Theatricality and Textuality: The Example of Othello
Theatricality and Textuality: The Example of Othello
John Bernard, University of Houston
Uncle Hilaal pulled at your cheek and teasing you, said, "Askar, where is the third? Where's the other?"
You looked about yourself, looked here, looked there, looked there and then at the two of them, but remained silent. In the quiet of your daydreams, you asked yourself, "The third—who's that?" One, Hilaal. Two, Salaado. Three? What does the third mean?
—Nuruddin Farah, Maps1
Is life a game, a stage, or a text? If, as Clifford Geertz has observed, these are the chief paradigms by which the academic discourse of our time has tended to define its agons, no intellectual terrain has proved more receptiveto such "refigurations" than the Renaissance.2 Under the first of these rubrics, studies of courtly behavior have invoked a Burkean or Bourdieuvian practice as the model of both discourse and action in the competition for the favor of princes and patrons.3 At the same time, critics of a Foucauldian or late-Barthesian bent have investigated how, owing in part to the spread of printing, a consciousness of the possibilities of textual self-construction and self-projection enhanced the authority of the emergent early modern "author."4 Not surprisingly, the middle branch of Renaissance academic discourse has largely referred itself to the late-Elizabethan and Jacobean public theater, as "metatheatrical" investigations of the art/life ratio in Shakespearean or English Renaissance drama have resonated with sociologically oriented analyses of everyday life.5
The links between theater and play are fairly obvious, and those between games and textuality have a special appeal to critics taken with the pleasures of the text. But the kinship of text-centered and stage-centered approaches, both in general and with reference to the Renaissance, has been less well...
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Before turning to Shakespeare I want to situate these analogies both in the historical debate about the Renaissance and in the theoretical one about representation.16 Let me begin by considering briefly the concept of "theatricality" employed in this discussion and to indicate some of its provenances in literary theory. In a series of books and articles on Shakespeare's theater, Robert Weimann has argued for a new kind of theatrical authority in the Renaissance centering on the tension between traditional Aristotelian mimesis and a more subjective form of imitation rooted in a general self-consciousness about representation itself, specifically the actors' representation of the act of appropriation.17 In his earlier work Weimann examines the distribution of space in the late-medieval theater inherited by Shakespeare and his contemporaries, a division that permitted players to break with the mimetic illusion of character and foreground theatrical productivity, that is, "representivity" itself, as a praxis including both actors and audience in the process of creating meaning.18 Weimann grounds his argument in his own and other scholars' researches into the material conditions of the Elizabethan theater, situated as it was on the margins of late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century London.19 But his theoretical model of the theatrical transaction is based on the Marxist concept of Aneignung or...
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In The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, Rainer Maria Rilke meditates on the writer's need for "a third person … who passes through all lives and literatures," especially drama. In a passage fascinating for its gendering of the various theatrical roles, Rilke speculates that "every playwright up to now has found it too difficult to speak of the two whom the drama is really about":
The third person, just because he is so unreal, is the easiest part of the problem; they have all been able to manage him; from the very first scene you can feel their impatience to have him enter; they can hardly wait. The moment he appears, everything is all right. But how tedious when he's late. Absolutely nothing can happen without him; everything slows down, stops, waits. Yes, and what if this delay were to continue? What, my dear playwright, and you, dear audience who know life so well, what if he were declared missing—that popular man-about-town or that arrogant youth, who fits into every marriage like a skeleton-key? What if, for example, the devil had taken him? Let's suppose this. All at once you feel the unnatural emptiness of the theatres; they are bricked up like dangerous holes; only the moths from the rims of the box-seats flutter through the unsupported void. The playwrights no longer enjoy their elegant townhouses. All the detective agencies are, on their behalf, searching in the remotest corners of the world...
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The old chestnut of Montaigne's supposed "influence" on Shakespeare is scarcely germane to the present argument.32 What is relevant, and deserves to be taken more seriously by cultural critics, are the analogous material conditions of these writers—one writing principally for the printing press, the other for the theater—within the expanding horizons of discourse in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Drawing on parallels with the practice of nontheatrical writers like Montaigne, the present study has tried to argue that the Shakespearean text, like the printed one, must be considered with respect to "the printing press and the public theater as unofficial media … of self-authorized performance and utterance" at a time when these instruments of cultural production were undergoing rapid and radical change." Within this context Othello, like the Essays, reveals the textual effects of this change, and of the larger social evolution these texts are part of, in their self-conscious representations of that production. To be sure, the triangular motif of the "third" is but a minor if revealing aspect of this new self-consciousness. But the results of even so preliminary an investigation as this bear out the thesis of a resurgent nonmimetic representation (or nonrepresentational mimesis) and of the increasing sense of literary and cultural authority it implies.
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