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The Improbability of Othello

Rhetorical Anthropology and Shakespearean Selfhood

Shakespeare’s dramatis personae exist in a world of supposition, struggling to connect knowledge that cannot be had, judgments that must be made, and actions that need to be taken.  For them, probability—what they and others might be persuaded to believe—governs human affairs, not certainty. Yet negotiating the space of probability is fraught with difficulty. Here, Joel B. Altman explores the problematics of probability and the psychology of persuasion in Renaissance rhetoric and Shakespeare’s theater.

Focusing on the Tragedy of Othello, Altman investigates Shakespeare’s representation of the self as a specific realization of tensions pervading the rhetorical culture in which he was educated and practiced his craft. In Altman’s account, Shakespeare also restrains and energizes his audiences’ probabilizing capacities, alternately playing the skeptical critic and dramaturgic trickster. A monumental work of scholarship by one of America’s most respected scholars of Renaissance literature, The Improbability of Othello contributes fresh ideas to our understanding of Shakespeare’s conception of the self, his shaping of audience response, and the relationship of actors to his texts.

464 pages | 2 line drawings | 6 x 9 | © 2010

Literature and Literary Criticism: British and Irish Literature


“Magisterial. . . . Altman enables us to understand that the structure of feeling in Shakespeare’s plays was made possible by rhetorical and dialectical habits of mind which have ceased to dominate our scientific and technological world, but which nevertheless continue to have a profound effect on the way we think we know about one another.”

Times Literary Supplement

Table of Contents


Prologue. "As If for Surety": The Problematics of Shakespearean Probability

Part I. Toward a Rhetorical Genealogy of Othello

One. "My Parts, My Title, and My Perfect Soul": Ingenuity, Apodeixis, and the Origins of Rhetorical Anthropology

Two. "Against My Estimation": Ciceronian Decorum, Stoic Constancy, and the Production of Ethos


Part II. The Logic of Renaissance Rhetoric

Three. "Apt and True": Speech, World, and Thought in Shakespeare’s Humanist Dialectic

Four. "Yonder’s Fair Murders Done": Place, Predicament, and Grammatical Space on Cyprus


Part III. Willful Words, Christian Anxieties, and Shakespearean Dramaturgy

Five. "Tis in Ourselves That We Are Thus, or Thus": Will, Habit, and the Discourse of Res

Six. ’Preposterous Conclusions": Eros, Enargeia, and Composition in Othello

Seven. "Prophetic Fury": The Language of Theatrical Potentiality and the Economy of Shakespearean Reception

Part IV. Tropings of the Self in Shakespeare’s Scripts

Eight. "I Am Not What I Am": Shakespeare’s Scripted Subject

Nine. "Nobody. I Myself": Discovering What Passes Show

Part V. Performing the Improbable Other on Shakespeare’s Stage

Ten. "Were I the Moor, I Would Not Be Iago": Ligatures of Self and Stranger

Eleven. "It Is Not Words That Shakes Me Thus": Burbage, as if Othello

Epilogue. "Make Not Impossible / That Which But Seems Unlike": The Twilight of Probability and the Dawn of Shakespearean Romance




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