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Theatricality and Textuality: The Example of Othello

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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


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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." On the most basic level, this motif serves to inject a sense of alterity into an original configuration between a subject and an "other" who, in Benveniste's terms, shares a "correlation of personality" with the subject.13 In contrast to an original relation of self-presence, the self or moi becomes a displaced third party objectified so that the subject can speak of it "as a neighbor, as a tree."14 In more explicitly theatrical passages Montaigne invites his reader to enter as spectator into a three-sided relationship with the speaker (or book) and another, or is encouraged to view such a triangular situation as an analogue to his own relation to the speaker. Hence Montaigne's reader functions less as a voyeur than as a kind of ghost writer of the Essays, the indispensable "third" without whom the text cannot mean.15 Such a conception of the system of author, reader, and other has important implications for the contemporary theater. In the present essay I will try to show that the productive economy of meaning fostered by Montaigne's constructed relationship to his reader is closely paralleled in Shakespeare's Othello. Without advancing any claims of source or influence, I will argue that textual and theatrical production are functions of the same cultural situation.


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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 closest to the psychoanalytic categories of reading, especially those of Jacques Lacan and RenéGirard. Here Maclean focuses on reading as transgression. Reflecting on the excluded reader and the enforced reader, and their various revenges on their violation by the text, she observes: "Since the reader is always an outsider to the consensus of the text, just as the audience is always an outsider to the consensus of the stage, we must ask if he or she is not always a transgressor, a breaker of boundaries and an intruder into the world of the other. Since the reader's desire is always the desire of the other, which wants what the other wants as much as it wants what the other is, and can never attain either, it must always involve the transgression implicit in the desire of the other." Citing Barthes's The Pleasure of the Text, she proposes that to "understand the reader's part in the production of the text" we must analyze his/her "libidinal input," a task she undertakes with respect to Baudelaire.26

The view of historians and cultural critics that theatricality is a corrective to textuality is reenforced by theater semioticians.27 In the present context, what is significant about their approach is the attempt to apply the narratological theory of the récit (Propp, Bremond), and specifically actantial theory (Greimas), to the theater. Especially fruitful in this regard is the work of Anne Ubersfeld.28 If Maclean posits the reader-as-spectator, Ubersfeld's anatomy of the theatrical transaction as a text foregrounds the role of the spectatoras-reader. For her, theatrical discourse is never constative: it "says" nothing about the real, only the imaginary within the mise-en-scène; hence, "the discourse of the play-wright makes sense only as theatricality." In this view theatricality implies a lack of textual subjectivity: the one who speaks is always a personage, embedded in a complex communicative network whose author is always at best a destinateur (addresser) and whose address to the spectator/reader/destinataire (addressee) is diffuse, dialogic, and plurisubjective.29

Ubersfeld devotes special attention to the role of the spectator in the theatrical transaction. In a sequel to her first essay she reiterates a structuralist/semiotic "reading" of theater with a view toward the spectator, analyzing both représentation théâtrale30 and représentation comme texte (ES 27) on the discursive, narrative, and semic levels (ES 37). Like the reader of written texts, the spectator is "the coproducer of the spectacle" (ES 304), both before, in that it is aimed at her response, and after, in that, even more than the reader, she has the task of making sense of it—that is, sense happens only in her (ES 305f.).31 As either a witness or the subject of a communication witnessed by others, the spectator is implicated in an "always triangular" relation with various combinations of actor, character, or other spectators.32 One may quarrel with these particular paradigms, but however this triangulation of theatrical discourse is configured, "the public is the guarantor at one and the same time of the reality of the scenic figuration and of the non-verity of the scenic fiction" (ES 311). Ubersfeld's semiotics supports and implements Weimann's historicism in treating representation as involving equally the represented and the representing. Her narratological analysis gives a specific theoretical spin to the way in which "the totality of the theatrical representation is inscribed in a psychosocial consensus" (ES 311).

Ubersfeld's understanding of the position of the theater spectator, like Maclean's view of the reader-spectator's role as the third party or "outsider" in reading, evokes the familiar Freudian hermeneutic. In his book on jokes, Freud's interest in the role of the "third person" is related primarily to that of the first, the aggressor in a particular kind of social transaction. Freud distinguishes jokework from dreamwork by its social dimension, but ultimately the apparently social nature of the joke triangle—sexual aggressor, target, audience—projects the internal economy of the subject: "The process in the joke's first person produces pleasure by lifting inhibition and diminishing local expenditure; but it seems not to come to rest until, through the intermediary of the interpolated third person, it achieves general relief through discharge."33 In short, the third person is a catalyst, a cipher or instrument in a circuit of exchange. As such, it is related to the analyst in the transference, a necessary intermediary between the subject and his unconscious. Since it is axiomatic that the subject cannot directly access his unconscious—the residue of his true "self"—through the dreamwork, in the joke as in the dream the execution of the psychic economy by which the inhibitions and potential neuroses resulting from this ban may be overcome always demands this mediation by a third person. As a "reader" of his self, the subject can be constituted only by way of the circuitous interpolation of an other. He can recognize his desire only as the desire of another. His pleasure must be received at the other's hands.34

It is this specular element in Freud's "theater of the unconscious" that inspires Lacan's adaptation of Freudian theatricality. In adopting the common economic element of Freud's "dreamwork" and "jokework" Lacan interprets Freud's Darstellbarkeit (representability) in explicitly theatrical terms as an "égards aux moyens de la mise en scène" (consideration of the means of staging). Emphasizing the element of distortion (Entstellung, or dis-placement), Lacan foregrounds "the intervention of a third party—which Freud calls 'censorship'—in the figuration of the dream, a party that plays the role both of spectator and of judge in the dream-representation."35 Here again, the explicitly theatrical feature is the triadic structure of dreamer, third party, and addressee, in Lacan's version accompanied by a shift in emphasis from a phonetic to a "scriptural" notation of the dream. In a note explaining how Lacan's theory of enunciation goes beyond the notion of text, Samuel Weber writes: "What in Lacan's writings takes the place of textuality is theatricality, and in this respect it anticipates Derrida's own 'pragrammatological turn': each utterance localized in the text, 'in its place,' is determined, post facto as it were—and in this, very much like the dream—by addresses that it did not necessarily intend." Weber links this theatricality with Freud's comments on the third person "upon which the joke depends, and which endows it with its social character."36

Psychoanalytic theory, then, supports the semiology of the subject in foregrounding the essential triangularity of both theatrical and textual representation. Both theories, moreover, usefully supplement and revise the materialism of Weimann's account of Renaissance appropriation by narrowing if not annihilating the gap between theatricality and textuality. For Weimann (as for Keir Elam), theatrical performance always transcends textuality: the "performance text" includes but supersedes the "dramatic text."37 Hence the representationality of a Shakespeare play dissolves into a "posttextual future" beyond the play's closure, based on the supplantation (and supplementation) of represented authority in the text's fiction by "the authority of the actor … [which] is not that of the text but that of performance itself."

Buttressed by the findings of semiotic and psychoanalytic theorists, we may reasonably assume that in looking at nondramatic representations we can identify mediating elements of theatricality in printed texts analogous to those of Weimann's plataea-occupying mediators between fiction and audience.38 Such features would serve the same function of decentering the neoclassical subject as is achieved by Shakespeare's actors as self-conscious representers, or later by Brecht's "alienation effect."39 Thus Montaigne, for example, is explicitly committed to a nonrepresentational version of mimesis: the unimpeachable flow of time and corresponding multiplicity of perspectives that constitute his shifting "I" contest the representational authority based on a textual monologism parallel to the fixed perspective of High Renaissance art. Specifically, his stagings of audience intrusion into locus-like fictions break the representational illusion of textuality by shifting the reader's consciousness from the represented (fiction) to the act of representing and to the representing agent within the text. Theatricality thus challenges textuality; the dramatic-fictional text becomes a "performance text." In this respect, Montaigne's representations of representation anticipate the metatheatricality of Shakespeare less than a generation later.


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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 meaning and must be disavowed," a theatrical variant on Lacan's purloined letter as floating signifier.45 The spectators, in turn, are challenged to surrender the unmediated confusions of the murder scene to one or another of the contestants fretting and strutting, in full interpretive regalia, on the stage.

The active judgment demanded of the audience in the finale is not unprepared for in the text. As early as the council scene, a Venetian senator commenting on Turkish obliquity obliquely alerts us to the play's designs on its audience: "'tis a pageant / To keep us in false gaze" (1.3.18-19). Shakespeare's plays from the time of Othello on are, of course, full of such pageants: Troilus and Cressida, Measure for Measure, and King Lear from roughly the same period, and The Winter's Tale and The Tempest a few years later furnish only the most obvious analogues.46 Through the first half of Othello, this metatheatrical tag may seem to apply solely to the machinations of Iago. In the temptation scene, for example, he skillfully displays his repertory of facial feints and vocal "stops" as an earnest of his interpretive authority regarding the invented pageant of Desdemona's duplicity. But as the play approaches its climax, the phrase's application to the theatricality of the play itself—that is, to the audience's part in the production of its meaning—emerges ineluctably.

This process begins in act 4, scene 1, where Iago sardonically makes good on his promise of "ocular proof," plying Pandarus's instruments of mimetic desire to reduce Othello to murderous infatuation. Unlike the temptation scene, here Iago deploys the basic triangularity of all theatricality, enlarging the pageant to include its audience. As in the notorious scene in the Grecian camp in Troilus (5.2), the staged scene with Cassio focuses our attention on the normally unrepresented mediation of meaning by the theatrical producers—playwright, actor, director—to a (normally) equally unrepresented audience. The calculated effects of this pageant on its on-stage spectator, Othello, are duly noted by Iago—who, unlike Pandarus, will also play a part in the pageant—on the threshold of his performance:

Now will I question Cassio of Bianca
… . . It is a creature
That dotes on Cassio (as 'tis the strumpet's
To beguile many and be beguil'd by one);
He, when he hears of her, cannot restrain
From the excess of laughter. Here he comes.
                     Enter CASSIO.
As he shall smile, Othello shall go mad.

The speech of course is not without its ironies. lago's allusion to the beguiler beguiled not only echoes Othello's word in describing his own ultimately self-destructive persuasion of Desdemona ("I … often did beguile her of her tears" [1.3.155-56]) and foreshadows his own situation at the play's end; it also foregrounds the misogynistic construction of women that underwrites the pervasive violence of the action.

This point too is metatheatrically represented in the scene, in a more public sequel to its central mimesis of mimesis. From the outset, the "bewhoring" of Desde-mona in her husband's eyes has been the linchpin of Iago's plot. It is the theme of the brothel scene (4.2), one that the women ironically share with Iago afterward: "He hath so bewhor'd her … that true hearts cannot bear it" (4.2.115-17). And it motivates Othello's execution of justice: "Strumpet, I come" (5.1.34). But it is in the confusion following the attempt on Cassio that we see how the purely private or personal construction of woman as "strumpet" transcends the individual subject and suffuses the social structure represented in the play—as well, implicitly, as that of the players and audience doing the representing. Iago's scapegoating of Bianca here is based on his persistent construction of her as a whore. Almost immediately on her entrance, he pronounces her a "notable strumpet" to the assembled crowd (5.1.78), confides to the "gentlemen" his suspicion of "this trash" as a party to Cassio's injury (5.1.85), and finally moralizes it as "the fruits of whoring" (5.1.116). So powerful is this argument that even Emilia, a sometime protofeminist who has herself been bewhored by Iago's suspicions of her with Othello, is moved to proclaim, "O fie upon thee, strumpet" (5.1.121). Thus, under the force of Iago's suggestion the patriarchy's severest critic in the play turns against its most blatant victim.47 My point in this seeming digression is that, like his maddening of Othello through the representation of Desdemona's supposed liaison with Cassio, Iago's public bewhoring of Bianca utilizes the neutral onstage audience—in this instance Emilia in particular—to represent to the theater audience its own susceptibility to false pageants. These scenes lend a metatheatrical twist to the action that prepares the audience for the ultimate challenge of the finale.

Othello's construction of the murder of his wife appropriates and extends Iago's construction of her (and every woman) as a notorious strumpet. The theatricality of this appropriation of his own identity, however, is not created by Iago. Indeed, the warring interpreters of the finale are competing first of all with Othello himself, whose highly theatrical self-representation has earlier persuaded Desdemona to transgress the prevailing code figuratively cross-dressed as his fellow "warrior." Throughout act 5, scene 2, Othello struggles to keep his grip on the version of himself that has been implicit in his character from the outset. In his account of his wooing of Desdemona, for example, Othello betrays a strong sense of theatricality, not only in his pitching his story to the assembled Senators—even the Duke avers that "this tale would win my daughter too" (1.3.171) as it has clearly won himself—but in the calculated effects of what he calls his "process" (1.3.142) on the receptive Desdemona, whose "greedy ear [would] / Devour up my discourse. Which I observing, … found good means / To draw from her a prayer" to tell her more (1.3.149-52).48 In the interim, this self-conception having been subverted by Iago's improvisations, Othello exchanges his role as the exotic outsider whose marginality has convinced her she can break with the norms of Venetian society to share his profession for that of the misogynistic defender of the patriarchy who must sacrifice his strumpet wife lest she "betray more men" (5.2.6). Othello's consciousness of a role asserts itself to the very end, as within a hundred lines the universal justicer who had initiated the scene is transmogrified to an unmanned coward subject to the whim of "every puny whipster" (5.2.244), and again to a loyal patriot who has "lov'd not wisely but too well" (5.2.344).

Vying with Othello's self-definition in the finale are those of Emilia, Gratiano, and Lodovico. It is these public mediators of its meaning who keep the play from executing the simple mimetic function of representing the hero's delusion and downfall. The action transcends the represented character, Othello, and embraces the representing theatrical apparatus itself, that is, the entire panoply of production, including the audience, that constitutes the play's ultimate interpretive authority. Othello's interpretive hegemony is first challenged by Emilia's redefinition of his sacrifice of Desdemona as merely another in a succession of "foul murthers" and "filthy deeds" rending the social fabric of Cyprus (5.2.106, 149), and of his noble self as an ignorant "gull," "dolt," and "villain" (5.2.163, 172). Then, as the private site of transgression opens onto a quasi-public determination of a verdict in both the juridical and the characterological sense, Emilia is supplanted (as she must be, her modest authority as a woman being socially limited to the domestic and the erotic) by a chorus of noblemen whose readings of the scene constitute the final agon in the play's self-construal. First Gratiano, whose role in the finale as an homme moyen sensuel is signaled twice by an uncomprehending "What is the matter" (5.2.171, 259), registers in a series of banalities the action's openness to interpretation even down to its last hundred lines: "'Tis a strange truth" (5.2.189), "Poor Desdemon" (5.2.204), "[S]ure he hath killed his wife" (5.2.236). It is only in the final lines that this openness is, predictably, foreclosed by Lodovico as the representative of authority in Cyprus-Venice. Lodovico's reconstruction of the events mirrors that of Fortinbras in the last forty lines of Hamlet, displaying the same tendency to yoke the dying hero's urge to "tell my story" to the more pressing demands of a political recuperation of meaning. Echoing Othello's self-(re)definition as a man "once so good [but subsequently] / Fall'n in the practice of a [damned] slave" (5.2.291-92), Lodovico (like the triumphant Portia in The Merchant of Venice) produces the documentary evidence of Iago's plotting, manna to a starving populace in need of order, and dismisses the private catastrophe while quickly consigning Cassio to the governorship of Cyprus, Iago to a slow and torturous death, Gratiano to the inheritance of Othello's "fortunes," and finally himself to the duty of "relat[ing] to the state / This heavy act" (5.2.370-71).49

As at the end of Hamlet, the final rhyming of state and relate, in which the former "dilations" (or "delations") of Othello's contested subjectivity yield to the more public relations or mediations of shared communal discourse, leaves the theater audience in something of a dilemma.50 As erstwhile spectators to the bloody catastrophe whose identification with the on-stage audience of Cypriots and Venetians is nevertheless strongly solicited, they may be feeling a certain discomfort at the erasure by Lodovico's official version of the more complicated and disturbing one imbricated in the scene they have witnessed. Challenging their potential to be "coproducers of the spectacle" represented in the play's metatheatrical scenes, Lodovico arrogates to himself the function of ideologically authoritative purveyor of meaning found in traditional narrative.51 For the theater audience to submit to his version of the spectacle is to surrender their part in the production of meaning, which has been foregrounded by the play's persistent theatricality. Conversely, to resist such a surrender is to embrace a metatheatrical subtext of Othello, analogous to that in the Essays of Montaigne, whose very construction depends on a "sufficient reader" of the theatrical text being interpreted on-stage.


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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.


1 Nuruddin Farah, Maps (New York, 1986), p. 138.

2 Clifford Geertz, "Blurred Genres: The Refiguration of Social Thought," The American Scholar, 49 (1980), 165-79.

3 Daniel Javitch, Poetry and Courtliness in Renaissance England (Princeton, 1978); Steven J. Greenblatt, Renaissance Self-Fashioning (Chicago, 1980); Arthur Marotti, '"Love is not love': Elizabethan Sonnet Sequences and the Social Order," English Literary History, 49 (1982), 396-428; Frank Whigham, Ambition and Privilege (Berkeley, 1984).

4 Anthony Wilden, "Par divers moyens on arrive à pareille fin: A Reading of Montaigne," Modern Language Notes, 83 (1968), 577-97; John Guillory, Poetic Authority: Spenser, Milton, and Literary History (New York, 1983); Jacqueline T. Miller, Poetic License: Authority and Authorship in Medieval and Renaissance Contexts (New York, 1986); Joseph F. Loewenstein, "Idem: Italics and the Genetics of Authorship," Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 20 (1990), 205-24.

5 On Shakespeare, see esp. Shakespeare and the Sense of Performance, ed. Marvin and Ruth Thompson (Newark, N.J., 1989), as well as the works listed in its bibliography (prepared by John Styan). On theater-oriented theories of social behavior, besides Pierre Bourdieu's widely influential Outline of a Theory of Practice, tr. Richard Nice (Cambridge, 1977) and Erving Goffman's earlier The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (New York, 1959), see Bruce Wilshire, Role-Playing and Identity: The Limits of Theater as Metaphor (Bloomington, Ind., 1983), and Richard Schechner, Performance Theory (New York, 1985). For a succinct summary of the claims of "practice"-oriented social theory, see S. P. Mohanty, "Us and Them: On the Philosophical Bases of Political Criticism," Yale Journal of Criticism, 2, no. 2 (1989), 19.

6 Within the field of narratology, Marie Maclean has called for a recognition of "the relationship between those fraternal enemies, narrative and theatre," in her Narrative as Performance (London, 1988), p. 17. In Renaissance studies Robert Weimann, who generally treats narrative and theatrical texts separately, has noted the analogous conditions governing sixteenth- and seventeenth-century textual and theatrical production. See, for example, Robert Weimann, "History and the Issue of Authority in Representation: The Elizabethan Theater and the Reformation," New Literary History, 17 (1985), 449-75, where he notes that religious pamphlets and drama use the printing press and public theater respectively to circulate new "modes … of self-authorized performance" (p. 453). More recently, however, in his "Representation and Performance: Authority in Shakespeare's Theater," PMLA, 107 (1992), 497-510, Weimann draws on Keir Elam's theatrical semiotics to emphasize the "difference … between the materiality of theatrical communication and the fictionality of textual configurations" (p. 507). A recent theorist more friendly to crossfertilization is Jonathan Hart, "Narrative, Narrative Theory, Drama: The Renaissance," Canadian Review of Comparative Literature, 18 (1991), 117-65. With reference to Chaucer, see Richard Neuse, Chaucer's Dante (Berkeley, 1991), pp. 116-21.

7 In the Shakespearean arena, see the recent writings of Harry Berger, Jr., esp. "Text Against Performance in Shakespeare: The Example of Macbeth," Genre, 15 (1982), 49-79 and, in general, his Imaginary Audition (Berkeley, 1989).

8 The terms are Raymond Williams's in Marxism and Literature (Oxford, 1977), pp. 121-41.

9 See, among others, Ann Barton, Shakespeare and the Idea of the Play (London, 1962); Robert Egan, Drama within Drama (New York, 1975); Garrett Stewart, "Shakespeare's Dreamplay," English Literary Renaissance, 11 (1981), 44-69; Ralph Berry, Shakespeare and the Awareness of the Audience (London, 1985); and Malcolm Evans, Signifying Nothing (Athens, Ga., 1986). On the evolution of spatial conventions in Shakespeare's theater, see Robert Weimann, Shakespeare and the Popular Tradition in the Theater, ed. Robert Schwartz (Baltimore, 1978), esp. pp. 143-85 and 208-37. This consciousness, of course, is not limited to Shakespeare: on Marlowe's even greater willingness to have the actor share with the audience his appropriation or "conjuration" of his role—and, by contrast, Shakespeare's characters' relative suspicion of theatrical roles—see Michael Goldman, "Performance and Role in Marlowe and Shakespeare," in Shakespeare and the Sense of Performance, pp. 95f.

10 See Walter Ong, "The Writer's Audience Is Always a Fiction," PMLA, 90 (1975), 9-21.

11 Hugo Friedrich, Montaigne, tr. Dawn Eng (1949; Berkeley, 1991), sees Montaigne's confusion about the identity of his audience as confirming his extreme self-orientation and desire to preserve an authentic inner life; hence even the inescapable "communication function of language" is viewed as a "constraint" on his solitary self-exploration (p. 332). For a recent reiteration of Montaigne's distrust of theater, see Joan Lord Hall, "'To play the man well and duely': Role-playing in Montaigne and Jacobean Drama," Comparative Literature Studies, 22 (1985), 173-86. Hall asserts that though Montaigne "admires histrionic talent on the stage," he "is not prepared to make a virtue of theatricality" in life and in society (pp. 174, 175). She does, however, concede a "gradual" recognition of its necessity by the author when "writing for the public" (p. 181). Jonas A. Barish, The Antitheatrical Prejudice (Berkeley, 1981), p. 112, is one of the few who deny that Montaigne holds such a prejudice.

12 John Bernard, "Montaigne and Writing: Diversion and Subjectification in the Essais," Montaigne Studies, 3 (1991), 131-55. This is close to what Linda Hutcheon calls "process mimesis" (as opposed to "product mimesis"), in her Narcissistic Narrative: The Metafictional Paradox (Waterloo, Ont., 1980), pp. 36-47. In a different context, Anthony Wilden has argued that the subject of the Essais suffers a "double bind" resulting from the competing demands of an emerging bourgeois notion of autonomy and a residual awareness that the self is capable of definition only within "the collective praxis of human kind." Anthony Wilden, System and Structure: Essays in Communication and Exchange (London, 1977), pp. 108f.

13 See Emile Benvȩ́niste, "Relationships of Person in the Verb," Problems in General Linguistics, tr. M. E. Meek (Coral Gables, Fla., 1971), p. 200.

14The Complete Essays of Montaigne, tr. Donald M. Frame (Stanford, 1965), 3:8, 942c; in the original, Les Essais de Montaigne, ed. Pierre Villey, re-ed. Verdun L. Saulnier (Paris, 1978), p. 720.

15 Bernard, "Montaigne and Writing."

16 The sources on these debates are both too numerous and too familiar to rehearse here. Besides the works cited elsewhere in this paper, I have found especially illuminating Lucien Dällenbach, Le récit spéculaire (Paris, 1977) and Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, "Mimesis and Truth," Diacritics, 8 (1978), 10-23. In the course of critiquing René Girard's view of "representation" (in the theatrical sense of Darstellung, presentation/ exhibition, as opposed to the philosophical one of Vorstellung), Lacoue-Labarthe stipulates a nonrepresentational, self-reflexive conception of theatricality, observing that rather than "covering up or masking mimesis" it always "reveals" it, that is, "defines and 'presents' it as that which … it never is on its 'own'" (p. 21).

17 The most important works in English include Robert Weimann, Shakespeare and the Popular Tradition; "Society and the Uses of Authority," in Shakespeare, Man of the Theater, ed. Kenneth Muir et al. (Newark, N.J., 1981), pp. 182-99; "Mimesis in Hamlet," in Shakespeare and the Question of Theory, ed. Patricia Parker and Geoffrey Hartman (New York, 1985), pp. 275-91; "Bifold Authority in Shakespeare's Theatre," Shakespeare Quarterly, 39 (1988), 401-17; and "Representation and Performance." Weimann's view coincides partly with that of Jacques Derrida in "Econo- mimesis," in Mimesis des articulations (Paris, 1975), pp. 57-93, where mimesis is conceptualized not as the representation of something in nature (natura naturata) but of operations of nature (natura naturans), that is, a relation not of two products but of two productions. See Hutcheon, Narcissistic Narrative.

18 Timothy Murray has conducted a parallel investigation of theatricality as a "performative mental posture and narrative result" in Baroque theater and theory in his Theatrical Legitimation: Allegories of Genius in Seventeenth-Century England and France (New York, 1987), p. 8.

19 See esp. Steven Mullaney, The Place of the Stage: License, Play, and Power in Renaissance England (Chicago, 1988).

20 Robert Weimann, "'Appropriation' and Modern History in Renaissance Prose Narrative," New Literary History, 14 (1983), 465-66.

21 Weimann, "History and the Issue of Authority," 451.

22 Robert Weimann, "History, Appropriation, and the Uses of Representation in Modern Narrative," in The Aims of Representation, ed. Murray Krieger (New York, 1987), p. 180.

23 Weimann, "History and the Issue of Authority," 450. Weimann sets his historicizing concept of appropriation between "the classical romantic view of the text as the purely referential activity of some reflecting subject and the (seemingly opposite) view of the text as some autonomous locus of self-determining differentials or epistemes," what he characterizes as the competing hegemonies of "the subject" and "of language itself in his "Text, Author-Function, and Appropriation in Modern Narrative: Toward a Sociology of Representation," Critical Inquiry, 14 (1988), 432. Roger Chartier, Cultural History, tr. Lydia G. Cochrane (Cambridge, 1988), drawing on epistemology and the sociology of knowledge to update the traditional French histoire des mentalités, arrives at a conception of "representation" and "appropriation," specifically in the textual production of earlier historical periods, that complements Weimann's Marxist approach. Following Norbert Elias and Lucien Febvre, Chartier too rejects "the universal and abstract subject" of both phenomenology and reception-aesthetics in favor of historically grounded "appropriations" of texts' meanings (p. 12).

24 For a parallel discussion of mimesis and representation that draws on social theorists to define a new nonrepresentational mimesis based on self-alienation and "identification through estrangement" (461), see Luiz Costa Lima, "Social Representation and Mimesis," tr. J. Laurenio de Mello, New Literary History, 16 (1985), 447-66.

25 Maclean, Narrative as Performance, p. 34; hereafter cited in text.

26 Compare Ross Chambers's historically grounded explanation for the shift from "narrative" to "narratorial" authority in Story and Situation: Narrative Seduction and the Power of Fiction (Minneapolis, 1984): "When narrative ceases to be (perceived as) a mode of direct communication of some preexisting knowledge and comes instead to figure as an oblique way of raising awkward, not to say unanswerable questions, it becomes necessary for it to trade in the manipulation of desire (that is, the desire to narrate must seek to arouse some corresponding desire for narration) to the precise; extent that it can no longer depend, in its hearers or readers, on some sort of 'natural' thirst for information" (p. 11). Though he locates this shift definitively in nineteenth-century narrative texts, Chambers acknowledges earlier adumbrations.

27 Besides the work of Anne Ubersfeld discussed below, see esp. Keir Elam, The Semiotics of Theater and Drama (New York, 1988).

28 Anne Ubersfeld, Lire le Théâtre (Paris, 1977); hereafter cited in text. Translations of quotations from this and other works by Ubersfeld are the author's.

29 Ubersfeld somewhat naively asserts that theatrical discourse is a "discours sans sujet" in that the author cannot speak in his own voice (p. 264), ignoring the fact that this is equally true of any fictive discourse (or perhaps of any discourse).

30 Anne Ubersfeld, L'Ecole du spectateur (Paris, 1981), p. 22; hereafter cited in text as ES.

31 There is an obvious analogy with, or debt to, Barthes's "writerly" text as aiming to "make the reader no longer a consumer but a producer of the text" (Roland Barthes, S/Z [Paris, 1970], p. 10).

32 For example, the actor addresses the spectator, with the other actors and spectators as witnesses; a character is superimposed on the actor, the spectator being witness; the spectator becomes a character himself, with other characters as witnesses to their communication; or, finally, the spectator is the subject of the communication, this time with other spectators, "objectifying" the actor(s) and/or character(s) (ES 308-11).

33 Sigmund Freud, Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, tr. James Strachey (New York, 1963), p. 158.

34 For a critique of Freud's "representative theatricality" based on an attack on the Freudian originary "subject," see Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen, The Freudian Subject, tr. Catherine Porter (Stanford, 1988), esp. pp. 26-48, and 117ff.

35 Samuel Weber, Return to Freud: Jacques Lacan's Dislocation of Psychoanalysis (Cambridge, 1991), p. 73; hereafter cited in text. The present paragraph draws heavily on this commentary.

36 An analogue in the "sociology of discourse" is Volosinov's "third participant" ("the topic of speech" or "hero") in any spoken discourse, who along with the speaker and "listener as ally or witness" imparts to communication its "objective and sociological" character. See V. N. Volosinov, "Discourse in Life and Discourse in Art," in his Freudianism: A Marxist Critique, tr. I. R. Titutnik (New York, 1976), pp. 104f. Applied to written discourse specifically, this function is partly shifted to the internal or textual "listener" of a discourse, or "authoritative representative" of the speaker's social group (p. 114), akin to the "implied reader" of narratology. Compare Paul Ricoeur, "The World of the Text and the World of the Reader," in his Time and Narrative, tr. K. Blarney and D. Pellaner (Chicago, 1988), 3:157-79.

37 Weimann, "Representation and Performance," 505; hereafter cited in text.

38 Compare Paul Ricoeur, "La fonction herméneutique de la distantiation," in his Du texte à l'action (Paris, 1986), 3:101-17.

39 For an exposition of Brecht as an anti-Aristotelian, anti-Freudian, antitheatrical political critic of the mimetic category of catharsis, see Bernard Pautrat, "Politique en scène: Brecht," in Mimésis des articulations, pp. 341-59.

40 Rainer Maria Rilke, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, tr. Stephen Mitchell (New York, 1983), pp. 2If. I owe the observation about the gender-specific language of this passage—"man-about-town," "skeleton-key," "dangerous holes," and so forth—to my colleague Professor Ann Christensen.

41 Edward A. Snow, "Sexual Anxiety and the Male Order of Things in Othello," English Literary Renaissance, 10 (1980), 411. In the paragraphs that follow I am especially indebted to this essay and to Stephen Greenblatt, Renaissance Self-Fashioning, pp. 232-54.

42 Act 3, sc. 3,1. 123. Citations of Othello are from The Riverside Shakespeare (Boston, 1974), hereafter cited in text by act, scene, and line.

43 Lynda E. Boose, "'Let it be hid': Renaissance Pornography, Iago, and Audience Response," in Autour d' "Othello, " ed. Richard Marienstras et al. (Amiens, 1987), pp. 135-43, reads the final scene as "exposing] the complicity of [its patriarchal audience's] spectatorship" (p. 136). For a thorough, illustrated survey of the representation of this scene, see Michael Neill, "Unproper Beds: Face, Authority, and the Hideous in Othello," Shakespeare Quarterly, 40 (1989), 383-412.

44 On the question of its bloodiness, and the significance of blood both in this scene and with respect to Desdemona's handkerchief, see Lynda E. Boose, "Othello's Handkerchief: 'The Recognition and Pledge of Love,'" English Literary Renaissance, 5 (1975), 360-74.

45 Jacques Lacan, "Seminar on 'The Purloined Letter,'" tr. Jeffrey Mehlman, Yale French Studies, 48 (1972), 39-72.

46 On the range and function of pageants in Shakespeare see the essays collected in Pageantry in the Shakespearean Theater, ed. David M. Bergeron (Athens, Ga., 1985), as well as the earlier works by Withington, Venesky, Orgel, Wickham, Anglo, and Bergeron himself cited in them.

47 Bianca's spirited defence—BIANCA: "I am no strumpet, but of life as honest / As you that thus abuse me"—evidently provoked only by this betrayal by her fellow victim, and its provoked response—EMILIA: "As I? [Fough,] fie upon thee!"—foreground the mistress/wife dichotomy by which the patriarchy divides its victims (5.1.122-23).

48 That it is "the story of my life" (1.3.128) quâ story that "beguiles" her is underscored by the word's occurrence three times—not counting its variants "history" and "discourse"—in the forty-four-line speech. Ross Chambers, Story and Situation, pp. 4-6, sees the passage as a locus classicus of the "performative function of story-telling," though he concedes that in the theater words always necessarily occur in a represented context. Hart (see n. 6) distinguishes four functions of narrative in drama: exposition, suggestion, compression, and address (pp. 117f. and 152-62). While all four entail the relation of playwright to audience, the last would seem to be the thrust of most theatrical metanarrative.

49 Alan Sinfield acknowledges Lodovico's role in telling the official version of Othello's story in Faultlines (Berkeley, 1992). As he notes, "The state is the most powerful scriptor" of the stories believed in any society (p. 33). On the relation of Shakespeare's "pageant moments" throughout his oeuvre to the perspectival structure of offstage Elizabethan public ceremonies in which the audience "watched royalty or nobility watch the pageant" (p. 244), see Bruce R. Smith, "Pageants into Play: Shakespeare's Three Perspectives on Idea and Image," in Pageantry in the Shakespearean Theatre, pp. 220-46.

50 For the possibility that "dilations" might also have been heard as "delations" or judicial accusations, see Patricia Parker, "Shakespeare and Rhetoric: 'Delation' and 'Dilation' in Othello," in Shakespeare and the Question of Theory, pp. 54-74.

51 Robert Weimann, "'Fictionality' and Realism: Rabelais to Barth," in The Uses of Fiction, ed. Douglas Jefferson et al. (Milton Keynes, England, 1982), pp. 9-30. Nicholas Potter, in "Othello and the Reading Public," Critical Survey, 3 (1991), 142-48, makes Lodovico's question, "What should be said to thee?" the basis of Venice's "incapacity for criticism" and judgment, though not that of Shakespeare's audience.

52 See, most recently, Serena Jourdan, The Sparrow and the Flea: The Sense of Providence in Shakespeare and Montaigne (Salzburg, 1983). Jourdan's list of her precursors in the field on pp. 201-4 can be supplemented from Friedrich, Montaigne, p. 406. The studies I have personally consulted include Elizabeth Rollins Hooker, "The Relation of Shakespeare to Montaigne," PMLA, 17 (1902), 312-66; Alice Harmon, "How Great Was Shakespeare's Debt to Montaigne?" PMLA, 57 (1942), 988-1008; Margaret T. Hodgen, "Montaigne and Shakespeare Again," Huntington Library Quarterly, 16 (1952), 23-42; and Robert Ellrodt, "Self-Consciousness in Montaigne and Shakespeare," Shakespeare Survey, 28 (1975), 37-50. Most of these have been inconclusive, the only hard evidence being still the allusions to "Of cannibals" in The Tempest. Friedrich, Montaigne, pp. 405f., is particularly skeptical about Montaigne's influence on Shakespeare, concluding that Shakespeare clearly read the Florio translation but that Montaigne functions for him chiefly as a "vehicle" of "commonplace things" that he could have gleaned from other sources. Indeed, Friedrich goes even further and adds that sixteenth-and seventeenth-century readers read Montaigne primarily "as a compiler of what was in general circulation" (p. 406).

53 Weimann, "History and the Issue of Authority," 453.

Source: "Theatricality and Textuality: The Example of Othello," in New Literary History, Vol. 26, No. 4, Autumn, 1995, pp. 931-49.

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