Othello Essay - Have You Not Read of Some Such Thing? Sex and Sexual Stories in Othello

Have You Not Read of Some Such Thing? Sex and Sexual Stories in Othello

"Have You Not Read of Some Such Thing?" Sex and Sexual Stories in Othello

Edward Pechter, Concordia University

Why does Othello suddenly abandon his affectionate trust in Desdemona for a conviction of betrayal? This question, by placing the protagonist's understanding at the play's centre, takes us back to Bradley's first words about the play in Shakespearean Tragedy: 'the character of Othello is comparatively simple, but . . . essentially the success of Iago's plot is connected with this character. Othello's description of himself as "one not easily jealous" . . . is perfectly just. His tragedy lies in this—that his whole nature was indisposed to jealousy, and yet . . . unusually open to deception'.1 Bradley has long been discredited—a story with which we are all familiar. In 1993 L. C. Knights's 'How Many Children Had Lady Macbeth?' repudiated the notion of treating dramatic characters as the authors and origins of their own histories, autonomous agents with lives outside the dramatic action.2 Knights's essay coincided with a redirection of Shakespeare studies from character to language, from the 'whole nature' of the protagonist to the coherent artifice of the play itself. Wilson Knight's 'spatial hermeneutics' figures notably in this move away from Bradley, as part of a 'modernist paradigm';3 psychological integrity is fragmented into linguistic patterns that re-achieve wholeness in a self-reflexive rather than representational text. If a play begins to resemble Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, it makes more sense to speak of the structural relation of geometric forms—image patterns contributing to symbolic coherence in a dramatic poem—than about which if any of the characters has a noble nature.

We no longer indulge in the Bradley-bashing that was routine during this period; we ignore him now, the consequence of yet another shift that has rendered his kind of commentary apparently irrelevant. In Richard Rorty's view, there is no such 'thing as "human nature" or the "deepest level of the self . . . socialization, and thus historical circumstance, goes all the way down'.4 Rorty wants to collapse the distinctions between depth and surface, inner and outer. 5 If modernists reconceived representation, renouncing the mirror of nature for an abstract and self-referring aesthetic text, a view like Rorty's seems to abandon the concept of representation altogether, denying that there is any stable substance out there (or in here) to be imitated, and that the aesthetic text itself exists with any authority beyond that given by a contingent historical process. From another angle, however, current critics have not abandoned representation but universalized it. If everything is a text, then nature (including the 'whole nature' of Othello's 'character') and art (including Othello) are just different cultural constructs or discursive practices—of many, two. As a consequence, we cash in the question of Othello's jealousy for an enquiry into the sex-gender system; and Othello as an object of interest leads us not to Shakespeare or heroic tragedy, authors or theatrical genres, but to the literary system and its contribution to the production and reproduction of cultural value. Hence Valerie Traub, in her state-of-the-art book about Circulations of Sexuality in Shakespearean Drama: 'I am less interested in the ways works of art are empowered than in the ways characters are represented as negotiating and struggling for power, the extent to which they are granted or denied agency—in short, the ways their subjectivity is constructed through representational means [and] the "processes whereby sexual desires are constructed, mass-produced, and distributed" '.6

In conducting this breathless Cook's Tour, I have bypassed some picturesque complications. As W. B. Worthen points out, the typical 'actorly reading' of Shakespeare remains, in contrast to academic criticism, 'notably trained on questions of "character" [as] integrated, self-present, internalized, psychologically motivated'.7 As with acting, so with teaching Shakespeare: drop into most Shakespeare classes and you will hear Bradley-speak. Since academic criticism is a different mode of understanding from teaching or acting, we should not expect an identity of interests and assumptions. At the same time, the remoteness of academic discourse from two such influential ways of representing Shakespeare as pedagogy and theatre is remarkable. Even more remarkable are the residues of Bradley surviving in academic criticism itself. As Margaret Mikesell points out, the 'renewed criticism of Bradleyan traditions in the early 1950s' often rested in the very methods that were being repudiated, treating 'Othello and Iago as characters [with] the personalities of real people'.8 This is still the case. 'It is important, of course', Ania Loomba declares, 'to guard against reading dramatic characters as real, three dimensional people'; but these words follow a description of Othello as shedding his alienated 'insecurity' for a 'conception of his own worth' that 'slowly comes to centre in' and then depart from Desdemona's choice—a description that would sit comfortably in the pages of Shakespearean Tragedy.9

Why does Bradley haunt us, like a half-remembered, maybe even unread text? In one of the first attempts to recuperate Bradley for critical practice, A. D. Nuttall, pointing to an odd discrepancy between the frequently nonsensical claims of Knights's attack and the general acceptance of his claims as self-evidently true, remarked that 'the whole debate may be complicated by the presence of unacknowledged historical factors', a 'pre-rational historical reaction' against 'the over-heated Victorian age'.10 This shrewd suggestion allows us to understand Bradley-bashing as an overdetermined gesture by which Shakespearians could assert their authentic modernity, liberated from the naiveties of eminent Victorianism. But the 'unacknowledged historical factors' may extend deeper than Victorian sentiment. Consider Michael Bristol who, after proposing recently that audiences should 'efface their response to . . . Othello, Desdmona, and Iago as individual subjects endowed with personalities and with some mode of autonomous interiorized life', has to admit the difficulty of such an effacement, 'not least because the experience of individual subjectivity as we have come to know it is objectively operative in the text'.11 From this perspective, an interest in Othello's character is not merely a hangover from Bradley or nineteenth-century novels, some recently acquired detritus to be jettisoned, but part of a continuing engagement going back to the origins, as best we can determine them, of our interest in the Shakespearian text.

The explanatory narrative I synopsized earlier has a lot going for it: by accounting for Bradley's irrelevance in terms of a naive representability underwritten by an old-fashioned assumption of personal integrity, it makes use of powerfully central concepts in the development of modern thought—'master-problems', in Perry Anderson's phrase.12 At the same time, these concepts may be serving as screens in the composition of a story generated out of wish-fulfilment as well as disinterested analysis, motivated by a desire to bring about the disappearance we claim to be describing as an accomplished fact. Bristol's 'efface', in concert with 'unacknowledged' and 'pre-rational' in Nuttall, suggest that the uncanny residual presence of Bradley in current criticism is the consequence of denial. We need to reconsider our relation to Bradley, and to the long tradition of commentary which lies behind Shakespearean Tragedy, not in order to restore his eminence but to understand our own situation.13 And Othello seems like a particularly appropriate play on which to base this reconsideration, for as Edward Snow has argued, from its irascible inauguration ('Tush, never tell me! . . . 'Sblood, but you'll not hear me!') to its agonized terminal gesture ('The object poisons sight; / Let it be hid'), 'repression pervades the entire world' of the play.14

Once more, then: how to explain Othello's reversal of feelings about Desdemona, from 'Perdition catch my soul / But I do love thee' to 'O curse of marriage' within only a few minutes time (3.3.91-2, 272)? I am quoting from the Temptation Scene which, parading before us familiar ideas and feelings from the play's opening, suggests that Othello's alteration should be understood as part of a lucid sequence. At the beginning of the play, Othello speaks self-confidently of his marriage: 'my demerits / May speak unbonneted to as proud a fortune / As this that I have reached' (1.2.22-4); now he begins to doubt 'mine own weak merits' (3.3.191). This acknowledgement, trivial in itself, precipitates a rush of startling reversals. Brabantio's warning, 'Look to her, Moor, if thou hast eyes to see. / She has deceived her father, and may thee', had prompted a secure dismissal early on: 'My life upon her faith' (1.3.292-4). Now in the face of Iago's reiteration, 'She did deceive her father, marrying you', Othello becomes worried: 'And so she did' (210, 212). In the scene's turning point a moment later, Othello suddenly takes the initiative, 'And yet how nature, erring from itself—' and Iago, himself cautious so far, spots an opportunity so desirable that he interrupts Othello to seize it:

Ay, there's the point; as, to be bold with you,
Not to affect many proposèd matches
Of her own clime, complexion, and degree,
Whereto we see in all things nature tends.
Foh, one may smell in such a will most rank,
Foul disproportions, thoughts unnatural!

(232-8)

At the end of this speech, a shaken Othello dismisses Iago, but too late to reverse the process that will lead to catastrophe.

Nature is the crucial idea here, and again we hear echoes of the beginning: 'and she in spite of nature, / Of years, of country, credit, everything, / To fall in love with what she feared to look on!' (1.3.96-8). For Brabantio, nature should have drawn Desdemona to young Venetians of her own rank, 'the wealthy curlèd darlings of our nation' (1.22.69), and her attraction to Othello, 'against all rules of nature' (1.3.101), must be the perverse consequence of witchcraft. The perplexing questions and ambivalent feelings raised by this claim,15 unresolved in themselves, migrate into a narrative conclusion: Othello denies witchcraft, Desdemona acknowledges she was half the wooer, Brabantio drops the case. But the question returns here in its own conceptual terms, moving Othello to adopt the same cultural stereotypes articulated earlier by Brabantio and now reiterated by Iago as defining his own nature.

Haply for I am black,
And have not those soft parts of conversation
That chamberers have; or for I am declined
Into the vale of years—yet that's not much—
She's gone. I am abused, and my relief
Must be to loathe her.

(3.3.267-72)

As Arthur Kirsch says, 'Othello eventually internalizes Iago's maleficent sexual vision and sees himself with Iago's eyes', repellent in 'his age and color', thus 'becom[ing] convinced that Desdemona's manifest attraction to him is itself perverse'.16 Kirsch's story represents something like a current consensus,17 but if the meaning of Othello's transformation is thus clear, the motive remains mysterious. Why should Othello, against all evidence and self-interest, buy into the view Iago offers of himself and Desdemona? Othello himself sees the foolishness—'Exchange me for a goat / When I shall turn the business of my soul / To such exsufflicate and blowed surmises' (3.3.184-6)—but proceeds to make the investment nonetheless.

All this, however, assumes what is at issue—namely, that Othello is free to make up his mind, not just about Desdemona but about himself, as though he has secure possession of a stable core of autonomous being. The play seems to encourage our current scepticism about such an assumption, drawing attention to the way belief rests on and is shaped by cultural clutter—stories, superstitions, social stereotypes, clichéd aphorisms, vague memories, dreams, the immediate influence of overheard aimless chatter and snatches of old songs.18 Such influences are particularly potent in times of stress. Brabantio's jump to the witchcraft conclusion is a good example: 'Have you not read, Roderigo, / Of some such thing?' (1.1.175-6). Iago is the source of this clutter, Burke's voice whispering at the ear,19 burrowing under the threshold of conscious reflection and lodging the vinous poison of mistrust, disgust, abhorrence. He represents what we now call ideological interpellation, or what Renaissance commentators, describing the world from inside a theological rather than a sociological lexicon, understood as diabolical possession. As such, Iago is the origin and the content of Brabantio's dream ('This accident is not unlike my dream'), which Brabantio has no choice but to believe ('Belief of it oppresses me already' [1.1.144-5]), because Iago's white (or is it black?) noise subtends and determines belief. He has already turned Cassio inside out by the time of the Temptation Scene; Othello is a more ambitious project, but Iago's success should seem predictable as well as amazing.

Othello's alien status gives us a familiar current context to understand his story: the immigrant novel. Othello's metaphorical transformation happens literally to Saladin Chamcha in The Satanic Verses: he turns into a goat.

His thighs had grown uncommonly wide and powerful, as well as hairy. Below the knee the hairiness came to a halt, and his legs narrowed into tough, bony, almost fleshless calves, terminating in a pair of shiny, cloven hoofs, such as one might find on any billy-goat. Saladin was also taken aback by the sight of his phallus, greatly enlarged and embarrassingly erect, an organ that he had the greatest difficulty in acknowledging his own.20

Finding himself in a kind of asylum along with other embodied clichés of an exotic colonial domain—a manticore, some water-buffalo, slippery snakes, 'a very lecherous-looking wolf—Chamcha asks, ' "But how do they do it?" ' ' "They describe us" ', the manticore tells him. ' "That's all. They have the power of description, and we succumb to the pictures they construct." '21 Rushdie's description of The Satanic Verses—'the move from one part of the world to another and what that does to the various aspects of one's being-in-the-world'22—can make Othello's transformation the centre-piece of an altogether plausible narrative. First he has the power to describe himself, inhabits his own narrative, but moving to Christian Europe he becomes displaced from his 'perfect soul' (1.2.31) and begins to occupy a different story, until finally his blackness serves to figure not a royal-heroic self but bestial sexuality.

But should we be reading Othello as the abject victim at the centre of an immigrant novel? The play was produced in an early colonialist culture, substantially ignorant of much that we have come to know of colonial and postcolonial experience. More to my formalist purposes here, Othello lacks the accumulation of finely attenuated nuance required to work in the manner of an immigrant novel, the sense of 'dilatory time' (2.3.363) that Iago, a master narratologist, understands as necessary for such a mode. This problem is insoluble (plays are not novels), but Othello goes out of its way to exacerbate it, compressing Cinthio's expansive narrative into an action that seems to occupy a mere two days, beginning at night with the elopement, arriving the next day at Cyprus, proceeding to the Temptation Scene on the day after, and concluding with the murder that night. We have bumped into the famous 'double-time' problem—'the gap', as John Bayley puts it, 'between the swift dramatic time of the plot and the lingering fictional time of the domestic psychology . . . between the impact of the coup de théâtre on our emotions, and the effect of the analysis of love and jealousy upon our minds'.23 It is easy to demonstrate that the impact of swift time is misleading, but the impression remains, and in Morgann's famous adage, 'In Dramatic composition, the Impression is the Fact.'24 We must understand Othello's transformation not as the 'eventual internalizing' of Kirsch's narrative, nor as something that 'slowly' or 'finally' comes about, as in Loomba's or my own rewriting of the play, but as issuing from his experience in the very brief interval that seems to elapse since the beginning of the action.

According to Stanley Cavell, Othello makes us think 'not merely generally of marriage but specifically of the wedding night. It is with this that the play opens.'25 'Even now, now, very now, an old black ram / Is tupping your white ewe' (1.1.88-9). This coupling, the first concrete image we are offered upon which to load (or lodge) the play's matter, may not describe what really happened, or even what happened at all. As many critics have argued, the uncertainty when or even whether Othello and Desdemona consummate their marriage serves to generate anxious speculation on our part, sustained by the pressure of a highly eroticized language which enacts to the mind's eye various images of the deed about whose actual performance we remain unresolved.26 This irresolution lasts until Othello's invitation on the first Cyprus night: 'Come, my dear love, / The purchase made, the fruits are to ensue. / The profit's yet to come 'tween me and you' (2.3.8-10); but even as Othello's disarmingly ingenuous couplet gives rest to one kind of anxious uncertainty, have they or haven't they?, its alarming specificity creates another: what now will it be like? This interest is displaced by the flurry of business with Iago, Cassio, Roderigo, and Montano; but Cassio's violent story sustains as well as displaces our interest in Othello and Desdemona's lovemaking, occurring (presumably) 'even now, now, very now'; especially when Iago's astounding simile to describe the disturbance re-evokes that opening image:

Friends all but now, even now,
In quarter and in terms like bride and groom
Devesting them for bed; and then but now—
As if some planet had unwitted men—
Swords out, and tilting one at others' breasts
In opposition bloody.

(2.3.172-7)

The Temptation Scene follows and the play gives us the dramatic impression—the fact—of its occurring the next morning. By means of post hoc ergo propter hoc, a mode of narrative understanding implicit in Morgann's Law of Dramatic Composition, we are encouraged to locate the origins of Othello's transformation in his sexual consummation: it is the cause, it is the cause.

The impression is powerfully confirmed at just this pivotal point of the Temptation Scene when Othello's sudden loathing situates itself with specific reference to Desdemona's body:

O curse of marriage,
That we can call these delicate creatures ours
And not their appetites! I had rather be a toad
And live upon the vapour of a dungeon
Than keep a corner in the thing I love
For others' uses. Yet 'tis the plague of great ones;
Prerogatived are they less than the base.
'Tis destiny unshunnable, like death.
Even then this forkèd plague is fated to us When we do quicken.

(3.3.272-81).

The 'corner in the thing I love' directs us to Desdemona's genitals. The forkèd plague alludes to the cuckold's horns, but its demonstrative specificity, 'this forkèd plague', so soon after 'keep a corner', summons the groin to the mind's eye, like the 'bare, forked animal' in Lear (3.4.101). And like the 'simp'ring dame, / Whose face between her forks presages snow' later in the same play (4.5.116-17), Desdemona's whole being seems for a bizarre moment drawn down and compressed into her private part: she is both the thing and the thing in the thing.27 Similarly graphic details inform Othello's speech to and about Desdemona later on:

OTHELLO But there where I have garnered up my heart,
Where either I must live or bear no life,
The fountain from the which my current runs
Or else dries up—to be discarded thence,
Or keep it as a cistern for foul toads
To knot and gender in! Turn thy complexion there,
Patience, thou young and rose-lipped cherubin,
Ay, here look grim as hell.
DESDEMONA I hope my noble lord esteems me honest.
OTHELLO O, ay—as summer flies are in the shambles,
That quicken even with blowing. O thou weed,
Who are so lovely fair, and smell'st so sweet,
That the sense aches at thee—would thou hadst ne'er been born!

(4.2.59-71)

As Kittredge points out,28thence, the repeated theres and finally here emphatically situate our attention; the sequence reduces Desdemona to an it' at once vague and grotesquely specific, especially when the roselipped cherubin now looks out, his face between the forks, from the place he was looking at a moment earlier. The proliferating evocative power of these passages performs a similar compression upon Othello's life story. 'When we do quicken' in the first passage conflates birth and desire (quickening as tumescence) and locates both in the place of betrayal—the place in the second passage where life is both given and denied ('discarded'), and where desire is at the same time awakened and repelled (the summer flies that quicken with blowing); as though birth, desire, and betrayal—the entire trajectory of any male's affective career in the tragic (or satiric) mode—are simultaneously present in this same loved and loathed thing.

Writing about 'the thing denied our sight throughout the opening scene',29 Cavell described an image of sexual coupling; but as Patricia Parker notes, the focus in these passages is much more concentrated upon 'the "privities" of woman opened simultaneously to scientific "discovery" and the pornographic gaze'.30 Like many recent critics for whom Othello enacts a primal scene (see note 26), Parker suggests that the play entices its spectator into the quasi-erotic pleasures of a dominant position from which to determine meaning; but we can be sceptical about 'the gaze', both generally and as an approach to this play.31 Rich as they are in vivid detail, these passages multiply and condense incompatible images and contradictory significances to produce an effect not of mastery—a privileged vantage from which to fix meanings, as in a stable visual field—but of giddiness verging on nausea. The 'mind now floods', as Graham Bradshaw says of the rapid sequence of images in the second passage—'fountain', 'cistern', 'it'—unarrestably until we are allowed (or required) to pause at the climactic image of the copulating toads.32 They are the most memorably vivid presence here, as was the solitary toad in the earlier passage, but in neither do the toads function primarily in terms of visual representation. In the dungeon of the Temptation Scene, 'that dank corner of the emotional prison',33 you are less likely to see anything than to feel what Othello later describes as 'the slime / That sticks on filthy deeds'34; or to smell the damp and stagnant air, 'the vapour', as he says here, we must breathe in to sustain life. With the cesspool and the slaughterhouse, the cistern and shambles, this evocation of malodorous fumes intensifies into the overwhelming specificity of excrement and rotting flesh—the aroma that seems to generate Flaubert's curious question about one of his whores: 'Have you . . . sniffed at the fog of her clitoris?'35; what Eliot, in the pre-Pound version of The Waste Land, called 'the good old hearty female stench'.36

Following a long line back to Plato, Renaissance commentators on the senses designated sight and hearing as the higher faculties, consigning smell, along with taste and touch, to the carnal modes of knowledge.37 In Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud imagines a primal scene in which primitive humanity stands upright, discovers its nakedness, and transfers its sensory allegiance from smell to sight.38 Such stories underwrite Hans J. Rindisbacher's claims about smell as 'strongly connected with sexuality', the 'very animal function', the 'oldest unsublimated medium', within which we experience the 'force of individual attraction between the sexes'.39 The play's evocation of smell may be understood as a way around the problem Iago describes:

But how, how satisfied, my lord?
Would you, the supervisor, grossly gape on,
Behold her topped? . . .
It were a tedious difficulty, I think,
To bring them to that prospect.

(3.3.399-403)

Ocular proof may be impossible, but it is olfactory proof, anyway, that provides the most powerfully convincing testimony about what really happened on the wedding night. This evidence finally allows us to answer my original question why Othello reverses his feelings about Desdemona: it is because of her nasty smell.

This conclusion is even sillier than Rymer's: if not 'the Tragedy of the Handkerchief ,40 then of the vaginal douche—the 'clyster-pipes', as Iago says, blowing reechy kisses from his fingers into the air (2.1.179). Like Rymer—unresponsive to the handkerchief's symbolic resonances: the wedding sheets, stained with blood and sexual fluids41—we are being too literal. The smells do not tell us what really happened in Othello and Desdemona's consummation, but what Othello thinks happened. Smells are notoriously transient—as here: the stench of the shambles does not prevent Othello's registering her 'smell .. . so sweet', nor the sweetness the stench of her deed ('Heaven stops the nose at it' [4.2.79]) a moment later.42 And smells are notoriously subjective. As Marston's Cockledemoy says, 'Every man's turd smells well in his own nose.'43 But this is not to say that the meanings of smell are determined uniquely by an autonomous individual sensorium. Any somatic base for smell is located beneath the semantic threshold of meaning or consequence. Since all sensory experience belongs to the moment, we need, as Rindisbacher says, 'acculturation and particularly language' in order to 'give it a temporal dimension, add past and future, loss and longing, hope and despair'.44 This dependence is particularly strong in the case of smells, whose very evanescence seems capturable only through the memories and historical associations which language can evoke.45 The transience and subjectivity of smell thus bring us back to the verbal or cultural constructedness of the subject itself. The 'foul and the fragrant' qualities detected by an individual's nose are the product, as Alain Corbin says, of the 'social imagination'.46

From this perspective, the meaning of Cockledemoy's words matters less than their aphoristic tone. He sounds as though he is quoting, and so he is—Montaigne, Erasmus, perhaps on back to Aristotle.47 Eliot implies a similarly general familiarity as with 'the good old hearty female stench'; oh, that stench, we are asked to respond; of course. Cassio's description of Bianca, 'Tis such another fitchew! Marry, a perfumed one!' (4.1.143) works the same way. The polecat is 'noted for its rank odour and lechery', Sanders tells us, and the phrase such another is 'a common idiom meaning "one just like all the others" '.48 Eliot may have had a private waste land and individual talent, Shakespeare his secret sorrows and period of sex nausea, but language like this derives its authority elsewhere. 'Love has pitched his mansion in / The place of excrement.'49 Crazy Jane's words to the bishop may recall her particular sexual experience, but like the 'saws of books' Hamlet tries to wipe from the tables of his memory after meeting the ghost (1.5.100), they resonate a sententious generality. Has she not read of some such thing? Perhaps the good old hearty male tag, inter urinas et faeces nascimur, we are born between piss and shit. The aphorism is sometimes attributed to St Augustine—wrongly, it seems, and unlike Cockledemoy's, its origins cannot be determined; but the very anonymity helps to produce the sense of an impersonal authority, independent of any particular author or individual source: 'True he it said, what ever man it sayd'.50

Othello's disgust in the Temptation Scene is embedded deeply in the same aphoristic generality. "Tis the plague of great ones', he says and, describing the curse of marriage, affirms the collective wisdom of the plural pronoun, speaking for all married men ('that we can call these delicate creatures ours') and for all heroes ('even then this forkèd plague is fated to us / When we do quicken'). This is the tone of the canny insider, and though new to Othello's speech, it is not new to us. This is Iago's tone. His speech has been from the beginning a tissue of sententious topoi—as here: 'I know our country disposition well' (3.3.205). This is Hamlet's pun on 'country matters', 'a fair thought to lie between maids' legs' (3.2.111, 113), and it may be said to originate the explicit focus upon female sexual parts. The double meaning—I know how our Venetian women dispose of their cunts; I know how our Venetian cunts dispose of themselves—substantiates the gross synecdoche realized a moment later in Othello's speech: transforming women into the things that make them women. But if Othello assimilates Iago's innuendoes, it is through the suave confidence with which they are communicated: 'This fellow . . . knows all qualities with a learned spirit / Of human dealings' (3.3.262-4). Iago speaks from the cultural centre. The manticore was right. Iago has 'the power of description', and Othello 'succumbs to the pictures' Iago constructs. As Kirsch said, Othello comes 'eventually' to 'see . . . with Iago's eyes'—or smell with his nose, or (as in Rushdie's Heideggerian phrase) to reconstitute his 'being-in-the-world' to accord with Iago's.

Whatever the play's impressions upon us, it seems we cannot escape from an understanding in which Othello's sexual knowledge of Desdemona is not the origin but the consequence of his transformation, not the cause but the effect—specifically, an effect of discourse. 'It is not words that shakes me thus', Othello says later in a spastic trance that seems to re-enact his lovemaking with Desdemona (4.1.40). But it is words, the story woven of social, racial, and sexual stereotypes in which his knowledge—of himself, Desdemona, everything—is embedded. How it came to be embedded thus we are not told; the play does not record the process of this transformation. It provides a beginning, up to and including 'Perdition catch my soul / But I do love thee', and an ending, starting with 'O curse of marriage', separated by only a few minutes playing time. In lieu of an extended narrative middle, the play gives us intensely charged erotic images, requiring us to imagine Othello's lovemaking with Desdemona; but whatever (and however) we can register disperses itself into stories about sexual feelings and actions, and still other stories (about military promotions, for instance) to which sexual feelings and actions do not seem immediately relevant. The cause for Othello's transformation must be there, in these hints of an immigrant novel the play requires us to invent.

Like Bradley's kind of criticism, the problem I have been struggling with has been relegated to the status of error, and then to oblivion. This story begins with Eliot's charge of 'bovarisme' in Othello's final speeches.51 Leavis projected this view backward to reveal an Othello who 'has from the beginning responded' with a selfdramatizing egotism: 'the essential traitor is within the gates'. As a consequence, Bradley's view of a noteasily-jealous Othello becomes 'sentimental perversity'.52 For current critics too, Othello is vulnerable from the beginning—not, though, because of some peculiar (and presumably corrigible) failure on his part but as the necessary consequence of a general condition. The essential traitor is now 'always already' within the gates. In one version of the current story, we focus on the inherent vulnerability of Othello's alien status, Loomba's 'insecurity', or the 'self-doubt of this displaced stranger' which, according to Neill, 'opens him so fatally to Iago's attack'.53 From another angle, Othello suffers not from his cultural background but his gender. According to Janet Adelman, male desire 'inevitably soils that object' in which it invests itself and therefore 'threatens to "corrupt and taint" [Othello's] business from the start'.54 In the Lacanian description, Othello's fate is determined by desire itself, irrespective of gender. 'If language is born of absence', Catherine Belsey tells us, 'so is desire, and at the same moment. This must be so . . . Desire, which invests the self in another, necessarily precipitates a division in the subject.'55 In Stephen Greenblatt's strong and influential version, Othello's transformation is simply the 'clearest and most important' example of social construction as a general condition: 'In Othello the characters have always already experienced submission to narrativity.'56

Greenblatt builds from a perception of Othello's Senate speech as 'a narrative in which the storyteller is constantly swallowed up by the story'. This anxiety is then displaced onto Desdemona, as in the lovers' ecstatic Cypriot reunion:

OTHELLO O my fair warrior!
DESDEMONA  My dear Othello.
OTHELLO It gives me wonder great as my content
To see you here before me. O my soul's joy,
If after every tempest come such calms,
May the winds bellow till they have wakened death,
And let the labouring barque climb hills of seas
Olympus-high, and duck again as low
As hell's from heaven. If it were now to die,
'Twere now to be most happy, for I fear
My soul hath her content so absolute
That not another comfort like to this
Succeeds in unknown fate.
DESDEMONA  The heavens forbid
But that our loves and comforts should increase
Even as our days do grow.

(2.1.183-96)

Like many others, Greenblatt recognizes in this passage two distinct registers for experiencing pleasure.57 Othello's speech describes violent movement building to a climax so intense, 'content so absolute', that an intuition of disappointment follows: maybe never again, a sort of post coitum tristis. By contrast Desdemona registers pleasure not as the short sharp shock of termination, but as a slow and gradual increase, unfolding without any evident anxiety or much differentiation into an indefinite future. But does it follow from this, as Greenblatt claims, that Desdemona's promise of a daily increase is actually a threat because it 'denies the possibility of [Othello's] narrative control' and 'devour[s] up his discourse' in a way that eventually drives him to murder?58 Whatever ominous premonitions we may sense, the lovers' greeting in Cyprus ends in blissful fulfilment. 'Amen to that, sweet powers!' he says in response to her prayer for an endless daily increase of love and comfort, thereby accepting her version; but with 'I cannot speak enough of this content. / It stops me here, it is too much of joy', he immediately reaffirms his own. Then finally—'And this (they kiss) and this, the greatest discords be / That e'er our hearts shall make' (196-20)—he transforms their 'discords' into kisses, as though unresolved differences, far from disrupting the pleasure of their union, become the source of its security.

So too with the Senate speech. Like all life stories, Othello's describes displacement: growing up, leaving home, enslavement, religious conversion; but these potential traumas are represented (if at all) not as rupture but as continuity, the accumulation of undifferentiated experience. That his journey goes from 'boyish days / To th' very moment' of the telling (1.3.131-2) suggests not the risk of engulfment but the confident assumption of a capacious future, an unperturbed sense that he will continue to assimilate and structure the material of his life into the daily increase Desdemona later describes. (Indeed, one reason why Desdemona's later words fail to threaten Othello is that he can already experience his life in this female-gendered register.) On the first page of the 'personal history' that bears his name, David Copperfield acknowledges uncertainty whether he will 'turn out to be the hero of my own life', deferring to a text behind his own control: 'these pages must show'.59 But Othello seems somehow to have eluded this problematic split between narrator and narrative subject. 'Such was my process', he says (141), referring at once to his experience and his relation of that experience, his life and his life story. He cannot be swallowed up by his narrative, because he and his narrative are perfectly identical. How can we know the storyteller from the story?

A protagonist of 'perfect soul' such as this or one anxiously vulnerable and radically flawed from the beginning, as in Greenblatt and other recent accounts of the play: what is at stake in this disagreement? Consider Hazlitt, who opens his commentary on Othello by declaring that 'tragedy purifies the affections by terror and pity. That is, it substitutes imaginary sympathy for mere selfishness. It gives us a high and permanent interest, beyond ourselves, in humanity as such. . . . It makes man a partaker with his kind.'60 Hazlitt, writing in a book called The Characters of Shakespeare's Plays, helped develop the tradition that culminated in Bradley.61 By treating Othello's character as the play's motivational centre, and by emphasizing Othello's 'perfect soul' at the beginning, I have been trying to reconnect with this tradition; but I have no wish to reaffirm Bradley's apparent faith as such in the transcendent humanity of heroic individuals, or to imitate the methods apparently generated out of that faith. By abstracting dramatic characters from their relationship in the dramatic action to produce individualized portraits, Bradley sought to guarantee that our fascination with Iago never interferes with our admiration for Othello.62 This strategy, however, systematically sanitizes and diminishes the play's power, for while it assures a full measure of pity for Othello's collapse, it avoids terror and any intuition of our own complicity in the events leading to the catastrophe—a guilty complicity that must underlie all the testimony from critical and theatrical traditions of this play's intolerable experience.

On the other hand, consider the tone of normative certainty in the current view: 'always already', 'inevitably', 'necessarily', 'this must be so'. Cosí fan tutti. These critics are worldly and insouciant; they know their culture disposition well. As I am by no means the first to remark, the anti-heroic reading of the play winds up sounding like Iago.63 This is not a bad thing. The play writes us into Iago's perspective at the beginning and in one way or another succeeds in sustaining this alliance, no matter how unholy we understand it to be, up to the end. Current versions should help to account for precisely that sense of guilty complicity Bradley refused; but by moulding the protagonist to conform to a normative shape, they manage to make an equal (though opposite) refusal. For by treating Othello as an exemplary subject, trapped in the prisonhouse of language or the impossible condition of male desire, current versions leave only his alien status as extraordinary; and once this status is defined as the immigrant protagonist's inherent and necessary vulnerability, we are left with nothing more than abjection: l'homme moyen sensuel—not a transcendent 'humanity as such' but a derisory 'human, all too human'.

A fall from this height, like Gloucester's from what he supposes to be Dover Cliff, evokes some pity, perhaps, but no fear, and (since we see it coming) not even much surprise. That Bradleyan and anti-Bradleyan assumptions arrive at similar conclusions might suggest that differing beliefs about character are less than fully determining. It matters, of course, whether we come to the play as humanists or constructionists, but watching Othello does not require us to solve conceptual problems, like the relative weight of nature and culture, from a position of absolute ontological conviction.64 To the extent that such conviction commits us to stability and consistency of understanding, it may be the last thing we need. Consistency led Bradley into a maundering pathos, but at least he knew where to start. For unless we are prepared to respond to Othello's existence at the beginning with 'imaginary sympathy', responding with affection and wonder to a marvelous strangeness emanating from a different bodily place, black or tawny, and a world elsewhere—unless, that is, we can see Othello's visage in his mind, we will never be able to acknowledge the play's tragic power.

Theatrical impressions, heroic tragedy, pity and terror: all these acknowledge a major investment on my part in mode, genre, and above all artistic effect. Unlike Valerie Traub, who in the passage I quoted early on declares a relative lack of interest 'in the ways works of art are empowered', I have been writing from inside the traditional vocabulary of literary aesthetics. Traub's diminished interest represents a strong claim often made in current criticism that the sceptical scrutiny of this vocabulary—seeing through aesthetics to the literary system of which it is part, and finally to the cultural system that is said to generate and contain it (as well as everything else)—produces powerful results. According to Traub, since sexual taboos, 'prohibitions on incest or homosexuality, for instance', are 'arbitrary political constructs and thus open to transformation', then 'by deconstructing and refiguring the anxieties that regulate and discipline erotic life', we can 'contribute modestly to the project of carving out space within the social structure for greater erotic variety'.65

This is not a very plausible story; it is hard to believe that a politically inflected deconstruction, or any other way of studying Shakespeare, can contribute, even modestly, to a greater erotic variety. How, then, can we account for the proliferation of such claims on the current critical scene? Here, by way of an answer, is one story: in these austere times, we inhabit an increasingly production-driven research culture, characterized by the felt need to pursue socially useful projects. The functional value of these projects is defined by the functionaries who hold us accountable to themselves in the name of their own accountability to a construct called 'the public' or 'the taxpayer'. In this environment of 'targeted research', we are all cultural workers—willy nilly, though some of us do make love to our employment. As such, we experience submission to the relentlessly instrumental narrativity of the regulators and so find ourselves pointing to imaginary profits on the bottom line. It would be quixotic to inveigh against such strategic claims; after all, the regulators control the purse strings, and they have the power of description. Now, however, it seems we have succumbed to their pictures, promising such payoffs not just strategically to our administrators, but with genuine conviction to each other and even to ourselves.

Hazlitt too was doing targeted research, aiming at 'a high and permanent interest, beyond ourselves, in humanity as such'. In returning to Hazlitt and to Bradley, I am not suggesting that Hazlitt's target is inherently superior, or any more accessible to literary study. Responding with 'imaginary sympathy' to Othello's power will not lead us necessarily to realize humanity as such, erotic variety, or any of the other goals in our various agendas (at least not without the anguished self-disgust Burke described as 'Our filthy purgation'66). The relation between literary study and ethics, Richard Lanham's ' "Q" question', has gone without satisfactory answer since Plato, because there is no single answer.67 Stanley Fish is right: like virtue, literary study is its own reward.68 With a masterpiece like Othello, this is more than enough.

Notes

1 A. C. Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy: Lectures on 'Hamlet', 'Othello', 'King Lear', 'Macbeth' (1904; rpt. London, 1964), p. 151.

2 This essay is available with some minor revisions in Knights's Explorations: Essays in Criticism Mainly on the Literature of the Seventeenth Century (1947; rpt. New York, 1964), pp. 15-54.

3 The phrases are taken from Hugh Grady, The Modernist Shakespeare: Critical Texts in a Material World (Oxford, 1991), esp. chapter 2.

4Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (Cambridge, 1989), p. xiii.

5 More precisely, Rorty wishes to displace these distinctions from the status of ontological categories, where they inscribe a foundational difference between Reality and Appearance, and put them into service for a rough-and-ready pragmatist use, specific to a particular context.

6Desire and Anxiety: Circulations of Sexuality in Shakespearean Drama (New York and London, 1992), p. 4.

7 'Invisible Bullets, Violet Bears: Reading Actors Reading', in Edward Pechter, ed., Textual and Theatrical Shakespeare: Questions of Evidence (Iowa City, 1996), pp. 210-29, p. 212.

8 Margaret Lael Mikesell, Introduction, Part I, in Mikesell and Virginia Vaughan, eds., 'Othello': An Annotated Bibliography (New York, 1990), pp. xi-xxiv, p. xvii.

9Gender, Race, Renaissance Drama (Manchester, 1989), pp. 54-8.

10 'The Argument about Shakespeare's Characters', Critical Quarterly, 7 (1965), 107-20, p. 109.

11 'Charivari and the Comedy of Abjection in Othello', in Linda Woodbridge and Edward Berry, eds., True Rites and Maimed Rites: Ritual and Anti-Ritual in Shakespeare and His Age (Urbana and Chicago, 1992), pp. 75-97, p. 85 (Bristol's emphasis). For a powerful argument that Shakespeare not only sustains but originates modern notions of subjectivity, see Joel Fineman, Shakespeare's Perjured Eye: The Invention of Poetic Subjectivity in the Sonnets (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1986).

12 'It is clear', Anderson tells us, writing about theory since World War Two, 'that there has been one master-problem around which all contenders have revolved[:] the nature of the relationships between structure and subject in human history and society'. See In the Tracks of Historical Materialism (Chicago, 1984), p. 33 (Anderson's emphasis).

13 I am hardly the first to try to bring either Bradley or the concept of character back into consideration. In addition to Nuttall, see the discussions in John Bayley, The Characters of Love: A Study in the Literature of Personality (London, 1960), chapter 1, esp. pp. 33-47; and the chapters in S. L. Goldberg, An Essay on 'King Lear' (Cambridge, 1975), pp. 34-67; and E. A. J. Honigmann, Shakespeare: Seven Tragedies: The Dramatist's Manipulation of Audience Response (London, 1976), pp. 4-15. For more recent discussion, coming at the question from widely divergent positions, see Christy Desmet, Reading Shakespeare's Characters: Rhetoric, Ethics, and Identity (Amherst, 1992); Alan Sinfield, 'When Is a Character Not a Character? Desdemona, Olivia, Lady Macbeth, and Subjectivity', in Faultlines: Cultural Materialism and the Politics of Dissident Reading (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1992), pp. 52-79, esp. p. 62; and Bert O. States, Hamlet and the Concept of Character (Baltimore and London), 1992.

141.1.1 and 4; 5.2.374-5. See Edward A. Snow, 'Sexual Anxiety and the Male Order of Things in Othello ', English Literary Renaissance, 10 (1980), 384-412, p. 384.

15 The perplexing questions centre on the competing claims of nature and culture. The ambivalent feelings can be located in terms of the contradictory generic signals many commentators have associated with this play (Susan Snyder, for instance, in The Comic Matrix of Shakespeare's Tragedies: 'Romeo and Juliet', 'Hamlet', 'Othello', and 'King Lear' (Princeton, 1979)): if we are watching a comedy, then we are on the side of young love in general and female desire in particular; if tragedy, then the claims of established patriarchal authority demand our primary allegiance. In 'Othello and Colour Prejudice', G. K. Hunter suggests that the play provokes racist feelings only to require their repudiation (Dramatic Identities and Cultural Tradition: Studies in Shakespeare and His Contemporaries: Critical Essays (Liverpool, 1978), pp. 31-59). A. J. Cook describes a similar change in our feelings about Desdemona in 'The Design of Desdemona: Doubt Raised and Resolved', Shakespeare Studies, 13 (1980), 187-96.

16Shakespeare and the Experience of Love (Cambridge, 1981), p. 32.

17 See Edward Berry, 'Othello's Alienation', Studies in English Literature, 30 (1990), 315-34; and David Bevington, 'Introduction' to his edition of Othello (1980; rpt. Toronto and New York, 1988), p. xxviii. For a version of this argument written before materialism and constructionism became generally current and including some astute commentary on the question of character, see G. M. Matthews, 'Othello and the Dignity of Man', in Arnold Kettle, ed., Shakespeare in a Changing World: Essays (New York, 1964), pp. 123-45.

18 In this regard, Lisa Jardine comments brilliantly on Iago's misogynist clichés at the beginning of Act 2. See 'Cultural Confusion and Shakespeare's Learned Heroines: "These are old paradoxes" ', Shakespeare Quarterly, 38 (1987), 1-18.

19 See Kenneth Burke, 'Othello: An Essay to Illustrate a Method', Hudson Review, 4 (1951), 165-203. I am profoundly indebted to Burke both for local detail and the general argument I am making here. See also Joel Altman,' "Preposterous Conclusions": Eros, Enargeia, and the Composition of Othello", Representations, 18 (1987), 129-57; and Patricia Parker, 'Preposterous Events', Shakespeare Quarterly, 43 (1992), 186-213.

20 Salman Rushdie, The Satanic Verses (New York, 1988), p. 157.

21 Ibid., p. 168. The Othello subtext in Rushdie is clearly intentional. See Paul A. Cantor, 'Othello: The Erring Barbarian among the Supersubtle Venetians', Southwest Review, 75 (1990), 296-319.

22 John Banville, 'An Interview with Salman Rushdie', New York Review of Books (4 March 1993), 34-6, p. 34.

23Bayler, The Characters of Love, p. 134.

24Morgann's Essay on the Dramatic Character of Sir John Falstaff, ed. William Arthur Gill (1912; rpt. Freeport, 1970), p. 4. Harley Granville-Barker tries to demonstrate that double time solves a problem of audience belief, but since it is Shakespeare who creates the problem, Granville-Barker's argument winds up going round in circles. See Prefaces to Shakespeare (1946; rpt. Princeton, 1963), vol. 4, pp. 141-7. Graham Bradshaw has tried to explain away the problem, but his claims, which depend upon a hefty investment in Bianca's pre-dramatic career in Venice, are implausible. See Misrepresentations: Shakespeare and the Materialists (Ithaca and London, 1993), pp. 147-68.

For versions of the distinctions at work in the double time of Othello, consider Paul Valéry's discussion of the way 'our poetic pendulum travels from our sensation toward some idea or some sentiment, and returns toward some memory of the sensation and toward the potential act which could reproduce the sensation'. See The Art of Poetry, trans. Denise Folliot in Jackson Mathews, ed., The Collected Works of Paul Valéry (London, 1958), vol. 7, p. 72. See also Kenneth Burke's distinction between plots driven by lyrical associationism and by rational extension in The Philosophy of Literary Form (1941; rpt. Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1973), pp. 30-2.

25Disowning Knowledge in Six Plays of Shakespeare (Cambridge, 1987), p. 132.

26 For critics (many of them following in Cavell's wake, as I am) who claim that Othello 'refers us to a hidden scene of desire that . . . is a focus of compulsive fascination for audience and characters alike', see (in alphabetical order): Janet Adelman, Suffocating Mothers: Fantasies of Maternal Origin in Shakespeare's Plays, 'Hamlet' to 'The Tempest' (New York and London, 1992); Lynda E. Boose, ' "Let it be hid": Renaissance Pornography, Iago, and Audience Response', in Richard Marienstras and Dominique Guy-Blanquet, eds., Autour d"Othello' (Paris, 1987), pp. 135-43; and 'Othello's Handkerchief, "The Recognizance and Pledge of Love" ', English Literary Renaissance, 5 (1975), 360-74; Arthur Little, Jr, ' "An essence that's not seen": The Primal Scene of Racism in Othello', Shakespeare Quarterly, 44 (1993), 304-24; Katharine Eisaman Maus, 'Horns of Dilemma: Jealousy, Gender and Spectatorship in English Renaissance Drama', ELH, 54 (1987), 561-83; and 'Proof and Consequences: Inwardness and Its Exposure in the English Renaissance', Representations, 34 (1991), 229-52; Michael Neill, 'Changing Places in Othello', Shakespeare Survey 37 (1984), pp. 115-31; ' "Hidden Malady": Death, Discovery, and Indistinction in The Changeling', Renaissance Drama, 22 (1991), 95-121 (from which the quotation about the 'hidden scene of desire' at the beginning of this note is taken (p. 98); and 'Unproper Beds: Race, Adultery, and the Hideous in Othello', Shakespeare Quarterly, 40 (1989), 383-412; Patricia Parker, 'Dilation, Spying and the "Secret Place" of Woman', Representations, 44 (1993), 60-95; 'Fantasies of "Race" and "Gender": Africa, Othello, and Bringing to Light', in Margo Hendricks and Parker, eds., Women, 'Race', and Writing in the Early Modern Period (New York and London, 1994), pp. 84-100; and 'Shakespeare and Rhetoric: "Dilation" and "Delation" ', in Parker and Geoffrey Hartman, eds., Shakespeare and the Question of Theory (London, 1985), pp. 57-74; and Peter L. Rudnytsky, 'The Purloined Handkerchief in Othello', in Joseph Reppen and Maurice Charney, eds., The Psychoanalytic Study of Literature (Hillsdale, N.J., 1985), pp. 169-90.

27 Cf. Neill: Desdemona is 'not merely the precious "thing", the stolen treasure of love's corrupted commerce, but herself the lost place of love' ('Changing Places', p. 128).

28 George Lyman Kittredge, ed., Othello (Boston, 1941), p. 211.

29Disowning Knowledge, p. 132.

30 'Fantasies of "Race" ', p. 87.

31 Laura Mulvey, who established the idea of 'the gaze' ('Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema', Screen, 16 (1975), 6-18), twice subsequently cautioned against applying it to all movies ('Afterthoughts on "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" Inspired by Duel in the Sun', Framework, 15-17 (1981), 12-15; and 'Changes', Discourse, 7 (1985), 11-30. All this material is now conveniently available in Visual and Other Pleasures (Bloomington and Indianapolis, 1989).) We should be even more sceptical about transferring 'the gaze' to theatre, and even more sceptical yet again when the theatre was produced in such a remote period. Notions of ocular proof associated with experimental science were developing in the Renaissance, as were notions of true perspective in painting and a single privileged vantage point in the masque. These ideas, however, had not achieved anything like their subsequent authority. They competed with other ideas about perception and different epistemological theories. Renaissance ideas about poetry and theatre, moreover, often repudiated the primacy of the visual, an integrated objective stage gestalt, and a single controlling point of view. In support of these claims, see Desmet, Reading Shakespeare's Characters, pp. 112-13; Barbara Freedman, Staging the Gaze: Postmodernism, Psychoanalysis, and Shakespearean Comedy (Ithaca, 1991); Terence Hawkes, Shakespeare's Talking Animals: Language and Drama in Society (London, 1970), p. 43 and p. 130; James R. Siemon, Shakespearean Iconoclasm (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1985); Wylie Sypher, The Ethic of Time: Structures of Experience in Shakespeare (New York, 1976), pp. 116-20; Rosemond Tuve, Elizabethan and Metaphysical Imagery: Renaissance Poetic and Twentieth-Century Critics (Chicago, 1947); and Robert Weimann, Shakespeare and the Popular Tradition in the Theater: Studies in the Social Dimension of Dramatic Form (Baltimore and London, 1978). There have been others, apart from Mulvey herself, who have warned against overinvesting in the idea of the gaze (see Edward Snow, 'Theorizing the Male Gaze: Some Problems', Representations, 25 (1989), 330-41; and Stephen J. Greenblatt, Learning to Curse: Essays in Early Modern Culture (New York and London, 1990), pp. 175-81); nonetheless, critics carry on with the gaze sometimes in full knowledge of Mulvey's disclaimers. Its power seems to be irresistible.

32 Bradshaw adds that 'flooded seems the right word [until] the images smash against dries up, and reform into the wrenchingly gross, unhinging image of "it"—"it!"—as a foul cistern' (Misrepresentations, p. 179). Lawrence Danson talks about the 'fluid metaphors . . . suggested by Othello's figuring Desdemona as either "fountain from which [his] current runs" or "cistern for foul toads to knot and gender in". In Cymbeline the idea of the wife as a watery site is complexly joined with the idea of the wife as property—the one idea, as we would expect, confounding the other, since you can't keep things that flow like a fountain or breed like a cistern' (' "The Catastrophe is a Nuptial": The Space of Masculine Desire in Othello, Cymbeline, and The Winter's Tale', Shakespeare Survey 46 (1994), pp. 69-79, p. 75).

33 Neill, 'Changing Places', p. 130.

34 5.2.155-6. For remarks on the powerful sense of sexual disgust in 'this appalling line', see William Empson, The Structure of Complex Words (London, 1964), pp. 226-7; and Snow, 'Sexual Anxiety', p. 388.

35 Quoted by Francine du Plessix Gray in 'Splendor and Miseries', New York Review of Books (16 July 1992), 331-5, p. 334.

36 Valerie Eliot, ed., The Waste Land: A Facsimile and Transcript of the Original Drafts Including the Annotations of Ezra Pound (London, 1971), p. 23.

37 'Love regards as its end the enjoyment of beauty; beauty pertains only to the mind, sight, and hearing. Love, therefore, is limited to these three, but desire which rises from the other senses is called, not love, but lust or madness.' Sears R. Jayne, ed. and trans., Marsilio Ficino's Commentary on Plato's Symposium (Columbia, Missouri; 1944), p. 130.

38 According to Freud, the civilizing of human sexuality since prehistory, said to reside in the stability of family arrangements, involved 'the diminution of the olfactory stimuli by means of which the menstrual process produced an effect on the male psyche. Their role was taken over by visual excitations, which, in contrast to the intermittent olfactory stimuli, were able to maintain a permanent effect . . . The diminution of the olfactory stimuli seems itself to be a consequence of man's raising himself from the ground, of his assumption of an upright gait; this made his genitals, which were previously concealed, visible and in need of protection, and so provoked feelings of shame in him.' Civilization and its Discontents, trans. James Strachey (New York, 1962), p. 46. For a suggestive discussion of Freud and of various associations, especially in the nineteenth century, between smell and the primitive, see Hal Foster, ' "Primitive" Scenes', Critical Inquiry, 20 (1993), 69-102.

39The Smell of Books: A Cultural-Historical Study of Olfactory Perception in Literature (Ann Arbor, 1992), p. 13, p. 160 and p. 231.

40A Short View of Tragedy, in Curt A. Zimanky, ed., The Critical Works of Thomas Rymer (New Haven, 1956), p. 160.

41 Cf. Boose, 'Desdemona's Handkerchief. Rymer, though, seems to have taken the point almost despite himself; consider the following remarks, intended to make fun of the play's concentration on such a trivial thing as the handkerchief: 'Desdemona dropt the Handkerchief, and missed it that very day after her Marriage; it might have been rumpl'd up with her Wedding sheets: And this Night that she lay in her wedding sheets, the Fairey Napkin (whilst Othello was stifling her) might have started up to disarm his fury, and stop his ungracious mouth' (p. 162). Or, just earlier: 'Had it been Desdemona's Garter, the Sagacious Moor might have smelt a Rat; but the Handkerchief is so remote a trifle, no Booby, on this side Mauritania, cou'd make any consequence from it' (p. 160). One might say that, though blind, Rymer could register the meaning well enough as taste and smell. Rudnytsky argues that 'Rymer's comparison of the handkerchief to a "Garter" comes to seem particularly inspired' as suggesting its fetish-like quality ('The Purloined Handkerchief, p. 185). Peter Davison is picking up similar olfactory resonances in his remark that Rymer's point about the garter and smelling a rat is very 'pungently put' (Othello. The Critics Debate Series (Basingstoke, 1988), p. 83 [my emphasis]). Davison, who remarks on the 'surprising . . . personal acrimony' in Othellocriticism (p. 10), suggests that 'the peculiar viciousness that animates some critics . . . may stem from what in Othello subconsciously disturbs them' (p. 53). This suggestion seems plausible, especially in conjunction with all the anecdotes from the play's theatrical history of audiences so upset that they felt moved in some way to intervene in the action. In this context, Rymer's tone of furious resistance is interesting and revealing. He may not be a good critic, but he is not the perverse anomaly he is sometimes taken to be.

42 By contrast, the primary visible qualities can be fixed in a quantitatively determinate space (this tall, that shape, even such-and-such a colour). As a consequence of its greater stability, ocular proof may seem like a more realistic and even worthwhile project than olfactory proof. It was, arguably, beginning to acquire such authority in the Renaissance—but only beginning to, and not for everybody (my point in note 31).

43 John Marston, The Dutch Courtesan, ed. M. L. Wine. Regents Renaissance Drama Series (Lincoln, Nebraska; 1965), 3.3.45.

44The Smell of Books, p. 4.

45The 'auratic phenomenon' of smell 'is almost purely linguistic, despite its evident lack of terminological grounding, in fact precisely because of it. The connectors in the "smell like . . ." or the "smell of. . ." are the true linguistic places of the olfactory, empty of sensual quality themselves, functional particles, providers of linkage, connections, bonds. [The] shortcoming of language for the olfactory thus turns out to be the true reflection of the liminal and transgressive qualities of that sensory mode' (Rindisbacher, The Smell of Books, pp. 330-1).

46The Foul and the Fragrant: Odor and the French Social Imagination (Cambridge, Mass.; 1986). The book was originally called Le Miasme et la Jonquille, so the phrase is actually the translator's, perhaps thinking of 'l'imaginaire'.

47 In an unpublished essay, 'The Adverse Body: John Marston', Ronald Huebert points out that Marston found the adage in Florio's Montaigne, 'where it appears as a bathetically unheroic couplet: "Ev'ry mans ordure well, To his own sense doth smell." ' According to Huebert, Florio would have found it 'not in Montaigne's racy French', but in a Latin epigram, 'Stercus cuiusque suum bene olet', itself a mistranslation of Erasmus's Adage 2302, 'suus cuique crepitus bene olet'. For the presumed origins in Aristotle, see John Weightman, 'How Wise Was Montaigne?' New York Review of Books (5 November 1992), 32-5, p. 33.

The idea still commands belief. Freud claimed that the social factor in the repression of anal erotism is 'attested by the circumstance that, in spite of all man's developmental advances, he scarcely finds the smell of his own excreta repulsive, but only that of other people's' (Civilization and its Discontents, p. 47, Freud's emphasis). And Weightman reports that 'When, quite recently, I heard it said of a world-famous but rather self-righteous musician, "He thinks his own shit doesn't smell", I took the expression to be a typically rude Australianism' ('How Wise?' p. 33). Its current authority has a different rhetorical register—or two different registers—from the aphoristic mode. For Freud, inhabiting a culture more respectful of scientific empiricism than of familiar topoi, the authority is represented not as a maxim but as data—something 'attested by circumstance'. Weightman seems to imply that a bumptious colonial's language may be more authoritative, closer to the true core of tradition, than the polite diction of the metropolitan centre.

48 Norman Sanders, ed., Othello. New Cambridge Shakespeare (Cambridge, 1984), p. 147.

49 'Crazy Jane Talks with the Bishop'. The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats (New York, 1959), pp. 254-5.

50Spenser's 'Faerie Queene', ed. J. C. Smith (Oxford, 1909), vol. 2, p. 121 (Book 4, Canto 10, 1). The misattribution may originate with Freud, to infer from Traub, who passes it along in Desire and Anxiety (p. 58 and p. 156). St Augustine is a likely candidate, considering how frequently he participated in this traditional repugnance for the female body. The aphorism can serve also to celebrate the carnivalesque body ('Fair and foul are near of kin'—the main tone in Yeats's poem). For recent commentators who have appropriated the maxim without any attribution, see Greenblatt, Learning to Curse, p. 60; Norman Mailer, Tough Guys Don't Dance (New York, 1984), p. 116; and Gail Kern Paster, The Body Embarrassed: Drama and the Disciplines of Shame in Early Modern England (Ithaca, 1993), p. 210. Mailer is a particularly interesting writer in this context. He writes obsessively about different excremental-sexual smells and has developed a whole metaphysics about the proximity of female orifices (Mailer's Manichaenism is a subject about which doctoral dissertations are presumably being written even now, now, very now). He even invented a witty neologism for the perineum (employing the plural pronoun whose rhetorical power I shall be describing in a moment): 'we boys out on Long Island used to call [it] the Taint'—presumably for its suggestions of rotten meat, like Othello's 'shambles', but explicitly because "taint vagina, 'taint anus, ho, ho' (Tough Guys, p. 93).

51 'Shakespeare and the Stoicism of Seneca', 1927; rpt. in Selected Essays. New Edition (New York, 1950), pp. 107-20, p. 111.

52 'Diabolic Intellect and the Noble Hero', 1937; rpt. in The Common Pursuit (Harmondsworth, 1969), pp. 136-59, p. 139, p. 141.

53 'Changing Places', p. 127.

54Suffocating Mothers, p. 63 and p. 65. Adelman's generously detailed notes indicate the depth and range of this object-relations approach among current critics.

55 'Desire's Excess and the English Renaissance Theatre: Edward II, Troilus and Cressida, and Othello', in Susan Zimmerman, ed., Erotic Politics: Desire on the Renaissance Stage (London and New York, 1992), pp. 84-102, p. 86 and p. 95.

56Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare (Chicago, 1980), p. 237. Adelman uses the same phrase about 'the impossible condition of male desire, the condition always already lost' (Suffocating Mothers, p. 69).

57 Adelman makes the point and provides references to five others who interpret the passage in similar ways, ibid., pp. 72-3 and p. 278.

58Renaissance Self-Fashioning, p. 238 and p. 243.

59 For an interesting discussion of Dickens's opening, see A. D. Nuttall, Openings: Narrative Beginnings from the Epic to the Novel (Oxford, 1992), pp. 172ff.

60 In P. P. Howe, ed., The Complete Works (London, 1930), vol. 4, p. 200.

61 Of course this tradition does not vanish abruptly with Bradley. Helen Gardner's 1955 British Academy lecture gave it perhaps its purest expression (the clarity of afterlife—Minerva's owl flies at twilight): The Noble Moor (rpt. Folcroft, Pa., 1969). And there continue to be generously responsive acknowledgements of Othello's romantic-heroic stature in Jane Adamson, 'Othello' as Tragedy: Some Problems of Judgment and Feeling (Cambridge, 1980); Bayley, Cavell, Kirsch, and Mark Rose ('Othello's Occupation: Shakespeare and the Romance of Chivalry', English Literary Renaissance, 15 (1985), 293-311). In one recent commentary in this mode, Thomas Clayton's tone of bemused disaffection from current critical norms fairly reflects the view that such celebratory criticism has become, like Bradley himself, self-evidently obsolete. See ' "That's she that was myself: Not-so-famous Last Words and Some Ends of Othello ', Shakespeare Survey 46 (1994), pp. 61-8.

62 Bradley clearly knows what he is doing and why. About Iago he asks, 'How is it then that we can bear to contemplate him; nay, that, if we really imagine him, we feel admiration and some kind of sympathy? . . . Why is the representation tolerable, and why do we not accuse its author either of untruth or of a desperate pessimism? To these questions it might at once be replied: Iago does not stand alone; he is a factor in a whole; and we perceive him there and not in isolation, acted upon as well as acting, destroyed as well as destroying. But, although this is true and important, I pass it by and . . . regard him by himself (PP. 190-1).

63 For others who make this point, see Bayley (pp. 129-30) and Kirsch (p. 31). Calderwood is particularly given to the canny insider's tone, as witness the words I emphasize in the following passages from The Properties of 'Othello ' (keyed to the order of the four versions of contemporary criticism as I described them above): (1) The alien's abject dependency and Iago's inevitable triumph: 'But after all what should we have expected? The Moor is a stranger' (p. 68). (2) The impossible condition of male desire: 'This masculine appropriation of women in Venice helps explain why Othello's faith in Desdemona succumbs with such surprising ease to Iago's beguilements. He loses faith in part because he never really had any. Though he endows his wife with heavenly qualities, deep down he suspects, like any other husband, the sorry truth' (p. 31). (3) Lacan: 'To see yourself in another, as he does—as we all do in our psychological extensions of Lacan's mirror stage—is to divide as well as unify the here/thereness of the body/self (p. 105). (4) The submission to narrativity: 'Normally the speaking subject is enormously in excess of the grammatical subject; we are [Calderwood's emphasis] far more than we can say' (p. 58).

64 The play leaves the question open. Though asking us to credit Othello's nobility, it does not insist that we understand this nobility as necessarily self-generated. Maybe he is formed by his birth, social position, family and early environment. 'I fetch my life and being / From men of royal siege', he tells us early on (1.2.21-2). Maybe he is climatologically constructed (not a ridiculous notion in the Renaissance), as Desdemona suggests explaining his temperamental indisposition to jealousy: 'the sun where he was born / Drew all such humours from him' (3.4.30-1).

65Desire and Anxiety, p. 8.

66'Othello', p. 200.

67 See 'The "Q" Question', South Atlantic Quarterly, 87 (1988), 653-700, modified and incorporated in The Electronic Word: Democracy, Technology, and the Arts (Chicago, 1993).

68 'Why Literary Criticism is Like Virtue', London Review of Books (10 June 1993), 11-16.

Source: "'Have You Not Read of Some Such Thing?' Sex and Sexual Stories in Othello," in Shakespeare Survey: An Annual Survey of Shakespeare Studies and Production, Vol. 49, 1996, pp. 201-16.