Analysing Iago’s weasel words using rhetoric and pragmatics (research digest)


Reading time: 7 minutes


• Summary of the paper
• Keller on Iago’s weasel words
• Using this in teaching and learning
• Reading suggestions

Summary of the paper

Stefan Keller combines ancient rhetoric and three contemporary linguistic theories – speech act theory, relevance theory and politeness theory – to explore Iago’s language in act 3, scene 3 of Othello. These linguistic theories have been introduced in some of our previous blog entries. Links to these posts can be found at the end of this section. Keller illustrates how these theories can be used alongside an understanding of classical rhetoric to analyse the language of Shakespeare and to gain insight into his characters, their communication styles and their relationships.

Keller on Iago’s weasel words

The sophistication and breadth of Shakespeare’s use of rhetorical figures suggests, according to Keller and others, that Shakespeare was among several Renaissance writers who were well-versed in these classical models (handbooks of which, such as Henry Peacham’s The Garden of Eloquence (1593), were very popular at the time). As Keller notes, classical rhetoric focusses on techniques available to monologic oration. Pragmatic models of communication, though, can also accommodate conversational dialogue, and pay attention to the communicative context. Pragmatic models are therefore in some ways more appropriate for analysis of drama, and provide a useful addition to classical rhetoric in the study of Shakespearian dialogue. This is particularly the case for Othello, where Iago’s disturbing manipulation of Othello, through conversation alone, is at the heart of the play.

As Keller writes, the ‘challenge for Iago is to achieve his appalling goal while appearing to be helpful and unobtrusive’ (405). His success relies on his ability to guide Othello to infer meaning from what he says (and doesn’t say), while the surface meaning of his speech allows for plausible deniability. Keller cites Grice’s co-operative principle (within speech act theory): “Make your conversational contribution such as is required, at the stage at which it occurs, by the accepted purpose or direction of the talk exchange in which you are engaged.” (Grice 1989: 13) Speakers can (and very often do) purposefully and meaningfully violate this principle, by being obscure or by overtly exaggerating, for example, to invite inference. Inference essentially works through the hearer

a) noticing that the what the speaker has said isn’t as clear, informative, honest or relevant as one might expect (in accordance with the co-operative principle);

b) assuming that the speaker is therefore trying to communicate something more through this obfuscation; and

c) trying to work out (led by what the speaker has said) what else the speaker might be trying to suggest.

Often inference works through the hearer trying to make sense of how the speaker’s words are relevant to the topic of conversation.

Keller draws out some illustrative examples of Iago’s style of conversational manipulation, and analyses them in relation to classical rhetoric, the co-operative principle, and ideas from relevance theory and politeness theory. He gives an example of Iago’s self-interruption (the rhetorical figure of aposiopesis) in which Iago overtly denies the import and relevance of what he has said, refusing to directly answer Othello, leaving Othello to wonder about and try to infer why Iago is being obscure.

IAGO:           Ha, I like not that.
OTHELLO:  What dost thou say?
IAGO:           Nothing, my lord; or if – I know not what. (3.3.34-6)

Othello continues, ‘Was that not Cassio parted from my wife?’, to which Iago responds:
Cassio, my lord? no, sure, I cannot think it
That he would steal away so guilty-like
Seeing you coming. (3.3.38-40)

Both of Iago’s responses here also involve paralipsis, which Keller defines as ‘pretending to pass over a matter in order to give it more emphasis’ (403). Iago could simply have replied ‘Yes’ or ‘I think so’ to Othello’s second question here. Instead, Othello is directed by the length of Iago’s reply to infer that Iago feels this extra detail is important. Significantly, ‘I cannot think it’ is not ‘I do not think it’, which allows for the inference (among other possible inferences) that maybe he does think this, but something stops him from wanting to. Iago also adds a description of the manner of Cassio’s supposed departure, ‘steal[ing] away’ (neatly evoking associations of theft), ‘guilty-like’ on (and therefore implicitly in reaction to) ‘seeing [Othello] coming’. As Keller says, ‘by denying the relevance of Cassio’s behaviour, Iago makes it all the more relevant for Othello’, that is, by implying that it would make no sense for Cassio to behave that way, Iago leads Othello to consider why Cassio might behave that way – to infer the contextual relevance of such behaviour (403).
Iago begins his second response here by partly echoing Othello’s words (‘Cassio, my lord?’). This rhetorical figure is called anadiplosis, and it occurs twice as often in Othello as it does in Hamlet, and three times as often as it does in King Lear (Keller, 404, n.). Keller cites the following exchange:

OTHELLO:   Is he [Cassio] not honest?
IAGO:            Honest, my lord?
OTHELLO:   Honest? Ay, honest.
IAGO:            My lord, for aught I know.
OTHELLO:   What does though think?
IAGO:            Think, my lord?
OTHELLO:   Think, my lord! By heaven, though echo’st me
As if there were some monster in my thought
Too hideous to be shown. (3.3.103-11)

On the surface, direct repetition does not add meaning, but only repeats it. The meaningfulness of repetition therefore lies in what can be inferred from the act of repetition itself within the context of the conversation. The exclamation at the end of Othello’s repetition of ‘Think, my lord!’ leading into his direct comments on Iago’s echoing, serves to signal his frustration, for example. Iago’s responses here, though, are more controlled: they could be an act of double-checking he has heard Othello correctly, but this in itself suggests Iago does not believe or understand what he is hearing, hence the need to check. Othello picks up on this implied incredulity, and the sub-textual suggestion, in turn, that his own thinking is too deviant to be easily understood or shared.

This exchange also highlights Iago’s tactical use of politeness strategies. Keller notes that this scene involves ‘the highest frequency of “my lord” vocatives from Iago in the play’ (406). These vocatives serve as ‘on record’ (overt) ‘positive politeness’, affirming that the addressee is liked, and that his or her wants are shared and supported, etc. Iago also often uses ‘negative politeness’, apologising and making excuses for possibly causing offence (through lines such as ‘my lord, pardon me’, 3.3.13, and ‘I do beseech you … [to ] take no notice’, 3.3.147-53). He also suggests potentially offensive things only indirectly, or ‘off record’ – that is, ‘in such a way that it is not possible to attribute only one clear communicative intention’ to the utterance (Brown and Levinson, 1994: 70). Keller describes Iago’s strategy here as ‘suggestive obscurity’ (Keller, 407).
As in the previous extract, Othello increasingly names and makes explicit what he perceives to be Iago’s implicit suggestions. He even states

Exchange me for a goat
When I shall turn the business of my soul
To such exsufflicate and blown surmises,
Matching thy inference. (3.3.183-6)

It would appear, in moments such as these, that Iago has failed in in his attempts to stay on the side of subtle suggestion and have Othello feel responsible for his own inferences. These moments are fleeting, however, as suggested by Othello’s subsequent plea that Iago speaks ‘With franker spirit’ (3.3.198). Iago’s deniability remains just plausible enough for Othello to be torn between self-loathing and suspicion.

Keller’s article usefully illustrates how some contemporary linguistic theories can take textual study beyond labelling rhetorical figures to analysing how the utterances these figures actually function to create the play’s powerful effects.

Brown, Penelope, and Stephen C. Levinson. Politeness. Some Universals in Language Use. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Grice, Paul, Studies in the Way of Words. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1989.

This is a research digest of the following article: Keller, Stefan D., ‘Combining Rhetoric and Pragmatics to Read Othello’, English Studies, 91.4 (2010): 398–411.

Using this in teaching and learning

The ideas below suggest how you can use this research digest to support your teaching of Othello on AQA’s A-level English Language and Literature specification. You could also adapt the ideas to any of the other plays studied on Dramatic Encounters and to supporting students preparing for NEA (Making Connections).

1. As a starting point in exploring inference and politeness in Othello, students can

a) look at one exchange where a response is not directly relevant to the preceding utterance, and list the possible inferences that are available, thinking about how it could be relevant to the conversational context. These inferences can then be put in order from ‘strong’ (most plausible inference) to ‘weak’ (least plausible inference), and the students can discuss and justify their ordering. This activity will help students to better understand the process of inferencing and different degrees of inference.

b) look at one instance of politeness in the play, and discuss what aspect of the hearer’s personality or position is being overtly or covertly appealed to or protected. This will help students understand how characters use language to relate to each other, and to position themselves and each other in relationships.

2. Keller points out that ‘strictly speaking, “off-record” utterances are impossible in drama, as the audience is always fully aware of Iago’s intentions’ (406). Students can explore the added complexity of conversational implicature and inference in the context of drama, where there is a double layer of communication (character to character, and playwright to audience), and at least two communicative contexts – here one in which Othello knows certain information, and one in which the audience knows far more. These different communicative contexts guide inference differently for different hearers. Students can visually map out these layers/contexts of communication. They can then go further to explore the relationships between inference and ‘dramatic irony’ in this play and others. This will help students understand how meaning is communicated in drama.

3. Othello himself, in shining the spotlight on the subtext, is shown in this scene (and elsewhere) to speak frankly, in marked contrast to Iago. Keller begins and ends his study of this play with attention to the plain speaking of Desdemona and Emilia, which is similarly cast as all the more admirable in contrast to Iago’s sophistry. Desdemona and Emilia do speak with rhetorical skill (employing a range of classical figures), but, Keller implies, with none of the insidious and off record strategies of Iago. This is not to say that their communication does not involve and invite inference (as most communication does), but that their explicit and implicit communication is working in a different balance, and to different ends. In this light, the communication styles of Desdemona and Emilia could offer a route into the gender politics of the play. Students can investigate literary criticism which discusses the play’s gender politics, including feminist readings, and can explore how far and in what ways the communication styles of Desdemona and Emilia can account for these readings.

Reading suggestions

Some of the related blog entries listed at the top of this research digest provide suggestions for reading on these pragmatic theories (relevance theory, politeness theory and speech act theory).

  • A research digest on ‘Implicature and literary texts’, summarising an article by Adrian Pilkington on ‘Poetic Effects’ from Lingua1 (1992): 29-51 (posted on 28/09/2016)
  • A research digest on ‘Impoliteness and entertainment’, summarising an article by Jonathan Culpeper, ‘Impoliteness and entertainment in the television quiz show: The Weakest Link’ from Journal of Politeness Research 1 (2005): 35-72 (posted on 06/04/2016)
  • Classroom activities on ‘Understanding implicatures’ (posted on 17/11/2016)
  • Reading suggestions on ‘Politeness and impoliteness’ (posted on 17/06/2016)

Keller points readers towards other works specifically on politeness theory and Othello:

  • Brown, Roger, and Albert Gilman. ‘Politeness Theory and Shakespeare’s Four Major Tragedies.’ Language in Society 18 (1989): 159–212
  • Busse, Ulrich. Linguistic Variation in the Shakespeare Corpus. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2002
  • Kopytko, Roman. ‘Linguistic Politeness Strategies in Shakespeare’s Plays.’ In Historical Pragmatics, edited by A. H. Jucker. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 1995
  • Magnusson, Lynne. Shakespeare and Social Dialogue. Dramatic Language and Elizabethan Letters. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999

For work using speech act theory and the co-operative principle to explore Shakespeare’s work, see

  • Fish, Stanley. ‘How to do Things with Austin and Searle: Speech Act Theory and Literary Criticism.’ Modern Language Notes 91 (1976): 983–1025
  • Gilbert, Anthony. ‘Techniques of Persuasion in Julius Caesar and Othello.’ Neophilologus 81 (1997): 309–23