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(Shakespearean Criticism)

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


(Shakespearean Criticism)

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 received.7 This is so not only because the material conditions governing productive practices in the two media are often similar, but because those conditions generate analogous consciousnesses—even subjectivities—among producers of discursive and theatrical texts. As Shakespeare studies have lately been emphasizing, the Elizabethan and Jacobean drama betrays an awareness of the theater as a vehicle for the critical evaluation of dominant ideologies, as well as the possible adumbration of emergent ones.8 This self-consciousness is conveyed especially through the theatrical texts' conscious deployment of space and the attendant antimimetic conventions of the platform stage in constructing a relationship between players and audience.9 An analogous theatricality has long been noted in Renaissance writers as diverse as Erasmus, Rabelais, and Cervantes, all of whom in different ways seem to willfully defy the logical self-contradictions implied in reifying the metaphor of a textual "audience."10

An interesting test of this observation arises in Montaigne, whose distrust of theatricality has been repeatedly noted.11 I have tried elsewhere to demonstrate a unique aspect of Montaigne's textual construction of his "audience," the practice of representing it within his text, thereby putting into relief the textual act of representation itself, a kind of mimesis of mimesis.12 Under the pressure of a perceived need to open channels of communication with his anonymous reader, Montaigne's Essays perform the textual construction of the modern author-as-subject. What is significant about this achievement is the number of explicitly theatrical passages in which Montaigne posits a specular relationship with his reader. This theme is borne out by his somewhat eccentric use of the word tiers or "third."...

(The entire section is 8,520 words.)