The Abuse of Language in Dutchman and Othello

By Elizabeth Stoeckl


Facsimile edition of the First Folio of Shakespeare's plays, published in 1623

Prejudice depends on the “infection in the sentence” (Gilbert and Gubar). With time, the mindset of society has slowly progressed closer to tolerance and further from forms of discrimination like racism. However, in many ways, the language used to address these issues is stagnant and remains, literally and metaphorically, “black-and-white.” Therefore, whether welcome or not, prejudice and intolerance persist in society as deep-engrained notions of language. Leroi Jones elaborates that “brown is not brown except when used as an intimate description of personal phenomenological fields. As your brown is not my brown, et cetera, that is, we need, ahem, a meta-language” (Jones, The Slave, 25). Such a meta-language would allow for words and speech that reinforce tolerant and cohesive communication rather than obstruct it. The characters in William Shakespeare’s Othello and Leroi Jones’s Dutchman reinforce the power of negative language and its effect on the individual. Although different issues and standards govern the societies of these plays, and Iago and Lula each occupy a different role within his or her respective society, both characters impose provocative and persuasive language that infects the thoughts of Othello and Clay. Ultimately, Othello and Clay both internalize this aggressive language in a manner that defines their perceptions of self and of reality, renders them powerless members of their societies, and underscores the need for a revitalized language.

Iago’s and Lula’s success as predatory figures is based mostly on the infectious nature of their language, which directly alters and degrades Othello’s and Clay’s senses of self-awareness. Lula possesses full knowledge that Clay lives in a racist society that would lynch him for even looking at a woman in a sexually suggestive way. However, upon encountering Clay, Lula immediately introduces this provocative topic when she suggests that Clay was “staring through that window down in the vicinity of [her] ass and legs” (Jones 7). Having been lured into the conversation, Clay attempts to reciprocate her sex talk, but Lula turns against Clay and maintains control of the conversation by again using base language to vilify Clay. She scolds him for wanting “to take [her] somewhere and screw [her]” even though it was Lula herself who had originally focused the conversation on sex (8).

Like Lula, Iago manipulates his language in an attempt to “control the world” with his verbal deception and base vocabulary (Jones 19). He mirrors Lula’s sexual crudeness when he decries Othello and Desdemona’s marriage by warning Brabantio that “Even now, now, very now, an old black ram / Is tupping your white ewe” (Shakespeare I.1.87-88). This statement alone illustrates the completely bestial nature of Iago’s language: his repetition of “now” connotes a sexual urgency, and his use of “black ram” and “white ewe” is not only racially charged but also reduces the purity of Othello and Desdemona’s love to something carnal.

The base vocabulary that Iago and Lula share not only reveals the literal corruption of their language but also the manner in which both characters more subtly manipulate language in order to control Clay and Othello. In fact, Lula reminds Clay that he is “a well-known type,” with the implication that racial prejudice is particularly present in the abstract, that is, in language—written, spoken, or typed (Jones 12). Indeed, both Lula and Iago ultimately drive Clay and Othello to violence by aggressively forcing their language upon them and “pour[ing] this pestilence into [their] ear[s]” (Shakespeare II.3.344). Their manipulation, covert at times, plants ideas in Othello and Clay that reshape their notions of reality and fill them with loathing for self and others. Lula, for one, controls Clay’s language quite literally by scripting their conversation and ordering him that “it’s [his] turn, and let those be [his] lines” (Jones 16). The nature of their resulting conversation thereby suggests that the infection present in language is so intense that the act of displaying racism follows a nearly prescribed dialogue.

Conversely, Iago does not explicitly control Othello’s speech but rather dissembles, covers his true intentions with “heavenly shows,” and appears to be Othello’s strongest ally (Shakespeare II.3.340). When Othello expresses doubts of Iago’s honesty, Iago pretends to be insulted and ridicules Othello as a “wretched fool, / That lov’st to make [Iago’s] honesty a vice” (Shakespeare III.3.376). Through Iago’s choice language that reminds Othello repeatedly of Iago’s honesty and support, Iago emerges as a highly persuasive character. Indeed, Othello feels justified in demanding “ocular proof” of Desdemona’s innocence but believes everything Iago says without evidence (Shakespeare III.3.360). Combined, Othello’s choice to trust Iago and Clay’s decision to adhere to Lula’s dialogue lack any logic. Iago’s and Lula’s effective manipulation of language allows them to overwhelm and control Othello and Clay successfully.

The qualities of Iago’s and Lula’s language that infect Othello and Clay depend on the fact that both men feel somewhat alienated from their societies. Racism produces feelings of self-consciousness and insecurity within Othello and Clay, which makes them more susceptible to Iago’s and Lula’s language. Considered the “other” or outlier in his society, Othello frequently faces racial judgment. Although he initially acts with high moral standards, he is degraded and often referred to simply as “the Moor” (I.1.39). Upon hearing of Desdemona and Othello’s elopement, Brabantio immediately discredits Othello’s noble character by assuming that Desdemona’s affections must be the result of “charms / By which the property of youth and maidhood / May be abused” (I.1.169-171). These repeated references reduce Othello’s worth to his race alone and cause him to feel insecure in his role in society, so much so that he becomes more susceptible to Iago’s infectious language. Ultimately, Othello allows this language to alter his perception of himself, and he internalizes the racism to which he has been subjected. Indeed, he himself echoes Brabantio’s words when he insults his own racial background and implies that Desdemona’s love must be against her nature: “My name, that was as fresh / As Dian’s visage, is now begrimed and black / As mine own face” (III.3.386-388).

Lula abuses Clay’s similar insecurities, as Clay struggles to define his manhood and identity as a black man in America. The two most dominant social roles for a black man like Clay were assimilation into Caucasian culture or into gang violence. However, Lula ridicules Clay’s attempt to conform to Western culture by mocking his notion that he was “a black Baudelaire” (19). She then tempts him with the alternative by insinuating that really, inherently, he should want to kill her. As Iago persuades Othello, Lula convinces Clay that it would be against his human nature to feel any desire for her besides the desire to kill her. Planting the idea of violent retaliation within Clay, Lula proclaims that Clay would only declare romantic attraction to Lula as a lie to “keep [her] alive” (27). Clay, although confused, does not stop Lula and even continues to engage in the conversation, so Lula, accordingly, continues to pour such violent language into Clay until he becomes so insuppressibly angry that she can justify killing him. Therefore, as members of a long-oppressed minority culture, Othello and Clay both contend with various insecurities and are, understandably, more easily victimized by Iago and Lula.

Ultimately, Othello and Clay both modify their own actions and use of language in response to their exposure to Iago and Lula. This alteration reflects each man’s shift in his perception of reality due to the provocative language forced upon him. In effect, each man transforms into exactly what his racist society told him he was—violent, crude, and unimportant. Lacking any adequate language to defend their dignity as black men, Othello and Clay emerge as completely powerless members of society. Initially, Othello’s refined and poetic speech reflects his moral character and even earns the respect of his racist society, including the Duke, who comments that Othello “is far more fair than black” (I.3.290). In fact, Othello’s elevated language stands in sharp contrast to Iago’s crude and hateful words:

“My cause is hearted … Let us be conjunctive in our revenge against him. If Thou canst cuckhold him, thou dost thyself a pleasure, Me a sport” (I.3.363-367).

However, the more influence Iago gains over Othello, the more Othello’s language declines from poetry to prose and adopts Iago’s baseness, most notably when Othello tells Iago that he “had been happy if the general camp, / Pioners and all, had tasted her sweet body so I had nothing known” (III.3.345-347). In this manner, Othello’s deterioration in language directly corresponds to his changed perception of himself and his surroundings, as influenced by Iago’s infectious language. This decline reaches its peak when Othello becomes so delusional that he literally loses the capacity to speak and “falls in a trance,” or epileptic fit (IV.1.43). His sentences become jumbled and nearly incomprehensible, until he says, “It is not words that shakes / me thus” (IV.1.41-42). Rather, it is everything for which words are the impetus—the racism that isolates Othello, the base language that insults Desdemona, and the jealousy that drives Othello to insanity. Unable to escape the inescapable language around him, Othello falls victim to the prejudiced language forced upon him when he literally loses his own mastery of language and, ultimately, any sense of reality.

Clay experiences a fundamental shift in language as well when he finally turns on Lula and attempts to articulate his struggle as a black man in a racist society. Like Othello, Clay’s change in language indicates his changed perception of reality, yet unlike Othello, this new perception seems to provide Clay with heightened recognition—recognition that the identity crisis of a black man in America is absolutely absurd. Until Clay simply tells Lula to “sit the fuck down,” he had seemed receptive, if not encouraging, to her language (32). However, unlike Iago, Lula eventually speaks directly to Clay in an explicitly racist manner, as she accuses him of being both a “middle-class black bastard” and a “liver-lipped white man” (31). She ridicules all of Clay’s attempts to establish an identity for himself until he orders her to “let [him] talk” (33). In his ensuing speech, Clay attempts to express his struggle, a struggle that Othello certainly shares, by suggesting that he, as a black person, should not be judged for trying to be more like white people or like other black people. Rather, Lula, and the corporate, white, American society she represents, should “let [him] be in the way [he] wants,” in whatever way that may be (34). Just when Clay has begun to give sincere voice and language to the struggle of his people, Lula methodically kills him.

Chillingly, Othello and Dutchman both end with profound ambiguity. Othello ends abruptly: Othello kills himself, and afterward, there is no sense of moral reconciliation. Othello and his society failed to agree on a meta-language that may have provided Othello with social inclusion and immunity to Iago’s insinuations. Similarly, Clay begins to understand the nature of his identity crisis and gives voice to the plight of his race. In so doing, he presents the possibility for this renewed language that his society lacks, yet Lula immediately kills him, silences him. Indeed, soon a “young Negro of about twenty comes into the coach,” and Jones seems to imply that this systemic suppression of blacks, specifically of black men, will repeat indefinitely until someone successfully establishes a new approach to language (37). Therefore, in both plays, this ambiguity implies a moral imperative. The endings not only convince the audience that what they have read is wrong but also compel them to go forth and restore their own societies.

Indeed, the parallels between Othello and Dutchman are apparent through Lula’s and Iago’s similar abuse of language and Othello’s and Clay’s similar responses to it. Othello and Clay experience jealously, inadequacy, and powerlessness through an infected language in which racism is almost inevitable. William Shakespeare and LeRoi Jones came from different backgrounds and time periods and wrote for different audiences. Why, then, do such profound similarities exist between Othello and Dutchman? Othello and Clay’s shared struggle is clearly indicative of the African American experience in its entirety. The call to action that both Shakespeare and Jones suggest is clear: “we need, ahem, a meta-language,” that is, a new, purified approach to language.