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"The Meruailouse Site": Shakespeare, Venice, and Paradoxical Stages [*].

This essay begins by providing some early modern definitions, as well as a brief history, of paradox in the Renaissance. But paradox could be more than a rhetorical figure. Thus, the paper turns to sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century descriptions of Venice in English and explores how a geographical site could do the work of the verbal paradox. The essay then reads Othello's complicated epistemological, ontological, and sexual issues through Venice's symbolic geography. Finally, it will suggest briefly that the stage -- and particularly the interaction between audience and play -- is also a site of paradox, a place where spectators, dazzled and destabilized by unresolved and unresolvable problems, are forced to reevaluate their cognitive and cultural worlds.

Late in act 5 of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, Duke Orsino exclaims, upon seeing the twins Viola and Sebastian, "One face, one voice, one habit, and two persons, / A natural perspective that is and is not!"' In his moment of astonishment, Orsino alludes to anamorphic painting, in which -- depending on the position of the viewer -- one thing can possess two discrete realities. Perhaps the most famous anamorphic painting is Holbein's The Ambassadors: in that work, an object in the foreground can be either an enigmatic disk or a memento mori skull. The object, then, renders the act of viewing problematic and calls cognitive stability into question. For Orsino, similiarly, doubleness confounds even as it reaches.

But Orsino's words are also a classic case of Shakespearean paradox: that is, an astonished expression of the encounter with double or multiple perspectives that usually accompanies epistemological change in Shakespeare's plays. This doubleness fascinated John Keats; he called it "negative capability": "that is when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason." This is a quality, said Keats, that "Shakespeare posessed [sic] so enormously." [2]

This recognition of the paradoxical nature of the world, I would argue, is a prerequisite for cognitive growth in Shakespeare -- for his characters and for his audience. Those trapped in a single-minded, monomaniacal view of human experience tend to be the ones doomed in the Shakespearean universe. To return to my opening example, it is not until Orsino sees what simultaneously is and is not that he can experience an alteration of his cognitive world: he sees that the man he has loved all along is also in some sense the woman he will marry, that this woman has won his heart through masculine friendship. Malvolio's inability to entertain this sort of double vision, on the other hand, leaves him bitter and unsatisfied at play's end. [3]

My sense of Renaissance paradox is threefold: it challenges conventions and commonly held opinions; it startles its "audience" into marvel and amazement; and it contains opposites without necessarily resolving them. But paradox could be more than a rhetorical figure, and this essay will explore how a geographical site -- Venice -- could do the work of the verbal paradox. For the Renaissance, Venice of contemporary accounts and of Shakespeare's Othello was a location that could perform an epistemological function and could force a reconfiguring of thought and knowledge. [4]

This power to reconfigure the known has drawn post-structuralists to the paradox; one thinks especially of Jacques Derrida's and Paul de Mans explorations of the irresolvable paradox, or aporia. Jacques Lacan gravitated to paradox as well, positing anamorphosis and Holbein's Ambassadors as "an emplary structure" for his view of "the subject as annihilated" in the act of attempting to constitute itself through the gaze. Lacan found in the instability of anamorphosis "the impossibility of self-verification." [5] Trying to locate themselves through gazing at that paradoxical disk, viewers discover they cannot, and thus find annihilation instead.

While aporia and self-annihilation have their places in the Shakespearean paradoxical scheme, I think a more helpful model comes from the philosopher W. V. Quine, who distinguishes among three types of paradox. Two of them inevitably fail to sustain the play of contradiction: those that resolve into truth (veridical) and those that collapse because they are based on faulty assumptions and logic (falsidical). But the truly complex paradoxes -- those that are most intellectually significant and most difficult to explain away -- he calls "antinomies," which contain "a surprise that can be accommodated by nothing less than a repudiation of part of our conceptual heritage" (88). [6] This paradigm-shaking encounter with philosophical doubleness is the effect, I would argue, of Shakespearean paradox. [7] And Quine's description of antinomy's essential nature -- "It is and it is not" -- sounds uncannily like the words of Orsino with which we began (90). [8]

Theories linking epistemology to space can help us explore the connections between paradox and place, as I propose to do with Venice. Gaston Bachelard has shown us that certain paradoxical, liminal sites possess "the majesty of the threshold" and can perform cognitive functions by means of a "dialectics of outside and inside" (223, 231). Even more useful for our purposes is Michel Foucault's discussion of "sires...that have the curious property of being in relation with all the other sites, but in such a way as to suspect, neutralize, or invert the set of relations that they happen to designate, mirror, or reflect." Foucault breaks these sites down into two types: utopias, which "are sites with no real place [and] present society itself in a perfected form, or else society turned upside down"; and "heterotopias," which are "places that do exist...which are something like counter-sites, a kind of effectively enacted utopia in which the real sites, all the other real sites that can be found within the culture, are simultaneously represented, contested, and inverted" (24). I argue that Venice is a heterotopia that was often portrayed as a utopia, a sire ultimately more contestatory and suspecting than ideal and perfected.

Part of what made Venice so intriguing to its Renaissance audience was its paradoxical quality: its ability to astonish, to puzzle, and to challenge cognitive categories. [9] And there is no question that Renaissance Venice was double: it was situated on both land and sea; a political model for the West, it did trade with the East; [10] Catholic, it defied Rome early in the seventeenth century and was courted by England as a potential Protestant state; [11] proudly republican, it also had a reputation for being authoritarian; fiercely protective of the chastity of its daughters, it also tolerated -- even encouraged -- courtesans; with a single leader at its political core -- the Doge -- Venice was nevertheless controlled primarily by its Senate and Great Council. [12]

Those who described Venice -- and, especially for my purposes, Gasparo Contarini and his English translator Lewis Lewkenor -- invariably recognized the paradoxical quality of the city-state. But they also tended -- in Quine's terms -- to make the city into a veridical paradox instead of seeing it as an antinomy. Or to use a different model, Venice often becomes a discordia concors or coincidentia oppositorum -- with all of the harmonizing and reconciliation associated with those concepts -- instead of a true paradox, a resonating play of opposites. Or to bring back Foucault, descriptions of Venice stress its utopian rather than its heterotopian qualities. I will argue that Venice is potentially more paradoxical, more disturbingly wonder-producing, than most of its commentators ultimately permit it to be.

In this essay, then, I will provide some early modern definitions -- as well as a brief history -- of paradox in the Renaissance. Then, I will turn to sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century descriptions of Venice in English and explore Venice as a site of paradox, before reading Othello's complicated epistemological, ontological, and sexual issues through Venice's symbolic geography. Finally, I will suggest briefly that the stage -- and particularly the interaction between audience and play -- is also a site of paradox, a place where spectators, dazzled and destabilized by unresolved and unresolvable problems, are forced to reevaluate their cognitive and cultural worlds.

Before looking at the way Venice performed paradox, we need to examine what paradoxes were supposed to mean and do in the early modern period. "Paradox" in Greek -- para-doxon -- means contrary to received teaching or opinion. This is the denotation in Cicero's Paradoxa stoicorum and the one that gets repeated throughout the Renaissance. Another definition available to the sixteenth century was what Thomas Playfere, an Elizabethan preacher, called in 1595 "the intermingling of extremities." [13] These senses of paradox necessarily suggest a challenge both to conventional thought and to single, stable truths. Rosalie Colie's magisterial book on Renaissance paradox has highlighted paradox's role in undoing certainty and conventional wisdom. The figure inevitably involves an "exploitation of the fact of relative, or competing, value systems. The paradox is always somehow involved in dialectic: challenging some orthodoxy, the paradox is an oblique criticism of absolute judgment or absolute convention" (10). Colie rightly sees paradox's intimate relationship with epistemology.

Because of a tradition linking wonder to knowledge that goes back at least as far as Aristotle's Metaphysics -- Aristotle claimed that "it is owing to their wonder that men both now and at first began to philosophize" [14] -- the paradoxical is also linked to wonder and the marvelous. John Florio's Italian-English dictionary of 1598, A Worlde of Wordes, reveals the linguistic nexus of paradox, wonder, and knowledge in the English Renaissance. As we might expect, the Italian paradosso is defined as "a paradoxe" and as something "contrarie to the common receiued opinion." But the definition actually begins by calling paradosso "a maruellous, wonderfull and strange thinge to heare" (257). Italian Renaissance philosopher and polymath Francesco Patrizi made the connection even more explicit, noting that "the marvelous is always paradox" and including paradox as one of his twelve sources of the marvelous. [15] In his rhetorical handbook The Arte of English Poesie (1589), George Puttenham "Englished" paradox as "the Wondrer" and defined the figure as occurring when "our Poet is caried by some occasion to report of a thing that is maruelous, and then he will seeme not to speake it simply but with some signe of admiration." [16] And when the character of Paradox came on stage at the Grey's Inn's Revels of 1618, he exclaimed, "I pray you what is a parradox? it is a... straine of witt and invention, scrued above the vulgar concept, to begett admiration." [17]

We can see the link between paradox and both epistemology and wonder in the mock encomium and the paradox book -- the two main forms that the literary paradox took in the Renaissance. In both, the encounter with a rhetorical and philosophical paradox brings readers astonishment, surprise, and shock, as they experience a deviation from the norm and must then reevaluate conventionally held opinions and truths. The mock encomium is the earliest surviving paradoxical literary form, dating from the defenses of Helen written by Gorgias and Isocrates in the fifth century BC. Defenses of wine, fleas, flies, gnats, and asses were typical throughout antiquity and the Middle Ages, and the classic mock encomium of the Renaissance was Erasmus's Praise of Folly (1511; 1549). [18]

The other form was the argument contra opinionem omnium -- against received opinion -- and the locus classicus here is Cicero's Paradoxa stoicorum. In this book Cicero, for example, argued that virtue was its own happiness and that only the wise man could be truly rich. This literary form was brought to the Renaissance by Ortensio Lando's Paradossi of 1543. Twenty-five of Lando's thirty paradoxes were translated into French by Charles Estienne in 1553, and the first twelve of Estienne's were translated into English by Anthony Munday in 1593. Seven more of Landi's paradoxes ended up in Thomas Milles's The Treasurie of Auncient and Moderne Times of 1613. Somewhere along the line Shakespeare encountered this nexus of texts, and Edmund's speech on bastardy in King Lear is based on Lando's paradox "That the Bastard is more to be esteemed, than the lawfully borne or legitimate." [19] John Donne also wrote a brief collection of paradoxes in the 1590s -- published posthumously in 1633 -- including the heavily satiri cal "That Women Ought to Paint Themselves," "That Only Cowards Dare Dye," and the disputed "A Defence of Womens Constancy." [20]

But there was something frivolous -- and even potentially dangerous -- about the paradox's assault on convention, and writers of paradoxes in the Renaissance felt the need to defend their genre as much as poets did their poetry. Charles Estienne, for example, claimed in Munday's translation:

... I haue vndertaken (in this book) to debate on certaine matters, which our Elders were wont to cal Paradoxes: that is to say, things contrary to most mens present opinions: to the end, that by such discourse as is helde in them, opposed truth might appeare more cleere and apparant. Likewise, to excercise thy witte in proofe of such occasions, as shall enforce thee to seeke diligentlie and laboriously, for sound reasons, proofes, authorities, histories, and very dark or hidden memories. (A4r-v)

Paradoxes help clarify the truth, according to Estienne, by forcing readers both to debate the issues at stake and to do the research necessary to make their arguments effective.

Stefano Guazzo also defended the paradox's powers of instruction, focusing on its abiliry to teach by means of wonder: "Behold with howe great pleasure and admiration wee reade the Paradoxes of divers wittie and learned writers, specially the pleasant pamphlets made in praise of the plague, and of the French poxe.... and therefore I am of opinion, that in things of most difficultie, consisteth most excellencie and admiration" (1:91). Donne's defense was more playful. In a letter written in about 1600, Donne defended the paradox paradoxically. While he admitted that paradoxes were "nothings," he also recognized that an encounter with them could clarify one's thinking, could bring one closer to a kind of truth: "if they make y[degrees] to find better reasons against them they do there office." [21] For Quine, as we have seen, paradox or antinomy involved "a repudiation of part of our conceptual heritage"; for Donne, paradoxes "are rather alarus to truth to arme her then enemies." [22]

Turning to some Renaissance accounts of Venice, we can begin to build a sense of Venice as paradox and thus as a place capable of reconfiguring the boundaries of the known. In all of my reading of sixteenth and seventeenth century discussions of Venice in English, I have come across the word "paradox" only once -- in Thomas Coryate's 1611 description of the campanile in St. Mark's Square (183). However, the logic of paradox suffuses these accounts. What's more, paradox does get expressed verbally, making its linguistic appearance in these narratives through the rhetoric of amazement, astonishment, the marvelous.

And it is interesting how frequently the descriptions of Venice begin with the wonderful. William Thomas commences his account of Venice in The Historie of Italie (1549) by discussing Venice's "meruailouse Site" (73r). [23] Lewes Lewkenor starts his translation of Gasparo Contarini's The Commonwealth and Gouernment of Venice (1599) by admitting to his readers that he has "been euer readier to wonder at the effect of things extraordinarily strange; then wel prouided of judgment to examine their cause, subjecting sundrie times mine eares to the report of rare and unusuall accidentes, with a greater bent of attention, then perchaunce to a well tempered stayednes will seem conuenient." Even taking into consideration his personal interest in the wonderful, then, Lewkenor claims that Venice still seems to possess an almost universal capacity to evoke marvelling. Most travellers, he says, "comming once to speake of the cittie of Venice. . . would inforce their speech to the highest of all admiration, as being a thi ng of the greatest worthinesse, and most infinitely remarkable, that they had seen in the whole course of their travels." [24]

Like Lewkenor, Contarini begins with the marvelous, in effect giving the English edition a double dose of wonder at the start:

I Hauing oftentimes obserued many strangers, men wise & learned, who arriuing newly at Venice, and beholding the beautie and magnificence thereof, were stricken with so great an admiration and amazement, that they woulde, and that with open mouth confesse, neuer any thing which before time they had seene, to be thereunto comparable, either in glory or goodlinesse. Yet was not euery one of the possessed with the like wonder of one same particular thing. (1969, 1) [25]

Even Montaigne -- who was a little disappointed with Venice -- uses the language of the marvelous to express his disappointment: in the words of his secretary, "Monsieur Montaigne said he had found it different from what he had imagined, and a little less wonderful" (1980, 920). [26]

Montaigne's views notwithstanding, most accounts of Venice include a great deal of marvelling. And although sources of Venetian wonder varied -- as Contarini claimed, "not euery one of the [were] possessed with the like wonder of one same particular thing" -- one thing that most did wonder at was the paradox of the physical site of Venice, what they invariably called its "situation." Made iconic in Carpaccio's Lion of St. Mark (1516), Venice's doubleness was physical and material: based improbably on land and at sea, Venice was a puzzle without a clear solution. Coryate specifically links Venice's wonder to its geographic site: "Such is the rareness of the situation of Venice, that it doth euen amaze and driue into admiration all strangers that vpon their first arriuall behold the same" (160). Thomas notes its "meruailouse Situation," adding that were one to see Venice without its buildings, he "shoul de saie it were the rudest, vnmeetest, and unholsomest place to builde vpon or to enhabite, that were againe to be founde thoroughout an whole worlde" (73r). Contarini remarks,

But the greater part of the wise and iudiciall sort were rather in themselues confounded with amazement at the new and strange manner of the situation of this Citie, so fitte and conuenient for all thinges that it seemed vnto them a thing rather framed by the hands of the immortal1 Gods, then any way by the arte, industry, or inuention of men. (1-2) [27]

And Contarini's translator Lewkenor is agog again:

first touching the situation thereof, what euer hath the worlde brought forth more monstrously strange, then that so great & glorious a Citie should bee seated in the middle of the sea, especially to see such pallaces, monasteries, temples, towers, turrets, & pinnacles reaching vp vnto the clouds, founded vpon Quagmires, and planted vppon such vnfirme moorish and spungie foundations, there being neyther wood, nor stone, nor matter fit for building within tenne miles therof, for so farre distant from it was the nearest maine land, at such time as the first foundation was laide? (A3r)

In this marvelling over Venice's "situation," Lewkenor slides from wonder to her sibling, paradox: Venice contains stable, magnificent buildings constructed on quagmires and "spungie foundations." What's more, these buildings were made out of materials seemingly impossible to obtain without a mind-bending degree of effort. Further, Lewkenor's next paragraph begins with a virtual definition of paradox:

Besides, what is there that can carrie a greater disproportion with common rules of experience, the [than] that vnweaponed men in gownes should with such happinesse of success giue direction & law to many mightie and warlike armies both by sea and land, and that a single Citie vnwalled, and alone should command & ouer toppe mighty kingdomes...? (A3r; emphasis mine)

Venice's ability to rule and command, even though "vnwalled" and governed by the "vnweaponed," causes a great "disproportion with common rules of experience."

One final description of Venice's "situation" will take us into other, more general Venetian paradoxes: it is a translation from Francesco Sansovino's Venetia citta nobilissima (1581), included in Lewkenor: [28]

This city aboue all other is most worthy to bee admired, as being singular by her selfe, and brooking no comparison with any other....But onely this being seated in the middle of waters, hath not any thing vppo the earth, to which it may be resembled, the rare situation thereof being such, that it inioyeth both the commodities of the water, and the pleasures of the land, secure by being not seated vpon land, fro land assaults, and free by not being founded in the depthes of the sea, from maritime violence. (193)

Venice succeeds by being in between -- by being both seated upon land and sea and seated upon neither land nor sea. [29]

This inbetweenness is a paradoxical state and one which characterizes Venice in more general ways than merely its "situation." For example, Venice seems able to remain the same, though it is constantly in flux. On a physical and literal level, Venice was in a perpetual state of alteration, "euery day altering and chaunging according to the tides of the sea" (3), as Contarini would have it. [30] But its flux had its sources in the mercantile and cultural realms, too, and these were obviously linked. Here is Contarini again:

for to some it seemed a matter of infinite maruel, and scarcely credible to behold, so vnmeasurable a quantity of all sorts of marchandise to be brought out of all realmes and countries into this Citie, and hence againe to be conueyed into so many straunge and far distant nations, both by land and sea. Others exceedingly admired the wonderful concourse of strange and forraine people, yea of the farthest and remotest nations, as though the City of Venice onely were a common and generall market to the whole world. (1) [31]

Merchandise comes in and goes out, as do foreign people, who help to form a "wonderful concourse" in the process. Contarini argues for a pleasant reconciliation of opposites and difference in his version of Venice.

Coryate, too, notes the world marketplace quality of Venice, as well as the linguistic stew that he encountered in St. Mark's Square:

Truely such is the stupendious (to vse a strange Epitheton for so strange and rare a place as this) glory of it, that at my first entrance thereof it did euen amaze or rather rauish my senses. For here is the greatest magnificence of architecture to be seene, that any place vnder the sunne doth yeelde. Here you may both see all manner of fashions of attire, and heare all the languages of Christendome, besides those that are spoken by the barbarous Ethnickes; the frequencie of people being so great... that (as an elegant writer saith of it) a man may very properly call it rather Orbis then Vrbis forum, that is, a market place of the world, not of the citie. (171-73)

Marvelling as most do at the sights and sounds of Venice, Coryate nonetheless suggests a discord behind Contarini's "wonderful concourse": for, in addition to "the languages of Christendome" are "those ... spoken by the barbarous Ethnickes." Later in his narrative, Coryate expresses further discomfort with so-called ethnics as he describes his own nearly violent encounter in the Jewish ghetto with a rabbi and a group of Jews whom he has enraged in a contentious theological discussion (231-37).

The paradox that is Venice, then, reveals another of its facets and poses another of its questions: how can a place of literal and figurative flux remain stable, as so many commentators maintained that it did? In attempting to solve this problem, Contarini reveals the political paradox at the heart of the city. Although he celebrates Venice's "wonderful concourse of strange and forraine people," Contarini also champions political unity as a sort of societal and cultural chain: "there is no question to be made, but that euery ciuill societie is contained and linked together in a certaine vnitie, and by distraction and breach of that vnity is againe as easily dissolued" (37). [32] How, then, in Contarini's scheme, does Venice -- a truly multicultural society -- keep unity from dissolving? [33]

Contarini's answer is Venetian "mixed government," derived from Aristotle and Polybius. [34] This constitutionally based republican vision forms a crucial component of what historians have called "the myth of Venice. According to J. G. A. Pocock, the myth of Venice "consists in the assertion that Venice possesses a set of regulations for decision-making which ensure the complete rationality of every decision and the complete virtue of every decision-maker. Venetians are not inherently more virtuous than other men, but they possess institutions that make them so." [36] Margaret King has helpfully linked the myth of Venice to the Venetian preoccupation with unanimitas: "Unanimity- the convergence of a multitude of wants and aspirations into a single will - is the central ideal of Venetian culture in the fifteenth century" (92). [37]

And Contarini was a great sixteenth-century promulgator of this ideal, seeing a blend of government by "one, or a few, or a whole multitude" as the way to keep a "multeity in unity," as it were:

there cannot bee a multitude without the same bee in some vnitie contayned; so that the ciuill society [which consisteth in a certaine vnity] will bee dissolued, if the multitude become not one by some meane of reason, so that the best philosophers and those that haue learnedlyest written of the ordering of a commonwealth, iudged that in government thereof there should be a temperature betweene the state of nobility & popular sort, to the ende that the inconueniences of either gouernmenr alone might be auoided, and the commodities of both ioyntly inioyed. (13-14) [38]

Contarini's sense of political harmony in Venice eventually takes the form of a musical metaphor:

Let us now come to that part of the commonwealth, the which is not vnlike to a well tuned dyapason in musicke, where the base is to the treble aptly proportioned, carrying with it the shew of a Monarchie, hath notwithstanding a correspondency with the popular gouernment, and finally a middle sort of Magistrates being betweene them both interposed, doth grow [as it were] into a wel concenting harmony of an excellent commonwealth. (36) [39]

Franco Gaeta has noted that, for Contarini, this constitutionally based government - even more than the physical site of Venice - was a source of wonder: "The wonder of the site and exterior appearance of the city were only a beginning: the more exceptional achievement remained the constitution of Venice, a secular work of a political class that had created an insuperable monument of wisdom and efficiency." [40] Pocock refers to Contarini's vision as a "miraculous equilibrium," while King -- drawing on Marcantonio Sabellico's De venetis magistratibus (1487) -- stresses that in Venice "a perfect concord results, deriving not from the bland equality of all people but from the resolution of inequalities, the more subtle and beautiful harmony of separate parts." [41] We might think of this concord as Paradox Resolved -- or a veridical paradox, to use Quine's term again.

Not everyone observing the politics and culture of Venice was as sanguine as Contarini and his forebears, however. Perhaps the city-state's most famous critic during the sixteenth century was French intellectual Jean Bodin, who questioned the power and stability of mixed government, the motivation behind the freedom given Venetian citizens, and the unchanging, eternal-seeming quality of the Venetian constitution. [42] We have noted hints of a discomfort in Coryate, but there were more extensive English interrogations of the myth of Venice as well, among them the two Venetian plays of Shakespeare.

But before turning to one of these Venetian plays -- Othello -- I first want to explore some other literary examples that both question the myth and attest to Venice as a site of paradox: the four poems that introduce Lewkenor's translation of Contarini. Prefacing Lewkenor's adulatory "To the Reader," which prefaces Contarini's even more laudatory Commonwealth, the poems -- both among and often within themselves -- present a much more ambivalent portrait than anything else in Lewkenor's volume. [43]

The most complex of the four, perhaps unsurprisingly, is Edmund Spenser's. He begins his sonnet discussing the fall of two Babels: the Babylon of the ancient world (often linked in the sixteenth century to the Babel of Genesis 11) [44] and the "Second Babell tyrant of the West" (line 3), Rome (a typical Renaissance conflation of ancient Rome and Roman Catholicism). Both Babels fell because of their pride, their "surquedry" (the "Vpreard...buildings" and the "ayry Towers vpraised much more high"; lines 5, 2, 4). As a result, both are "buried now [and] in their own ashes ly, / Yet shewing by their heapes how great they were" (lines 7-8).

The "But" of line 9 signals the conventional volta or turn of the sonnet, and we have a right to expect a shift to a celebration of Venice. But do we get it? Certainly, it is not unequivocally positive to be a "third" Babel (line 9). Further, we are told that "Fayre Venice, flower of the last worlds delight" is equal to the beauty of Babels past (line 10). But flowers die, and "last world" suggests both the most recent and the final world: ephemerality and the threat of apocalypse haunt the beauty of Venice.

Although we may seem to have arrived at the expected panegyric to the Venetian government and constitution in line 12 -- in which Spenser claims that Venice "farre exceedes" the two previous Babels "in policie of right" -- it might be fair to ask how significant it is to be better than the proud Babylon and Rome in fairness and justice (line 12). In addition, readers of Shakespeare and especially of his contemporaries in Renaissance drama know the complicated connotations of the word "policy." The word connotes politics but also policing, spying, and Machiavellian scheming. Even the final couplet -- a mini hymn to "Lewkenors stile that hath her beautie told"(line 14), a style that outstrips the buildings' beauty -- is potentially problematic. While this couplet may simply contain a conventional praise of the author, Jonathan Goldberg's point is worth considering: in the last two lines, Spenser is claiming, according to Goldberg, that "Lewkenor's language...surpasses the architecture of Venice; Venice decayed meets Venice preserved" (77).

In the poems that follow, it is as if the vessel of Spenser's poem were thrown to the ground and shattered into three pieces that became three new poems. In this imaginary scenario, the final poem of the group -- a celebration of Lewkenor by Henry Elmes -- becomes an uncomplicated version of Spenser's closing couplet. The middle two poems, then, would be an elaboration of the two parts of Spenser's paradox: a critique and a celebration of Venice. I. Ashley's poem, in the end, is condemnatory, while Maurice Kiffen's presents the myth of Venice in fourteen lines.

In Kiffen, we are on familiar ground: he begins with the wonder topos -- Venice is "the Adriatique wonder, / Admirde of all the world for power and glorie" (lines 1, 2) -- and tells us that we are about to read "her States rare storye" (line 4). This story is one of Polybian checks and balances, "Where all corrupt means to aspire are curbd, / And Officers for vertues worth elected" (lines 5-6).

Ashley, by contrast, presents the dark side of Venice, but not before putting forth part of the myth himself. Venice was routinely celebrated as a figurative and literal virgin: figuratively speaking, Venice itself had never been penetrated by an enemy, and on a more literal level, the fiercely protected virginity of Venetian daughters was legendary. [45] But paradox surrounds this part of the myth, too, a point that Ashley slowly but surely makes. Venice is a "Fayer mayden" (line 1), a "Most louely Nimph" (line 6), and a "sole wonder" (line 5), whose "glorious beauty" (line 3) "cals vnnumbred...swarmes" (lines 3, 4) "from each forrein natio" (line 4). The tortured syntax in this part of the sonnet -- which I have just attempted to sort out -- seems both to mirror his discomfort with the myth and to signal complications ahead. Sure enough, Ashley's turn in line nine is unequivocal, ripping the mask from the myth and exposing Venice's debauchery, decay, and narcissism:

Now I prognosticate thy ruinous case When thou shalt from thy Adriatique seas, View in this Ocean Isle thy painted face, In these pure colours coyest eyes to please, Then gazing in thy shadowes peereles eye, Enamour'd like Narcissus thou shalt dye.


The paradoxical flip-side of Venice's virginity is her equally famous courtesans, figured here by the "painted face" and the "coyest eyes." And though Venice may never have been invaded by an army, she is entered routinely by the "swarmes" "from each forein natio." [46]

Even before Lewkenor and Contarini sing their hymns of praise, then, the prefatory poems to Lewkenor's book present us with songs of caution and even condemnation. We see how easily "wondrous concourse" can become a kind of promiscuity, how Venice's civic pride and what Alberto Tenenti has called her "fundamental conviction of uniqueness" can become deadly self love (33). In Ashley's poem, Venice dies "ruinous" -- a word which was itself a paradox, meaning both "able to ruin" and "ruined" -- and perhaps syphilitic, looking at a version of itself, a simulacrum, its "shadowes peerless eye."

Thus, Lewkenor's book works paradoxically -- if almost certainly unintentionally -- to destabilize the unified version of Venice that it purports to be establishing. As a result, paradoxes resonate in doubleness instead of resolving into single truths. And this in spite of the two authors' best efforts. For, although Lewkenor and Contarini celebrate the marvels and paradoxes of Venice, they also work mightily to explain away the wonder and solve the contradictions. Venice is ultimately too complicated for "wondrous concourse," however, and it becomes much harder to share Lewkenor's confidence that Venice was a coincidentia oppositorum, a place that "maketh the straungest impossibilities not seeme altogether incredible" (A2v-A3r). Perhaps Nicholas of Cusa's formulation of contrariety from De docta ignorantia is more appropriate:

where there are opposites, like simple and composite, abstract and concrete, formal and material, corruptible and incorruptible, there we find degrees; hence a position is never reached where all opposition completely ceases or where the two are absolutely identical. (2.1.69)

It probably will not come as a surprise that, after the postmodern or anti-foundationalist turn, the dark and problematic side of Venice -- that which is highlighted by gaps, cracks, fissures -- has begun to take the foreground in late twentieth-century discussions of Shakespeare's and Jonson's Venetian plays. Jonathan Goldberg has noted that in Contarini's version of Venice, "contradictions cohere, and the republican myth masks an oligarchic state.... What might be regarded as completely opposite systems of politics -- absolute imperialism on the one hand, participative republicanism on the other -- divine right and imperial Rome versus the councils of Venice -- may not have been" (78). John Gillies sees Venice's doubleness as a split between "the idea of Venice as the constitutional heir of the ancient city-state ... and the idea of Venice as an open or cosmopolitan city whose citizens mingled promiscuously with the peoples of the world" (1994, 123). And David McPherson has persuasively taken four component s of the myth of Venice -- that he calls Venice the Rich, Venice the Wise, Venice the Just, and Venice citta galante -- and has explored the dark, paradoxical alternative to each. [47]

All three of these positions have been important in shaping my thinking about Shakespeare and Venice, but the most influential piece -- for me and (I imagine) for several generations of Othello students -- has been an essay whose thesis I now wish to complicate: Alvin Kernan's brilliant introduction to the Signet Classic Othello. In brief, Kernan saw the play through its "symbolic geography":

Here then are the major reference points on the map of the world of Othello: out at the far edge are the Turks, barbarism, disorder, and amoral destructive powers; closer and more familiar is Venice, The City, order, law and reason. Cyprus, standing on the frontier between barbarism and The City, is not the secure fortress of civilization that Venice is. It is rather an outpost, weakly defended and far out in the raging ocean, close to the "general enemy" and the immediate object of his attack. It is a "town of war yet wild" where the "people's hearts [are] brimful of fear." ... The movement of the play is from Venice to Cyprus, from the City to the outpost, from organized society to a condition much closer to raw nature, and from collective life to the life of the solitary individual. (xxv, xxvii)

Although Kernan admits that Shakespeare recognizes a darker Venice -- "the tradition of the 'supersubtle Venetian'" -- Kernan's Shakespeare has "read Contarini" (as Ben Jonson's Sir Politic brags he has done in Volpone 4.1.40): "Shakespeare ... makes Venice over into a form of The City, the ageless image of government, of reason, of law, and of social concord" (xxv-xxvi).

For Kernan, Cyprus is what we might now call -- thanks to cultural anthropology and performance theory -- a liminal space: a space in between, on the threshhold. [48] As anthropologist Victor Turner would have it, "Liminal entities are neither here nor there; they are betwixt and between the positions assigned and arrayed by law, custom, convention, ceremonial" (1969, 95). And, according to Richard Knolles, author of the early seventeenth-century Generall Historie of the Turkes, "The Venetians had euer had great care of the island of Cyprvs, as lying farre from them, in the middest of the sworne enemies of the Christian religion, and had therefore oftentimes determined to haue fortified the same" (847). [49] Clearly, Cyprus was geographically a space between. [50]

But, as my earlier remarks would indicate, I see Venice as the paradoxical, liminal site, a perfect setting for the kinds of sexual, ontological, and epistemological questions raised by Othello. [51] For Venice reveals the full cultural range of liminality that Turner posits and was on a threshold of sorts in the sixteenth century. In 1499 the loss to the Turks at the Battle of Zonchio and the news that the Portugese had developed a route to the Indies for trading spices arguably left Venice in a more uncertain state than it had ever been in before. [52] If we add to these developments the troubles in 1509 with the League of Cambrai -- formed to punish Venice after her expansion into the terraferma was deemed too wide-ranging -- we have a nation beginning to doubt its own myths. [53]

Indeed, several historians have suggested that it was this very uncertainty about the stability of Venice that led to the writing of books like Contarini's. [54] And if Shakespeare was probably not aware of these early sixteenth-century threats to the myth, he almost certainly knew about the Venetian victory at Lepanto in 1571 that paradoxically cost Venice possession of Cyprus. [55] Indeed, David McPherson has argued that the original audience's knowledge in 1603-1604 about the loss of Cyprus thirty-two years earlier would have added another level of loss and pathos to Othello: Cyprus was saved, but it would not be safe for long (1990, 79-81). Haunted by recent history, then, Shakespeare's Venice is a much more unstable place than is usually recognized. [56]

Although the extent of Shakespeare's knowledge of Lepanto and Cyprus is hard to prove, there is little doubt that Shakespeare knew Lewkenor's translation of Contarini; in fact, he could have found a description of Lepanto in Lewkenor's "A Breuiate of the History & liues of the Venetian Princes," included at the end of his Contarini volume (1969, 229). Several studies have revealed verbal echoes as well as details in act 1 that suggest Shakespeare's familiarity with the Contarinian version of Venetian justice, order, fairness in advancement, and appointments of foreign generals in a crisis. [57]

But rather than enumerate details from this book that make their way into Othello, I would like to spread the net a little more widely and show that the paradoxical Venice found both in Lewkenor's and Contarini's descriptions and in the volume's prefatory poems provides Shakespeare a perfect space for the crises of love and thought that he explores in his second Venetian play, especially the ontological and epistemological struggles of Othello, the paradoxical "Moor of Venice." [58] For although it is incidental in Shakespeare's main source text -- a story by Giraldi Cinthio -- Venice haunts Shakespeare's play long after the action has shifted to Cyprus. [59]

The evil Venetian at the heart of Othello is an embodiment of paradox -- and its condensed form, oxymoron: "Honest Iago" [60] tells us right away that "I am not what I am" (1.1.65). What's more, he has contempt for those like Othello "that [think] men honest that but seem so" and consequently "will as tenderly be led by th'nose / As asses are" (1.3.82; 83-84). In 2.1, the paradoxical even informs a rare light-hearted moment in the play: Iago's bawdy puns are derided by Desdemona as "old fond paradoxes, to make fools laugh i'th'alehouse" (2.1.140-41).

Primarily, though, Iago both represents and employs paradox at its most dangerous. He uses the language of paradox, certainly: in addition to his fondness for ontological paradoxes like that mentioned above ("I am not what I am"), Iago enjoys making puzzling remarks like the following: "Trifles light as air / Are to the jealous confirmations strong / As holy writ" (3.3.326-28). His words here describe what his words ultimately do: make something insubstantial into something of utmost weight, fashion the trivial into the undeniably true.

Even more devastatingly effective is Iago's use of paradox as method. One of the ways he achieves this doubleness is by playing parts of the myth of Venice off of one another. Shakespeare seems to have been aware of the complications surrounding this myth, and if nowhere else, he could have found them in the Ashley poem that prefaces Lewkenor's Contarini and that we examined earlier. The target of Iago's manipulation of the myth appears to be Venetian women in general but is actually Desdemona. Whether he is praising Venice the Maiden or denigrating Venice the Whore, Iago is working to sully Desdemona in Othello's eyes. Although Iago calls Desdemona a "super-subtle Venetian" when talking to Roderigo in 1.3 (347), the crucial moment comes in 3.3, the long scene that changes Othello's life forever.

Alluding to the Venetian reputation for sexual license, Iago claims that he can "speak not yet of proof" (200) because "In Venice they do let God see the pranks / They dare not show their husbands; their best conscience / Is not to leave't undone, but keep't unknown" (206-08). Desdemona, then, is a true Venetian (or at least a true Venetian woman) and is adept at concealment and deception. But when Iago wants to convince Othello of Desdemona's -- and Othello's own -- unnaturalness, he stresses the version of the myth of Venice that celebrates the city as rational, fair, and just. By choosing Othello and failing to "affect many proposed matches / Of her own clime, complexion, and degree, / Whereto we see in all things nature tends" (234-36), Desdemona has strayed from Venetian morality. Eventually, Iago tells the increasingly distraught Othello, she will regain her true, natural Venetianness: "Her will, recoiling to her better judgement, / May fall to match you with her country forms, / And happily repent" (2 41-43). Both evil and naturally virtuous, Venice is a paradox that Iago manipulates to his own advantage. In Iago's version of her, Desdemona is the constant -- constantly unnatural and deviant (though she may repent and return to the fold).

This playing with double senses, as Edmund Spenser called Iago's type of rhetorical maneuvering, has a demonic, duplicitous quality to it. But it also reminds us of the power of the poet and rhetorician: paradox is a central part of verbal creation and can help forge new epistemological understandings, but it is also very dangerous. George Puttenham's discussion of figures of speech in general calls attention to the transgressive doubleness of any poetical or rhetorical act:

[figures are] in a sorte abuses or rather trespasses in speach, because they passe the ordinary limits of common vtterance, and be occupied of purpose to deceiue the eare and also the minde, drawing it from plainnesse and simplicitie to a certaine doublenesse .... [61]

As they "deceiue the eare and also the minde," all figures in a sense perform a paradoxical function as "they passe the ordinary limits of common vtterance."

We see just how powerful -- and destructive -- this doubleness can be in Iago's other paradoxical strategy: turning "virtue into pitch," in his words. As we have seen, Iago is able to change a person's chief attributes - Desdemona's goodness and innocence, Othello's singleness and credulousness -- into evil. Out of Desdemona's virtue, Iago tells us, he will "make the net / That shall enmesh them all" (335-36). He calls his method "Divinity of Hell" (324), which is itself, of course, a paradox. Thus, in acts 3 and 4, the more Desdemona innocently pleads for Cassio's reinstatement, the more Othello becomes convinced of her adultery.

The method works particularly well with Othello because his hatred of doubt and paradox plays directly into Iago's hands. Othello asserts, "Certain, men should be what they seem" (3.3.133). But they are not, and Iago exploits the gap between seeming and being. In two short speeches from 3.3, Iago warns Othello of the dangers of doubt, a warning Othello hardly needs:

That cuckold lives in bliss

Who, certain of his fate, loves not his wronger.

But O, what damned minutes tells he o'er

Who dotes yet doubts, suspects yet fondly loves!


After Othello exclaims, "O misery!", Iago makes the same point by varying his metaphor:

Poor and content is rich, and rich enough,

But riches fineless is as poor as winter

To him that ever fears he shall be poor.


Using paradoxes that could be from the books of Lando, Munday, and Donne, Iago demonstrates why the cuckold who is certain of his wife's infidelity and the man who is certain of his poverty are happier than those whose good fortunes might change. The cuckold and the poor man know their plights; the others dwell in doubt and contingency. And Othello absolutely must know. Although at this point he is still arguing for the possibility of Desdemona's innocence, his rejection of ambiguity and doubt leaves Iago room to move:

No, Iago,

I'll see before I doubt; when I doubt, prove;

And on the proof, there is no more but this:

Away at once with love or jealousy.


Iago makes sure that it is "away at once with love." For Othello hates paradox, and later in the same scene, Othello recognizes that he is in a state of doubleness that must be eradicated: "I think my wife be honest, and I think she is not. / I think that thou art just, and think thou art not. / I'll have some proof" (388-90). He first wants "ocular proof" (365), but Iago asks him, "Would you, the supervisor, grossly gape on? / Behold her topped?" (400-01). Pressing the point, Iago claims that "It were a tedious difficulty, I think, / To bring them to that prospect" (402-03). But if Othello will accept circumstantial evidence -- "imputation, and strong circumstances / Which lead directly to the door of truth" (411-12) -- then Othello can be satisfied. When he agrees to these terms, Othello opens the door to the manipulations of the handkerchief that will seal both his and Desdemona's doom.

But turning virtue into pitch in this play means more than changing goodness into a vice that undoes the person in question. This strategy also allows Iago to turn people into their opposites, and Shakespeare ingeniously reveals Iago's triumph by showing both Desdemona and Othello transformed into what they manifestly are not -- or were not before Iago started meddling with their lives. Thus, according to Othello, the virtuous Desdemona has become the "cunning whore of Venice" (4.2.93), while Desdemona notes that the stolid, constant, unified Othello is now divided against himself: "My lord is not my lord" (3.4.120). Desdemona, who once mocked Iago's "old fond paradoxes," is now using them herself. And Iago tells Lodovico that Othello is "that he is . . .. If what he might he is not / I would to heaven he were" (4.1.272-74).

But it is particularly disturbing to hear Othello's language become paradoxical. (This is, after all, a stage that follows his utter linguistic breakdown in act 4 [4.1.34-41].) In act 5, when he looks over the sleeping Desdemona and has murderous thoughts, Othello turns to paradoxy: Of Desdemona, he says, "So sweet was ne'er so fatal" (5.2.2 1), and after strangling her, yet sensing that she is "Not yet quite dead" (5.2.95), Othello muses, "I that am cruel am yet merciful. / I would not have thee linger in thy pain" (5.2.95-96). In a nice twist, Shakespeare has Othello using paradoxical language that reveals a mind divided: Othello has been unable to eradicate doubt and doubleness even though he has done away with love.

Yet given who he is -- a man from a non-Christian world converted and transplanted into a Christian one; a European hero made famous by his battles against Islamic enemies; a black man marrying into a white world -- Othello never really could hope to be completely unified, never could hope to see himself or be seen as anything other than a paradox. [62] It is helpful to think of Othello as an example of what Victor Turner has called "marginals ... simultaneously members (by ascription, optation, self-definition, or achievement) of two or more groups whose social definitions and cultural norms are distinct from, and often opposed to, one another. ..." Liminal figures, these marginals "have no cultural assurance of a final stable resolution of their ambiguity." [63] Indeed, his marginal status (in this sense) becomes increasingly apparent to him and to us in the last half of the play.

The classic example of Othello's emerging marginality or "otherness" is the story of the handkerchief. He gives two versions of the tale (one in 3.4, one in 5.2.222-24) -- a fact that has led many of my clever students (but very few critics and editors) to assume he is lying or embellishing in the version he shares with Desdemona. But it is much more interesting if he is not lying, if his foreign past -- under pressure -- is breaking through his Venetian veneer. This is not to say that Othello's barbaric or savage nature is breaking through, though many critics have made this claim. [64] Michael Neill is surely correct when he asserts that "The long and unpleasant history of interpretations which see Othello as the study of a man reverting to innate barbarity is a proof of how well lago succeeds ... the play itself will not rest content with such gross explanations" (1997, 148). [65]

I would argue that Othello's non-Venetian past is what emerges and what lago helps Othello to demonize. [66] The more elaborate -- and better know -- version of the handkerchief's origin in 3.4 reveals an Eastern, mysterious, alien history: Made by a two hundred year old sybil and given to Othello's mother by an Egyptian charmer, the handkerchief has "magic in the web of it" (67), has the power to subdue the recipient to the love of the donor. Interestingly, the story has the very elements of the supernatural that Othello was so quick to deny in the trial scene of act 1. Early in the play, it is important to remember, Othello tells the Duke and the eminent Venetians that love and his tales of the marvelous were "the only witchcraft I have used" (1.3.168). Although Desdemona has been fascinated by Othello's past and presumably his heritage, the timing of the revelation of the handkerchief's history is frightening to her: "Is't possible?" (66), "I'faith, is't true?" (73), she asks. When told the story is "most veritable" (74), Desdemona exclaims, "Then would to God I had never seen it!" (75). This is one tale of wonder, impossibility, and paradox that Desdemona would rather not hear. [67]

For Desdemona must on some level sense that there is a connection between Othello's emerging cultural doubleness and his growing turbulence. To use an earlier model, Othello -- under Iago's influence -- comes increasingly to envision the cultural myth of Venice less in terms of Contarini's "wonderful concourse" and more in terms of the tension between "Christendome" and the "barbarous Ethnickes" mentioned by Coryate. In his final major speech, however, Othello tries for unity one last time, appropriately in the form of a story. And Othello understands the importance of telling stories: stories won him Desdemona, convinced the Venetians he was worthy and his love was true, allowed him to be deceived about Desdemona. Recognizing the deception of Iago's stories, Othello attempts to regain control of- or at least to make sense of- his life by telling his own story again.

But things have obviously changed since his wondrous narration in act 1. Finally understanding the treachery of Iago, he sees gaps between language and truth, seeming and being, but he also recognizes the gap within his own being. Identifying himself with a cultural other -- the "base Indian" of line 356 -- Othello sees that he is a double self: a prominent part of a dominant culture but alien; a Christian from a non-Christian tradition; both faithful and infidel. In his final story Othello both dramatizes his doubleness and seeks to collapse it. And like the tale of the handkerchief, his last tale is flavored by what his audiences - within and outside of the play - would consider the East and the exotic. For his is a story of one whose hand,

Like the base Indian, threw a pearl away Richer than all his tribe; of one whose subdued eyes, Albeit unused to the melting mood, Drops tears as fast as Arabian trees Their medicinable gum. Set you down this, And say besides that in Aleppo once, Where a malignant and a turbaned Turk Beat a Venetian and traduced he state, I took by th'throat the circumcised dog And smote him thus. He stabs himself


Even in his last action we see his loathing of the paradoxical. In reenacting the killing of a Turk, Othello tries to resolve this doubleness even as he affirms it. [68] For his narrative renders him both the Christian and the infidel as he kills himself. [69] Hugh Kenner's remarks on G. K. Chesterton seem particularly apposite here: "Paradox springs in general from inadequacy, from the rents in linguistic and logical clothing; paradoxy might be called the science of gaps." [70] Indeed, by opening a gap in his body with his dagger, Othello paradoxically attempts to close the recently re-opened gap in himself. Unlike Murray J. Levith -- who has suggested that Othello is, symbolically, Cyprus -- I would argue that Othello embodies the problem of Venice. Utterly double, Othello's story is one of both saving Venice and killing the myth of Venice, of both sustaining and eradicating paradox. [71]

Thus, paradox's power to effect more than evil and destruction is deeply questioned by play's end. There does not seem to be room for the epistemological growth achieved by Orsino in Twelfth Night with which we started. Part of the explanation is, of course, generic: tragic characters pay a great deal more for their knowledge - if they get any - than comic characters do. However, another paradoxical death may give us a hint of how to rehabilitate paradox, even in Othello - to reclaim it from Iago, as it were.

There is no doubt that Desdemona's death is a puzzle. Her first two remarks are declarations of her innocence: "O, falsely, falsely murdered" (5.2.126) and "A guiltless death I die" (132). However, her very last words - in response to Emilia's question, "Who has done this deed?" - tell a different story: "Nobody - I myself. Farewell. / Commend me to my kind lord. O, farewell" (132-34). These closing lines seem weak, a long way from the rebel who refused to marry the curled darlings of Venice and eloped with an older, black Moor.

Given her earlier self-vindication, though, it is difficult to read these lines as utterly submissive. At worst, one could argue, they reveal a woman desperately holding onto an image of her husband as she initially interpreted him - a "kind lord." Just as Othello's diseased image of Desdemona leads to her death, perhaps her over-idealized vision of her husband contributes to her demise; characters in this play are not very good at changing visions and ideas, at learning from their mistakes. At best, though, Desdemona can be seen as forgiving and taking blame in a play in which no one else apologizes or accepts responsibility. She does so in clear, simple language, unadorned and straightforward (in stark contrast to Othello's 'turbaned Turk' speech). [72]

The juxtaposition of Desdemona's defiance and passivity in death creates a paradox, a puzzle like the two versions of the handkerchief story. These are two of many unsolved problems in the play, problems that have led Katharine Eisaman Maus to argue that "Like Othello, we must depend on circumstantial evidence when we might have expected all to be made manifest" (1995, 126). This is, Maus says in another piece, part of "the paradoxical relationship of audience to theatrical performance . ... Though they [the spectators] have paid for the performance -- though the play is ostensibly performed for their benefit -- they seem to be denied control over and knowledge of that which they seem to own" (1987, 578). The theatrical experience can collapse the boundaries between audience and play and thus remind us of our uncertainty even as we watch characters suffer under theirs. The difference is, of course, that we have the chance to learn from the paradox that is Othello; Othello is not so lucky. Or as psychologist D. W. Winnicott said of another Shakespearean tragedy, "Shakespeare had the clue, but Hamlet could not go to Shakespeare's play" (84).

It is not only the paradoxical content from which we benefit, though: the very form of drama is paradoxical. [73] As performance theorist Richard Schechner has claimed, "Human performance is paradoxical, a practiced fixedness founded on pure contingency." [74] Or, in Victor Turner's scheme, drama is liminal, betwixt and between, "a time and place of withdrawal from normal modes of social action" that can provide "a period of scrutinization of the central values and axioms of the culture in which it occurs" (1969, 167). This "scrutinization" is, I would argue, what lies at the heart of the Shakespearean dramatic experience, as performance and audience interact and intersect. Turner can be instructive here as well, for late in his career -- influenced by studies of the relationship between ritual and the brain -- he wrote about liminality as a paradox: at heightened theatrical moments, "there is an ecstatic state and a sense of union, belief in ritual, prolonged meditation, where culturally transmitted tec hniques and intense personal discipline sustain the peak experience. One is aware of paradox, but rejoices in it..." (1988, 166). Winnicott also saw paradox as a crucial element of play and of culture in general:

The place where cultural experience is located is the potential space between the individual and the environment. ... This intermediate area of experience, unchallenged in its respect of being inner or external ... reality ... is retained in the intense experiencing that belongs to the arts and to religion and to imaginative living, and to scientific work. ... What emerges from these considerations is the further idea that paradox accepted can have positive value. (100, 14)

And it goes the other way, too: for if drama is paradoxical, the paradox is also dramatic, as A. E. Malloch taught us many years before reader-response theory became fashionable: "the paradox may be said to present one part in a verbal drama (truly a word play); the other part is not written out, but is supplied by the reader ... a natural condition of dramatic speech is that, though it proceeds from an author, it achieves status independent of the author" (195). So -- paradoxically -- we as readers, we as audience, help create that which helps us learn, that which helps us "scrutinize" our culture and world. In content and in form, then, the Shakespearean stage can allow us access to the paradoxical.

There will always be gaps; our knowledge will always be inadequate. But Venice, Othello, and Othello can -- if we let them, if we resist the urge to harmonize their contradictions and instead allow the free play of their opposites -- help teach us not only the lessons but also the methods of paradox.

(*.) I would like to dedicate this essay to the late Dennis Kay. Versions of the essay were delivered at the University of Edinburgh's Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities in May 1998 and at the annual meeting of the Shakespeare Asssociation of America in April 1999. For their helpful responses to my work I thank Rachel Adams, Tricia Allerston, Leonard Barkan, Stephen Brown, Mark Thornton Burnett, Lars Engle, Lisa Gordis, Peter Jones, Jennie Kassanoff, Paula Loscocco, Richard Mackenney, Claudia Rankine, William Sharpe, and Timea Szell.

(1.) Shakespeare, 1997, 5.1.208-09. All further references to the texts of Shakespeare will be taken from this edition, unless noted otherwise.

(2.) "To George and Tom Keats," in Keats, 1:193.

(3.) For a similar reading, see Gilman, 129-50, esp. 129-35. Shakespeare's doubleness is nor always seen as a virtue. Gary Taylor, editor of both Shakespeare and Thomas Middleton, faults Shakespeare for his paradoxicality, which Taylor recasts as a kind of moral "fence-sitting": unlike Middleton, "Shakespeare tells us stories in which we do not have to choose.... Shakespeare gives us what we impossibly want, and the world loves him for it." See "Judgment," in Hill, 93, 94.

(4.) A longer version of this article will also examine the role of paradoxical Venice in The Merchant of Venice. Shylock, as we are reminded by the 1598 entry for the quarto in the Stationers' Register, was himself a paradox: "the Iewe of Venyce." See Shakespeare, 1955, xi. And James Shapiro has shown us that Jews were troubling to the early modern imagination because of their paradoxical status: they were different from, but appeared similar to, members of the dominant culture. See Shapiro, esp. 167-94. Shakespeare's Venice in this earlier play is also a liminal site between east and west, as unstable at times as Antonio's fortunes are at sea. Finally, Merchant's Venice is a place where doubleness makes plainness all but impossible. For this last point, see Platt, 290-94.

(5.) Lacan, 85, 88, and Massey, 1187n61.

(6.) See also physicist Niels Bohr's claim that "the notion of complementarity is called for to provide a frame wide enough to embrace the account of fundamental regularities of nature which cannot be comprehended within a single picture" (12).

(7.) Hamlet is another who sees complex paradoxes as antinomies. Noting that "the power of beauty will sooner transform honesty from what it is to a bawd than the force of honesty can translate beauty into its likeness," Hamlet tells Ophelia that "This was sometime a paradox, but now the time gives it proof" (3.1.113-16). Once proof has been obtained, the paradox ceases to exist; for Hamlet, a veridical paradox is not a paradox.

(8.) See also Thomas Kuhn's discussion of the role of paradox in the thought experiments of Galileo's work on motion: " the way, or one of them, in which Galileo prepared his contemporaries for a change in the concepts employed when discusssing, analyzing, or experimenting with motion" (15).

(9.) Richard Mackenney has noted many paradoxes in Renaissance Venice: the influence of both Byzantine and further eastern influences on Venetian culture; the fact that "the individual found identity as a member of a group"; "the state's penetration of the religious sphere"; and, drawing on Traiano Boccalini, the ability of Venice -- by constantly preparing for war -- to effect an "armed peace." For the first three, see Mackenney, 1992, 53-67, esp. 55-57. For the last example, see Mackenney, 1989, 49.

(10.) Frank Lestringant calls Venice the "city located at the very pivot between the two antagonistic cultures [of Christianity and Islam]" (2).

(11.) Sir Henry Wotton, James I's ambassador to Venice, had high hopes for making Venice into a Protestant state. See Smith, 1: 78-112 and 1: 349-497, and Goldberg, 75-76. Wotton was especially encouraged by the ideas and demeanor of Paolo Sarpi, the Venetian monk and Adviser in Theology and Canon Law. For Sarpi and the Venetian interdict, see Bouwsma, 1968, 339-628; "The Venetian Interdict and the Problem of Order" and "Venice, Spain, and the Papacy: Paolo Sarpi and the Renaissance Tradition," both in Bouwsma, 1990; Lievsay, esp. 11-25; and Wootton.

(12.) Edward Muir has called the doge the "paradoxical prince" because of the leader's supreme yet highly mitigated position of power in Venice, See E. Muir, 251-96.

(13.) Thomas Playfere, A Sermon preached at Saint Maryes Spittle in London on Tuesday in Easter weeke, 1595 (London, 1596), 21, cited in Crockett, 19.

(14.) Aristotle, Metaphysics, Book I(A) .2, 982b12-18.

(15.) La deca ammirabile, in Patrizi, 2: 264; 2: 305.

(16.) Puttenham, " Of Ornament," chap. 19, 233.

(17.) See Nichols, 1823, 3: 337. It is important to remember that the primary meaning of "admiration" in the sixteenth and early seventeenth century was "wonder." See Ferdinand's punning on Miranda's wondrous name in The Tempest: "Admired Miranda!/Indeed the top of admitation" (3.1.37-38).

(18.) For studies of paradox in general and the mock encomium in particular, see Ashworth; Bowen, esp. 3-37; Clark, esp. 31-79; Colie, esp. 15-22; Geraldine; Grendler, 21-38; 205-209; Grudin, esp. 1-50; McGowan, 65-83; Miller; Pease; Thompson, 94-106; and Wiley.

(19.) See Munday, O.4, and Miles, bk. 7, chap. 47,723-25. Lando also included a defense of the bastard in his book of Problems, Quatrro libri de dubbi con le solutioni a ciascun dubbio accomodate, originally published in 1552. See Donne, xxxv-xxxviii.

(20.) In addition to the texts cited in n. 18 above, see the seminal (and difficult to find) essay by Rice. See also Donne; Malloch; and Vickers.

(21.) Simpson, 316.

(22.) Ibid.

(23.) See also Hadfield, 27-30.

(24.) Contarini, 1969, [*]4v; Av-A2r.

(25.) "I ho piv volte considerato molti foristieri, huomini saui, & non ignoranti delle buone arti, tosto ch'arriuano a Vinegia, & hanno contemplato la grandezza di quella citta, esser si talmete empiu ti di marauiglia, & quasi d'un certo stupore, che mostrano non hauer mai ueduto cosa piu degna di marauiglia, ne piu con l'aspetto di tutto' luolto anchora. Nondimeno la marauiglia d'una medesima cosa non prendeua tutti" (IIIr). When quoting Contarini, I will use the English from Lewkenor's 1599 translation; the Italian is given in the notes followed by page numbers referring to the 1544 edition.

(26.) "Il [Montaigne] disoit l'avoir trouvee autre qu'il ne l'avoit imaginee et un peu moins admirable" (1955, 72).

(27.) "Ma quasi tutti gli huomini di piu polito, et acuto ingegno si stupiuano di questa nuoua ragione del sito della citta: talmente opportuna ad ogni cosa, che sono usati pensare, ch'ella sia piu tosto fabrica de gli Dei, che opera, & trouato de gli huomini" (IIIr-v). Wondering at the site of Venice continues today in contemporary theories of space. See Lefebvre, esp. 68-79. Noting that "Venice is indeed a unique space, a true marvel" (76), Lefebvre uses the city as an example of a space that blurs the boundaries between a work -- that which "has something irreplaceable and unique about it" and a product -- that which "can be reproduced exactly, and is in fact the result of repetitive acts and gestures" (70). Venice poses a problem for Lefebvre because, "Beginning with the very first piles driven into the mud of the lagoon, every single site in the city had of course to be planned and realized by people," yet Venice "has none of the intentional character of an 'art object'" (76;74). Venice is both a real, urban site and a cultural stage: "Here everyday life and its functions are coextensive with, and utterly transformed by, a theatricality as sophisticated as it is unsought, a sort of involuntary mise-en-scene" (74). Lefebvre concludes paradoxically: "There is thus no good reason for positing such a radical separation between works of art and products as to imply the work's total transcendence of the product; this conclusion...leaves us some prospect of discovering a dialectical relationship in which works are in a sense inherent in products, while products do nor press all creativity into service of repetition" (77). This capacity for fluid doubleness instead of rigid binaries is part of what made Venice so compelling to the early modern imagination. Compare Contarini, 1544. IIIr-v, and Contarini, 1969, 1-2, quoted below.

(28.) See McPherson, 1988, and McPherson, 1990, esp. 23.

(29.) For more descriptions of the Venetian "situation," see Bernardo Giustiniani's remarks included in Lewkenor's translation of Contarini's Commonwealth, 169, and Moryson, 78. See also Tenenti, 17-46, esp. 32-33.

(30.) "ogni giorno si muta & uaria per il flusso del mare" (IVr). See Tony Tanner's description of Venice as "a city that crosses, or merges or binds, the elements -- both, and always, in and out of the water at once" (12).

(31.) "Perche ad alcuni pareua una cert cosa mirabile, & in tutto da non credere, cosi gran copia di tutte le mercatantie da tutti i paesi, & contrade esser partata in quest citta con un quasi perpetuo, et fermo modo; & di qua esser condotta poi per terra, & per mare a diuersisime genti. Riteneua alcuni altri la frequentia della citta, & Ia congregatione quasi di tutte Ic geti, quasi che la citta di Vinegia fosse il mercato comune del mondo" (IIIr).

(32.) "chi dubita, che ogni copagnia da una certa cathena d'unita non si tenga stretta, & ligata insieme?" (XXr-v).

(33.) Homi Bhabhas answer might be that Venice derived strength from its heterogenity its "hybridity": "the theoretical split-space of enunciation may open the way to conceptualizing international culture, based nor on the exoticism of multiculturalism or the diversity of cultures, but on the inscription and articulation of culture's hybridity. To that end we should remember that it is the "inter" -- the cutting edge of translation and negotiation, the in-between space -- that carries the burden of the meaning of culture. It makes it possible to begin envisaging national, anti-nationalist histories of the "people." And by exploring this Third Space, we may elude the politics of polarity and emerge as the others of our selves" (38-39). This approach to a politics of paradox belies the overly simplistic approach taken recently by Paul Stevens, who sees an appreciation of paradox -- whether in Renaissance poets or in the twentieth-century critics who write about them -- and political commitment as mutually excl usive.

(34.) Pocock, 69-80 and 320-30.

(35.) For helpful discussions of the myth of Venice, see Gaeta; Gilbert, 1987; Gilmore, esp. 431-39; Goldberg, 74-80; King, esp. 174-75; Lane, 87-91; McPherson, 1990, esp. 27-50; E. Muir, 13-61; Pocock, 272-330; and Vaughan, 15-21.

(36.) Pocock, 324.

(37.) See 92-205 of King for a full discussion.

(38.) "Conciosia che moltitudine alcuna non possa essere, laqua le non sia contenuta in alcuna unita. Per laqual cosa la compagnia de'Cittadini anchora andra in ruina laquale fatta d'una certa unita, se la moltitudine non diuiene una alcuna ragione. Et pero i Philosophi famosi, i quali chiaramente, & con ingegno hanno scritto dell'institution della Republica, giudicarono, che la republica si douesse temprare dallo strata de'nobili, e populari; datoui questo temperamento, per fuggire gli incommodi dell'uno, & l'altro gouerno, & per hauerne tutte l'utilita" (VIIIv).

(39.) Auicinianci dunque a quella parte della republica, laquale si come nelle corde ad ordinare la consonantia del diapason la uoce graue co una certa moderata proportione alla accuta risponde, cosi anchora ella con una certa specie reale si conuenga con la parte populare & finalmente in un concento, & accordo d'ottima Republica, posti in mezzo i mezzani Magistrati, cresca, prenda uigore, aumento, & forza" (XIXv).

(40.) "L'ammirazione per il sito e per l'aspetto esteriore della citta ... erano soltano un avvio: l'opera piu eccezionale restava pero la costituzione di Venezia, opera secolare d'una classe politica che aveva creato un insuperato monumento di saggezza e di efficienza" (65).

(41.) Pocock, 320; King, 181. For further examples championing balance and moderation in Contarini, see Contarini, 1969, 6-7; 146ff See also Gilmore, 432-39.

(42.) See Gilmore, 439-41; McPherson, 1990, 33, 35; and E. Muir, 50.

(43.) In addition to Contarini's De magistratibus, Lewkenor's book includes English translations of selections from Donato Giannotti's Libro de la republica di Venetiani (1540); excerpts from the writings of the fifteenth-century humanist Bernardo Giustiniani; Sebastian Muenster's Cosmographiae universalis (1550); Girolamo Bardi's or Francesco Sansovino's Delle cose notabili della citta di Venetia (c. 1560); Sansovino's Venetia citta nobilissima (1581); and a brief summary of lives of the doges compiled from Delle cose and Venetia. See McPherson, 1988. For helpful, and quite different, readings of the prefatory poems, see Gillies, 1994, 123; Goldberg, 77; Hadfield, 50-53; and Vaughan, 19.

(44.) See Spenser, 776n1.

(45.) For Venice as a virgin, see Gontarini, 1969, A2r, A4r; Coryate, 158; McPherson, 1990, 33-34; and Wilson, esp. 88-93. For Venice and the control over daughters and wives, sec Coryate, 158; McPherson, 43-46; and Vaughan, 28-29. See also Francesco Sansovino's remarks on Venetian marriage, included in Contarini, 1969, 194-95.

(46.) "For discussions of Venetian courtesans, see Coryate, 263-71; McPherson, 1990, 23-24; 43-44; 85-86; 99-100; 107-10; 139 n. 67; and Montaigne, 1980, 920.

(47.) McPherson, 1990, 27-50. For another essay that explores a darker Venice, see Neil, 1984, esp. 116-17.

(48.) See Vaughan, who calls Cyprus a "liminal zone between Venice's Christian civility and the Ottomite's pagan barbarism" (22). Surprisingly, she makes no mention of Kernan. Murray J. Levith goes so far as to make a symbolic link between Shakespeare's Moor and Cyprus: "Othello seems a bit like Cyprus: for the moment he has a clothing of civilization over his rough essence, but waiting to erupt at any moment are dark forces" (32). As I will go on to show, if Othello is the embodiment of any liminal space, it is Venice.

(49.) See Vitkus, who cites Knolles and provides helpful representations from early modern maps that illustrate Cyprus's actual and perceived vulnerability (165-68).

(50.) For a rather unconvincing claim that Cyprus in Othello is an allegory for Ireland, see Hadfield, Literature, 218-42.

(51.) For recent treatments of symbolic geography and the Renaissance stage, see the excellent Gillies and Vaughan, esp. 7-45.

(52.) On Zonchio, see Lane, 242 and 359-61. On the Portugese, see Lane, 290-92, and E. Muir, 26. Lane somewhat downplays the negative effect on Venice of the Portugese trade, but it was significant enough to warrant a note in Geoffrey Fenton's translation of Francesco Guicciardini's The Historie of Italy (1579): "the king of Portugall ... had taken from them [the Venetians] and appropriated to him selfe, the traffike of spices, which the Marchantes and shippes bringing out of Alexandria ... to Venice, they sent dispersed with a wonderfull profite through all the provinces in Chrystendome. The which alteration beeing a thing of the most merite and memorie of all others that have hapned in the worlde since many ages, and, for the harmes which the Citie of Venice receyved by it ... it can not much alter the estate of our citie to speake somewhat of it at large" (EE2v). Cited in McPherson, 1990, 53-54.

(53.) See Gilbert, 1973, 274-92; Lane, 241-45; E. Muir, 23-44; and Tenenti.

(54.) Contarini's book was probably begun in 1523-24, Donato Giannotti's Libro de la republica Vinitiani in 1526-27. See Bouwsma, 1968, 144-63; Gilbert, 1967; Gilmore, 431; Libby; and E. Muir, 27-33.

(55.) "Another place Shakespeare might have learned of the battle is in King James's Lepanto, a heroic poem first published in Edinburgh in 1591. See Jones; McPherson, 1990, 75-81; and Vaughan, 25-28. For another possible source, see Knolles, excerpted in Bullough, 7: 262-65.

(56.) For a recent exploration of an historically troubled Venice and Othello, see Griffin, esp. 59-66.

(57.) See K. Muir; Boughner; Whitfield; Sipahigil; Drennan; McPherson, 1990, passim; and Matheson.

(58.) See Neill, 1998, esp. 362-63. Camille Wells Slights sees Othello as "not merely a Moor in Venice but the Moor of Venice" -- thus, both an alien and a man "whose deepest values are fully consonant with those of Venice's other inhabitants" (384).

(59.) See Giovanni Battista Giraldi Cinthio, Gli Hecatommithi, Decade 3, Story 7, cited in Bullough, 7: 239-52. Although I disagree with many of his readings, Murray J. Levith has rightly claimed that the historical and cultural complexity of Venice made it "an excellent setting for presenting complex issues" (15). See Levith, 12-39, esp. 12-16.

(60.) Shakespeare, Othello, 2.3.160. See also 5.2.79 and 5.2.161 [not in Q].

(61.) Puttenham, "Of Ornament," chap. 7, 166.

(62.) On the paradoxicality of Othello and Othello, see Neil, 1998, 361 and 373-74. For Karen Newman, the entire play revolves around the "cultural aporia" of miscegenation. See Newman, 75. Virginia Mason Vaughan suggests that Othello's double self comes from his military as well as his cultural roles: "A condottiere who fights by contract for the Venetian republic, Othello reflects what European warfare would become. But his self-fashioned image of a romantic, chivalric hero who fights the infidel and wins the fair damsel is a remnant of a medieval ideal. Confusion between the two constructs was inevitable" (35; and see 35-50). See also Slights, esp. 380.

(63.) Turner, 1974, 233. See also Ania Loomba's trenchant remarks on Othello's paradoxicality: "He oscillates between asserting his non-European glamour and denying his blackness, emphasising through speech and social position his assimilation into white culture. He is thus hopelessly split..."(54). Taking a different approach, Emily Barrels -- in a very wise essay -- sees Othello having "a dual, rather than divided, identity." For Bartels, "if we free ourselves from targeting Othello as the necessary victim of cross-cultural power plays, we can recognize much more play within his part... [Othello is) neither an alienated nor an assimilated subject, but a figure defined by two worlds." See Barrels, 62; 61. By the end of the play, however, I would argue that Iago has turned virtue into pitch and duality into division.

(64.) For a fairly recent example, see Levith, 32.

(65.) See also Slights, 386.

(66.) In addition to being a "marginal," Othello is not given a single, stable cultural background. Vitkus has cautioned against identifying Othello "with a specific, historically accurate racial category; rather he is a hybrid who might be associated, in the minds of Shakespeare's audience, with a whole set of related terms *-- Moor, Turk, Ottomite, Saracen, Mahometan, Egyptian, Judean, Indian - all constructed in opposition to Christian faith and virtue" (159-60). See also Hunter, esp. 51; onigman's Introduction to his Arden edition of Othello, 14-31, esp. 22-26; and Neil, 1998.

(67.) For important readings of the handkerchief, see Burke, esp. 159-63; Boose; Neill, 1984; Altman, esp. 90-98; Neely, 1993, 128-31; and Neely, 1995, esp. 307-11.

(68.) See Bartels: "Though in stereotyping himself, he attempts to clarify his tragedy, he instead underscores its unreadability. . . ; thc play. . . exposes how open the Moor's place in England's conceptual fields was" (64).

(69.) See Sinfield: "And when he kills himself it is even better, because he eradicates the intolerable confusion of finding both the citizen and the alien in the same body" (35). Peter Stallybrass notes that -- with Othello's suicide -- "the 'Virgin Citie of Venice' is reenclosed, as the island of Cyprus had been earlier in the play, against the demonized Other, the 'turban'd Turk"' (140). For Vitkus, Othello's self-mutilation is linked to circumcision and conversion (174-76).

(70.) Kenner, 17. See also Greenblatt, 233-34.

(71.) For another perspective on the necessarily irresolvable paradoxicality in Othello, see Vaughan, Othello: "I think this play is racist, and I think it is not. But Othello's example shows me that if I insist on resolving the contradiction, I will forge only lies and distortion" (70). Edward Snow sees the play's doubleness revealed in the tension between the Quarto's "Indian" and the Folio's "Judean": "the only full interpretation would be one that keeps both readings. Each variant suggests a different side of Othello: 'Indian' makes him the traveller, the adventurer, full of exotic lore with which to entrance the audience; 'Judean' makes him the self-consciously converted Christian" (243).

(72.) See Neely, 1995, 309-10. In an unpublished paper, Holly Taylor has argued that "guiltless" can suggest Desdemona's appreciation of uncertainty. Desdemona knows that she is not guilty but senses that in some way Othello is innocent, too. In the horrifying world of Othello, then, a crime can be "guiltless" because the guilty are unknown and unknowable.

(73.) I recognize that I am switching to a critical position that is more transhistorical -- some might even say essentialist -- than what I have employed previously. But I think it is important to explore the dynamic between audience, player, and play as paradox, and recent historical work on performance and the actor bears out the anthropological claims made here. See Worthen, 1984, esp. 3-69; Worthen, 1997; Worthen, 1998; and Skura. Another part of this study will explore more thoroughly the links between historical and anthropological approaches to performance and paradox.

(74.) Schechner, in Turner, 1988, 10. See also Peter Brook's comment that getting ready for performance is a "continual preparation for the shock of freedom" (57).


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Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Critical Essay
Date:Mar 22, 2001
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