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"A wording poet": Othello among the mountebanks.

WHEN it came time to write Othello Shakespeare knew that he needed a special villain, a villain not usually seen on the stage of the Globe or the other London theatres, a villain who could easily undo the honorable and powerful Moorish general, his beautiful and virtuous Venetian wife, a villain who could fool everyone around him, including his own wife. Shakespeare found that villain among the mountebanks. (1)

In this paper I want to offer a new reading of the play Othello, and of the play's villain, by arguing that Iago is modeled after the infamous and popular figure of the mountebank, whose entertainments Shakespeare would have encountered in the streets of London. Many elements of the play are inspired by mountebank entertainments, including the handkerchief, and a reading of the play through the lens of the mountebank, not only explains the character of Iago, but also shines a light on some troublesome issues such as the comic interruptions, Iago's demand for money, his motives, his unerring ability to charm and fool, the issue of direct address, and that powerful bit of linen. (2)

While the connections between Shakespeare's plays and commedia dell'arte have received much scholarly and critical attention, mountebanks have gone undetected. (3) In part mountebanks have slid away from our notice because they are part of what Francoise Laroque calls a "buried popular tradition" (292), a tradition that Robert Weiman notes has "a close connection to every day life" (xviii) and as such can remain hidden from our modern view. Lynda Boose, writing about the handkerchief, in fact, makes a similar point in arguing that the meanings of the linen object "may well lie hidden in rituals and customs which were accessible to Elizabethans but have since been lost" (361). (4)

While we might have an idea that the streets of early modern London constituted a vibrant, thriving theatre, where on any given day, one would have encountered mini-dramas--the hawking of goods, the poor begging, the bargaining and haggling from shops spilling out into the streets, thieves working their trade, vagrants clustered in corners, carts, carriages, horses coursing through the streets, we may not have noticed the mountebanks. But as one wandered through this rumbling, intense world, one would have encountered other kinds of street theatre as well, mountebank performers, for example--English and foreign--up on makeshift stages enthralling the crowd and hawking homemade remedies. (5)

In turning our attention to the mountebank entertainers we see that, while they resemble other itinerant performers in the early modern period, mountebanks are immediately distinguished by the fact that they conflate entertainment and medicine in a performance of cures, and--very importantly--that they make money from the selling of those cures. In fact, all their entertainments were prelude to the moment of the big sell. It is perhaps this monetary transactional moment, the selling of cures, which in part inspired John Oberndorf's 1602 attack on mountebanks. "Consider his person," Oberndorf writes, and you will find the mountebank,
  lewd, shameless, practiced in all cozening,
  legerdemaine, coney-catching, and all other shifts and
  sleights, crackling boaster, proud ... a secret
  back-biter ...
  a common jester, a liar ... a cogging sycophant ...

While Oberndorf's description might fit any villain, the particular characteristics he notes center on the feared deceptive qualities of mountebanks--filled with lewdness and skilled at "shifts and sleights," a mountebank is a "secret back-biter," he writes, a "liar," and a "sycophant." In this paper I argue that these negative qualities of the mountebank's are exactly what Shakespeare needed to create Iago--a glib, charismatic, smooth talking fraud, who could sell anything.

While Ben Jonson in Volpone creates a brilliant, accurate, and obvious description of a mountebank entertainment with his Scoto/Volpone character, throughout Othello Shakespeare weaves in references to mountebank entertainments that might be lost on us, but apparent to his audience. And Iago is key to this construction, playing the role of the lead mountebank. Singing, reciting poems, a major player in comic skits, a clever linguist and master orator, a charismatic deceiver, Iago runs the show. In demonstrating how Shakespeare crafts Iago as a mountebank, using elements of the mountebank performance, and creating the "mountebank effect" throughout Othello, I concentrate on such key characteristics as the use of stock characters and words; clowns, comic episodes and skits; exotic cures, charms and spells; the threat of witchcraft; Iago's demand for money; his direct address to the audience; discourses that hinge on disease and cure; linguistic deception and trickery along with the mountebank oration, the harangue or selling of cures. (6) And then there is the handkerchief. The handkerchief was the essential means of exchange for the selling, buying, transferring of property, and the procur ing of a cure that was central to any mountebank entertainment. When the handkerchief first visually appears, the crucial material object, passing from character to character, Shakespeare's audience, familiar with seeing the handkerchief in the mountebank performances, would have been privy to an "ocular" lexicon of meaning, lost on a contemporary audience. Shakespeare too has his role; as the playwright, as a crafty, crafter of illusions, a manipulator of language, he is himself a "wording poet"--a term the early seventeenth-century writer, John Stephens, used to describe a mountebank--who, from his stage, tricks, entertains, and offers us cures. (7)

Mountebanks were popular entertainers throughout Europe, often traveling from one country to another. In fact, Italian performers made their way to England, entertaining English audiences in the streets and even at court. According to John Harvey, for example, the Italian mountebank, Scoto, of Volpone fame, was able to "play by leger du main before the Queene" (Lea, 360), and Thomas Nashe reports a similar entertainment. (8) Shakespeare, perhaps influenced by such Italian performers and borrowing a story idea from Cinthio's Hecatommithi, goes beyond the fact that the characters live in Venice, to reference one of that city's most popular non-traditional entertainments. (9) Thomas Coryate writes that the "larger toleration" of mountebanks is in Venice (272). Both Fynes Moryson and Coryate note that mountebank performances occurred twice a day in Venice's Piazza San Marco and that they were elaborate and enthralling affairs. In the late 1590s Fynes Moryson records seeing in Venice and throughout Italy "montibanchi of mounting banks... and ciarlatani of prating" who "proclaim their wares upon these scaffolds." "They draw concourse of people," and "have a zani or fool with a visard on his face, and sometimes a woman to make comical sport" (424-25). (10)

The word mountebank, in fact, comes from the Italian saltimbanco and montimbanco, and from the verb montare, to which Moryson refers, meaning to mount or jump on a bank or stage. Linguistic display was vital, and mountebanks who were smooth talkers wooed audiences with glittering, usually humorous speeches. According to the English Jesuit, J. Rastell, "their Greatest Grace is in the Countenance and Tongue;" they speak "so eloquently," "that it is wonderful" (65). Coryate describes them as the "most eloquent fellows" (272) who would "tell their tales with such admirable volubility and plausible grace ..." (273). (11) But the eloquence is haunted by duplicity. In Italy the montimbanchi were also called ciarlatani, from the verb ciarlare, meaning to speak idly, to chatter. The noun ciarla means loquacity but also gossip and false report, and ciarle means nonsense, indicating that although the ciarlatani were loquacious, what they had to say was idle, false, perhaps to be enjoyed, but not to be believed. In England the word "mountebank" was used interchangeably with terms like "quack," "quacksalver," and "empiric." Quack, derived from the Dutch quacksalver--which like the word "empiric"--describes persons who are untrained yet pretend to have knowledge of herbal or home remedies. (12)

As itinerant performers, mountebanks set up their portable stages or banks, and presented multi-media outdoor entertainments in the streets, piazzas, and gathering places of Europe. The usual lineup of a mountebank performance could include music, dancing, juggling, and comic slapstick skits that were usually focused on health problems, all leading to the selling of remedies. At a certain point the focus of the entertainment would shift to the sales pitch, the earlier skits and music a prelude to the lead mountebank coming forward and delivering the selling oration, or harangue. Sometimes, as in Volpone, musical interludes could be interspersed with and enhance the harangue (2.2.120). In any event, a crucial moment occurred when the principal mountebank would come forward, open a trunk filled "with a world of newfangled trumperies" and make a lengthy oration "for almost an hour," according to Coryate, wherein he would "extol the virtue of his drugs and confections" (273). Of the three mountebank stages in Figure 5, two clearly have their trunks opened, and on the central stage we can witness both the selling of the cure and the performance going on simultaneously. These entertainments whether simple--a mountebank with zany (comic sidekick), and monkey--or elaborate--more than one mountebank with musicians, actors, acrobats, female performers, and sometimes a full-length play following the harangue--were always engaging and always drew crowds. (13)

Some of the key elements of mountebank entertainment, mentioned above, including words such as "clyster-pipes" (2.1.176), and "prating" (2.1.222) as well as stock characters, also appear in the commedia dell'arte. These two art forms--as the skit with Doctor Graziano mentioned below and Figure 5 reveal--borrowed from each other; in fact, it is likely that mountebanks predated commedia entertainers. (14) With regard to characters, for example, Desdemona can be imagined as the Isabella or Franceschina character, the female lover, the very character Corvino accuses his wife, Celia, of playing with Volpone. (15) Cassio is like the young lover, while Emilia is the female servant. Throughout Othello, Iago mostly adopts the role of the lead mountebank, and as such is akin to commedia's primo zanni, or in some cases, the Harlequin figure, who can be clownlike, but who is also the mischievous servant and master of intrigue and trickery. Calling the primo zanni the "plotting zanni," Robert Henke's description of this character coincides with Iago who seems to be staging the whole play, and whose desires to "trick the entire world" lead to chaos (Performance, 22).

The characters of Roderigo and Brabantio also fit into the list of stock characters in mountebank skits. Roderigo is the perfect gull, the Merry-Andrew figure or the secondo zanni (Henke Performance, 23), the clownish, indispensable fool, the sidekick responsible for slapstick comedy, who can be the object of the primo's tricks, but who can also sometimes threaten to under mine the lead mountebank's plans, as Roderigo does. Brabantio is more like the stock Pantalone figure--the rich merchant, ever vigilant against thieves and trickery. When Roderigo informs the "magnifico" (another mountebank/commedia reference) that his "fair daughter" has been "Transported ..." (1.1.120 and 122), Brabantio appearing in his nightgown, half naked, seems a fool, a comic figure, who Iago can further humiliate with, "for shame put on your gown!" (1.1.85).

Humor was essential to both commedia and mountebank performances, and mountebanks were apparently very funny. One amusing sketch, for example, finds Dr. Graziano offering a cure for a toothache. "Hold a ripe apple in your mouth and put your head in the oven," he advises; "before the apple is cooked your toothache will be gone" (Eamon, 241). (16) This humor was all part of the mountebank's eloquence and grace of tongue that Coryat and Rastell mention. In Volpone, Sir Politic describes mountebanks as the "only languaged men, of all the world!" (2.2.9). In fact, mountebanks, charismatic and brilliantly funny, successful at provoking laughter, were like Pied Pipers, able to drug their audiences, as it were, with humor and linguistic display, convincing people to follow their leads. Ottonelli writes about one mountebank who was so funny and irresistible that the people would follow him when he left the stage. (311) Thomas Croft reported seeing a mountebank and his Merry-Andrew at the Wisbeach Fair whom he followed through the streets, "almost bursting with laughter at his comicality." (17) Ben Jonson creates such a moment in Volpone when, disguised as Scoto, Volpone arrives in the piazza and the people, thrilled to see him, shout "Follow, follow, follow" (2.2.28). Rastell reports that their eloquence was so convincing, "that a man would swear upon a booke for them" (65). In 1664 Margaret Cavendish described a company of Italian mountebanks who so enchanted her while she spent a cold winter in Antwerp that she rented a room in the house next to their stage so that she could watch them each day. She was deeply grieved when they left town (206).

In, Othello Shakespeare makes great use of the mountebank's charisma and linguistic skill, as well as the mountebank's power to provoke laughter. While Shakespeare has incorporated humor in other tragedies, the trope of the mountebank with his brand of comedy is particularly useful to Iago, who with his charm and wit seduces his listeners to follow him wherever he leads. (18) Humor is powerful, and the humor of the mountebanks, calculated to draw in and engage the crowd, puts people in a festive mood, gathering them into a community of laughter and trust. Trust is crucial to the success of any mountebank. The onlookers watching the mountebank--like the characters around Iago--are more likely to trust someone who can make them laugh. This is exactly what Iago does with Desdemona, who is a willing partner with him in their first comic repartee in act 2. Understanding the mini-entertainment as part of a mountebank routine explains how the comic interlude fits into the plot of Othello, while also revealing a good deal about Iago's character and the way he works.

In the scene, the characters, including Emilia and Cassio, waiting for Othello's return, are entertained with a witty exchange about women between Desdemona and Iago. It seems notable that Iago's first comment is directed at his wife, Emilia, saying she has too much "tongue." It is Desdemona's retort--"Alas! She has no speech," ( seems more to the point, since Iago is the one who controls language throughout the play, and it is only at the end, when Emilia refuses to hold her tongue that she exposes Iago. (19) But at this point, Iago has the "tongue" and the somewhat bawdy and misogynist exchange moves apace with him taking the lead. It starts with an attack on women--women "rise to play, and go to bed to work" (2.1.115) he says--and ends, like any mountebank entertainment, with a little poem/song. In fact, Iago, prefiguring Nano's song in Volpone (2.2.120-31), delivers a twelve-line poem of rhyming couplets, which seems rather odd for one of Shakespeare's greatest villains, unless we see it as part of the mountebank trope. (20) Taken with his charm and quick wit, Desdemona does not realize the deep danger of Iago's misogynistic attack on women. Desdemona certainly does not recognize that Iago is setting her up, working against her, observing, gathering information, and plotting his next move. When in an aside, Iago, commenting on Cassio's kissing Desdemona's hand remarks, "Yet again, your fingers to your lips? would they were clyster-pipes for your sake" (2.1.176), the audience would have understood the complexity of this remark. Not only is this moment a lewd allusion to flatulence and rectums, which was one staple of mountebank humor, the mention of clysters and pipes is also a reference to mountebank cures. (21) And while the audience, privy to this remark that is hidden from Desdemona, might be laughing, they would have also felt a bit of dis/ease as they pick up on the sinister overtones of Iago's remark.

In fact, while mountebanks could be hilariously irresistible to some, not everyone was seduced by their charm. As is clear in the exchange with Desdemona, lurking behind the delight of mountebank humor was the fear of mountebank deception. Mountebanks were thought to say one thing but mean another. Recall Iago's very early admittance to Roderigo that "seeming so, for my particular end ... I am not what I am" (1.1. 59, 64). And while many ordinary folks were drawn to them, the mountebanks were often the target of attacks, such as John Oberndorf above, and the Italian critic Scipione Mercuri in Degli Errori, who called them "vagabonds, perjurers, blabbermouths, whoremongers, cardsharps... and refined liars" (Gambaccini, 21). The fear of mountebanks, in part, derived from the very thing that made them some of the most popular entertainers in the early modern period--the fact that they turned medicine into performance and performance into medicine. (22) But rather than performing cures, mountebanks were often thought to perform sickness, and, in extreme cases, death. English critic Daniel Turner called them "the very scum of the Earth" bent on destroying "the noble art of medicine" (33). "Changing and masking" mountebanks and "quack-Salvers," according to John Oberndorf, are drawn from the "abject and seditious scum and refuse of the people" that "get their living by killing men" (3).

Mountebanks were frequently accused of being witches and devils. Recall John Stephens's description of a mountebank as a "wording poet," who begets witches, and who "utters fearful sounds ... to many delusive purposes." (315) According to Mercuri, the devil is the "ancestor of the quack" (Gambaccini, 217) and for Turner, a mountebank is the "Devil's soothsayer" (16). King James in Daemonologie makes a connection between Satan and "the Italian Scoto yet living..." (Bk.l.Ch. 6). (23) Shakespeare works these connections, repeatedly using the words "witchcraft," and "devil" throughout Othello. (24) Iago, echoing Brabantio's sentiments, calls Othello a devil, whom Desdemona must eventually revile (2.1.224). Othello, thinking that Desdemona is the deceiver, calls her a devil (4.1.239, 244), shocking Lodovico, who cannot believe that Othello would turn on his wife. But it is Iago, commenting on his plan to undo Othello who refers to himself as a devil, while also describing the feared image of the mountebank:
  Divinity of hell!
  When devils will the blaekest sins put on
  They do suggest at first with heavenly shows
  As I do now.

So when Brabantio protests to the Duke at the beginning of the play that Desdemona is
  Abused, stolen from me and corrupted
  By spells and medicines bought of mountebanks.

he is setting the stage for the audience, and creating the mood of the mountebank while invoking the diabolical "witchcraft" (1.3.65) of both the mountebank orations and their so-called medicines. Brabantio is convinced that Othello must have used mountebank drugs; there is no other way to explain the "err" (1.3.63) of Desdemona's nature. He never thinks to make the connection with Iago, although the audience may have started to do so. Convinced that Othello has "enchanted" Desdemona "with foul charms," Brabantio calls Othello a "practiser/ Of arts inhibited and out of warrant" (1.2.63, 74, 78-79). The grieving father consoles himself with the belief that Othello, dark foreigner from an exotic country, must have used witchcraft and magic, must be the deceiver, and might even be a mountebank. When Othello describes how, through the power of his language and his fantastical tales, he "beguiled" Desdemona, he confirms for Brabantio that "with some mixtures powerful o'er the blood/ Or with some dram conjured to this effect" (1.3. 105-6) Othello has "stolen" his daughter.

The aura of the exotic encourages Brabantio to so quickly link Othello with mountebanks since both are outsides, "others" who partake in the exotic--Othello by birth, and mountebanks by trade. The exotic characteristics of Othello are, of course, in part, inspired by the many travel stories that were so popular in England such as Edward Webbe's (1590) portraits of wild men in Constantinople, covered in long hair and who "will speedily devour any man that comes in their reach" (6). Such an image corroborates Othello's stories of the "cannibals that each other eat, / The Anthropophagi, and men whose heads/ Do grow beneath their shoulders" (1.3.144-45). Brabantio is correct when he assumes that a mountebank would have exotic mixtures with powerful properties since mountebanks were often connected with fabulous concoctions, with charms, and with magic--hence the emphasis on these throughout the play. Mountebank harangues make much of the exotic and the strange in describing their remedies. The harangue of Pharmacopola Circumforaneus offers the "panchymagogen of Hermes-Trismegistus" (16), while Robert Wilmore has a "little viol" of a "miraculous elixir drawn from the hearts of mandrakes, phoenix livers, and tongues of mermaids" (44). The Earl of Rochester disguised himself as the mountebank, Alexander Bendo, and successfully wooed the crowds with secret remedies he vows were gathered in his "travels abroad" (33). (25) Volpone says that his secret oil was "recovered" "out of some ruins of Asia ..." (2.3.241).

As these examples reveal, it is the exoticism and potential magic of the mountebanks' cures linked with their linguistic brilliance and humor--language and cure bound up and inseparable from each other--that made the mountebank entertainers so appealing. Volpone, for example, has a "blessed unguento" that can "fortify the most indigest, and crude stomach," while a drop "in your nostrils, likewise, behind the ears" will cure the "vertigine" (2.2.99-102). Another mountebank promises a "most excellent umbilical sticking plaster which if applied by the wife to the pit of her husband's stomach ... prevents the many violent evils that daily arise as grumbling in the gizzard, murder and the like" (Harangues, 9). (26) In his song, "The Infallible Mountebank," he pitches a cure for "all ills/Past, present, and to come" including the "cramp, the stitch/The Squirt, the Itch/The Gout, the Stone, the Pot ..." (11). This "Quack Doctor," as he is called, can cure everyone from "The Young, the Old/The Living and the Dead ... And if you Die/Never Believe me more" (12)

Many remedies were devoted to curing the ills associated with love sickness, jealousy, and cuckoldry--the very illness of Othello. For example, The Infallible Mountebank can remove the "Pains of love/and cure the Love-sick Maid (Harangues, Stanza 12). Thomas Rand promises that three of his pills will cure melancholy and produce a "perfect deliveration of all inordinate motions of the mind" including the immediate dissipation of jealousy (7). Rand further promises that five of his pills will cure "any person here present [who] is troubled with this grievous and tormenting distemper, and fancies his wife to be what she is, or what she really may not be" (7). Another mountebank has an "incomparable spagyrick tincture of the moon's horns which is the only infallible antidote against the contagion of cuckoldom" (16). Volpone interrupts his harangue with a song from Nano and Mosca that tantalizes the audience with a question of health linked to sexual prowess:
  Would you live free from all disease,
  Do the act, your mistress pleases;
  (2.2.201-2) (27)

These excerpts from the harangues reveal many characteristics of mountebank entertainments and their effect. Certainly the presence of humor is clear from the "most excellent umbilical sticking plaster" guaranteed to soothe a husband's evils, to the Infallible Mountebank's offhand remark, "And if you Die/Never Believe me more," to Thomas Rand's advice for "old women whose skin is too short for their Bodies" (Harangues, 2). Such ridiculous and comic moments are meant to draw in and disarm the audience as the humor establishes trust and intimacy between the mountebank and his audience, in the very way Iago charms Desdemona in act 2. In fact, as the examples from harangues and the visual illustrations demonstrate (See Figures 5 and 6), mountebanks had a deep involvement with their audiences in an intimate setting. While the theaters of Shakespeare's day were smaller than more modern spaces, the theatrical space of a mountebank spectacle, performers on a portable stage, surrounded by a group of people, was tiny in comparison to any theater then or now. The physical proximity of performer and audience creates a space for close personal exchange that comes from the mountebank's ability to speak directly to members of the audience. In fact, a mountebank performance both demands and thrives on the method of direct address. In order to be successful, there can be no barrier between performer and audience since the performers need to speak directly to the audience in order to convince them to buy their products. (28) In such an intimate relationship, looking potential customers in the eyes, the mountebank is able to lure those gathered around into his discourse, making them laugh, cultivating their trust, while touching on some of their most profound desires and fears.

Iago creates the same kind of intimate and claustrophobic atmosphere within the play as he lures the other characters into his plan, making them each feel he is their closest confidant, completely devoted to their wishes. From the beginning conversation with Roderigo, in which Iago vows he is on Roderigo's side--" 'Sblood, but you'll not hear me. If ever I did dream / Of such a matter, abhor me" (1.1.4)--to the pretended wish to protect Othello as Brabantio approaches--"Those are the raised father and his friends, / You were best to in," (1.2.29)--to his advice to Cassio to regain Othello's favor--"Sue to him again, and he's yours" (2.3. 271)--to Iago and Othello lengthy dialogue in act 3, Iago creates these intimate moments, where closely bound to his victims, he engulfs them with his language and his direct, personal address. (29)

Under the thrall of the slick wording poet, Shakespeare's theatrical audience, as we might be today, also would have been drawn in. Watching the performance, the audience is at times a voyeur, eavesdropping, overhearing Iago as he works on the other characters. But there are times when Iago turns and speaks directly to the audience, and in those moments, the theatrical audience becomes the direct audience for the mountebank's performance--charmed by his language, perhaps lured in and engulfed by Iago's direct and intimate address. It is during his soliloquies that Iago draws the audience into his confidence; he whispers asides, lets the audience in on his plans, and plays on its fears. Reconsidering Iago's soliloquies through the lens of the mountebank offers a new understanding of the question of direct address and of Iago's voice. Iago's success, like any good mountebank, relies on his ability to speak directly and intimately to his audience, and his soliloquies, like harangues, have the mountebank's voice and humor, as well as the expected mountebank strategies, themes, and motivations.

From the very beginning of his performance, Iago, secretly shares with us the strategies he will use to build the trust of the other characters. We are part of his plan-making as he muses over Othello's "free and open nature;" the Moor who--"thinks men honest that but seem to be so" (1.3.397-98)--is the perfect victim for the mountebank Iago. He even gets us to laugh, anticipating what we are thinking, when, after tricking Cassio, he turns to us and asks "And what's he then that says I play the villain? / When this advice is free I give and honest" (2.3.331-32). But even as we laugh we are made uneasy as he reminds us that devils "do suggest at first with heavenly shows" (2.3.346-47). His speeches to the audience have references to sickness, poisons, and cures. For example, he describes his own illness of jealousy as a "poisonous mineral" gnawing his "inwards," (2.1.295), and while there may be no "medicine" to cure the "poison" of Othello's thoughts which "Burn like the mines of sulphur" (3.3.329-32), Iago thinks to cure himself with revenge when he is "evened" with the Moor, "wife for wife" (2.1.297). And while we, the larger theatrical audience, might be privy to Iago's plans, like any other mountebank audience, we are both enthralled and made uneasy by the direct presence of the mountebank.

Similar to the stage mountebanks, Iago uses language like a drug, capturing the minds and hearts of those listening, while engendering anxiety and fear. (30) Along with his use of direct address, the dis/ease that the mountebank creates is crucial to his success. When one mountebank asks "Is any deaf? ... Is any foul that would be fair?" (Mountebank's Song," 4), or when Volpone, asks "Would you ... / Do the act, your mistress pleases"--they are playing on the insecurities of the audience, in the same way Iago does. Like any good mountebank, Iago needs to create the problem, the illness first. He does this with Roderigo's love sickness, Cassio's disgraced reputation, Desdemona's fear of her husband's "humour altered" (3.4.109), Othello's doubts about his wife's faithfulness--and then offers the cure for each ill. In fact, he sets himself up as the only one who can remedy any problem, and he does this in those intimate, smothering conversations.

Every character comes under Iago's spell, enthralled by his orations, willing to buy whatever remedy he has for sale. But, as in any mountebank event, the entertainment and the remedies are not free; the enthralled must pay for Iago's performance. (31) From Cassio's loss of reputation, to Desdemona's loss of love, to Othello's loss of self, each character pays dearly. The demand for payment and money starts early in the play as Iago harangues Rodrigo, playing on his weakness and fear--"Come! Be a man!"--manipulating the intimacy of the moment--"I confess me knit to thy deserving with cables of perdurable toughness"(1.3.336, 338-39)--and promising the remedy of Desdemona--"she must have change, she must" (352). Iago punctuates his harangue with eleven references to money, most often repeating the line, "put money in thy purse" (242). Roderigo leaves, vowing to "sell all" his "land" (1.3.380), and Iago's conclusion, "Thus do I ever make my fool my purse" (384), sounds like an aside a mountebank might make when the harangue is over and he knows he has successfully gulled the fool. While a direct demand for money seems most evident in this early scene, Iago's expectations of payment, the particular revenge he will exact from each character for his "sport and profit" (385), continues throughout the play. In act 2, in fact, Roderigo, complaining that his "money is almost spent," (2.3.360) is consoled by Iago that the remedy will work, that healing takes "patience," and that wounds "did ever heal buy by degrees" (366).

Looking at these scenes through the mountebank effect explains the significance of Iago's demand for payment, sheds light on the soliloquy that follows, offers an explanation for Iago's motives, and uncovers how he works as a villain. In fact, it is in act 3 that we see the mountebank/villain at his best. Paralleling the major harangue, the mountebank's big sell, to which the other occasions build, act 3 is a long assault on Othello; it is in act 3 that Iago makes Othello sick with jealousy and then sells him the cure. But like any good mountebank, Iago knows that, if the harangue is to work, if he will win the much-desired trust of the audience, he must establish his credentials first, and he does this by defending himself against his competition.

Iago actually begins his attack on his competition early in the play with Rodrigo. Claiming superiority to Cassio, his rival, Iago dismisses him as a "counter-caster," not a true arithmetician; Cassio, a Florentine, and "almost damned in a fair wife," (20), is all show, all facade, "Mere prattle without practice" (1.1.30, 25). Volpone, in a similar vein, attacks the "mouldy tales" of his competitors, calling them "turdy-facy-nasty-paty-lousy-fartical rogues" (2.2.51, 59). Thomas Jones establishes his credentials by arguing that he is "no upstart glister-pipe, "but a "regular physician" (Harangues, 19). When Iago attacks Cassio, as one who prattles, but has no real knowledge, he is not only touching on the kind of criticism that one charlatan might level against another to bolster his own reputation. Iago is also making the kind of remark that critics aimed at mountebanks, calling them "medicasters," who like Iago, cast their voice about, talk a good game, but have no substance--they are not what they seem to be. (32) Later in the play, as prelude to act 3, Iago tricks Cassio into getting drunk, discrediting himself, and losing Othello's regard. Disgraced, the fallen lieutenant laments "O, I have lost my reputation.... Iago, my reputation!" (2.1.258-61).

Having worked to eliminate his competition, and having established trust with the other characters, Iago is ready to launch into his big sell. The long harangue that act 3 encompasses begins with a bawdy, musical skit like any mountebank performance, which explains the occurrence of the comic routine in Othello, between a clown and a musician, who pun on "wind instruments," clyster-pipes, and flatulence (3.1.6). The skit refers back to the earlier scene with Desdemona, and prefigures Mosca and Nano's song in Volpone, which intersperses the selling routine of the pretend Scoto, and is calculated to amuse but also to engender anxiety--"Would you be ever fair and young? ... / Do the act, your mistress pleases" (2.2.195-201). The scene in Othello stirs up anxiety as well; after all, it is the disgraced Cassio who has hired the musicians to help "bid 'Good morrow"' to the general, get him "Some access" (3.1.2, 35) to Desdemona, and resurrect his reputation.

Shortly after this, Iago, watching Desdemona and Cassio together, begins the harangue with an intimate aside to Othello--"Ha, I like not that" (3.3.34)--a disturbing remark that is calculated to both destabilize Othello and secure his trust. Iago's comment, which is part of the mountebank effect, initiates a series of strategies. For example Iago continues to undermine Cassio's credibility with repeated questions from asking if Cassio knew of Othello's love for Desdemona (3.3.95), to responding with "Indeed?" and "Honest, my lord?" (101, 104) to ending with "Men should be what they seem" (129). With Cassio discredited, Iago continues to cultivate Othello's fears while also playing on the Moor's insecurities who later admits his own weakness--that he has "declined into the vale of years" and lacks "those soft parts of conversation" courtiers have (3.3.268-70). Knowing, as Iago has said earlier, that he has "never found a man that knew how to love himself," (1.3.3-3) like a master mountebank, Iago zeroes in on his victim's weakness. In the smothering moment of whispered intimacy that Iago has created to capture Othello, the mountebank, preying on the Moor's worst fears, creates and defines Othello's illness. Naming him the "cuckold," lago warns "O beware, my lord, of jealousy! ... the green-eyed monster" (167-- 69). Later, feigning concern, working on the trust he has cultivated, Iago manipulates Othello's emotions with "I see you're moved" (3.3.227). Iago, like any deft, slick-talking mountebank, is so successful here because he binds himself to Othello's imagination, making the Moor's thinking his own. "Dangerous conceits" are "nature's poisons" (3.3.331) he says, and once those poisons are administered, there is no cure. "Not poppy nor mandragora/ ... Shall ever medicine thee to that sweet sleep/ Which thou owedst yesterday" (3.3.335). When Iago says "Work on, / My medicine, work! Thus credulous fools are caught" (4.1.145) he is playing the dark side of the mountebank, promising remedy, but selling poison. And when Othello responds "O misery!" (3.3.173), he is hooked; he loses his self, embraces the illness of jealousy, believes himself cuckold, and purchases the cure proffered by Iago. But Iago knows that the cure will work only if he continues to build Othello's trust, and if his victim believes in the remedy. Speaking with a "franker spirit" to show his "love and duty," Iago advises, "Look to your wife" (3.3.197-98,200).

With Desdemona clearly in focus, Iago convinces Othello that the "bloody business" (3.3.472) of killing Desdemona and Cassio is the only cure Othello needs. It is at this tense moment that lago's harangue is interrupted with another bawdy, comic routine, a play on "lies" with its multiple and sexual meanings. Again Desdemona is the willing player--the straight woman. "Do you know, sirrah, where lieutenant Cassio lies?" she asks the Clown, who replies, "I dare not say he lies anywhere" (3.4.1-3). In a complex word game, Shakespeare, as the "wording poet," plays on the many meanings of lie, including the spell of lies with which Iago ensnares Othello. While this skit might offer comic relief, it is more clearly understood as part of the mountebank performance--it is the entertaining interlude that reinforces lago's sales pitch, Othello's doubts, and his desire for a cure.

Desdemona's words could be the cure for Othello, but he prefers the words of his fellow military comrade, believing and trusting the mountebank's lies, rather than his wife's fidelity. The rejection of Desdemona and her cure is symbolized in the handkerchief. It is ironic that earlier, when Desdemona offers Othello the handkerchief to soothe his headache, he rejects her capacity to cure with "Your napkin is too little" (3.3.291). He knocks the embroidered cloth from his wife's hands, and makes it available for Emilia to pick up. And thus the handkerchief enters the play. (33)

The handkerchief in early modern Europe had many uses and in many ways was a contradictory object, particularly in the hands of a woman. It was a love token, an indicator of class, status, refinement and wealth, a piece of intimate linen, a receptacle for bodily fluids, an instrument used in thievery, an article of disguise, used by high-class ladies and courtesans alike. It was a symbol of women's work and embroidery, long associated with caring and cures, even with religious overtones such as the handkerchief Veronica used to wipe the face of Jesus. (34) The use of the handkerchief in a mountebank performance embraced multiple meanings, and as an object with both public and private use and significance, was the key instrument of exchange. The handkerchief was the vehicle by which the members of the audience passed their money along to the mountebanks, who then, took the money and replaced it with a remedy, a cream, or a viol. As Figure 6 illustrates, these exchanges were highly visible as the handkerchief, packed with money and cure, was passed through the hands of the audience for all to see. (35) It seems particularly telling, given this discussion of Othello, that the female performer in this illustration is flanked by the male performers with the handkerchief flying over her head.

Thomas Platter (1598) reports such an exchange with the handkerchief in Avignon, as the lead mountebank, Zani Bragetta,
  called out yet more strongly to the people to pass their
  money to him in their handkerchiefs, and even promised an
  extra box for those who were first. The handkerchiefs
  came at once, and in great numbers, to be re turned to
  their owners with the precious unquent. (183)

At the end of his harangue, Volpone, promising a "little remembrance of something" (2.2.218) to the first taker, prods "now toss your handkerchiefs" (2.2.215). Celia, the wife of the rich merchant Corvino who has been watching from her window, is the "first heroic spirit" (2.2.217) to buy the remedy and the hidden secret, the "poulder that made Venus a goddess" (2.2.236).

Celia's participation in the mountebank performance, her theatrical debut, is however, quickly ended as Corvino pulls her away from the window--"Spite o' the devil, and my shame! Come down here" (2.3.1) he shouts. (36) Celia is the "Death of [his] honor," since she, his valued possession and representative of his honor, had come to the "public window," to be "gazed upon with goatish eyes" (2.5.1-3, 34). At this moment both the public and private qualities of the handkerchief are on display. While engaging in the sale, Celia symbolically offers an intimate part of herself, her handkerchief, to a man in a public setting for all to gaze upon. Corvino's fears are that in the moment of buying and selling, Celia is offering her female and sexual self. In this sense, the handkerchief becomes a symbol of Celia's agency as well as her sexual availability--"You were an actor, with your handkerchief (2.5.40), Corvino charges. When the jealous husband calls his wife a "whore," and says "I think, you'd rather mount? Would you not mount?" (2.5.18), he not only puns on the word "mountebank" with its erotic over tones, but sees the handkerchief as the key instrument in her flirtation and her potential whoredom. Apparently Corvino has some reason to worry about handkerchiefs in mountebank performances. Platter notes that "in some instances the actresses included little notes to give the time and place of a rendezvous" (183).

Thomas Rymer dismissed the handkerchief as a "trifle" (163), while sarcastically warning "all good wives" to "look well to their linen" (132). But what Rymer might have failed to realize is that, since the handkerchief was one of the more intimate objects of a lady's linen collection, pulling it out in a public setting was no trifle. Certainly, as has been discussed, the napkin moving from hand to hand signifies Desdemona's exchange. Seen through the mountebank trope, Desdemona, as both wife and commodity, is aligned with her handkerchief, and like her handkerchief, her reputation and her honor, often hidden--"an essence that's not seen" (4.1. 16)--is now public and seemingly bought and sold. (37) And as a public object, used to buy and sell, as in a mountebank transaction, the handkerchief, a mobile symbol of the person who owns it, could pass through many hands, just as we see the strawberry-studded napkin move from person to person in Othello. For both Othello and Corvino the handkerchief symbolizes the availability of their wives, their prime possessions. (38) Shakespeare's audience, having witnessed the exchanges that Platter and Jonson describe, would have understood this significance. When Othello desires "ocular proof" (3.3.363), he distorts Desdemona into what he thinks the handkerchief represents. When she loses it, she loses herself and is lost to him; when it seems that Cassio is handling the handkerchief, he seems to be fondling Desdemona. Like Corvino, Othello is shamed, his honor lost by the perceived public use of his wife, like a whore, passing through many hands, just like the handkerchief in the mountebank sale: "I saw my handkerchief in's hand," (5.2.62) Othello cries, referring to Cassio, as he is about to kill his wife.

As the mountebank performance reveals, the handkerchief is an object, an accessory that both contains and carries. Its many meanings, dependent on who holds it and for what purpose, can be read according to one's subject position. When Othello gives the handkerchief to his wife as a love token, it is weighted with the wish to contain his wife's emotions, control her, and keep her faithful. But as we see in the mountebank examples of Platter and Celia, the handkerchief has a more complicated side and when opened, the contents can spill out, as it were, released, freed, and exposed. As Othello hopes to control his wife, Iago, in a similar vein, wishes to contain, or capture Othello, strangle him almost, with the handkerchief. As in any mountebank performance, the return of the handkerchief, containing money, signifies that the mountebank has been successful, that the harangue has worked, that the "gaping crowd ... gulled by the enchanting tongues of quack and zany" (Harangues, 7) have bought the remedy.

Further, the handkerchief--magical, given to Othello's mother by an Egyptian "charmer" (3.4.58), sewn by a sibyl, and imbued with "mummy" (76)--speaks to Othello's exotic otherness as well as to the fantastic cures of the mountebanks. The use of mummy, or "mumia," the powder drawn from dead bodies, was considered to be a remarkable cure by the German doctor, Philip von Hohenheim, better known as Paracelsus. According to Paracelsus, mumia was apparently most useful in the curing of wounds. (39) The handkerchief then is not only a love token, it has potential curative properties; it is in effect a preventive remedy to insure harmonious marriage, to cure the wounds of love, to keep husbands devoted and wives "amiable" (3.4.61). In this way Othello's handkerchief echoes the mountebank harangues that promise cures for "jealous heartburnings" (Harangues, 9), "mistrust," as well as the "wonder" to "dissipate" the husband's "distemper" of believing his wife to be what she may or may not be (7). (40)

It is no wonder then that the trickster mountebank, Iago, would need the handkerchief, to sell and carry the poison of jealousy to Othello. In fact, Othello's purchase of this poison, instead of a remedy that might insure the harmony of love, touches on the major criticism of mountebanks as false practitioners, and "messengers of death" (Cotta, 1). (41) And it is the visibility of the handkerchief that secures the success of Iago's harangue. When Othello, complaining of a "salt and sullen rheum," tries to trick Desdemona with "Lend me thy handkerchief" (3.4.51-52), the audience is ironically reminded that earlier Othello had rejected his wife's offer of a cure. In fact, the stunning ocular proof of the handkerchief is similar to those moments when mountebanks actually performed cures before the audience. Coryate describes seeing one mountebank cut himself, apply a "certain oil" and immediately heal, and another who would hold a viper, pretend to be bitten and yet "receive not hurt" (410). (42)

But although Othello is fooled, Shakespeare's audience finally is not. Placing a charlatan in the midst of the characters, who cannot perceive him, while the audience can, creates a dramatic tension that carries the play throughout. The characters, gulled, often shift the identity of mountebank to Othello, from Brabantio in the beginning, to Emilia calling him "the blacker devil" (5.2.129) at the end. It is only when Emilia seizes the power of language away from Iago, correctly identifying Othello as "gull" and "dolt," (5.2.159), and pronouncing her husband's "villainy" (5.2.187) that the truth is revealed and Iago is seen as the "viper" (5.2.82); he is the mountebank. (43) At the end, when Iago vows silence, "Demand me nothing. What you know, you know. / From this time forth I will never speak word" (5.2.300-301)--he has stopped his harangues. The smooth-talking mountebank will not reveal his secrets and will not share the formula for his remedies. His performance is finished.

For his purposes, Shakespeare takes a very bleak view of mountebanks, playing on the darkest reading of their role. He uses the vilest attacks leveled at these performers to help create Iago as a mountebank. Iago embodies all that was potentially hateful about those who were derisively condemned as quacks and charlatans. Although, in reality, mountebanks were more complex characters who probably healed some people through their herbal remedies and their fantastic and humorous performances, Shakespeare disregards these possibilities. His mountebank is indeed the "scum of the earth," a sorcerer born of a "mountebank, or wording poet." And the wording poet is Shakespeare too, a mountebank, able to spin webs of brilliant language, to harangue us and convince us of his tale. He enthralls and enchants us, and we eagerly buy his remedy. But the playwright is also savvy to take inspiration from one of the most famous pop-culture street-performance figures of the day to create one of his greatest villains, and to leave us a play rich in complexities with hidden and not so hidden meanings.


(1.) References to mountebanks appear in other of Shakespeare's plays, revealing his familiarity. In The Comedy of Errors, Antipholus S. refers to "Soul-killing witches that deform the body, / Disguised cheaters, prating mountebanks, / And many such-like liberties of sin" (1.2.100-102); and later in the play Antipholus E. refers to Pinch as "a hungry lean-faced villain, / A mere anatomy, a mountebank, / A threadbare juggler, and a fortune-teller ...." (5.1.238-40). In Hamlet Laertes tells Claudius that he will "anoint" his sword with an "unction of a mountebank," (4.7.139-40). Coriolanus promises his mother that he will flatter those gathered in the marketplace; he will "mountebank their loves, / Cog their hearts from them, and come home beloved" (Coriolanus, 3.2.132-3).

A recent performance of Puccini's opera Tosca reminds me that Puccini and his librettists, Giacosa and Ilica, needed a special kind of villain as a model for Scarpia, and they found that in Iago, who compares himself to Shakespeare's villain as he is about to seduce Tosca.

(2.) I wish to thank Professor Srinivas Aravamudan of Duke University who first suggested the connection between mountebanks and Desdemona's handkerchief. I would also like to thank the participants of the Theater Without Borders Conference, Florence, Italy, 2009, as well as Professor Mary Bly and my other reader for their insights and support.

(3.) See note 15 below for discussion of some of the work on mountebanks.

(4.) Laroque writes: "Shakespeare's dramatic texts sometimes function like a cultural memory in which traditions, written and oral, learned and popular, surface through some significant image patterns or clusters of meaning" (282). See Laroque for a discussion of Othello and popular tradition, most particularly Carnival and commedia dell'arte.

(5.) Mountebanks could often work both from their stages and from their shops. In one of his harangues, Thomas Jones tells his audience that they could also see him at his lodging "at (he Barber's Pole, Stone-Gate: At Home, from Seven to Eleven" (Harangues, 22). Female mountebanks often worked from their shops.

(6.) I would like to thank one of my readers for the suggestion of this term.

(7.) Philip Sidney makes a similar connection in his Apology for Poetry, when he comments that "poets are almost in as good reputation as the mountebanks at Venice" (109). J. Rastell too describes mountebanks as "Poetes," along with "Pedlars, Surgeans, Physitians, Historiographers." The third booke ..., 65.

(8.) Italian mountebanks traveled all over Europe. For example, in 1598 Thomas Platter described the well-known Italian mountebank, Zan Bragetta and his troupe in Avignon (181-83.) See also M. A. Katritzky, Women, Medicine, and Theater, 1500-1750,

John Harvey writes, "I was present myself when diverse gentlemen and noblemen, which undertook to descry the finest sleights, that Scotto the Italian was able to play by legerdemain before the Queen ..." in Discoursive Problem Concerning Prophecies, 1588. See Thomas Nash's The Unfortunate Traveller (1594) where he mentions "Scoto that did the juggling tricks before the Queen" (48).

(9.) Mountebanks were popular throughout Italy. See, for example, John Finch, who in 1653, wrote to his sister Anne that "Mountebanks are more numerous and rich" in Italy than any other country in Europe (39) in Conway Letters.

(10.) See Bella Mirabella, "Quacking Delilahs," for a discussion of female mountebanks.

(11.) The quotation in full is: "For they would tell their tales with such admirable volubility and plausible grace, even extempore, and seasoned with that singular variety of elegant jests and witty conceits, that they did often strike great admiration into strangers that never heard them before" (273).

(12.) In the 1600s the Dutch word kwakken meant to brag and show off.

(13.) The Italian writer Domenico Ottonelli reports that after a sales oration and the money collected, the head mountebank cried out: "Let the comedy begin!" At this point, the entertainers changed their costumes and presented a full-length comic play, "filling people with laughter and delight" (455).

(14.) William Eamon argues that the characters from mountebank entertainments prefigured those that eventually made their way into the Commedia dell'arte: "In order to attract throngs of people ... mountebanks put on a sort of slapstick comedy, using the characters, devices, and gigs of what would later be called (in politer circles) the commedia dell'arte " (238). See M. A. Katritzky, Women, Medicine and Theater, for early examples of mountebank performances such as the French drama, Jeu de la Feuilee from 1265 (35); Jarmila F Veltrusky, A Sacred Farce for a discussion of charlatans in the second half of the fourteenth century, as well as of the earliest secular plays from the Czech Republic about a "merchant of unquents" who shows up with the three Marys at the tomb of Jesus; Alfred Thomas, Anne's Bohemia, for a discussion of early charlatans. Very early references to mountebanks apparently occur in Plato; in The Republic Socrates refers to a "simple minded fellow who seems to have been taken in by the work of a charlatan" (426); in book 2 of the Laws, there is reference to entertainers known as mountebanks, who mount on a board. For discussions of the overlap between mountebank performances and commedia dell'arte see Robert Henke's Performance and Literature in the Commedia dell Arte, and "The Italian Mountebank and the Commedia dell'Arte," Theatre Survey 38 (1997): 1-29; see also M. A. Katritzky, "Was Commedia dell'Arte Performed by Mountebanks? Album amicorum Illustrations and Thomas Platter's Description of 1598," Theatre Research International 23 (1998): 104-25, and Roberto Tessari, Commedia dell'Arte: la maschera e l'omhra. Milan: Mursia, 1989.

(15.) "What, is my wife your Franciscina, sir?" (2.3.4) Corvino says to Volpone.

(16.) See also Dottor Gratiano Pagliarizzo, Secreti nuovi e rari (Bologna, Milan, n.d.).

(17.) This Merry-Andrew, who has deceptive, Iago-like qualities, and parallels the Harlequin figure, the mischievous servant who pretends to hurt himself as he mounts the stage, and while "roaring with pretended pain ..., crying to his master to come and cure it, receiving a kick," tricks the doctor, hy thanking his master for the kick, and then "the moment his back was turned mocking him with wry faces." Quacks of Old London, 74-75.

(18.) For a discussion of comedy in tragedy, see, for example, Susan Snyder, The Comic Matrix; Brian F. Tyson, "Ben Jonson's Black Comedy"; Russ McDonald, "Othello, Thorello and the Problem of the Foolish Hero"; Emrys Jones, Scenic Form in Shakespeare; John Bayley, "The Fragile Structure of Othello; Martha Tuck Rozett, "The Comic Structure of Tragic Endings."

(19.) This and all subsequent quotations from Othello come from the Arden edition.

(20.) While Iago's poem/song is about women, and Nano's is about healing secrets, they are both twelve lines and in rhyming couplets.

(21.) In mountebank/commedia sketches the doctor figure is often portrayed administering a clyster through a syringe. Clysters (glysters) were cleansing medicines injected into the rectum through clyster pipes or syringes. The term clyster was also a derogatory term for an incompetent medical practitioner. In one harangue, T. Jones defends himself against his competitors, claiming that he is not "any upstart Glister-Pipe, bum-peeping apothecary" (Harangues. 19). See Ben Saunders, "Iago's Clyster," for an exploration of the cultural and sexual significance of clyster pipes in the play.

(22.) See Bella Mirabella, "'Quacking Delilahs": Female Mountebanks in Early Modern England and Italy."

(23.) James draws a comparison between Satan and Scoto, writing that they both use "many juglarie trickes at cards, dice, and such like, to deceive mennes senses."

(24.) The words "devil" and "devils" occur at least twenty-six times in the play. "Witchcraft" occurs four times.

(25.) The Earl of Rochester's ruse is recorded in The Famous Pathaologist or the Noble Mountebank" 1657. Setting up a false disappearance that occurred "under an unlikely accident, which obliged him to keep out of the way," Rochester took on the disguise of an Italian mountebank, set up his stage in Tower Street, and had a successful business for some weeks (27).

(26.) One Pharmacopola Circumforaneus has a cure for the man who "chances to have his brains beat out or his head chopped off." AH he needs is two drops of "the only sovereign medicine in the world" "reasonably applied," which "will recall the fleeting spirits ..." (Harangues 16).

(27.) Most of the remedies the mountebanks offered were herbal, including marsh mallow, balsam, gillyflower, and blueberries. But Volpone, like many mountebanks, says that his remedy is a secret, and though many have tried to decode his recipe, which includes "some quantity of human fat," all their effort "flies in fumo" (2.2.156).

(28.) This is a debate too large for the scope of this paper but for more information regarding direct address, its relation to the fourth wall, soliloquies, and dialogue see, for example, Geoffrey Borny, "Direct Address and the Fourth Wall," who, following John Russell Brown, argues that there is no "gulf between the world of the stage and the world of the audience." (226), and Bridget Escolme's Talking to the Audience, who discusses how talking to the audience allows the characters to construct a self.

(29.) See Jose Union's 1949 dance, The Moor's Pavane, for a brilliant rendering of Iago's ability to smother Othello. As Iago jumps on Othello's back, and the Moor struggles to dance while so terribly burdened, Limon gives choreographic image to the Othello's line to Iago, "I am bound to thee for ever" (3.3.217).

(30.) See Disease. Diagnosis and Cure for a discussion of the parallels between medicine and theater as drugs, particularly Tanya Pollard's "'No Faith in Physic'" in which she argues that for "early modern playwrights, dangerous medicines offer a compelling vocabulary for examining the workings of seductive deceptions, with a special emphasis on the deceptions of the theater" (38). Also see Pollard's Drugs and Theater in Early Modern England.

(31.) It is interesting to note that, like the mountebank entertainers, Shakespeare and his theater too demanded money. Today, as in the early modern period, we must pay to be entertained.

(32.) Richard Whitlock refers to medicasters as "pretenders to physick," who "buy the degree of doctor abroad" (107). Notice also Volpone's attacks on what he calls "the rabble of these ground ciarlitani," (2.2.49).

(33.) Much has been written about the handkerchief in Othello. For a very brief sampling, consider, for example, Natasha Korda, "The Tragedy of the Handkerchief: Female Paraphernalia and the Properties of Jealousy in Othello"; Lynda Boose, "Othello's Handkerchief;" James Calderwood, The Properties of Othello; Harry Berger, "Impertinent Trifling: Desdemona's Handkerchief"; Richard McCoy, "The Tragedy of the Handkerchief: Objects Sacred and Profane in Othello;" Peter Stallybrass, "Patriarchal Territories"; Andrew Sopher, "Felt Absences," and The Stage Life of Props; Karen Newman, Fashioning Femininity; Hornbeck, Robert, "The Emblems of Folly in the First Othello."

(34.) Richard McCoy remarks that "Veronica's cloth, Christianity's original relic, is the product of a lady who looked to her linens."

(35.) For a further discussion of the handkerchief as an accessory that helped mediate a woman's position in the early modern period, see Bella Mirabella's "Embelling Herself with a Cloth: The Contradictory Life of the Handkerchief," in Ornamentalism; the Art of Renaissance Accessories.

(36.) See Peter Parolin, "?A Strange fury Entered my House:' Italian Actresses and Female Performance in Volpone," for a discussion of Celia as actress.

(37.) Othello in conversation with Iago, equates his wife's honor with the handkerchief, just as Corvino does. Implying that Desdemona has given her handkerchief to Cassio, Iago notes: "Her honour is an essence that's not seen, / They have it very oft that have it not. / But for the handkerchief --" (4.1.16-18).

(38.) James Calderwood argues that the "fetishistic handkerchief that stands for constancy of love is Othello's most private property ..."(101).

(39.) According to Paracelsus the "whole of the body is useful and good, and can be fashioned into the most valuable mumia. Although the spirit of life has gone forth from such a body, still the balsam remains, in which life is latent" (Ball, 265). See Louise Noble, for example, "The Fille Vierge as Pharmakon" for a discussion of the use of mummy and its "extraordinary curative power" (136) with regard to Desdemona's dead body.

(40.) Remember the poem "The Infallible Mountebank" for the promise to "remove/ The Pains of Love, / And cure the Love-sick Maid," (Harangues, stanza 12.)

(41.) The entire quotation is: "It is an ancient true saying, that wholesome medicines by the hands of the judicious dispenser, are as Angels of God sent for the good of men; but in the hands of the unlearned are messengers of death unto their farther evill." According to Oberndorf, at the hands of mountebanks, one will receive "instead of a Soveraigne Medicine ... rank poyson." (18).

(42.) John Cotta describes another instance of performing cures wherein the mountebank will "cut their own flesh, that it may be gory ... to heal it up again, the pain being pleasure which is invited by consent, and recompensed by gain" (34).

(43.) As mentioned above, the viper was often a standard prop in mountebank performances.

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Author:Mirabella, Bella
Publication:Medieval and Renaissance Drama in England
Article Type:Critical essay
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Date:Jan 1, 2011
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