A Relevance-Theoretic Analysis of the Temptation Scene in Shakespeareʼs "Othello"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2013 26 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Linguistics


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Othello and the Temptation Scene

3. Relevance Theory

4. Analysis of the Temptation Scene

5. Conclusion

Works Cited

1. Introduction

The means of communication keep linguistics and literary studies occupied. They both try to conceive how we understand each other, how we extract meaning from utterances and how we use language to affect people in a predictable way. In the following, a linguistic theory encounters a literary text. Relevance theory as a cognitive pragmatic concept meets Othello by William Shakespeare. The focus of this paper is the linguistic analysis of the so called "temptation scene", in which the villain Iago manipulates Othello skilfully and only by the use of language.

The objective of the analysis is to gain a deeper understanding of how the means of communication can succeed in altering and manipulating the beliefs of an individual as it occurs in Othello. The analysis scrutinises Iago’s utterances and communicative strategies as well as the underlying comprehension and inference processes by Othello. Relevance theory as an inferential model of human communication serves as a pragmatic framework for the analysis.

The first part of this paper introduces Othello, the object of the examination. The play’s plot, the characters and the temptation scene are briefly analysed from a literary perspective. In the following, the main points of relevance theory are explained as they were published by Dan Sperber and Deirdre Wilson in 1989 and edited in 1995. Within the context of this paper, a full account of the theory cannot be given. However, the basic communicative and cognitive principles as well as the explicating and implicating processes are briefly discussed in order to gain a theoretical basis. Where further particular phenomena, such as metaphor or irony occur, a short relevance-theoretical account is given as they appear in the analysis.

After the theoretical background is laid out, the analysis examines the exchanges of the temptation scene within the framework of relevance theory. The analysis concentrates on the pragmatic procedures which lead Othello to the manifestation of his assumptions yielding the final conclusion. It explains how Iago uses language strategically and deliberately to guide Othello through his understanding processes. The analysis further examines Othello’s comprehension strategies which make him vulnerable to Iago’s manipulative strategy. In the end, the insights of the analysis are summarised. The last chapter discusses how Othello’s transformation was made possible by the means of human communication as explained by relevance theory.

2. Othello and the Temptation Scene

Othello is one of the most controversial yet popular tragedies by William Shakespeare. It was written around 1602 and has since then been subject to literary studies. Love, sexuality, race and jealousy are just some of Othello’s key issues which represent a wide range of topics for literary criticism.

The plot of Othello is set in 16th century Venice and Cyprus and revolves around four central characters: The tragic hero Othello, an African moor and a general of the Venetian army, Desdemona, his wife and daughter of prominent senator Brabantio, Michael Cassio, Othello’s lieutenant and Iago, Othello’s advisor and the villain of the play. The play’s background setting is based on a military mission, in which Othello is commanded to Cyprus to lead the military forces of Venice against the Turks. Among Othello’s companions are Desdemona, Cassio and Iago. In Cyprus, the mysterious villain Iago starts plotting against Othello, who promoted Cassio over Iago to his lieutenant. Iago achieves to plant suspicion and jealousy in Othello’s mind insinuating that Desdemona and Cassio are having an affair. Othello’s transformation leads eventually to the tragic events of the play. Othello, mad with jealousy, murders his wife and orders Iago to kill Cassio. Iago fails and his manipulative intentions become finally revealed. When Othello realises the whole dimension of his deed, he commits suicide.

The dramatic centre of the play is Iago‘s destructive manipulation of Othello. Iago employs all his social and communicative abilities to lead Othello astray. As literary studies suggest, several aspects make Othello vulnerable to Iago’s manipulation (cf. Pechter 2012, 106): Othello is characterised as a naive and insecure character whose military achievements hide his low self-esteem. As Iago notices, Othello is ʼof a free and open natureʼ (1.3.398). His own self doubts and his naivety make him prone to manipulation and jealousy and prove to be suitable starting points for Iago’s intrigue.

Besides Othello‘s personality, social circumstances play a significant role for his predisposition of jealousy and for his downfall. Even though Othello’s military skills are demanded and valuable for Venice, as an African moor, he remains a cultural and racial outsider of the Venetian culture. Being married to white Desdemona as a black soldier is in the play’s social context extraordinary. During the play, Othello becomes more and more aware of this unusualness which reinforces his insecurity. His suggestion ʼHaply for I am blackʼ (3.3.267) indicates that his racial difference is a further factor of his growing doubts of Desdemona’s fidelity.

Iago is Othello’s adversary. Samuel Coleridge (1808) calls him "a being next to the devil, only not quite the devil" (Coleridge 1808) which addresses Iago’s inherent evilness. His destructive motives have been discussed variously and controversially. Whether it is envy, racism, homosexuality or perversion that stimulates Iago primarily is open for interpretation. As Richard Raatzsch (2009) suggests, we can "only speculate about Iago’s motives" (Raatzsch 2009, 19). Iago is well aware of Othello’s weaknesses and exploits them ruthlessly. He accomplishes to be perceived as an honest person by all characters. His reputation and social status enable him to manipulate his whole environment and to reach his objective of deceiving Othello.

The central scene of the play and the subject matter of the following analysis is the so called "temptation scene". It is probably "the most powerful scene" (Honigman 1997, 1) in any of Shakespeare’s plays and a prime-example of the power of language. In only 480 lines, Iago plants the seeds of suspicion in Othello’s mind. Iago alters Othello‘s firm beliefs so skilfully that he throws over his previous assumptions about his wife in total. In the temptation scene, Iago employs only the means of language and communication to reach his objective. The communicative strategies and processes make the temptation scene an especially suitable object for a linguistic exploration.

3. Relevance Theory

Relevance Theory is a cognitive theory of inferential pragmatics developed in 1986 and edited in 1995 by the French scholar Dan Sperber and the British scholar Deirdre Wilson. The theory can be seen as a reaction against as well as an attempt to develop Grice’s theory of conversational implicature. Relevance theory is based on Grice’s claim that an utterance automatically creates expectations of relevance which guide the hearer towards the speaker’s meaning (cf. Sperber & Wilson 2004, 607).


According to relevance theory, the search for relevance is a basic feature of human cognition. Any external stimulus (e.g. an utterance, a memory, a sight) which provides an input to cognitive processes may be more or less relevant to an individual at some time. In relevance- theoretic terms, an input is relevant to an individual when its processing in a context of available assumptions yields a positive cognitive effect - a worthwhile difference to the individual’s representation of the world (e.g. a true conclusion). Further, a stimulus is relevant to an individual when it connects with background information that a person has available to yield conclusions that matter to him. For example, by answering a question he had in mind or by confirming a suspicion. The most important type of cognitive effect is a contextual implication derived from the new input together with the context. Since we cannot attend to all stimuli available at one time, we have to make a choice (cf. Sperber & Wilson 2004, 607-610). Sperber & Wilson (2004) state that "other things being equal, the greater the positive cognitive effects achieved by processing an input, the greater the relevance of the input to the individual at that time" (Sperber & Wilson 2004, 609).

The Cognitive Principle of Relevance

The cognitive principle of relevance claims that the human cognitive system tends to be geared to the maximisation of relevance (the achievement of as many cognitive effects as possible for as little processing effort as necessary). This universal tendency makes it possible to predict and manipulate the mental state of others (cf. Sperber & Wilson 2004, 610).

Cognitive environment

Sperber & Wilson (1995) specify their notion of communication by referring to the cognitive environment of an individual. Humans live in the same physical world but have different cognitive environments. These cognitive environments contain the knowledge that people actually entertain, and also the knowledge that they are capable of deducing from it. A cognitive environment is a set of assumptions which the individual is capable of mentally representing and accepting as true. In communication, the intention is to alter the cognitive environment of an addressee (cf. Sperber & Wilson 1995, 38-46).

Ostensive-inferential communication

Inferential communication is not only a matter of intending to alter the thoughts of an addressee. The communicator moreover causes the audience to recognise that he has this intention. Ostensive-inferential communication can be described in terms of an informative and a communicative intention:

"A communicator who produces an ostensive stimulus is trying to fulfil two intentions: first, the informative intention, to make manifest to her audience a set of assumptions I; and second, the communicative intention, to make her informative intention manifest" (Sperber & Wilson 1995, 163).

To communicate intentionally by ostension is to produce a certain stimulus with the aim of fulfilling an informative intention. Further, ostensive-inferential communication involves the intention to make it mutually manifest - to audience and communicator - that the communicator has this informative intention. As soon as the communicative intention is fulfilled, the informative intention being recognised, communication is achieved (cf. Sperber & Wilson 2004, 611).

The Communicative Principle of Relevance

The communicative principle of relevance states that "every ostensive stimulus conveys a presumption of its own optimal relevance" (Sperber & Wilson 2004, 612). An ostensive stimulus helps the communicator to indicate that he is about to communicate intentionally. The communicator encourages his audience to presume that the produced stimulus is relevant enough to be worth processing. The (verbal or non-verbal) stimulus is optimal relevant if it is further the most relevant one fitting with the communicator’s capabilities and preferences (cf. Sperber & Wilson 2004, 612).

The Relevance-theoretic comprehension process

Sperber & Wilson (2004) assert that verbal comprehension involves the recovery of a linguistically encoded sentence meaning. This must be contextually and variously enriched by the addressee at the explicit level to yield a full-fledged speaker’s meaning. By performing several subtasks, ambiguities and referential ambivalences as well as illocutionary indeterminacies can be resolved; ellipsis and other underdeterminacies of explicit content, such as metaphors and ironies, can be interpreted and further implicatures can be identified. Having completed these tasks with the help of an appropriate set of contextual assumptions, a hypothesis about the speaker’s meaning can be constructed by the hearer (cf. Sperber & Wilson 2004, 613-614).

The sub-tasks in the overall comprehension process according to relevance theory (Sperber & Wilson 2004, 615):

1. Constructing an appropriate hypothesis about explicit content (in relevance-theoretic terms, explicatures1 ) via decoding, disambiguation, reference resolution, and other pragmatic enrichment processes.
2. Constructing an appropriate hypothesis about the intended contextual assumptions (in relevance-theoretic terms, implicated premises).
3. Constructing an appropriate hypothesis about the intended contextual implications (in relevance-theoretic terms, implicated conclusions)

The relevance-theoretic comprehension procedure suggests the addressee to follow a path of least effort in computing cognitive effects. He tests interpretive hypotheses (disambiguation, reference resolutions, implicatures, etc.) in order of accessibility and stops when his expectations of relevance are satisfied or abandoned. When the hearer, following the path of least effort, arrives at an interpretation that satisfies his expectations of relevance, and if there is no contradictory evidence, he takes his interpretation as the most plausible hypothesis about the speaker’s meaning. Since this inference process is "non-demonstrative", his hypothesis may be false, but it is still the most rational hearer can do. Sperber & Wilson (2004) mention that these sub-tasks are not to be understood as sequentially ordered. Comprehension is an on-line process in which the developments of a hypothesis construction occur in parallel, being revised and elaborated as the utterance unfolds (cf. Sperber & Wilson 2004, 613-615).

Weak and strong communication and implicatures

Communication is a matter of degree because it varies in its strength. The degree of how manifest a set of assumptions can become in a cognitive environment depends on how strongly it is communicated. When the informative intention makes a certain assumption strongly manifest, then the assumption is strongly communicated, and the communicator can have precise expectations about some of the thoughts that the addressee will entertain. When the communicator intends to enhance the manifestness of a wide range of assumptions in a minor way, then each of them is weakly communicated (cf. Sperber & Wilson 1995, 59-60).

Accordingly, implicatures can vary in their strength. Strong implicatures are those premises and conclusions that the hearer is strongly encouraged to supply if the interpretation is to be consistent with the principle of relevance. Weak implicatures involve a weaker encouragement and yield to a wider range of possibilities among which the hearer can choose his conclusions. The weaker the implicatures and the encouragement to supply them becomes, the more responsible becomes the hearer about their recovery (cf. Sperber & Wilson 1995, 199).

4. Analysis of the Temptation Scene

The following analysis of the temptation scene1 (Act III, Scene 3) examines how Iago succeeds in reaching his destructive goal, and how Othello’s understanding processes drive him towards the intended assumptions and to the final belief. Iago’s goal is to make Othello believe that Desdemona betrays him with Cassio. Even though this is a blatant lie, this is the global informative intention Iago wants to convey. The difficulty for Iago is not only that this is untrue, but that Othello is totally faithful in Desdemona‘s and Cassio‘s loyalty.

In relevance theoretical terms, the belief that Desdemona betrays Othello is, as a manifest assumption, part of a cognitive environment of an individual. Iago wants this assumption to be mentally represented by Othello as a factual assumption - as an assumption entertained as a true description of the world (cf. Sperber & Wilson 1995, 74).

Iago approaches his goal by altering Othello’s mindset systematically. Iago aims at several assumptions to become manifest in Othello’s cognitive environment:

Assumption 1: Iago is trustworthy

Assumption 2: Iago loves Othello

Assumption 3: Iago possesses information that is relevant but harmful to Othello Assumption 4: Cassio is not honest

Assumption 5: There is reason for jealousy Assumption 6: Desdemona is not honest

- Global Assumption: Desdemona and Cassio are having an affair

Assumption 1 (Iago is trustworthy) is crucial because it is a necessity for the manifestation of further assumptions. Without Othello assuming that Iago is trustworthy, his whole strategy and effort were futile. Throughout the whole play, Iago works on his reputation and does everything to appear faithful and honest to Othello. In the temptation scene, his trustworthiness is never questioned by Othello. He takes it for granted as he speaks of Iago as a ʼhonest creatureʼ (3.3.246) that is of ʼexceeding honestyʼ (3.3.264) even after all his insinuations. Hence, Iago does not need to convey this assumption explicitly anymore but can rely on it as already made manifest in Othello’s cognitive environment. In the temptation scene, Iago exploits his mask of a trustworthy communicator and Othello‘s expectation of his honesty. Iago is well aware that in "verbal communication, the hearer is generally led to accept an assumption as true or probably true on the basis of a guarantee given by the speaker" (Sperber & Wilson 1995, 116).


1 An assumption communicated by an utterance is explicit, hence an "explicature”, if and only if it is a development of a logical form encoded by the utterance. An assumption communicated by an utterance which is not explicit is implicit, hence an "implicature”. (cf. Sperber & Wilson 1995, 182 & Carston 2004, 3)

1 All citations are taken from E.A.J. Honigmann’s Arden 3rd edition (1997).


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relevance-theoretic analysis temptation scene shakespeareʼs othello



Title: A Relevance-Theoretic Analysis of the Temptation Scene in Shakespeareʼs "Othello"