The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 23.0209 Tuesday, 29 May 2012
Date: May 29, 2012 4:32:55 AM EDT
Subject: RE: SHAKSPER: Hebrew Verbs
I very much take Hamlin’s point,
But perhaps we should remember that Iago is an ‘Ensign’, the biblical reference notwithstanding. The question is: what meanings are active at this point in the play? Is it legitimate to enlarge the biblical context to cover the exchange between Moses and God in Exodus 3 to cover authenticating and legitimising ‘signs’? None of the dramatic characters in the play exemplifies ‘presence’ - even Desdemona, whom we recall, saw ‘Othello’s visage in his mind’. And Iago is inscribed within a form of paranoia that we can link directly to the workings of patriarchal authority. He is as much a victim of its logic as he is a perpetrator of it. This is how he hooks Roderigo, Brabantio, Cassio, and finally Othello. He turns their minds “the seamy side out”.
Another important context, it seems to me, involves the issue of ‘Who is who’ in a republic such as Venice where ‘strangers’ are claimed to be treated equally. Iago’s objection to both Othello and Cassio is a that they are strangers and that the Venetian state gives them power. So the ‘motiveless malignity’ really does have a foundation, and no matter how improbable Iago’s justifications may be, they are rooted in a pathological suspicion that Venice’s own institutions breed. This extends also to the shaping of female subjectivity, as Aemilia points out to Desdemona in Act 4.
One of the play’s supreme ironies is that the stranger is and is not, a corrosive logic that spreads across Venice and that very few escape. Only the Duke, who combines military theory with empirical evidence seems to be above this, and even he can acknowledge the contradiction that Othello represents. There is something deeply amiss in Venice when for the most part the relation between moral judgement and empirical evidence is reversed: “It is too true an evil, gone she is.” We never find out if up to this point Brabantio has encouraged Othello’s courtship of Desdemona, so we can’t judge the ‘truth’ or otherwise of this inverted combination of empirical ‘fact’ and moral judgement. Othello’s case is a more extreme version of this, since he ‘knows’ what disloyalty and evil are but he refuses (presumably on the basis of the experience’ of what we know to be Iago’s show of ‘love’) to accept that Iago’s reservations expressed at 3.3. are anything other than “close denotements from the heart” that presumably occupy a position beneath that of signification. God’s ‘I am that I am’ is comparatively simple compared to its echo in the much more complex secular political contexts of republican Venice that ‘is not what it is’. In terms of meanings we might say that the play exists at the point where the Bible meets Machiavelli, where sacred and secular meanings meet and collide.
We could say the same about Shylock, the ‘Jew’ in Venice who demands to be treated equally but who is caught in a biblical narrative from which he cannot escape - even if he only imitates the Christians. This play is cast in a slightly different register from the later play, although the connections between the two (and indeed, some of the incidents) resemble each other. ‘Othello’ is what happens when Morocco marries Portia, and Jessica’s elopement is a much cruder version of the Brabantio-Desdemona situation. In the earlier play the ‘Jew’ is converted forcibly to Christianity, at one level the validation of a Christian objective that may never come to pass, but at another level offering a very critical glimpse of the ‘equal’ treatment that any stranger may expect from Venetian law. In the later play the eponymous hero enacts a ‘justice’ upon himself in what must be the most curious suicide in all of Shakespeare. We do not need to invoke Walter Benjamin’s ‘Critique of Violence’ to see what is going on here, do we?