.

In 'The Economics of Linguistic Exchanges', the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu develops a market analogy to explain how utterances receive their values in particular contexts and how, in turn, the conditions of reception affect discourse production. Giving discourse pragmatics a sociological turn, he asks questions critical to the Senate scene and to other situations in Othello: whose speech is it that gets recognized? whose speech is listened to and obeyed? who remains silent? and whose speech fails to gain attention or credit? In Bourdieu's account, language in any situation will be worth what those who speak it are deemed to be worth: its price will depend on the symbolic power relation between the speakers, on their respective levels of 'symbolic capital'.1 The price a speaker receives for his or her discourse will not, however, be an invariable function of class position or relative status, even in a rigidly hierarchical society. Instead, as Othello's positive reception in the context of the Turkish threat suggests, the price will vary with varying market conditions.

Focusing on a reading of the Senate scene (1.3) and other public situations, in this paper I will sketch out the complex and variable linguistic market that shapes and refigures 'voice potential' in Othello. Gender, class, race, necessity, linguistic ingenuity and a number of other competing measures enter into the moment-by-moment relations of symbolic power that affect discourse value—that affect, for example, how Brabanzio's charges against Othello or Desdemona's request to accompany Othello to Cyprus are heard. This paper will explore not only discourse reception in Othello, but also the force within Shakespeare's play of Bourdieu's hypothesis that a person's discourse production is conditioned by anticipatory adjustments to discourse reception. Finally, I will focus on Iago as a rhetorician and argue for a new perspective on Iago's rhetorical performance in terms of his efforts to manipulate the linguistic market in Othello.

In enunciating a sociology of speech in opposition to formal linguistics, Bourdieu argues that 'Language is not only an instrument of communication or even of knowledge, but also an instrument of power. A person speaks not only to be understood but also to be believed, obeyed, respected, distinguished.'2 One main event in Act I of Othello is the contest of voices between Brabanzio and Othello. What is at issue between them is whose voice will be given credit, whose voice will have power to shape the ensuing course of events. This criterion for evaluating a particular discourse is foregrounded even before Brabanzio and Othello enter the Senate chamber, as the...

(The entire section is 5,113 words.)