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by Jeet Heer

From Homer to Hip-Hop

The Jesuit scholar Walter Ong studied the evolution of human consciousness via the history of communication.

Othello was no ordinary wife-killer. Usually a murderous husband will slaughter his mate in a blind and inarticulate rage. Yet there is nothing inarticulate in that great and terrible scene in Shakespeare's play where Othello strangles his wife Desdemona after being wrongly convinced that she was unfaithful to him. To be sure, by this point in the play Othello's mind has already been warped and poisoned by the machinations of his underling Iago, yet even in his mental fog Othello remains supremely eloquent, a man who uses words to understand and shape experience.

As he enters Desdemona's chambers, where she lies sleeping, Othello sees a burning light. This sets him off on a beautiful soliloquy, full of tortured doubt, on the difference between blowing out a light (an act easy to reverse) and extinguishing a human soul (an irrevocable deed). When Desdemona awakens, husband and wife talk at length, although at cross-purposes, about guilt and judgment (both human and divine). Only after these agonizing moments of discourse and dialogue is Desdemona killed.

Living in a visual culture, we are struck by the fact that the death of Desdemona is very slow and talky. Any Hollywood hack could draft a scene that moves more quickly—perhaps with tight close-ups on Othello's hands and Desdemona's neck. Yet for Othello, no less than his creator Shakespeare, death without speechmaking is almost unthinkable.

As the literary critic Hugh Kenner once noted, Othello, like all of Shakespeare's heroes, was imbued with a gift highly prized by Renaissance gentlemen: copiousness, the ability to take command over language even in moments of crisis and pain. To be sure, most Shakespearean characters have the gift of tongue, but the great heroes (notably Hamlet and Lear) are particularly distinguished by their powers of oratory. They are never at a loss for words and always find phrases to embody their perceptions and feelings.

Shakespeare lived in a deeply oral culture, although one in which print ...

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