Study Guide


by William Shakespeare

Othello Essay - Theatricality and Textuality: The Example of Othello

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 acknowledged.6 On the whole metanarrative and metatheater remain separate if equal games, though each has come to levy increasingly large claims on our understanding of Renaissance discourse. Yet homologies between theater and text (or stage and page) as modes of discursive production in the Renaissance deserve greater attention than they have...

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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 "appropriation," a reciprocal process whereby the modern bourgeois subject is constituted precisely in the act of making the conditions of his productive labor, in the cultural as well as the material sphere, his own. Applied to literary history, Aneignung is "both a text-appropriating … [and] a world-appropriating activity," which, "even while it precedes ideology and signification, is not closed to the acts of the historical consciousness of the signifying subject."20

Appropriation in this sense clearly transcends the theater. In the fluid social conditions of Elizabethan England, Weimann argues, such acts of "self-authorizing appropriation of language and its media of circulation" reflect a crisis in the authority of traditional vehicles of representation, including literary genres. Out of this crisis is generated a revision of the "modes and aims of representation." Rising in opposition to traditional mimesis, in which actors on the stage transparently represent mythological or historical characters, or narrators in fiction operate as neutral conduits for well-established stories and their meanings, the new mode of appropriation presupposes a representation "not reducible to its mimetic dimension." Instead,"representation (in this historicizing sense) appears as an agency of production and performance, in that it involves such performative action on the level of what is representing as cannot adequately be defined as a mere 'reflection' of the historically given circumstances and ideologies which the act of representation helps to transcribe."21 Weimann is careful to acknowledge that such appropriative acts "do not serve the free expression of subjectivity" but are conditioned by "discursive usage."22 Nevertheless, in his quarrel with the poststructuralist tendency to deny all subjectivity in the name of a rigid synchronicity that dissolves representation in "signification" and reduces writing to a subjectless textuality, he locates the limited freedom of the author in this diachronic and "dialogic (or theatrical) dimension in discourse."23 In the social and historical context of the Renaissance, then, theatricality may be provisionally identified with the (individual or collective) interpretive axis that intersects with language conceived as a fixed and hegemonic system autonomously producing new cultural meanings. In the context of current academic debates, it functions as a counterforce to "textuality," suggesting how appropriating agents query, contest, and sometimes subvert established ideologies, thus effecting cultural change.24

This fruitful contamination of textuality by theatricality is exploited by Marie Maclean's performative approach to narrative, which stresses the function of "the reader as spectator." Tracing the traditional enmity of theater and narrative to their common origin—oral narrative at some point splits into theatrical performance and written narrative, ultimately the silent discourse of narrative in print—she identifies the "double nature of speculation, the double bind of spectatorship." By this she means that, like the play-audience, the reader is "tempted by the specularity, the mirroring of identification" with a character in the text addressed directly by the narrator, while retaining the awareness that spectatorship—that is, "the realization that one is a spectator"—entails "critical estrangement, and with it the penalties and pleasures of speculation."25 For our purposes Maclean's work is most helpful when she comes...

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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 for the irreplaceable third person, who was the action itself.40

Even without the half-suppressed wish that the devil might take him, this "irreplaceable third person" who both catalyzes and in a sense is the play's action might well evoke the powerful presence of Iago.

Iago is the very type of the Rilkean catalyst of the action (or the action itself) and mediator of others' desire. His orchestration of Roderigo's pursuit of Desdemona frames most of the play's action, whose burden is his perversion of Othello's desire for Desdemona. As Edward Snow has noted, through his efforts to thwart the prosperity of the mismatched couple, Iago too "has done the state some service," for that marriage challenges all the ideological hierarchies—of race, class, and gender—of the social system represented in the play.41 This social role finds its dramaturgical counterpart in the improvisational nature of his stage function. In Weimann's terms, Iago represents precisely the crucial social agency in the self-authorizing appropriation of language by an emerging bourgeois subject. Witness his coy, distorting iterations of common signifiers—"thought," "indeed," "think," "honest"—which Othello mistakes for "close dilations, working from the heart" of a received fund of fixed significations.42

As for Weimann's "media of circulation," Iago's dominance of the nonrepresentational mimesis of the plataea gradually emerges over the first three acts of Othello. From the moment in the first scene when, under cover of darkness, the conspiracy with Roderigo breaks out into furtive appeals to Brabantio's suppressed fears of miscegenation, Iago lurks on the margins of the play's action as both its prime shaper and its interpreter to the theater audience, a position he will retain right down to the threshold of the play's catastrophe (cf. 5.1.11-22 and 128f.). Both in his famous "motive-hunting" soliloquies and in a dozen brief asides, Iago occupies a psychological space belonging as much to the theatrical agency of representation as to the represented social world of the fiction. The asides are especially germane to the present argument. When Iago comments on Cassio's paddling of Desdemona's palm in the "clyster-pipes" speech (2.1.167-78) or the "well tun'd … music" of Desdemona and Othello (2.1.199 201), he is clearly not only inviting the audience to view the ensuing action from his own quasi-directorial perspective but also miming their potential role in constructing the meaning of the dramatic action, a key issue that will peak in the final scene of the play.

The role of the audience is a crucial factor in Othello as a theatrical event. And it is mainly through lago's plataea function as presenter and interpreter that the play includes that role in its overall representation. As more than one commentator has noted, the central anagnorisis of the play turns on the seemingly unmotivated manifestation by the protagonist of the audience's ideological assumptions. When in the temptation scene Iago wins Othello's concurrence in Desdemona's initial deceit ("And so she did" [3.3.208]) and then elicits his voluntary outburst on "nature erring from itself in her choice of a black mate (3.3.227), he succeeds in putting into play an anxiety about such social transgressions that embraces all of the principals (except perhaps Desdemona herself) and seems to arise as much from the collective psyche of players, characters, and spectators as from his own discrete subjectivity. This is the fear (and desire) that erupts in the long-deferred scene of the black man and the white woman in the nuptial bed with which the audience as well as Brabantio have been teased since the opening scene.43 Othello's own internalization of this fear explains both the stern pose of a justicer in the execution scene and the strangely split subjectivity of his final psychomachy, in which the internalized Christian defender of the Venetian state executes vindicative justice against the transgressive Turkish Other.

In the murder scene (5.2), both the protagonist's delusion and its bloody consummation on the conjugal bed are presented without onstage mediation.44 No one contests lago's interpretation of Desdemona's conduct, now appropriated by Othello himself, till Emilia enters the scene; and so the theater audience is left briefly to confront directly its own complicity in the communal "bewhoring" of Desdemona. In contrast, through its serial mediations the public finale takes a distinctly metatheatrical turn. From the moment Emilia voices the audience's resistance to lago's construction of the heroine, the stage in the denouement becomes the site of a contest for the play's meaning. The platform is overrun with interpreters vying to fill the signifying vacuum left by lago's vow of silence, Iago himself having become at last Rilke's "third person who has never existed, has no...

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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...

(The entire section is 3015 words.)