William Shakespeare

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The Open Worlde: The Exotic in Shakespeare

(Shakespearean Criticism)

'The Open Worlde': The Exotic in Shakespeare

John Gillies, La Trobe University

The Cytes frame new walles them selves to
  keepe,
The open worlde lettes nought rest where it laye.
(Medea, 2nd Chorus, The Tenne Tragedies of Seneca
                   Translated into English,
London, 1581)

Having suggested the need for a poetics of Renaissance geography, and having … outlined one direction along which such a poetics might proceed, I now propose to return to the question with which we began: how to define Shakespeare's idea of the 'exotic'? An obvious procedure is simply to catalogue and analyse whatever seems to correspond to the Elizabethan usage. Thus, the exotic in Shakespeare would include all phenomena—persons, imagery, settings, objects, props, costumes, speaking-registers—suggesting the 'barbarous', 'outlandish' or 'strange'. In practice, such a discussion would inevitably focus on Shakespeare's ethnic others: figures in whom (as I have suggested in the introductory discussion of Othello) the exotic is personified, both directly (through make-up, costume, props, voca-register) and indirectly (in imagery suggestive of the 'outlandish' and 'strange'). Focusing on such figures should not be reductive because (again as we have partly seen in Shakespeare's Elizabeth than tendency to telescope different exotic types) there is a compelling sense in which 'exoticism' in general controls 'ethnicity' in particular. Thus, the etymology of Othello's name suggests the 'Ottomans' rather than the moors. Thus, too, Shylock is at one point compared to 'stubborn Turks and Tartars never trained / To offices of tender courtesy' (4.1.31-2). And Cleopatrc—who in Plutarch is represented as ethnically Greek—is represented with the 'tawny front' of a moor consistent with Egypt's proximity to Libya, and consistent perhaps also with her sultry temperament.

Ultimately, however, Shakespeare's idea of the exotic amounts to more than the sum of exotic phenomena or exotic characters in the plays; it is an action rather than a phenomenon, a kind of relation rather than a kind of character. Like the 'barbarians' of Athenian tragedy , Shakespeare's exotics are innately transgressive. And, like the sexually intrusive moors of the Elizabethan stage, their transgressiveness is less a matter of individual immorality than of dramatic structure. Regardless of how they may differ in character, Shakespeare's exotics all resemble Ovid's Tereus in a tendency to 'confuse all natural relations'. This is because they are never isonomic. Exclusion, liminality, and a fatal attraction towards some version of the excluding Aristotelian 'commonwealth', is their essence. This is true even of Cleopatra and Caliban, the only Shakespearean exotics who are located in 'native' settings, beyond the geographic pale of a generic 'commonwealth'. Each seeks to prey sexually upon a 'European', with potentially disastrous consequences, whether to Rome or to Prospero's 'brave new world'. Shakespeare's other 'strangers' are potentially even more threatening for being geographically displaced. Not only do they seek some form of pollutive 'incorporation' with a host-city, but their very existence in the city (on any terms) is dangerous. Shakespeare's cities have nowhere to 'put' their aliens, no institution capable of containing or articulating their liminality. Far from suggesting an embryonic cosmopolitanism, however, the lack of such an institution (effectively a ghetto-mechanism of the Renaissance Venetian type) means that Shakespeare's aliens are perpetually dangerous and in danger. The city's toleration of the alien is less a sign of nascent broadmindedness than of a shameful compromise of political integrity; a compromise which must be expiated by the end of the play. Thus all Shakespeare's aliens end by losing their tenuous place within the commonwealth. Death, slavery, conversion, confiscation or some equivalent annulment of difference is their generic fate. Only one...

(The entire section is 29,798 words.)