Narrowing the Action (Act II)
One of the things that makes Othello such a powerful play is the gradual constriction of space and vision as the play progresses. It begins in "modern" Venice, a bustling international city, and it ends in the bedroom of Othello and Desdemona. It is driven at first by an external threat: that of Turkish invasion of Cyprus, but by the end all the threats are individual and personal. The Ottoman foe has been replaced by the inner demons of sexual jealousy and suspicion. Othello therefore takes us from a broad to a very condensed space, a place where one can breathe the full free air of a cosmopolitan city to one where the breath has gradually been forced out of the heroine (either by strangulation or smothering). The careful reader ends up gasping for his or her own breath as the play progresses.* We become not a little clautrophobic, too. Physical, emotional and intellectual space are confined, limited, shrunk as the action develops.
[*Great literature often uses literary means to suggest a limited intellectual space left for the main character. I have argued in another mini-essay that when Job expresses his great cry of anguish in Job 3, his awareness of the bleakness and irreverisible horror of his condition gradually shortens his sentences, almost as if he is panting for air by the time he reaches the end of the chapter. His last sentence is very flinty and brief in its 8 Hebrew words: "I am not at ease, nor am I quiet; I have no rest; but trouble comes. (Job 3:26)."]
Shakespeare's Use of "en"
I think one of Shakespeare's powerful, and unnoticed, devices for constricting intellectual and emotional space as Act II opens is the proliferation of unique terms prefaced by "en" to describe the action of the scene. He uses eight terms, six of which only appear only once in the Shakespeare corpus, to do this.*
[*Biblical scholars call a unique word a "hapax legomenon" and a collection of such words as "hapax legomena." I have never seen Shakespeare scholars use the same terminology, but when I use the term "Shakespeare hapax" below, it means that it only appears here in the Shakespeare corpus.]
When we realize that the prefix "en" is derived from the Latin "in," and that "in" has a spatial significance [inside, in the midst of], we hear the words not simply as a word in a context, such as "enfettering" meaning to "enchain" or "tie" in 2.3.345, but as a constant barrage of "en" or "in," suggestive of confinement. If Iago can tell Roderigo five times to "put money in your purse," and this is supposed to suggest a subliminal (or subliminable, if you are GW Bush) message to Roderigo to keep lining Iago's pocket with funds, then Shakespeare's more subtle use of "en" can subliminally convince us that the action is becoming focused, and limitation, rather than expanse, will be the order of the day.
Shakespeare can use "en" words which either are not unique or are not necessarily suggestive of constriction. For example, when Brabantio says that his particular grief "engluts and swallows other sorrows (1.3.57)," nothing particularly limiting is suggested, even though Shakespeare only uses "engluts" (swallows) three times. The same can be said for his use of "engendered" (1.3.403--four times in all of Shakespeare) or "ensue" (2.3.10, about 20 times).
But his use of the following eight words in Act II, almost all of which are the only appearance of the term in Shakespeare and some even are the first usages of this term in English, suggest to me that he wants to do something with the "en" that is quite subtle: like the "en" in "encircle" or "enclose," he wants not simply "engage" us, but to "enfetter" our hearts and minds. The words are the following:
(1) "enchafed" (enrage or chafe in 2.1.17, one other usage in Shakespeare)--"I never did like molestation view/ On the enchafed flood."
(2) "enshelter'd" (sheltered or covered from injury, in 2.1.18, Shakespeare hapax)--"If that the Turkish fleet/ Be not enshelter'd and embay'd, they are drown'd..."
(3) "embay'd" (land-locked, in 2.1.18, Shakespeare hapax)--"If that the Turkish fleet/ Be not enshelter'd and embay'd, they are drown'd..."
(4) "ensteep'd" (immerse, lie under water, in 2.1.70, Shakespeare hapax)--"The gutter'd rocks and congregated sands,/ Traitors ensteep'd to enclog the guiltless keel."
(5) "enclog" (encumber, check, in 2.1.70, Shakespeare hapax)'--"The gutter'd rocks and congregated sands,/ Traitors ensteep'd to enclog the guiltless keel."
(6) "enwheel" (surround, encompass, in 2.1.87, Shakespeare hapax)--"Before, behind thee, and on every hand,/ Enwheel thee round!"
(7) "engraffed" [or "ingraft"] (rooted, fixed deep, in 2.3.140, three other appearances in Shakespeare)--"Should hazard such a place as his own second/ With one of an ingraft (engraffed) infirmity."
(8) "enfetter'd" (enchain, tie, in 2.3.345, Shakespeare hapax)--"His soul is so enfetter'd to her love."
By the end of Act II, then, we not only are in a more geographically limited space, the island of Cyprus, but we are literarily more enclosed. The "ens" have done it!
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long