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Love, pity, and deception in Othello.

When Henry Jackson saw the King's Men perform Othello at Oxford in 1610, it was not only Shakespeare's poetry that moved him and his fellow playgoers, but the image of Desdemona's dead body on the stage. Jackson's response to the play illustrates the difficulty Elizabethan and Jacobean playwrights experienced in judging their audiences' tastes. Andrew Gurr has noted that although poets divided playgoers "according to the eye or ear [...] they did not always agree over who represented which" (94). Jackson's response suggests that the playgoers themselves were not always sure where they stood. As Oxford students, Jackson and his schoolmates would naturally have been classified (and would have classified themselves) as learned "auditors," and Jackson actually seems surprised that it is not Desdemona's pleading of her "case" that most impresses him but the sight of her dead body, an image that is non-verbal, but not unrhetorical: "she entreated [imploraret] the pity of the spectators by her very countenance." While Jackson's letter testifies to the diverse levels of awareness experienced by individual playgoers and to the tendency of learned playgoers to conceive of dramatic imagery in rhetorical terms, it also raises questions about the dramatic economy of Othello itself--not only because the play uses powerful images on stage to arouse the pity of an audience, but because such images might be related to the play's verbal and rhetorical explorations of pity as well. Jackson's surprise at finding himself to be a "spectator" at the end of the play might be the result not only of the visual power of the play's final scene, but also of the thematic references to pity earlier in the play that may have made it strongly appealing to the mind of a learned "auditor." (2)

Jackson's use of the legalistic phrase causam agere to describe Desdemona's plea is a reminder that much of the play's dialogue draws on the vocabulary and rhetorical forms of forensic debate. Examples are Cassio's "suit" for forgiveness (3.3.26); (3) Desdemona's role as "solicitor" in that suit (3.3.27); Othello's search for "ocular proof," or evidence of Desdemona's infidelity (3.3.363); his declaration of a "cause," or ground for legal action (5.2.1); and his accusations of Desdemona's "perjury" (5.2.51, 63). Critics, moreover, have long used the language of the courtroom to explain the play's action and structure. Robert Heilman, for example, calls the play "a series of legal actions" (152), and J. C. Maxwell describes the handkerchief as being "merely divorce-court evidence" (217).

The play's legal dimension is often explicit, as in the first act when Brabantio initiates an actual legal proceeding against Othello. But it is often less formal than this, especially when the legal context serves as a backdrop for the play's examination of the bonds of love and trust between Othello and Desdemona, bonds the play scrutinizes in a metaphorical "court of love" whose literary roots lie in the courtly love and Petrarchan traditions. Such legal contexts, including the "court of love," are useful for understanding the play's treatment of pity as a sign (or to use the language of the play, "proof") of Desdemona's love for Othello, a sign that is called into question as a feigned emotional response when Iago causes Othello to doubt her fidelity later in the play. Although Othello's mastery of the rhetorical conditions of love through language and description helps him to succeed in arousing the pity and love of Desdemona when he woos her, the play's dramatic conflict can be located in Iago's efforts to raise doubts about the "proofs" of that love and pity. Iago's manipulation of the rhetoric of pity is far more effective than Othello's because it recognizes that the ambivalence of pity (especially as it arises in rhetorical situations) can be exposed visually and dramatically. And Iago's manipulation of this ambivalence is a key factor in his deception of Othello.


Henry Jackson's apparent awareness of Othello's dual mode of verbal and visual expression is reflected in two prominent trends in Othello criticism. The first concerns the importance of speech and narrative in the play. Stephen Greenblatt has identified narrative and storytelling as Othello's characteristic mode of "self-fashioning," and he argues that Othello's ability to make others (the Senate, Desdemona) submit to his narrative is a form of power that is mirrored by Iago, who constructs the narratives about Desdemona's adultery to which Othello ultimately submits (232-254). (4) James Calderwood has linked the play's speeches to its interest in visual representation itself, arguing that Othello's logocentric faith in the honesty of words is an idealism Iago preys on when he "ocularizes his language" by describing and then dramatizing for Othello Desdemona's "affair" with Cassio ("Speech and Self in Othello" 297; The Properties of Othello 61).

In the second critical trend, scholars have focused on the visual power of the play's final scene in which much of what has been verbally anticipated but left unseen throughout the play is fully exposed. This view has been articulated by Stanley Cavell:
  My guiding hypothesis about the structure of the play is that the
  thing denied our sight throughout the opening scene--the thing, the
  scene, that Iago takes Othello back to again and again, retouching it
  for Othello's enchafed imagination--is what we are shown in the
  final scene, the scene of murder. This becomes our ocular proof of
  Othello's understanding of his two nights of married love. (132)

Calderwood also comments on the play's tendency to hide images of Othello and Desdemona's sexual relations until the final scene (Properties 125), and Michael Neill has drawn attention to the nuptial bed itself, hidden until the final scene, as an object associated with the play's anxiety about miscegenation and adultery (411-12). For Patricia Parker, the play's obsessive desire to see (and show) the "monstrous" is involved in an even wider range of racial and sexual meaning that includes exotic African sexual practices and homosexuality, "fantasies" that are explored by means of "dilation," a form of elaboration that is both narrative and visual (91-92).

Implicit in both critical viewpoints, especially in Calderwood and Parker, is the sense that the verbal and the visual are not discrete elements of the play, but that "seeing" is a metaphor for Othello's mode of storytelling (Parker identifies "dilation" as a strongly visual form of elaboration in early modern English, 92), just as "narrative" is a metaphor for Iago's manipulation of visual action (suggested by Calderwood's reference to Iago as one who "ocularizes [...] language"). Although an awareness of these modes of representation is useful for understanding the issues of miscegenation, prejudice, and adultery in the play--issues that are alternatively objects of linguistic and then visual contemplation--another theme that emerges in the play's speeches and narratives, and which is subsequently dramatized visually in the final scene, is pity, an emotion whose rhetorical power is, as rhetoricians between antiquity and the Renaissance emphasized, informed by both narrative description and dramatic action working together. This union of language and spectacle is dramatized most powerfully in the final scene when Desdemona adopts a pose of supplication and pleads with Othello for mercy, a gesture commonly associated with pity in theatrical and legal contexts. When Othello murders her, the horrible injustice of the act causes both the characters on the stage and playgoers, such as Henry Jackson, to be moved to pity her unmerited suffering. But this is not the first time in the play the theme of pity has arisen, and it is perhaps because the audience expects to see spectacles of pity at the close of a tragedy that critics have not connected this scene to the previous ones where pity is discussed prominently: first in Othello's explanation of his wooing of Desdemona ("'Twas pitiful, 'twas wondrous pitiful" [1.3.162]), and later when Iago causes him to doubt Desdemona's love ("O, Iago, the pity of it, Iago!" [4.1.193]). (5) In both cases pity appears as a significant source of rhetorical power--a power inherent in what Stephen Greenblatt calls "submission to narrative" (239). Greenblatt's use of the word "submission" suggests, moreover, the rhetorical figure "submission" or "surrender" (permissio, epitrope) that Desdemona adopts at the end of the play and which is, according to the author of the Rhetorica ad Herennium, "especially suited to provoking pity" (4.29.39).

In classical rhetoric, the appeal to pity is praised as one of the most powerful emotional means of persuasion because it uses not only language but also visual signs to convey an image of suffering that appears to be genuine and unmerited. Quintilian examines the techniques of the Roman lawyer (in a passage that provides an apt rhetorical commentary on Antony's funeral oration in Julius Caesar):
  Not only words, but some actions are used to produce tears. Hence the
  practice of bringing the accused into court dirty and unkempt, and
  their children and parents with them, while we see the prosecution
  displaying the bloody sword, the bits of bone taken from the wound,
  the blood-bespattered clothing, the unbandaging of the wounds, the
  stripped bodies with the marks of the scourge. These things commonly
  make an enormous impression, because they confront people's minds
  directly with the facts. This is how Caesar's toga, carried in his
  funeral, covered in blood, drove the Roman people to fury. It was
  known that he had been killed; his body lay on the bier; but it was
  the clothing, wet with blood, that made the image of the crime so
  vivid that Caesar seemed not to have been murdered, but to be being
  murdered there and then. (6.1.30-31)

But outside the tradition of rhetorical theory, which is involved in the education of advocates rather than judges, other ancient thinkers such as Plato and Seneca consider the appeal to pity to be a logical fallacy and therefore an impediment to sound judgment. In Plato's Apology, Socrates refuses to use the appeal to pity as part of his defense (34c-35b), (6) and Seneca warns magistrates about the dangers of such petitions, in part because of the dangerous ways in which they use visual signs:
  Good men will all display clemency and gentleness [clementiam
  mansuetudinemque], but pity [misericordiam] they will avoid; for it
  is the failing of a weak nature that succumbs to the sight [ad
  speciem] of others' ills. And so it is most often seen in the poorest
  types of persons; there are old women and wretched females who are
  moved by the tears of the worst criminals, who, if they could, would
  break open their prison. Pity [misericordia] regards the plight, not
  the cause of it; clemency [clementia] is combined with reason.

Whereas Quintilian (following Cato the Elder) optimistically assumes the orator to be a vir bonus dicendi peritus ("a good man skilled in speaking" 12.1.1), with bonus suggesting a strong sense of ethical and civic responsibility, Seneca views pity within a much broader rhetorical context and cautions the judge to suspect it as a tool for deceit, precisely because its use of visual signs appears to constitute valid courtroom evidence of genuine misfortune. (7)

These divergent attitudes about pity are inherited and amplified by Renaissance thinkers, who recognize not only the social and religious significance of pity as the requisite emotion of Christian charity, but also the potential use of pity as a tool for deception. The conditions of suffering that arouse such compassion also provide a tool for what Victoria Kahn has called "Machiavellian rhetoric": "a rhetoric of de facto political power--a rhetoric of theatrical violence, sembling and dissembling, whether in the service of the commonwealth [...] or in the interests of the self-aggrandizing tyrant" (237). This rhetorical ambivalence is explored at length by Henry Peacham the elder, whose treatise on elocution, The Garden of Eloquence (1593), contains a number of what he calls "figures of affection," many of which are related to the problematic role of pity in rhetoric. Peacham's formula in the book is to give a general description of each figure followed by a separate section on "use" and another section called "the caution." Tollerantia, he says, "helpeth mightily to move compassion," but it is "most abused when the sufferance and despair is counterfeited" (84). Syngnome "doth aptly serve to commend the clemency, charity and mercy of the speaker," but he adds the caution: "foolish pity, undoeth many a city" (98). Peacham's definition of threnos declares that it "is most forcible and mightie to move pittie and compassion in the hearer," but he also emphasizes the problems of counterfeit pity:
  As this forme of speech is most passionate so ought it to be most
  serious and voyd of fiction and faining; for counterfait lamentation
  doth seldome move pitie, for it is commonly bewrayed or knowne either
  by the cause or by the person, by the cause, as fained lamentations
  in Tragedies; by the person, and that either by his condition, or by
  some signes of his affection, by his condition, as the lamentations
  of common beggers, which are commonly counterfeited, by signe of
  affection, as when the speaker expresseth a lamentable matter with a
  cold or carelesse affection. (67)

However much Peacham wants counterfeit lamentation to expose itself as a fraud, he is probably wrong, especially in light of everything he has already said about the ambiguous power of appeals to pity. And this is precisely what makes rhetorical appeals to pity so appealing to a playwright such as Shakespeare: When a petitioner uses visual and linguistic expressions of suffering to arouse pity in an audience, the audience is often persuaded by the reality of the appeal, and yet one can never know if such appeals are genuine or feigned because their fundamentally theatrical nature tends to dissolve the boundaries between reality and fiction that would otherwise allow one to evaluate accurately the extent to which the suffering is true and unmerited.

This ambivalence and uncertainty about pity led some Renaissance commentaries on the emotions (especially those concerned with social rather than rhetorical commentary) to avoid discussing it or to resist acknowledging its potential as a tool for deceptive rhetoric. One of the most comprehensive treatises on the emotions published during Shakespeare's lifetime is Thomas Wright's The Passions of the Mind (1604), which draws on the rhetorical tradition to some extent, though it also depends heavily on the concept of the four humors as a way of exploring the philosophical, social, and psychological dimensions of the emotions. But Wright rarely mentions pity specifically, and when he does mention it he provides little in the way of an extended analysis. This is perhaps because the potentially destabilizing consequences of pity were at odds with his goal of showing how the passions could be controlled and managed in ways that benefitted society. It is probably better to view this attempt to formulate an idealistic, utilitarian understanding of the emotions as an antecedent to eighteenth-century social and economic theories of the passions, such as those found in Adam Smith's The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) and The Wealth of Nations (1776) (Barbalet), rather than as a codification of classical and Renaissance attitudes toward pity, in which the ambivalence and theatricality of the emotion was usually acknowledged. Wright's most extensive discussion of pity comes in a chapter on how rhetorical and visual displays can be used to emphasize an orator's message (181), although he fails to mention the potential problems involved in the appeal to pity, as Peacham does, and in spite of his own warnings about rhetorical appeals to the emotions in general earlier in the treatise in a chapter that does not specifically reference pity (98-99).

Some Renaissance commentators try to resolve pity's rhetorical ambivalence by creating separate terms for the negative and positive forms of the emotion, as Seneca does when he asserts a distinction between misericordia and clementia. Thomas Rogers, in his Anatomy of the Mind (1576), argues that the Greek term eleemosune means "great good wyll" and says that "This Pittie the Athenians accompted not only as a most excellent vertue, but also worshipped for some divine thing, and therefore they consecrated and buylded aulters, and temples unto her." But the Greek eleos and Latin misericordia, he says, refer to a negative form of the emotion, "and none have that but weake and effeminate persons" (40). Rogers's source for the altar is perhaps Statius, who describes an Athenian altar to Clementia in the Thebiad (12.482). The basis for Rogers's use of the Greek term eleemosune is unclear, (8) especially because the earliest Greek references suggest that eleos is the term that was usually associated with the altar. (9) David Vessey has argued that Statius is aligning himself with Seneca's stoicism in De Clementia in this passage (311). Statius does not acknowledge that this distinction between clementia and misericordia is at odds with the rhetorical tradition, which tends to use eleos and misericordia as synonymous terms for feelings of pity and as words that are often associated with positive social emotions such as philanthropia. (10) Eleos and misericordia do not carry specifically negative connotations for the most important classical commentators on pity (Aristotle, Cicero, and Quintilian), and when Quintilian talks about the Athenian Altar to Pity, moreover, he uses the word misericordia (5.11.38)--not clementia. Some Renaissance thinkers explicitly criticize Seneca for his attempt to manipulate the vocabulary used to describe pity. Calvin, who wrote a commentary on De Clementia, rejected Seneca's distinction between clementia and misericordia: "Obviously we ought to be persuaded of the fact that pity [misericordia] is a virtue, and that he who feels no pity cannot be a good man--whatever these idle sages may discuss in their shady nooks" (358-359).

Recent studies of the emotions in Elizabethan culture and on the Elizabethan stage have also failed to situate pity in the rhetorically ambivalent context in which it so often appears, especially in Shakespeare. Gail Paster's Humoring the Body, her recent study of emotions on the Shakespearean stage, is exclusively concerned with the ways in which early modern theories of the humors provide a method for understanding the intersection of psychology and early modern culture in Shakespearean drama. Paster's study is tremendously informative on the ways in which early modern culture understood the relationships between physiology and emotions, but it provides little insight into emotions such as pity, which can perhaps only be understood in relation to social--and theatrical--interactions. Paster's approach also fails to recognize the important dramatic and theatrical power of emotions when they are understood in a rhetorical rather than a physiological or psychological context. Pity is important for Shakespeare not only because it is the response he expects from playgoers at the end of a tragedy, or because it is an emotion that provides insight into a particular character's psychological makeup, but because it is an emotion that informs dramatic tensions, actions, and dialogue throughout the play.


The theme of pity initially appears in Othello in a formal legal setting when, in the first act, Brabantio initiates a suit against his new son-in-law, accusing him of improperly obtaining the love of Desdemona. But from a rhetorical perspective, the appearance of pity in this scene is not conventional--Othello does not explicitly ask the senators to show mercy, (11) but his defense includes a narrative in which he describes obtaining the pity of Desdemona, and the story of his wooing ultimately causes the senators to decide in his favor. In presenting his own side of the case, Othello seizes upon the duke's demand for "proof," first by sending for Desdemona to appear as a witness, and then by providing a "round unvarnished tale" of the courtship. Yet Othello's speech is nothing if not polished, and his narrative description of the courtship becomes a kind of meta-narrative in which he describes his own acts of storytelling, which are initially prompted by Brabantio himself:
  Her father loved me, oft invited me,
  Still questioned me the story of my life
  From year to year--the battles, sieges, fortunes
  That I have passed. (1.3.128-131)

Othello's biography includes a collection of vivid stories that are both frightening ("Of hair-breadth scapes i' th' imminent deadly breach" [137]) and exotic ("And of the cannibals that each other eat,/The Anthropophagi, and men whose heads/Do grow beneath their shoulders" [144-146]), and they understandably captivate Desdemona:
  This to hear
  Would Desdemona seriously incline,
  [... ... ... ... ... ... .... ... ..]
  [...] and with a greedy ear
  Devour up my discourse. (146-151)

Othello's rhetoric throughout the play is characterized by a kind of false modesty that here manifests itself as an unspoken claim that Desdemona's submission to his narrative is incidental to the recitation of those stories in Brabantio's house. But Othello does not press this claim very far, and it is clear that he is engaged in an elaborate, though subtle rhetorical strategy aimed at acquiring Desdemona's love, the success of which is demonstrated when his tales of dangerous adventure arouse Desdemona's compassion:
  I [...]
  [...] often did beguile her of her tears
  When I did speak of some distressful stroke
  That my youth suffered. My story being done
  She gave me for my pains a world of sighs,
  She swore in faith 'twas strange, 'twas passing strange,
  'Twas pitiful, 'twas wondrous pitiful;
  She wished she had not heard it, yet she wished
  That heaven had made her such a man. She thanked me
  And bade me, if I had a friend that loved her,
  I should but teach him how to tell my story
  And that would woo her. Upon this hint I spake:
  She loved me for the dangers I had passed
  And I loved her that she did pity them.
  This only is the witchcraft I have used. (1.3.156-170)

Othello documents Desdemona's response to his narrative as a kind of katharsis, in which she is simultaneously repelled by and drawn to the descriptions of his suffering. Just as a theater audience's response of pity at the end of a play signals approval of the poet's work (and just as the courtroom judge's choice of mercy or clemency demonstrates acknowledgment of a petitioner's plea), (12) Desdemona's pity for Othello's tales of suffering is immediately identified as a sign of her love for him. Yet Desdemona lacks a theatrical detachment from Othello's stories, and at this moment she is becoming a part of the story itself as her katharsis precipitates not only a reflection upon the events of Othello's life but a desire to become a part of that adventure.

As Desdemona's katharsis becomes enveloped in Othello's narrative, it also becomes part of the narrative Othello presents to the senators as a justification of his marriage to Brabantio's daughter. Desdemona's expression of pity is a "proof" to Othello that she loves him, (13) but it also a "proof" to the senators who are moved to sympathize with Othello's story, though the duke responds in a considerably more restrained manner than Desdemona: "I think this tale would win my daughter too" (171). The duke's response is not so much emotional as ironical in its recognition of Othello's eloquence, and it indicates a kind of rite of passage for Othello, a stranger who enters Venetian society now not only through marriage but by demonstrating his powers of persuasion to a political coterie that has repeatedly invited him to act as an orator: "What in your own part can you say to this?" (1.3.73-74); "Othello, speak" (110); "Say it, Othello" (127). It is not the same kind of rhetoric the Venetians use, but they recognize its obvious affective power. The degree to which Othello has tried to persuade the senators emotionally rather than logically is unclear, but by telling a story about Desdemona's love and pity for him he nevertheless receives a judgment that is often made in response to appeals for pity--pardon and forgiveness.

The rhetorical dimension of the council scene would have strongly appealed to a playgoer such as Henry Jackson, who was presumably accustomed to viewing and participating in contests of rhetorical display. (14) Before the scene, Othello is clearly aware of what he is in for: "My services [...]/Shall out-tongue his complaints" (1.2.19-20). The official and legalistic nature of the scene (especially the council's judgment), moreover, tends to validate the audience's response both to Othello's tale and to the mental image of Desdemona pitying him--indeed, to the problematic nature of the relationship itself. If an audience--in particular an early modern audience with a fear of miscegenation--is suspicious of Othello's motives at the beginning of the play, the council's decisive approval of the marriage carries great weight, not only within the play's plot, but as a model for the conditions under which the audience judges the marriage, especially if it is an audience that is more attentive to the play's action than to the language that serves as the basis of the council's educated judgment.

But the council's validation of the marriage is also the validation of something--love--for which proofs are highly unstable. The fundamental instability and volatility of passion, especially when explored within a legal setting that demands a high degree of certainty, is central to understanding how Othello faces the dangers and risks that will arise later in the play, dangers and risks he is ultimately unable to control through language and narrative.


One of the things Othello must choose in fashioning his nobility as he leaves the battlefield and enters Venetian society is an art of loving. Because Othello is a warrior, love is presumably less instinctive to him, and it is possible that the romantic qualities critics have identified in Othello, beginning with A. C. Bradley's 1904 character study (188), do not all spring wholly from his exotic adventures themselves, but are adopted (especially as they are related to romantic love) from traditions available to him as he settles into the comfortable and peaceful life of the Venetian court. (15) One might say that Othello is "romantic" in a specific as well as a general sense of the word, in a way that recalls the knights-errant of the romance tradition. Such a tradition would have appealed to Othello in his own role as a soldier of fortune, and it involves a kind of rhetoric that Othello can share with his new Venetian friends, a kind of rhetoric that mediates the discontinuities between Othello's exotic world of adventure and the civic and courtly world of the Venetians. Central to the romance tradition, of course, are the conventions of courtly love, and these conventions emerge as elements of Othello's character early in the play when he describes his wooing of Desdemona, revealing to the Venetians a kind of nobility that they can recognize. Iago mockingly observes, "as they say, base men being in love have then a nobility in their natures"; "The Moor [...]/Is of a constant, loving, noble nature" (2.1.214-15, 286-87). (16)

Michael Hays, in his recent study Shakespearean Tragedy as Chivalric Romance, has demonstrated how the traditions of courtly love and chivalry inform not only Othello's character and his relationship with Desdemona but many other aspects of the play as well. (17) But Hays make no mention of the role pity plays either in the chivalric tradition or in Shakespeare's play. Hays's reading of the wooing narrative focuses on Othello's recitation of his heroic deeds, the exchange of the handkerchief as a token, the secrecy surrounding their elopement, and the subsequent jealousy over rivals as key themes that resonate with the courtly love tradition. But Hays says little about Desdemona's emotional response and nothing about the important ways in which pity mediates the romance.

As Rosalie Colie has suggested, love conventions manifest themselves in the play in a primarily verbal manner, in specific allusions to Petrarchan vocabulary and the phrasing of individual sonnets (ch. 3). Yet it is not only the language of the play that is related to the romance traditions, but the rhetoric of the play, especially the rhetorical dynamic between the lover and his lady, which in many ways corresponds to the relationship between advocate and judge in the law courts. As in the legal tradition, this motif is sometimes highly formalized, especially when the "court" implied by the phrase "courtly love" is not only the aristocratic court of courtesy but the forensic "court of love" in which cases of love are tried. Hays notes that "in Venice, justice and love are not incompatible or antagonistic. Indeed, in chivalric romance, the conventional nexus between public justice and private love is the court of love" (179).

The court of love metaphor probably begins with Ovid's Amores (see, e.g., 2.7), though it is in medieval works, such as Christine de Pisan's Le Livre des Trois Jugemens (1400), that the metaphor becomes literalized and conventionalized as an actual setting in stories and poems. (18) Andreas Capellanus tells his readers that if they learn and practice his advice, they will "be found worthy to plead in the court of love" (14), and his Art of Courtly Love (De Amore, 1185) contains a section devoted to "various decisions in love cases" (2.7). Martial d'Auvergne's Arrests d'Amours (1587) treats love cases as lawsuits in which actual monetary damages are awarded in addition to other, more symbolic forms of punishment. The courts of love are prominent in other sixteenth-century works as well, such as the pseudo-Chaucerian Court of Love, which was included by John Stow in his 1562 edition of Chaucer's works.

A recurring theme in the courts of love, and in romance literature in general, is the role of pity as an emotion that represents visible evidence of a lady's genuine feelings of love for a particular suitor. George Puttenham describes poetic lovers as
  poore soules sometimes praying, beseeching, sometime honouring,
  avancing, praising: an other while railing, reviling, and cursing:
  then sorrowing, weeping, lamenting: in the ende laughing, rejoysing &
  solacing the beloved againe, with a thousand delicate devises, odes,
  songs, elegies, ballads, sonets and other ditties, mooving one way
  and another to great compassion. (36)

In order to move his lover to love and pity him, the lover employs means of persuasion similar to those used for arousing pity in the law courts. And as in the forensic tradition, the courtly love tradition also views pity as the most powerful form of emotional appeal. In The Court of Love, Philobone says of the allegorical (and in this poem, dead) figure of Pite, "In all the court nas non that, as I gesse,/That coude a lover half so well availe" (7.428). But pite is also a key term in Chaucer's canonical works. As Douglas Gray has shown, pite in Chaucer is most commonly associated with appeals for love, and especially as a sign of a male or female lover's nobility, charity, "trouthe," and "gentilesse." (19) Gray notes that for Chaucer, pite is most frequently represented as "a virtue seen exclusively in the context of a love-situation, a virtue which the beloved lady should show to her suppliant lover," and that the "lover's plea for pite" is especially prominent in Chaucer's works (174-175). Indeed, even a cursory glance at Chaucer's works reveals numerous stories (most notably Troilus and Criseyde, The Knight's Tale, The Miller's Tale, and The Franklin's Tale) in which the narrative structure depends on appeals to pity in love situations.

It is not only in the medieval courtly love tradition, but in the Renaissance Petrarchan tradition that the identification of pity as a sign of amorous reciprocation from the beloved appears as a commonplace. The word pieta appears in more than three-fourths of the poems in Petrarch's Canzoniere, and the emotion continues to play an important role in sixteenth-century Petrarchan poetry, such as Sidney's Astrophil and Stella 45:
  Stella oft sees the very face of woe
  Painted in my beclouded stormy face;
  But cannot skill to pity my disgrace,
  Not though thereof the cause herself she know;
  Yet hearing late a fable, which did show
  Of lovers never known a grievous case,
  Pity thereof gat in her breast such a place
  That, from that sea derived, tears' springs did flow.
  Alas, if fancy drawn by imaged things,
  Though false, yet with free scope more grace doth breed
  Than servant's wrack, where new doubts honours brings;
  Then think, my dear, that you in me do read
  Of lover's ruin some sad tragedy:
  I am not I, pity the tale of me.

The sonnet identifies pity as the emotion Astrophil seeks to arouse in Stella as a sign of her love for him, and it shows how the most successful way to arouse her pity is to tell her tragic tales about other lovers. As with Othello, Astrophil's success in love depends on his ability to fashion himself as a character in a story that takes place in a world that is based on the imagination and artifice. But, as in Hamlet's encounter with the Player's tale of Priam and Hecuba, this situation is, paradoxically, emotionally more powerful precisely because it is fictive and not real.

In the literary tradition, then, the display of pity distinguishes requited from unrequited love and offers a visible sign or "proof" of one's internal feeling of love. Yet to place pity in such an idealistic context (as Othello does) invites an exploration of its inherent problems as an emotion that is ambivalent about reality and fiction. As in all argumenta ad misericordiam, pity is plagued by deceit in appeals to love, and it is implicated in the repeated references to deception, infidelity, and adultery in the literary love tradition. If Othello's belief in Desdemona's pity for him as a sign of love is based, in some part, on the conventions and stereotypes of literary romance, then the same conventions and stereotypes also provide a way of explaining Othello's jealousy, which some critics have found implausible considering the scant evidence against Desdemona. In adopting romance conventions as a means of guiding his relationship with Desdemona, Othello acquires with those conventions a tradition of love that is obsessed with deception and adultery. In Othello's own situation, he and Desdemona deceive Brabantio, and the courtly love tradition assumes that such deceptions can be multiplied. (20)


The word "proof" appears in Othello more frequently than in any other Shakespeare play. As a synonym for "evidence" the word reflects the play's interest in legal language and situations, but it also carries a strong rhetorical connotation of the Greek pistis, or "means of persuasion." This rhetorical context complicates the role of "proof" in discourse because in rhetoric the word pisteis can mean not only logical "proofs" but emotional means of persuasion. Modern scholars of rhetoric, in fact, have adopted the phrase "means of persuasion" as a translation of pisteis in order to distinguish more carefully logical proofs (logos) from emotional appeals (pathos) and the presentation of character (ethos), rhetorical conditions whose veracity is more difficult to determine and that are therefore also more widely used by deceivers such as Iago. But Iago's manipulation of "proof" as part of his Machiavellian rhetoric is a deception that preys not only on Othello's idealistic faith in language and love, but on Othello's faith in general. Helen Gardner has said of Othello that "the tragic experience with which this play is concerned is the loss of faith" (217; see also Rabkin 63) and this loss of faith has an important rhetorical dimension in view of the fact that the general meaning of pistis in Greek is neither "proof" nor "means of persuasion," but "faith" or "trust," corresponding to the Latin fides.

For Othello the primary visual proof of Desdemona's infidelity is, of course, the handkerchief. Beginning with Rymer's comments in 1693 (21) and continuing with T. S. Eliot's remark that he had never seen a "cogent refutation" of Rymer's objections (141), many critics have agreed that it is impossible to justify the handkerchief's importance as a cause of Othello's jealousy, although most modern critics who adopt this approach argue that it is precisely because the handkerchief is insignificant that it is important, because otherwise Emilia would not take the handkerchief or identify it as the cause of Othello's jealousy (Alexander; Fiedler 149). Yet a great deal of criticism has sought to identify the handkerchief's symbolic rather than its theatrical meaning. Carol Neely views the handkerchief as "a symbol of women's civilizing power" because of its original transmission from "female sibyl to female 'charmer' to Othello's mother to Desdemona" (128). According to Lynda Boose,
  what Shakespeare was representing was a visually recognizable
  reduction of Othello and Desdemona's wedding-bed sheets, the visual
  proof of their consummated marriage, the emblem of the symbolical act
  of generation so important to our understanding of the measure of
  this tragedy. (56)

Edward Snow throws menstrual blood into the mix, arguing that the handkerchief is "a nexus for three aspects of woman--chaste bride, sexual object, and maternal threat" (392). Others have viewed the handkerchief as "a penis symbol" (Jofen 14), or its strawberries as "the clitoris, the berry of sexual pleasure nestled beneath phalanged leaves" (Newman 156).

There is no doubt that the handkerchief is a symbol of something in the play, but Shakespeare seems deliberately to have made it a kind of snowballing signifier. The intense focus on the handkerchief as a sexual sign, however, has tended to neglect an analysis of it in a more romantic and less graphically sexual framework--i.e., as an object related not to Othello and Desdemona's sexual relations (or lack thereof), but as an object related to Othello's wooing of Desdemona and, in some way, as an object related to Othello's misguided apprehension of her infidelity. Othello certainly believes the handkerchief is a symbol of Desdemona's infidelity, but this meaning depends on the handkerchief's appearance in Cassio's hand. If the loss of the handkerchief indicates infidelity, what visual and situational associations did the handkerchief have earlier in the relationship between Othello and Desdemona that made it symbolize fidelity--a visible "proof" of "faith" itself? The answer may be partly related to the function of the handkerchief in the courtly love tradition. Michael Hays identifies the handkerchief as a standard kind of chivalric "token" of love (169), and Rosalie Colie calls it "a common guerdon exchanged between lady and knight" (153). Peter Goodrich has said that in the courtly love tradition, the handkerchief "is an essential and shifting sign":
  The handkerchief [...] relays emotions that could not be spoken, it
  enfolds as a text a series of messages which, due to departure, death
  or some other physical circumstance or social code could not be
  directly expressed. The handkerchief imparts its emotive message
  across a certain geographical or semantic distance: it waves or
  signals, it absorbs the tears of loss or it passes an illicit
  message. (147-148, emphasis added)

It is worth asking as a practical matter: Why does the knight give his lady a handkerchief before he takes to the field of battle? Why does Othello give Desdemona a handkerchief and not some other, more common token of love such as a chain, jewel, bracelet, or ring? (22) Could it be because when he wooed her his stories caused her to pity him, and when she pitied him she cried, and as any gentle knight would do, he offered her his handkerchief to wipe her tears? This information does not appear in Othello's description of his wooing of Desdemona, and because of the narrative nature of the episode, framed within Othello's legal argument to the senators, it is usually not dramatized, although the 1995 film version directed by Oliver Parker briefly depicts the wooing narrative as a flashback, showing Othello wiping Desdemona's tears with the strawberry handkerchief at the lines "'twas strange, 'twas passing strange,/'Twas pitiful, 'twas wondrous pitiful." If the bond of love between Othello and Desdemona is associated with her display of pity for him, a pity that presumably manifests itself as weeping, then by losing the handkerchief Desdemona shows Othello that she no longer pities (or loves) him, but instead weeps for (and therefore loves) Cassio. When Iago arranges for Othello to overhear Cassio talking about Bianca (with Othello thinking he is referring to Desdemona), Cassio says that she "hangs and lolls and weeps upon me" (4.1.137). In the final scene, moreover, Othello (having told Desdemona of Cassio's presumed death) implies that her tears for Cassio in that moment are proofs of her infidelity: "weep'st thou for him to my face?" (5.2.76).

We first hear of the handkerchief when Desdemona tries to "bind" Othello's aching forehead with it:
  OTHELLO: I have a pain upon my forehead, here.
  DESDEMONA: Faith, that's with watching,'twill away again.
  Let me but bind it hard, within this hour
  It will be well. (3.3.292-295)

Othello rejects her offer, saying, "Your napkin is too little./Let it alone." At these words, it is generally thought, Desdemona drops the handkerchief, though there is no stage direction (Hartley). The brief episode re-enacts, in a sense, the handkerchief's importance in the relationship as a sign of Desdemona's compassion, and it does so in a very naturalistic manner that complements and draws attention to the gentle and compassionate extension of the hand as a gesture of pity. (23) Desdemona's earlier pity for Othello, aroused by his stories during their courtship, was an expression of compassion for his pain and suffering, and that is exactly what is dramatized here. By offering Desdemona a handkerchief as his first gift to her, Othello seeks to ease Desdemona's suffering for him, and in the later scene Desdemona reaches out to help Othello in a reciprocal act of kindness and compassion, taking her part in the narrative of Othello's adventures by pitying him, and even providing an oblique verbal indication of what that action represents in her first word to him: "Faith." Desdemona had earlier indicated to Emilia that her love for Othello involves the sharing of griefs: "he hath left part of his grief with me/To suffer with him" (3.3.55-56). Arthur Kirsch has aptly noted that the Italian word pieta is suggestive of Shakespeare's conception of pity, and he cites Desdemona's love for Othello as an example of this, a sign "that she has a capacity to sympathize deeply with human suffering, that she has a piteous heart" (13-14). Othello's failure to recognize that Desdemona is here re-enacting the compassion she displayed to him during the courtship confirms for the audience Iago's belief that Othello simply cannot see or understand that which is immediately before his eyes, despite his obsessive "watching." And it is perhaps because Desdemona's actions are so naturalistic and subtle, so much part of the visual dimension of the play, and so far removed from the exotic narratives and rich rhetoric by which Othello fashions himself that he fails to perceive them.

However natural Desdemona's actions might be, the use of the handkerchief as a prop would have had numerous visual and theatrical associations for an Elizabethan audience. A prominent association between pity and handkerchiefs can be found in the story of St. Veronica, who has pity on the suffering Christ and offers him what is either her veil or a sudarium (a napkin used to absorb sweat--sudor in Latin) with which to wipe his face. The story, which appears at the seventh stage of the cross, was a commonplace in medieval and Renaissance depictions of Christ's Passion. In relation to Othello, the emblematic significance of the Veronica story bears a striking resemblance to Desdemona's use of the handkerchief in her attempt to alleviate Othello's suffering. Norman Rabkin has said that Othello's "love for Desdemona is a version of Christian faith" (63) that Othello ultimately abandons, while Desdemona remains faithful, kneeling in prayer, even in her final moments of life. Othello's loss of faith is a gradual process, but it can be located iconographically in his rejection of Desdemona's charitable gesture with the handkerchief. Othello is often spoken of as a kind of morality play, in which Iago functions as the Vice figure and Othello as the Christian whose faith is tested, but we should not forget that Desdemona also represents a powerful sign of Christian love and charity that is most forcefully presented to the audience when she, like Veronica, tenderly aids a noble, suffering man with her handkerchief. (24)

The most significant cultural resonances of the handkerchief, however, were probably not religious but theatrical. As a prop associated with weeping, the theatrical use of handkerchiefs in general reinforces the view that the napkin is an important symbol of Desdemona's pity and love for Othello. The stage direction at the beginning of act 2 of Marston's Antonio's Revenge (1602), for example, requires that "Antonio and Maria wet their handkerchiefs with their tears, kiss them, and lay them on the hearse, kneeling." This image corresponds in some respects to the nexus of ideas surrounding the handkerchief in Othello: a handkerchief used as a dual sign of weeping and love, as a sign of male and female agency in the representation of grief, and as an object used in the gesture of kneeling (a gesture that commonly accompanies appeals for mercy, as in the last scene of Othello). The handkerchief/tears motif appears in Shakespeare as well, often in relation to mourning. In Titus Andronicus, Titus tells Marcus, "Thy napkin cannot drink a tear of mine,/For thou, poor man, hast drowned it with thine own." This stage image is amplified a few lines later when Lucius enters and wipes Lavinia's tears with his own "napkin with his true tears all bewet" (3.1.140-146). As in Othello, the handkerchief here is used in conjunction with gestures that represent the reciprocity of human kindness and pity, though in a considerably more exaggerated manner.

The use of the handkerchief at times of mourning makes it readily available for a second function, as a compact memorial of the pain, suffering, or death that caused the weeping in the first place, and this too is suggestive of the handkerchief's role as a token not only of Othello and Desdemona's love, but of her pity for his suffering. In Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy (1585), Hieronimo decides to keep a "handkercher besmeared with blood" to remember his son (2.5.105). In the anonymous A Warning for Fair Women (1599), the murderer Brown, after killing Anne Sanders's husband, dips his "hankercher in his bloud" and sends it "as a token" to Anne, who views it as an "ensigne of despaire" (Sig. F). Orlando sends Rosalind/Ganymede a "bloody napkin" in As You Like It (4.3.93) as a sign of his suffering after a skirmish with a lioness, and in Cymbeline, Posthumus keeps the "bloody cloth" that Pisanio sends him as evidence of Imogen's death (5.1.1). For Posthumus, the handkerchief is a "proof" of Imogen's death, but as he contemplates it at the beginning of the fifth act he also reflects upon his own actions and expresses remorse, though he still believes in Imogen's guilt. But in this case, unlike Othello, the handkerchief initiates a mode of romantic reflection that leads to changes in Posthumus's character in which his feelings of regret will facilitate a reunion with Imogen.

The handkerchief's value as an object that arouses pity and cultivates possibilities for reconciliation in plays like Cymbeline depends to a great extent on the presence of blood on the napkin. This suggests the "bloody garment" motif that is most elaborately treated in Quintilian, who uses Caesar's bloody toga as an example of how garments stained with blood can move an audience to feel pity (6.1.30-31). Shakespeare links the motif to handkerchiefs when, in Julius Caesar, Antony says in his speech to the plebeians:
  And they would go and kiss dead Caesar's wounds,
  And dip their napkins in his sacred blood,
  Yea, beg a hair of him for memory,
  And, dying, mention it within their wills,
  Bequeathing it as a rich legacy
  Unto their issue. (3.2.134-139)

Shakespeare plays a significant role in transmitting this motif into his own age, where the rhetorical and dramatic significance of Caesar's bloody toga is transformed into the fetishes of later periods--holy relics and handkerchiefs. Desdemona's handkerchief is probably not literally bloody, though the phrase "handkerchief/Spotted with strawberries" may allow the interpretation that the handkerchief contains signs of the suffering Othello endured before he became the object of Desdemona's pity. (25)

In dramatic and rhetorical terms, the handkerchief's association with tragic events and weeping yields contradictory and unpredictable impulses when it is offered as a specular "proof." In 3 Henry VI, when Queen Margaret corners Rutland's father, the Duke of York, she produces a handkerchief stained with Rutland's blood. She taunts York with it as she prepares to kill him, demanding that he weep for his son and wipe his tears with the handkerchief before she kills him:
  Look, York: I stain'd this napkin with the blood
  That valiant Clifford with his rapier's point
  Made issue from the bosom of the boy;
  And if thine eyes can water for his death,
  I give thee this to dry thy cheeks withal.
  Alas, poor York! but that I hate thee deadly,
  I should lament thy miserable state.
  I prithee grieve, to make me merry, York. (1.4.79-86)

By using the handkerchief stained with Rutland's blood to move York to weep, Margaret demonstrates her power over him by manipulating objects of pity to her own ends. She also demonstrates her power by explicitly refusing to feel pity for York, another object of suffering whom she recognizes as meriting pity in conventional rhetorical terms. At first York resists, thereby challenging Margaret's rhetorical control over the object of pity. When York finally submits to Margaret, he demonstrates his own mastery over the symbols and images of pity that have provided a context for the scene's dramatization of the revenge plot:
  See, ruthless queen, a hapless father's tears.
  This cloth thou dipp'd'st in blood of my sweet boy,
  And I with tears to wash the blood away.
  Keep thou the napkin, and go boast of this;
  And if thou tell the heavy story right,
  Upon my soul, the hearers will shed tears;
  Yea, even my foes will shed fast-falling tears,
  And say "Alas! it was a piteous deed!" (1.4.156-163)

The speech, combined with York's tears of pity for his son dried in the bloody napkin, creates yet another image that actually causes one of Margaret's own men to be moved to pity York. In the middle of York's speech, Northumberland (who has been ordered to kill York) interrupts: "Beshrew me, but his passion moves me so/As hardly can I check my eyes from tears" (150-151). (26)

Although Margaret kills York, York's perpetuation of the rhetorical use of images and objects of suffering results in an important legacy of power for his other sons. As with Rutland before him, and as York himself predicts, his death results in a powerful image of pity that has further consequences in the play. In the next scene, the death of York is reported by a messenger to two of York's other sons in strongly visual terms:
   when with grief he wept,
  The ruthless Queen gave him to dry his cheeks
  A napkin steeped in the harmless blood
  Of sweet young Rutland by rough Clifford slain:
  And after many scorns, many foul taunts,
  They took his head, and on the gates of York
  They set the same; and there it doth remain,
  The saddest spectacle that e'er I view'd. (2.1.60-67)

The description arouses intense grief in one son, Edward (the future Edward IV), but in the other, the Duke of Gloucester (the future Richard III, and an important precursor to Iago as a Vice figure in Shakespeare), it arouses an equally intense desire for revenge. Gloucester ultimately proves to be a sinister and Machiavellian rhetorician of pity, not only because he cannot be moved to genuine tears, but because he recognizes and exploits the vulnerability of others to the emotion with greater calculation and cruelty than any other villain in Shakespeare (excepting, perhaps, Iago). In his wooing of Anne in Richard III, Richard (remembering that he was unable to weep when he heard "the piteous moan that Rutland made/When black-fac'd Clifford shook his sword at him" [1.2.157-158]) declares that although he is unable to weep, as Anne does, for the dead Henry VI, Anne's beauty now makes his eyes "blind with weeping" (166), and he promises to weep at the grave of Henry VI with "repentant tears" (215). But Richard's deception does not go entirely unchecked. Later in the play, his tactics are recognized by Elizabeth, who mockingly suggests that he woo her daughter in a similar way--by sending her a handkerchief stained with blood:
  Therefore present to her--as sometimes Margaret
  Did to thy father, steep'd in Rutland's blood--
  A handkerchief: which, say to her, did drain
  The purple sap from her sweet brother's body,
  And bid her wipe her weeping eyes withal. (4.4.274-280)

At this moment, the bloody napkin becomes a part of the rhetoric of pity as it appears in the literary love-traditions, and it does so in a way that emphasizes the ambivalence of the means by which pity is aroused. Elizabeth understands what Richard is up to, and her scornful advice recalls Richard's wooing of Anne and exposes the cruel motives that lie behind Richard's "romantic" relationships by drawing attention to the handkerchief's involvement in patterns of meaning that are constantly shifting but which can be stabilized, momentarily, by an efficient manipulator of words and images. The rhetorical ambivalence of the handkerchief in this early play is revisited in Othello, the prevailing theme of which begins with the very situation described by Elizabeth to Richard--the exchange of a handkerchief between lovers.

Shakespeare's use of the handkerchief in Othello can thus be viewed as a kind of meta-theatrical contemplation of its ambivalence as a prop that is alternatively associated with kindness and compassion, on the one hand, and cruelty and vengeance, on the other. And within the play, it is Iago who acts as a stage director manipulating the handkerchief from one association to another, because it is Iago who perceives most clearly the symbolic and visual power of the handkerchief as a "proof" of Desdemona's love for Othello, its significance as a sign of reciprocal kindness and compassion, and its potential for arousing Othello's sense of justice and vengeance when its associations with pity and love are transferred to a fictional relationship between Desdemona and Cassio. Iago's deception depends on the image of the handkerchief in Cassio's hand, and he achieves this image not only through description, but by directing the actions of Cassio and Bianca as if in a play, in which he shows Othello that the handkerchief is no longer in Desdemona's possession. In his conference with Othello afterwards he emphasizes the visual nature of the encounter:
  IAGO: And did you see the handkerchief?
  OTHELLO: Was that mine?
  IAGO: Yours, by this hand: and to see how he
  prizes the foolish woman your wife! She gave it him,
  and he hath given it his whore? (4.1.170-174)

Iago's play-within-a-play succeeds in achieving a katharsis in the intended audience when Othello declares, "But yet the pity of it, Iago--O, Iago, the pity of it, Iago!" (192-193). Othello is here reacting not only to the apparent betrayal of his wife, but also to the absolute collapse of the basis of their love, his wooing of her, in which pity played a central role: "'twas pitiful, 'twas wondrous pitiful" (1.3.162). Cassio's scorn of Bianca/Desdemona, who "hangs and lolls and weeps [...] Ha, ha, ha!" (4.1.138-139), reenacts and comments on Othello's courtship of Desdemona in a way that exposes the motives of deception that may lie within it. Although less rhetorically polished, Cassio's words about Bianca are not substantially different from Othello's speech about Desdemona to the Venetian senators--a speech delivered to a room full of men in which the rhetorical contingencies of lovemaking are not only well-known, but a potential source of homosocial boasting. Othello's use of the word "beguile" to describe his wooing of Desdemona ("I [...]/often did beguile her of her tears"), implicates him in this deception, especially in light of the subsequent use of "beguile" by Brabantio to describe the Turkish invasion (1.3.211), and by Iago in his reference to "the strumpet's plague/To beguile many and be beguiled by one" (4.1.98-99). Othello's "round unvarnished tale" also suggests the possibility of falsehood, but a falsehood that is perceived, and perhaps even condoned by the duke: "I think this tale would win my daughter too." (27)

If Othello feels any guilt about his own acts of "deception," such feelings are immediately transferred to Desdemona and amplified: "Proceed you in your tears./[...] O well-painted passion!" (4.1.256-257). Othello is convinced that the handkerchief is no longer his rhetorical tool for persuading Desdemona to pity him, but her tool for persuading Cassio. Othello amplifies this sense of the handkerchief as a sign of female rather than male agency when he tells the story about its origin:
   That handkerchief
  Did an Egyptian to my mother give,
  She was a charmer and could almost read
  The thoughts of people. She told her, while she kept it
  'Twoud make her amiable and subdue my father
  Entirely to her love; but if she lost it
  Or made a gift of it, my father's eye
  Should hold her loathed and his spirits should hunt
  After new fancies. (3.4.57-65)

Carol Neely says that the story reflects the handkerchief's role in "women's loving, civilizing, sexual power" over men, and she interprets Desdemona's loss of the handkerchief as an abdication of that power (128-131). But this suggests that the handkerchief contains something other than "magic," and just as the magical powers Brabantio accuses Othello of at the beginning of the play turn out to be poetical and rhetorical powers instead, so too does the magical power of the handkerchief referred to in Othello's story indicate a kind of rhetorical and theatrical power to "subdue" men. Although Othello's story, as Neely says, allows him to justify his action of using the handkerchief to consolidate his own power over Desdemona, it also betrays Othello's anxiety about unrestrained female rhetorical power, especially in situations of love. (28) That Othello views the object as a symbol of both female and male agency is also suggested by (and explains) his subsequent claim that the handkerchief was "an antique token/my father gave my mother" (5.2.214-215). While many scholars have pointed to the two stories as an inconsistency in the play, or in Othello's memory or representation of the handkerchief, this inconsistency supports the view that the handkerchief is a sign of uncertain agency: Othello gives the handkerchief to Desdemona as part of his rhetorical efforts to move her to pity him, but when she uses the handkerchief she becomes a sign of pity that persuades him to believe that his efforts have been successful--both sides of the relationship confirm, in similar ways, the emotional and rhetorical bonds that define it.


The visual significance of the handkerchief and the play's images of compassion and suffering in general, then, contribute to Othello's dramatization of the powerful, though unpredictable nature of pity as an emotional response. In the final scene these visual elements are even more prominent as Desdemona kneels before her husband, begs for mercy, and is murdered. But these visual and dramatic representations of pity are contrasted with the highly rhetorical and forensic nature of Othello's speeches in the final scene. Iago's manipulation of visual images has destabilized Othello's faith in Desdemona's love and pity for him, a truth that he once thought certain. But if Othello has lost faith in Desdemona, he has not lost faith in forensic rhetoric and justice as a means of correcting the wrong he feels he has suffered. The judicial question posed in the final scene is not whether Othello believes Iago or Desdemona, but whether he, as judge, will choose justice or mercy, a choice that requires him to re-evaluate his understanding of and commitment to the ethics of pity in his own life.

Othello frames the argument between justice and mercy as he enters the bedchamber and, in an incantatory manner, conflates the court of love with the court of justice, creating a space in which he can remedy the mistakes in judgment that previously have been made in these courts (and raising, perhaps, the possibility that Brabantio's "cause" in the council scene was just):
  It is the cause, it is the cause, my soul!
  Let me not name it to you, you chaste stars,
  It is the cause. Yet I'll not shed her blood
  Nor scar that whiter skin of hers than snow
  And smooth as monumental alabaster:
  Yet she must die, else she'll betray more men.
  Put out the light, and then put out the light!
  [... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ...]
  O balmy breath, that dost almost persuade
  Justice to break her sword! Once more, once more:
  Be thus when thou art dead and I will kill thee
  And love thee after. Once more, and that's the last.
  He [smells, then] kisses her.
  So sweet was ne'er so fatal. I must weep,
  But they are cruel tears. (5.2.1-21)

Othello's repeated declaration of his "cause" frames his action in the scene as one that is explicitly legalistic, but the triple repetition also represents a kind of stuttering that may indicate hesitation on Othello's part, a response to the memory of earlier moments of love and kindness he shared with Desdemona. Othello's contemplations of "mercy" in the scene perpetuate not only his perception of Desdemona's pity for him ("'Twas pitiful, 'twas wondrous pitiful"), but also his reaction to Cassio with the handkerchief ("the pity of it, Iago!"), a reaction that translates pity into justice only a few lines later when Iago suggests that Othello strangle Desdemona, and Othello responds, "Good, good, the justice of it pleases; very good!" (4.1.206). As a judge, Othello is torn between the emotions that the sight of Desdemona arouses in him and a stoical (and perhaps Senecan) recognition that such emotions should not be the basis for justice. Her skin should not be harmed, but she must die; her "balmy breath" is almost enough to "persuade/Justice to break her sword"; he weeps, but "they are cruel tears." And Othello returns to her body again and again to smell and kiss her in a way that dramatizes visually the stuttering and hesitation of the first lines of the speech: "Once more, once more:/[...] Once more."

Othello's "mercy" also manifests itself in the scene when he asks Desdemona if she has said her prayers and then allows her time to ask God for mercy before she dies:
  OTHELLO: Have you prayed tonight, Desdemon?
  DESDEMONA: Ay, my lord.
  OTHELLO: If you bethink yourself of any crime
  Unreconciled as yet to heaven and grace,
  Solicit for it straight

  [... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ...]
  I would not kill thy unprepared spirit,
  No, heaven forfend, I would not kill thy soul. (5.2.24-32)

The exchange recalls Hamlet's encounter with Claudius at prayer, but whereas Hamlet delays revenge until he is sure Claudius's soul is tainted with sin, Othello takes pains to ensure the purity of Desdemona's soul when he kills her. Othello's gesture indicates that his is not a typical kind of revenge. Although he expresses ill-will toward Desdemona elsewhere in the play, and even strikes her in 4.1, his cruelty is not unbounded (he is certainly not being cruel for the sake of being cruel), and his references to cruelty in the final scene are often synonymous with justice (cf. Kirkpatrick 307) or are balanced by a complementary reference to mercy. When he smothers her he asserts, "I that am cruel am yet merciful,/I would not have thee linger in thy pain" (5.2.86-87). But, as Othello's behavior indicates, these qualities are far from compatible, and although an attempt to harmonize mercy with strictness may help the judge execute justice without being too harsh or too sympathetic, it does little to help him attend to the actual merits of the case or to the emotional and cognitive commitments demanded by it.

The multiple references to pity and mercy in the scene may also signal Othello's efforts to uncreate his earlier exchanges of pity and love with Desdemona. Stanley Cavell has argued that the final scene of Othello negates or denies the earlier, unseen scene of the wedding night (132-133). But the final scene also negates or denies the bond of pity that led to the wedding in the first place, and it is possible to view Othello's murder of Desdemona as a grim re-enactment of his earlier exchanges of pity and love with her, and as a perversion of his earlier gift of the handkerchief. If, as Lynda Boose has argued, the handkerchief symbolizes Othello and Desdemona's wedding sheets (64-65), then the sheets may in turn symbolize the handkerchief. (29) In the final scene Desdemona is weeping, and Othello thinks her tears for Cassio (who, she is told, is dead) are "proof" of her love for him ("weep'st thou for him to my face?" [5.2.76]). By violently forcing Desdemona's head into the bed sheets to the point of suffocation Othello here re-enacts in the cruelest possible way the compassionate act of giving a weeping woman a handkerchief on which to dry her tears, and in drying those tears here Othello relieves Desdemona not only of her pity, but of her life. (30)


If Othello's murder of Desdemona is an attempt to expose her deceptive use of pity and love in the "court of love" and to punish her for it by uncreating her as a symbol of pity that might "betray more men," he ironically ends up re-creating Desdemona as an even more powerful image of pity than she was before. This is what Henry Jackson responds to when he reacts to the play's final scene as a powerful spectacle of pity that distinguishes itself from verbal and rhetorical formulations of pity elsewhere in the play. Desdemona's status as an icon of pity is largely a result of her diminished voice at the end of the play, especially at the moment in which she most needs a voice with which to defend herself:
  OTHELLO: Thou art to die.
  DESDEMONA: Then Lord have mercy on me.
  OTHELLO: I say amen.
  DESDEMONA: And have you mercy too. I never did
  Offend you in my life, never loved Cassio
  But with such general warranty of heaven
  As I might love: I never gave him token.(5.2.55-61)

From a rhetorical perspective Desdemona's appeal for mercy is unremarkable. She supports her cause with simple, unadorned statements, yet it is precisely because the appeal lacks rhetorical embellishment and ornamentation that it is so powerful. The lack of artificiality in her speech reminds the audience that Desdemona (like Cordelia) is not a deceiver but a plain-speaker, and the diminished emphasis on the play's linguistic patterns here (Othello and Desdemona are essentially returning to matters that Othello has already addressed in his own deliberations, and he does not appear to be admitting new arguments or evidence at this stage of the play) focuses the audience's attention instead on the image of Desdemona kneeling.

Desdemona's appeal to Othello and God for mercy contains no stage direction, but for the Elizabethans the action must have called for her to kneel and hold her hands in prayer. Few modern productions of Othello opt for this staging, but the gesture of kneeling while begging for mercy was presumably a commonplace for an Elizabethan and Jacobean audience, both in the theater and in the courtroom. It is worth noting that the only extant illustration of a Shakespeare play produced during the poet's lifetime, Henry Peacham's drawing of Tamora's appeal for mercy Titus Andronicus, preserves such an image. Nevill Coghill has isolated the stage direction to kneel (whether explicit or implicit) as one of the most important stage directions in Othello. He says that kneeling is "the simplest gesture imaginable [...] a strongly visual gesture of homage" (25). (31) Coghill is particularly interested in Othello's kneeling at 3.3.454 ("O blood, blood, blood!"), which prepares for "a still more important kneel that is to come," Desdemona's:
  Here I kneel:
  If e'er my will did trespass 'gainst his love
  Either in discourse of thought or actual deed. (4.2.153-155)

The stage directions require both Othello and Desdemona to kneel in the presence of Iago, "a stroke of stagecraft of great visual force and point, a double demonstration of Iago's triumph," according to Coghill (188-190). But kneeling in Othello illustrates more than homage; it also represents an ambiguous image of both vengeance and mercy. When Othello kneels, it is to the god of vengeance; when Desdemona kneels at the end of the play it is to plead for mercy. The contrast is a literalization of the Petrarchan metaphor of lady as military foe, the metaphor with which Othello greeted Desdemona upon his arrival in Cyprus: "O my fair warrior!" (2.1.179). Othello has conquered his foe, not on the battlefield but using the strategies of the Venetian council room: the threat is scrutinized, intelligence is gathered, deceptions uncovered, and justice executed.

Much of the dramatic power of Othello, however, is rooted in the fact that the characters in the play do not articulate specific moral interpretations of the objects of suffering--there is no search for meaning beyond the fact that the images are horrible and piteous. The narrative thread has ended and is no longer relevant to understanding Desdemona's situation, which is no longer an object of legal or rhetorical explanation but an object of visual and emotional meditation. After he has killed Desdemona, Othello addresses Gratiano: "I know this act shows horrible and grim" (5.2.201). Gratiano replies with reference to Brabantio, who has died of grief because of his daughter's love for Othello: "This sight would make him do a desperate turn" (205). In the last speech of the play Lodovico says to Iago, "Look on the tragic loading of this bed:/This is thy work. The object poisons sight,/Let it be hid" (361-363). While much scholarship on Othello has interpreted such responses as reflections of the play's sexual and racial anxiety, the language of the play itself demands that we primarily view the "object" that "poisons sight" on a less symbolic and more fundamentally theatrical level as an object of pity. Lodovico's response asks the audience simultaneously to contemplate ("look on the tragic loading of this bed") and be horrified by the image ("let it be hid"), statements that point less to cultural fears of miscegenation than to the emotional force of tragic pity. It is the same response Desdemona had to Othello's tales of adventure at the beginning of the play:
  She swore in faith 'twas strange, 'twas passing strange,
  'Twas pitiful, 'twas wondrous pitiful;
  She wished she had not heard it, yet she wished
  That heaven had made her such a man.

Othello returns to this language, and to the language he uses when he sees Cassio with the handkerchief ("the pity of it, Iago!"), when he offers his own view of Desdemona's dead body: "'Tis pitiful" (5.2.208). Just as Othello's suffocation of Desdemona attempts to undo her status as an icon of pity and compassion, so too does this declaration attempt to undo Othello's own flawed efforts to enforce justice and to re-establish Desdemona as an image of pity, compassion, and unmerited suffering.


Henry Jackson's focus on Desdemona's piteous death at the end of the play is remarkable in some ways for its failure to mention Othello's subsequent speech and suicide. Was the image of Desdemona's death so powerful that it negated the other events at the end of the play--including the suicide of the main character--for Jackson? If pity is a central theme in the play, then Desdemona's death may seem to be the obvious conclusion to that theme. But there is a sense in which Othello's words and actions after Desdemona's death tend to refocus attention not only on Desdemona's pitiful and unmerited suffering, but on the ways in which the tragedy hinges upon the ambivalence of pity as it is experienced and explored by characters within the play itself, especially as it arises as a function of judgment.

Othello's speech sounds very much like a speech, as an exercise in rhetoric and oratory--and in this case, it appears to be another attempt by Othello to define himself and his history in terms of narrative:
  Soft you, a word or two before you go.
  I have done the state some service, and they know't:
  No more of that. I pray you, in your letters,
  When you shall these unlucky deeds relate,
  Speak of me as I am. Nothing extenuate,
  Nor set down aught in malice. Then must you speak
  Of one that loved not wisely, but too well;
  Of one not easily jealous, but, being wrought,
  Perplexed in the extreme; of one whose hand
  Like the base Indian, threw a pearl away
  Richer than all his tribe; of one whose subdued eyes,
  Drops tears as fast as the Arabian trees
  Their medicinable gum. Set you down this,
  And say besides that in Aleppo once,
  Where a malignant and a turbanned Turk
  Beat a Venetian and traduced the state,
  I took by th' throat the circumcised dog
  And smote him--thus! (5.2.336-353)

T. S. Eliot famously described the speech as one in which Othello is "cheering himself up" (111), but Othello is here so desperately, plaintively a rhetor ("I have done," "I pray," "me as I am," "I took") seeking an audience ("Soft you," "before you go," "I pray you, in your letters," "you shall [...] relate," "Speak of me," "Then must you speak") that it is difficult to view it as being different from all of the other moments in the play in which he is trying to subdue an auditor through the use of language and narrative. Othello begins with a request for an unvarnished report of his life, and the speech balances an emphasis on narrative, linguistic representation ("a word or two," "in your letters," "you shall [...] relate," "Speak of me," "must you speak") with the rich, exotic imagery ("the base Indian, threw a pearl away," "the Arabian trees") that characterizes his language throughout the play. And in the middle of the speech the first and second person pronouns give way to the third person as Othello offers his final attempt to define himself and his story ("Of one [...]," "Of one [...]," "Of one [...]").

The speech reflects a tension between Othello's faith in language as a tool for accurately representing historical truths and language's capacity for imaginative embellishment and deception. Othello's "Of one" constructions echo the formulation commonly used in the titles of early modern essays (Montaigne: "Of Cruelty," "Of Virtue"; Bacon: "Of Truth," "Of Death," "Of Revenge")--the first line of the Duke's opening speech in Measure for Measure similarly offers a thesis statement that announces the theme of the play that follows in the most neutral terms possible: "Of government the properties to unfold [...]" (1.1.3). But it is a formulation that Othello has also invoked in his earlier narratives of adventure: "Of moving accidents by flood and field,/Of hair-breadth scaps i'th' imminent deadly breach,/Of being taken by the insolent foe [...]" (1.3.136-138). And this conflation of the non-fictive with the fictive reflects the ways in which Othello thinks of his stories perhaps not as exotic stories, but as impartial reports from the field. It also explains why Othello cannot stop with the instruction simply to report his life in a neutral manner ("Speak of me as I am. Nothing extenuate,/Nor set down aught in malice")--he cannot resist the occasion to tell a story, especially when it is his own story. But it would be a mistake to view Othello's speech as an effort to deceive himself or others. The worlds Othello creates in his narratives are just as real to him as the visions of Bottom and the four lovers as they emerge from the forest at the end of act 4 of A Midsummer Night's Dream--visions "More strange than true" (5.1.2) as Theseus declares, though he has no idea how true they really are. So much in Shakespeare is dedicated to breaking down the boundaries between reality and fantasy, and between living and acting, as a way of fully understanding what it means to be human that we perhaps owe it to Othello--and Shakespeare--to read the final speech as a genuine reflection of Othello's own sense of grief and loss.

For all of its exotic imagery, the speech is not necessarily an attempt to revise or romanticize the history of Othello and Desdemona. It instead reflects and responds to the central complications in the story as we know it, and the passage might be viewed as a re-imagining of the play itself. Othello's concern with how the story will reach the ears of the Venetians recalls the earlier council scene in which Othello's status as a romantic hero was validated by the Venetian senators. Othello does not try to excuse his actions here--he admits, rather, to his misguided indulgence in the romance and courtly love traditions, as "one that loved not wisely, but too well." This line itself echoes the classical foundations of the romance tradition in its allusion to Phyllis's complaint to Demophoon in Ovid's Heroides: "Non sapienter amavi" (2.27). By co-opting the language of a woman who has been neglected by her faithless lover Othello might be accused of reaching for an argument that is better suited to Desdemona's situation than to his own. But to do so probably involves ascribing to Othello more malice than he merits. If anything, the allusion reflects Othello's earlier (unfounded) concerns with Desdemona's lack of pity and love and faith for him, and at the same time it dispels those concerns by raising the possible ambiguity that the "one that loved not wisely, but too well" is not Othello, but Desdemona. The context tends to argue for Othello, but it is worth remembering that much of their romance has involved commentary upon their shared characteristics (Desdemona wanting to become part of Othello's adventure, Othello's description of her as a "fair warrior," the reciprocal acts of kindness and compassion) and confusion about male and female agency (the handkerchief).

Othello's speech also returns to and appears to recognize the ways in which he has failed to attend to the visual and emotional aspects of his love for Desdemona. Othello's reference to his eyes as being "subdued" is the first instance of the adjectival form of the word in English used to mean "reduced to subjection, subjugated, overcome" (OED 1), and the word contains a strong etymological suggestion of how Othello's eyes have been led astray (sub + ducere) by Iago, though the passivity of the participle form also allows for the possibility that Othello is blaming himself for his own shortcomings as well. The earliest meanings of "subdue" in English associate it with military conquest (OED 1a-d), and Othello's language here seems to echo Brabantio's earlier charge that Othello be seized ("if he do resist/Subdue him at his peril!" [1.2.80-81]), as well as the First Senator's question about Othello's relationship with Desdemona: "Did you by indirect and forced courses/Subdue and poison this young maid's affections?" (1.3.112-113). The word is, on the one hand, an open and neutral term about physical conquest and containment; on the other, it is suggestive of deceit and treachery--especially as a betrayal of the emotions, or "affections." (32) But when Desdemona speaks to the senators, she seems to confirm their fears (as well as Brabantio's) with her use of the same word: "My heart's subdued/Even to the very quality of my lord" (1.3.251-252). Yet it is perhaps Othello's intervening defense, in which he has persuaded the senators with his description of his wooing of Desdemona, that has dissolved the term's associations with deception and reinforced its associations with pity's role as an emotion that reinforces bonds of love in the sonnet tradition--including in Shakespeare's own Sonnet 111 to the young man: "And almost thence my nature is subdued/To what it works in, like the dyer's hand;/Pity me, then, and wish I were renewed" (6-8).

If Othello earlier in the scene has been a minister of justice deliberating Desdemona's fate, he is now turning judicial attention to himself, and in doing so he recognizes his own mis-judgments. It is here we see Othello returning to the exotic narratives we associate with his language in the earliest scenes of the play. And in his return to these exotic narratives, Othello offers his retreat from Venetian life--and, indeed, life altogether. Othello's reference to his eyes also distinguishes their former condition, as unemotional organs "unused to the melting mood," from their current condition of dropping "tears as fast as the Arabian trees/Their medicinable gum." And Othello's mention of his "hand" as having thrown away Desdemona as a metaphorical "pearl" recalls how the play has used the gesture of the hand as a sign of reciprocal kindness--and it acknowledges Othello's own failure to recognize his responsibility for following through with that reciprocity. In the speech's final lines he relates an incident from Aleppo whose meaning is probably as mysterious to the characters in the play as it is to the audience, and it is in the midst of this obscure story that he kills himself. Because so much of the final scene is involved in efforts to undo or negate earlier events in the story of Othello and Desdemona, it is difficult not to read this speech as Othello's attempt to undo his mistaken judgment of Desdemona by punishing himself.

Yet perhaps what is important at the end of the play is not who is dead but who remains alive, namely Iago. Yes, he will be "censured" (which seems a rather mild and legalistic term for what he deserves), and he will suffer "torture" (5.2.365-366). Yet he remains outside the world of justice and mercy that he has helped to impose upon Othello and through which he has succeeded in achieving his goal--revenge upon Othello. And this is an ominous note on which to end a play that has so extensively meditated on pity's power to foster love and compassion on the one hand, and murder and vengeance on the other. Desdemona may provide the audience with a powerful image of pity at the end of the play, but her status as an icon of pity within the context of the play and her efforts to remind Othello of her compassionate nature in the play do her little good. At the beginning of the play Othello shows that he is an expert in moving audiences to pity and forgiveness, yet he fails to recognize the dangerous ambivalence of pity in rhetorical situations, and this leads to his downfall, even if he appears to learn how to feel pity in a genuine way in the end. Iago's presence in the final scene in the midst of the spectacle of Othello and Desdemona's dead bodies perhaps suggests another dimension to the play's status as a tragedy--that for whatever goodness, peace, and harmony comes about in the world because of pity, love, and compassion, there is always someone willing and capable of subverting those motives as well.


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SHAWN SMITH is an Assistant Professor of English at Longwood University in Farmville, Virginia.

(1) Henry Jackson, September 1610. Fulman Papers, Library of Corpus Christi College, vol. 10, fols. 83v-84. Text and translation from The Riverside Shakespeare 1978.

(2) Paul Yachnin has wondered if Desdemona's appeal reflects for Jackson "the commonplace humanist association that links young male students, acting, and instruction in rhetoric" (29).

(3) All references to Othello are to the third Arden edition, hereafter Arden3. References to all other Shakespeare plays are to The Riverside Shakespeare.

(4) The exercise of rhetorical power in the play has also been approached more generally as a concern with speechmaking. John Wall says that "Othello is, distinctively, a play about the speaking and hearing of words" (360). Linking this view to J. L. Austin's concept of "speech acts," Eamon Grennan writes that "Othello is not only a play of voices but also a play about voices, an anatomy of the body of speech itself, in all its illocutionary variety" (275).

(5) Kenneth Burke (174) and Edward Pechter (ch. 5) have referred to act 4 as "the 'pity' act," though neither of these excellent readings explores the theme of pity extensively in Othello, nor do they fully account for the rhetorical and theatrical dimensions of pity in the play.

(6) The unpredictable ways in which poetry arouses pity in an audience is also one of the reasons for Socrates's banishment of the poets from his ideal city in Republic 10 (605d).

(7) Classical definitions of pity in the rhetorical works of Aristotle, Cicero, and Quintilian appear with little alteration or modification in commentaries on the emotions throughout the sixteenth century, and well into the seventeenth century. Nicolas Coeffeteau's Tableau des passions humaines (Paris, 1620), which was translated into English by Edward Grimestone as A Table of Humane Passions (1621), follows Quintilian's treatment of pity nearly verbatim, including the discussion of Caesar's bloody toga (354-374).

(8) It is true that eleemosune is used in Matthew 6.2 to refer to almsgiving, but contemporary sources suggest that the term was commonly used to describe broader ideas such as compassion, mercy, and charity (see Roman Heiligenthal's "Werke Der Barmherzigkeit Oder Almosen?: Zur Bedeutung Von Eleemosune" [Novum Testamentum 25 (1983): 289-301]). Both misericordia and eleemosune are used to refer to almsgiving in patristic literature to the fourth century, at which time Lactantius's praise of misericordia ties it closely to ideas of Christian charity and fellow-feeling (Rubidge 319). According to Liddell and Scott the meaning of eleemosune as almsgiving is secondary to the primary meaning of "pity, mercy" in classical Greek.

(9) See Homer A. Thompson's "The Altar of Pity in the Athenian Agora" (Hesperia 21 [1952]: 47-82) and R. E Wycherley's "The Altar of Eleos" (The Classical Quarterly 4 [1954]: 143-150) for further discussion.

(10) Aristotle associates eleos with philanthropia as an expected outcome of tragedy in the Poetics (1452b38). Sopatros associated philanthropia with the Athenian Altar of Pity (Walz 8.210).

(11) The words pity and mercy are nearly synonymous in Elizabethan usage, and both translate the Latin misericordia. Shakespeare consistently treats the words as synonyms. When Alcibiades appeals to the Athenian senators to have mercy on Timon, he says, "I am an humble suitor to your virtues;/For pity is the virtue of the law,/And none but tyrants use it cruelly" (3.5.7-9). The idea is not substantially different from Portia's speech in the Merchant of Venice:
  The quality of mercy is not strain'd,
  It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
  Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest,
  It blesseth him that gives, and him that takes,
  'Tis mightiest in the mightiest, it becomes
  The throned monarch better than his crown. (4.1.184-189)

In Richard II, the Duchess of Gloucester says to Bolingbroke, "Say 'pardon', King, let pity teach thee how" (5.3.116). In Henry VIII, Katherine says to Wolsey,
  Would you have me
  (If you have any justice, any pity,
  If ye be anything but churchmen's habits)
  Put my sick cause into his hands that hates me? (3.1.115-118)

(12) See also the comments of the Prologue before The Murder of Gonzago in Hamlet: "For us and for our tragedy/here stooping to your clemency,/We beg your hearing patiently" (3.2.149-151); and the Prologue of Henry VIII: "Those that can pity here/May, if they think it well, let fall a tear./The subject will deserve it" (pr. 5-7).

(13) As Heather James has pointed out, the episode resembles the effect of Aeneas's stories of suffering on Dido in the Aeneid. But James's discussion of pity in the episode is informed by an anachronistic application of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century political theories of sympathy and fellow feeling (those of Thomas Hobbes and Adam Smith, in particular) rather than the classical, medieval, and Renaissance traditions of pity in rhetoric and love poetry that would have provided the background for Shakespeare's own understanding of pity (371-77).

(14) G. K. Hunter has noted that "for a Renaissance audience, trained in the potential of rhetoric and waiting for the social situation that might actualise it [...] the playhouse could act as a kind of rhetorical gymnasium in which oratorical muscles could be flexed and imagined as if at full power" (105).

(15) That Othello should choose a traditional and conventional mode of loving is supported by Stephen Greenblatt's observation that "there is considerable empirical evidence that there may well have been less autonomy in self-fashioning in the sixteenth century than before, that family, state, and religious institutions impose a more rigid and far-reaching discipline upon their middle-class and aristocratic subjects" (1).

(16) On the relationship between nobility and love in Othello, see also Kirsch, Shakespeare and the Experience of Love, ch. 1, and Neely 112-113. Helen Gardner writes that in order to study Othello "we must shut up the Book of Homilies and The Mirror for Magistrates and open the love poets for a change" (191).

(17) For an earlier reading of Othello as a play that both draws on and subverts the idea of chivalry, see Mark Rose's "Othello's Occupation: Shakespeare and the Romance of Chivalry" (English Literary Renaissance 15 [1985]: 293-311). Robin Kirkpatrick has argued that Dante's Beatrice provides a model for Desdemona (300).

(18) For the most comprehensive studies of the courts of love, see Goodrich, John Frederick Rowbotham's The Troubadours and Courts of Love (New York: Macmillan, 1895), and William Allan Neilson's The Origins and Sources of the Court of Love (Boston: Ginn, 1899).

(19) See also Felicity Riddy's "Engendering Pity in the Franklin's Tale" (Feminist Readings in Middle English Literature: The Wife of Bath and All Her Sect. Eds. Ruth Evans and Lesley Johnson. London: Routledge, 1994) 54-71.

(20) Capellanus says that "nothing forbids one woman being loved by two men or one man by two women" (rule 31). Jealousy, moreover, is a necessary condition of courtly love: "He who is not jealous cannot love" (rule 2). It is also a sign of the intensity of a lover's passion: "Real jealousy always increases the feeling of love" (rule 21); "Jealousy, and therefore love, are increased when one suspects his beloved" (rule 22). And the cause of jealousy can be minor: "A slight presumption causes a lover to suspect his beloved" (rule 28).

(21) "So much ado, so much stress, so much passion and repetition about an Handkerchief? Why was not this call'd the Tragedy of the Handkerchief? [...] Had it been Desdemona's Garter, the Sagacious Moor might have smelt a Rat: but the Handkerchief is so remote a trifle, no Booby, on this side Mauritania, cou'd make any consequence from it" (160).

(22) On the role of gifts in both the courtly love traditions and Elizabethan drama, see William G. Meader's Courtship in Shakespeare (New York: Octagon, 1971) 136-148.

(23) In his Chirologia: Or the Natural Language of the Hand (1644), John Bulwer says that the extension of the right hand to another "is an expression of pity and of an intention to afford comfort and relief, used also as a token of assurance, peace, security and promised safety, and salvation" (58).

(24) Desdemona's status as an icon of charity is also relevant to the courts of love tradition, on which, as Peter Goodrich comments, ecclesiastical law had a significant influence:

The regulae amoris were concerned to bring ethics to love, justice to relationships, the laws of the "second Venus" or "legitimam Venerem" to both sexual relationship and to the bonds of friendship. The tradition fused literature and law, and also betrayed its theological derivation in insisting that love was justice, a natural law, a marking of the soul with divine love--vestium divinae caritatis. (62)

(25) See Arden3, which wonders if the strawberries represent "drops of blood?" (237). The association has certainly been employed by the chastity/menstrual/wedding sheets cluster of associations. And Julia Holloway, drawing on observations by James Joyce and Leslie Fieldler that Ovid's Pyramus and Thisbe story is an archetype for Othello (yet another association suggested by but not explicitly referred to in Shakespeare's text), argues in "Strawberries and Mulberries: Ulysses and Othello" (Hypatia: Essays in Classics, Comparative Literature, and Philosophy. Ed. William M. Calder, Ulrich K. Goldsmith, and Phyllis B. Kenevan. Boulder: Colorado Associated UP, 1985. 125-136)that the strawberry handkerchief in Othello corresponds to the mulberry tree in the Ovid story, under which Thisbe drops her veil, which is subsequently bloodied by a lion's blood-stained mouth. The sight of the bloody veil initiates Pyramus's suicide, which ultimately leads to Thisbe's suicide. The lovers' spilled blood then turns the fruit of the mulberry tree from white to dark red.

(26) The action anticipates the blinding of Gloucester in King Lear (3.7), when one of Cornwall's servants breaks ranks and tries to prevent him from gouging out Gloucester's second eye.

(27) Terence Hawkes has noted that "manly speech" in the Renaissance often carries an expectation of truthfulness (132).

(28) Peter Goodrich has noted that in legal terms male and female agency are largely indistinguishable in the courts of love tradition (46-47).

(29) See also Cavell: "The exhibition of wedding sheets in this romantic, superstitious, conventional environment can only refer to the practice of proving purity by staining. I mention in passing that this provides a satisfactory weight for the importance Othello attaches to his charmed (or farcical) handkerchief, the fact that it is spotted, spotted with strawberries" (135). Thomas Rymer also draws a parallel between the handkerchief and the bed sheets: "Desdemona dropt the Handkerchief, and missed it that very day after her Marriage; it might have been rumpl'd up with her Wedding sheets: And this Night that she lay in her wedding sheets, the Fairey Napkin (whilst Othello was stifling her) might have started up to disarm his fury, and stop his ungracious mouth" (161). This symbolism may have been perceived by Iago, who dismisses Othello's initial desire to dismember or poison Desdemona and insists that he "strangle her in her bed--even the bed she hath contaminated" (4.1.204-205) immediately after Othello views Cassio with the handkerchief.

(30) Othello's use of the bed sheets to smother Desdemona is Shakespeare's invention. In the source for the story, Cinthio's Gli Hecatommithi (1565), the Moor and the Ensign (the Iago character) bludgeon Desdemona with a stocking full of sand, crush her skull, and cause the ceiling to cave in on the bed to make her death appear to be an accident (Bullough 7.250-251).

(31) On kneeling in Shakespeare, see also Arden3 89 and J. L. Styan's Shakespeare's Stagecraft (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1967) 61-65.

(32) The prefix "sub" often indicates stealth and concealment, especially in Latin, as in subduco, -ere: "To remove or cause to be removed surreptitiously; to steal" (Glare).
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Author:Smith, Shawn
Publication:Papers on Language & Literature
Date:Jan 1, 2008
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