Thursday, September 29, 2011

'Sblood! Zounds! Oaths in *Othello*


In Shakespeare’s culture, one’s word – one’s truthfulness – was a sign of honor. In asserting the truthfulness of their statements, people in Early Modern times regularly swore oaths by (or to) sacred or spiritual persons, objects, and even ideas. This, by the way, is how such terms came to be known as “swear words.” At times, Shakespeare carefully matches specific oaths to characters and to the circumstances in which they are sworn.

Some oaths were shortened – both by constant use and also to soften their impact. It’s worth understanding their full significance:

‘Sblood = By Christ’s blood (shed for the salvation of humankind)

Zounds = By God’s wounds (suffered for the sins of humankind)

‘Fore God = In front of God’s face

Diablo = By the devil

By’r Lady = By Our Lady (the Blessed Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus)

‘Ud’s pity = God’s pity (Divine Mercy being the only reason that anyone is saved)

Other examples include: O heaven; Vouch with me, heaven; By heaven; God’s will; O grace; Death and damnation; Faith; I’faith (in faith); Good faith; by this heavenly light

In some cases, more extensive oaths give further insight into character and connect powerfully with other statements and situations:

“Now, by yond marble heaven, / In the due reverence of a sacred vow . . . ” Othello, swearing vengeance, seeing heaven – and divine justice – as cold, hard, white.

“Witness, you ever-burning lights above, / You elements that clip us round about . . . ” Iago, swearing to assist Othello in punishing Cassio and Desdemona, describing the heavens as material, not spiritual.

“As I am a Christian”; “as I shall be saved” – Desdemona, swearing by her hopes for eternal life while insisting upon her innocence and her fidelity to Othello.

More briefly, Montano expresses his belief that a true soldier is a person of honor: “a little one; not past a pint, as I am a soldier” – swearing that he hasn’t given Cassio a great quantity of wine. This sets up his insistence that Iago report the night’s events accurately: “If . . . Thou dost deliver more or less than truth, / Thou art no soldier.” We’re given yet another poignant bit of dramatic irony, given Iago’s relationship with the truth.

The Flatwater Shakespeare Company proudly presents

Othello


directed by Bob Hall
scenic design by Robert Hillestad

October 6-9, 13-16, 20-23; Time: 7:30 p.m.
Lincoln Community Playhouse Family Theatre
2500 S. 56th Street, Lincoln
Tickets: 402-473-2897
$18 Adults; $15 Seniors; $10 Students

Photo: Amy Jirsa as Desdemona, Bill Bryant as Othello, and Brad Boesen as Iago in Flatwater Shakespeare's Othello. Photo Credit: John Nollendorfs

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