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

(Shakespearean Criticism)

"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

(The entire section is 10,928 words.)