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Allegory and Irony in 'Othello' Antoinette B. Dauber

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Othello is Shakespeare's Spenserian tragedy, in which the theme of slandere d chastity becomes a vehicle for exploring the problems of an allegorica l art . Allegory is the mode of selfconscious faith, and Spenser's corpus may be rea d as a portrai t of the artis t as allegorist , wrestling first with the burdens of selfconsciousness and then with the burdens of faith.l In Othello, Shakespeare compresses and objectifies this struggle. Unlike Spenser, he is not committed to the maintenance of allegory, and so he freely dramatizes the interna l weaknesses and external onslaughts that lead to its destruction. What I am calling the 'Spenserian ' quality begins with the chivalric elements in the tragedy. Truly, Othello is a kind of Savage Knight, Desdemona, the absolutely, almost miraculously, worthy lady, and Iago, something of a manipulator like Archimago.2 But more particularl y I would call attention to a specific engagement with Spenserian rhetoric . Consider Cassio' s words of welcome to the disembarking Desdemona: Tempests themselves, high seas, and howling winds, The gutter'd rocks and congregated sands, Traitors ensteep'd to enclog the guiltless keel, As having sense of beauty, do omit Their mortal natures, letting go safely by The divine Desdemona. (2.1.68-73)3 He sets her in the line of Spenser's heavenly allegories . As a parallel , we may recal l Una , slandere d by the arch-magician , abandone d by

her champion, roaming the woods alone. Choosing a shady spot, she removes her fillet and stole to reveal her brilliant , sunny face for the first time. 'Did neuer mortall eye behold such heauenly grace ' (4), the speaker marvels, and his hyperbolic rhetori c is literall y true, until a fierce lion espies her and charges . The beast, like Cassio' s high seas, is tamed by the lady's beauty: 'And with the sight amazd,

What I mean by Spenser's artisti c self-consciousness is finely suggested by A. Bartlett Giamatti, 'A Princ e and a Poet' , Yale Review, 73 (1984), p. 335: 'Because he knows that words can bring forth evil as well as good, monsters as well as moral shapes, he graduall y loses faith in signs, in his system of allegorica l "other speech. . . . " ' By the 'burden s of faith', I refer to the poet's difficulties in maintaining his belief in the Queen who had been the centre of his work from The Shepheardes Calendar on. Much recent criticism, including work by Daniel Javitch, Richard Helgerson, Louis Adrian Montrose and David A. Miller, focuses on his disenchantment. 1 See Mark Rose, 'Othello' s Occupation: Shakespeare and the Romance of Chivalry', English Literary Renaissance, lS (^S), 293-311. Wordsworth associates Una and Desdemona in 'Personal Talk': Two will I mention, dearer than the rest The gentle lady, married to the Moor; And heavenly Una with her milk-white lamb. These lines are quoted in The Faerie Queene, Book One, The Works of Edmund Spenser: A Variorum Edition, eds. Edwin Greenlaw et al. (Baltimore, 1932), p. 206. The quotations below are from canto 3 of this volume. Numbers in parentheses will refer to stanzas. 3 All quotations from Othello and other Shakespearian works cited in passing are from The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston, 1974).

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SHAKESPEARE SURVEY forgat his furious forse' (5). Spenser differs from Cassio, however, in that he knows his responsibility both for Una's divine beauty and for her desperate plight. The tears he weeps at her wretchedness are tears of remorse for what allegorical necessity forces upon him: That my fraile eyes these lines with teares do steepe, To thinke how she through guilefull handeling, Though true as touch, though daughter of a king, Though faire as euer liuing wight was faire, Though nor in word nor deede ill meriting, Is from her knight diuorced in despair . . . (2) The guileful handler is the poet himself, the lines he waters of his own composition. Judged solely on her merits, as he readily admits, Una deserves no ill, but he has a story to tell. Even as he submits to the lady's grandeur, his openly subjective stance serves as a reminder of his own authoring role: I, whether lately through her brightnesse blind, Or through alleageance and fast fealtie, Which I do owe vnto all woman kind, Feele my heart perst with so great agonie, When such I see, that all for pittie I could die. (1) The proximity of the blinded poet in stanza one to 'blind Deuotion', the evil character named in the Argument and developed as the sightless old woman, Corceca, would be too close for comfort did it not force us to consider the difference between the cowering, superstitious crone and the poet who allows himself to be dazzled. Even as he avows that Una's brightness blinds him and her sufferings break his heart, we are reminded that he is the author of both brightness and suffering.4 By inoculating allegory with a dose of ironic selfconsciousness, Spenser protects it from our scepticism. Yet there is nothing cynical about his insistence on his own shaping role. The truth is no less true for the fact that it needs his skill and clarifying intellect to be publicized.
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On the contrary, by deliberately drawing attention to the part he plays, the poet strengthens our receptivity to his rhetoric of praise, however extravagant. Cassio lacks this saving self-awareness. To be sure, he is familiar with one important Spenserian device for calling attention to his own imaginative powers, the ironic 'inexpressibility' topos: 5 . . . a maid That paragons description and wild fame; One that excels the quirks of blazoning pens, And in th' essential vesture of creation Does tire the ingener. (2.1.61-5) But Cassio is no Spenser, no frustrated poet whose blazoning pen reluctantly admits defeat before the spectacle of the divine maid. Spenser earns the right to use this rhetorical ploy; indeed he pays dearly for it. Cassio's words, by contrast, seem unearned, incongruous. 6 Like many second-rate versifiers of his age, he presses Spenser's exquisitely burdened stance into the service of mere compliment. But a danger lurks in the assumption that sincere admiration alone justifies the appropriation of Spenserian rhetoric. Cassio's words are snares in which he traps himself. For, if he succeeds with no other listener, he convinces himself of their truth: Desdemona's safe arrival becomes a kind of circular confirmation of his own hyperbole. This moment is an instance of what Rosalie Colie finely calls 'unmetaphoring': 'an author who treats a conventionalized figure of speech



Cf. Thomas H. Cain's analysis of this passage in Praise in 'The Faerie Queene (Lincoln, 1978), p. 64:'. . . Spenser's [narrator] takes on a predominantly passive posture. . . . At the same time, Spenser's narrator-commentator paradoxically insinuates his role as creator and omniscient author.' E. R. Curtius, European Literature in the Latin Middle Ages, trans. Willard R. Trask, Bollingen Series, no. 36 (New York, 1953), pp. 159-62, discusses inexpressibility topoi. See G. G. Sedgewick, Of Irony, Especially in Drama ( J 935; repr. Toronto, 1948), p. 106.

ALLEGORY AND IRONY IN 'OTHELLO' as if it were a description of actuality is unmetaphoring that figure'. Here the playwright brings poetic cliche to solid dramatic life, and conventional storm imagery becomes 'fictional "fact"'. 7 Shakespeare, like Spenser a self-conscious artist, both uses literary forms and breaks them in order to communicate meanings. Cassio, however, is not Shakespeare. He is as captivated by his own rhetoric as the tempests and rocks he describes. Presumably he heeds his own exaggerated commands to adore Desdemona as avidly as his humblest listener: O, behold, The riches of the ship is come on shore! You men of Cyprus, let her have your knees. Hail to thee, lady! and the grace of heaven, Before, behind thee, and on every hand, En wheel thee round! (2.1.82-7) Here the deification of the lady, only a Venetian matron, after all, rivals Spenser's worship of Una or Gloriana. Because he believes in the factual truth of his poetic language, Cassio is more deeply in the grip of mystification than was Spenser, who never forgot his own shaping role. While Spenser, to the last, reserved the right to refashion the allegory, Cassio remains fixed within his. Othello presents an even more compelling instance of the naturalization of poetic convention. In contrast to Cassio's rather cavalier bandying about of poetic forms, Othello uses them in full seriousness to define himself. He prefaces his stirring account of how he won Desdemona by his storytelling, with a poet's classic opening device, the 'affected modesty' topos: 8 Rude am I in my speech, And little bless'd with the soft phrase of peace . . . And therefore little shall I grace my cause In speaking for myself. (1.3.81-2; 88-9) But, as with Cassio, the rhetorical commonplace seems oblivious to its literary origins. Othello speaks not as a poet feigning
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modesty, but sincerely as a warrior without eloquence. Together Cassio and Othello subject the Spenserian poetic to extreme pressure, by assuming naively that the object they portray coincides absolutely with the words they speak. Innocents who act in good faith, they lack any sense that they themselves are the authors of the cultic image of Desdemona and the rough-hewn image that the Moor projects. They resemble the hypothetical monkey who sits down at the typewriter and pounds out Hamlet. The irony of such a supposed 'literary' event, the way in which it would mock true art, applies to Cassio and Othello. By unmetaphoring, they deny metaphor, confuse it with fact, and mock the imagination that authored the grand allegories of the past. Their ignorant wondering use of literary topoi makes them figures of irony. Indeed Othello's modest disclaimer of rhetorical skill mocks irony itself. Desdemona is not necessarily discredited by the naivete of her admirers. She does nothing to put their praise in doubt. Nonetheless something of the irony rubs off on her. With no adroit mythmaker drawing off our scepticism with allusions to his shaping imagination, we may find her too good to be true. 9 By using the language of allegory unawares, as it were, Othello and Cassio rob it of its strength. They identify the figure so fully with the abstract idea that they unwittingly collapse


8 9

Shakespeare's Living Art (Princeton, 1974), pp. 11 and 155. Curtius, pp. 83-5. Robert Grudin, Mighty Opposites: Shakespeare and Renaissance Contrariety (Berkeley, 1979), pp. 130-1, illustrates this backlash when he reluctantly observes: 'Nothing is quite so dear as innocence; but, over a period of time nothing can be so uniquely annoying. . . . Desdemona sharpens the impulse to aggression in others.' Arthur Kirsch, Shakespeare and the Experience of Love (Cambridge, 1981), p. 12, notes that 'there are many who do feel that she is too good to be true', though he is not of their company.

SHAKESPEARE SURVEY the distance between them. Their blindness falsifies allegory, making it a kind of unintentional symbolism. By so mystifying Desdemona, they leave her vulnerable to demystification once more.10 It is a vulnerability that Iago, the nonbeliever, is quick to exploit. If Othello's lack of self-consciousness damages the allegorical ideal from within the system of belief, Iago attacks from without. Hard on Cassio's highflown praise, Iago puts Desdemona on notice that he is 'nothing if not critical'. Even when he is persuaded to paint a portrait of his ideal lady, 'She that was ever fair, and never proud,' he punctures the balloon with his deflating conclusion: 'She was a wight (if ever such wight were)— . . . To suckle fools and chronicle small beer' (2.1.158-60). His attack on the ideal is two-pronged. In the parenthetical remark, he calls his own construct into question. The perfect lady is a fiction, composed of a series of near oxymora. If his auditors choose to credit the image anyway, the sinking final line insists that even if such a one existed, she would be no goddess, just an ordinary mother. And so Iago penetrates a cultural convention and discloses the universal yearning that informs it. Beneath the mystified figure of worship, he discerns man's fond and foolish hope to recover the nurturing mother. As recent criticism has shown, this is precisely the fantasy that underlies Othello's passionate idealization.11 Desdemona, the figure of allegory, is exposed by her admirers' unwillingness to assume the burdens of allegory and laid bare by her enemy's agnosticism about the existence of any ideal at all. This characterization of the antagonists answers to our contradictory sense that, on the one hand, the Moor and his Ancient stand in absolute opposition - the one a believer, the other a sceptic - and, on the other hand, that one is only a darker projection of the other. Either way, allegory is battered. Art emerges in Othello as an illusory comfort, a form whose hollowness is quickly found out,
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and which, with supreme irony, mocks man's pretensions to shape reality. This note is struck clearly in the opening act. The Turks' false 'pageant' fails to take in the shrewd Senator. He simply ignores the show of the sailing vessels and relies instead on his superior reason to deduce that Cyprus, not Rhodes, must be their destination. The total failure of the Turkish pageant to persuade the Venetians is but a prelude to the persistent failures of art in this play. Admittedly, in this case we may feel that the Venetian over dignifies the Turks' trick with the name 'pageant'; perhaps the fate of art is not truly at stake. Even so, the word injects the vocabulary of art into a military context, and wefleetinglysavour the Senator's superior perspective as a moment of irony. Among Shakespeare's plays Othello is preeminently ironic. Theorists of irony frequently seize on its riches.12 In its broad outlines it affirms certain 'general laws of inevitability', rehearsing Kenneth Burke's dictum, 'what goes forth as A returns as non-A'.13 Specifically, passion in recoil from idealization returns as destructive furore. This formulation hints that the celebrated irony of this play devolves from the ashes of allegory. Irony is the attitude engendered by the spectacle of the ruined ideal. In the many smaller ironies that punctuate the play,14 this dynamic interplay between allegory and the opposite force released by its breakdown shows most






This is a good place to acknowledge my profound debt to the work of Paul de Man, especially his seminal essay, 'The Rhetoric of Temporality', in Interpretation: Theory and Practice, ed. Charles S. Singleton (Baltimore, 1969). See Marianne Novy, Love's Argument: Gender Relations in Shakespeare (Chapel Hill, 1984), ch. 7, esp. pp. 132 and i46f. See, for example, G. G. Sedgewick, Of Irony, Especially in Drama. A Grammar of Motives (1945; repr. New York, 1955), Appendix D, 'Four Master Tropes', p. 517. Bert O. States, Irony and Drama: A Poetics (Ithaca, 1971), pp. 28-9.

ALLEGORY AND IRONY IN 'OTHELLO' sharply, highlighting the artistic and tropological concerns of the tragedy. The supreme foe of allegorical figuration, with his persistent denials of unseen essences, and hence the major source of irony, is Iago. When Cassio whimpers, 'Reputation, reputation, reputation! O, I have lost my reputation! I have lost the immortal part of myself, and what remains is bestial' (2.3.262-4), Iago answers devastatingly, 'As I am an honest man, I had thought you had receiv'd some bodily wound; there is more sense in that than in reputation' (11.266-8). Cassio's self-image combines an outer physical shell with a spiritual core, much like an allegory. But Iago has no use for the spiritual centre. He credits only physical hurts. His rejoinder, like Zeno's paradox, poises the lieutenant between two contradictory possibilities. If he agrees that Iago is honest, then he must believe that reputation is illusory. Yet should he deny Iago's honesty in an effort to save reputation, he would only confirm that it is 'an idle and most false imposition; oft got without merit' (U.268-9), for Iago's reputation for honesty, attested to by the epithet, 'honest Iago', cannot be doubted. Cassio is caught in a bind, and whichever out he chooses, his faith in one of these abstractions, which in fact are two names for the same thing, will have been shaken. Among the critics, Iago has a reputation as a dramatic poet who turns idealization 'inside out'. He is the artist of'real life'.15 The differences between his attitude towards the handkerchief and Othello's illustrate the point. To Othello, it is a sacred object. He traces its origins deep into the past: from his mother who gave it to him, back to the Egyptian charmer who presented it to her, and earlier still to the 200-year-old sibyl, who fashioned it out of silk of 'hallowed' worms and the mummy of maidens' hearts. By contrast, to Iago it is an indifferent prop; any token of Desdemona's would have served the purposes of his sordid drama as well. Indeed he reminds
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Othello of the handkerchief to counter the Moor's own airy ideals: Her honor is an essence that's not seen; They have it very oft that have it not. But for the handkerchief— (4.1.16-18) In a virtual reprise of his reputation speech, Iago denies the essence from which an allegorical art takes its meaning, replacing it with the thing itself, whose significance is strictly circumstantial. Midway between Othello's naive mysticism and Iago's ironic denial stand Emilia and Cassio, in this case her ally. To them, the web is a medium of exchange, something to be copied and circulated without loss. Both would have the work taken out and pass it on again to continue its mediating ways: a wifely offering from Emilia to Iago, a pretty trifle from Cassio to Bianca. Its meaning is neither inherent nor merely incidental, but as it is valued between giver and receiver. At first, perhaps, Othello might have shared this view. But pressured by his suspicions, he takes refuge in a mystifying symbolism that insists on cultic virtue. For his part, Iago is equally hostile to the middle ground of mediation. However insincerely, he claims that Othello's rejection of'mediators' - the 'three great ones' he sent to petition for the lieutenancy on his behalf- is the cause of his implacable hatred. In retaliation, he proceeds to pervert the mediator, turning what is meant to heal and unite into its opposite. Accordingly, he uses the embroidered handkerchief, already twice the mediator, as an instrument of divorce. Acrasia, the temptress of book two of The Faerie Queene, provides an

William Hazlitt, Characters of Shakespeare's Plays, in The Complete Works of William Hazlitt, ed. P. P. Howe (1930), vol. 4, pp. 207-8. See also Algernon Charles Swinburne, A Study of Shakespeare (1879; repr. New York, 1904), pp. 230-1; Harley Granville-Barker, Prefaces to Shakespeare (Princeton, 1947), vol. 2, pp. 10312; Stanley Edgar Hyman, Iago: Some Approaches to the Illusion of his Motivation (New York, 1970), pp. 61-76.

SHAKESPEARE SURVEY instructive comparison. She, too, would orchestrate the fall of a hero, and she, too, uses the mystifying power of webs as her instrument, adorning her Bower with veils to entice Guyon. But Acrasia's tactic is to take advantage of Guyon's belief. She would beguile him into surrendering to her empty parodies, and, ultimately, it is the good faith of Spenser's own allegory that preserves the hero. 16 By contrast, Iago flaunts his anti-allegorical bias. Beyond Othello's fall, he seeks the destruction of mediation and faith, the twin premises on which a Spenserian art is founded. And so, he contrives to set Desdemona up as a mediator between Cassio and her husband that he might attack her. Entreat her to splinter the broken joint between you, he urges Cassio. Similarly, he casts doubt on Cassio's loyalty, by reminding Othello that the lieutenant frequently 'went between' the lovers in their courting days. The grim irony of Othello is that whatever would 'go between' the lovers injures and finally destroys their fragile love. In The Winter's Tale, a play with many parallels to ours, and, not incidentally, a romance that finds Shakespeare at his most Spenserian, Leontes' self-spun allegory causes the rift, but it never entirely loses its capacity to reunite what it has sundered. Thus while Othello savagely pretends that Emilia is the keeper of a brothel, Paulina's similarly mediating role is characterized more benignly as midwifery. And Emilia's shrewd guess that Othello is being put upon by 'Some busy and insinuating rogue, / Some cogging, cozening slave' (4.2.131-2) echoes in Leontes' baseless slander of Camillo, one of the helpful mediators: 'a gross lout, a mindless slave, / Or else a hovering temporizer .. .' (1.2.301-2). Emilia is right and Leontes wrong. Middlemen in Othello are invariably wicked or weak, while, in the romance, mediation possesses genuine redemptive power, as is clear when it is Camillo, the temporizer, who ultimately engineers the reunion.
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Not just Iago's malice, not just Othello's misprision, but it seems fair to say, the larger reality that the tragedy sponsors participates in the attack on allegory. It penetrates the texture of the play, transcending the biases of any single character. Consider the treatment of the two key abstractions, patience and jealousy. The Duke, trying to calm Desdemona's father, invokes an allegorized figure of Patience who, like the smiling victim of theft, mocks her injury: What cannot be preserv'd when Fortune takes, Patience her injury a mock'ry makes. The robb'd that smiles steals something from the thief; He robs himself that spends a bootless grief.

Against the sorrow of ruined hopes - 'seeing the worst, which late on hopes depended' (1.203) - the Duke offers Patience. Brabantio bitterly hurls the Duke's words back on him: So let the Turk of Cyprus us beguile, We lose it not, so long as we can smile.

The allegory is inefficacious. On the contrary, Brabantio insists that the Duke's advice merely compounds the hurt: But he bears both the sentence and the sorrow That, to pay grief, must of poor patience borrow. (11.214-15) Moreover, words are equivocal, allegory an illusion: But words are words; I never yet did hear That the bruis'd heart was pierced through the ear. (11.218-19) Like Iago, Brabantio credits only physical wounds. Words that enter through the ear are powerless to assault the heart or to heal it. The Duke's Patience smiles and endures; Braban16

See my T h e Art of Veiling in the Bower of Bliss', Spenser Studies, 1 (1980), 163-75.

ALLEGORY AND IRONY IN 'OTHELLO' tio's aggravates the sorrow. But both, finally, are false impositions. A parallel allegorization and dismissal befalls jealousy. Iago cynically personifies the emotion as 'the green-ey'd monster which doth mock / The meat it feeds on' (3.3.166-7). Othello, as it were, kills off this monster with one impatient stroke: 'Think'st thou I'ld make a life of jealousy? . . . No! to be once in doubt / Is once to be resolv'd' (3.3.177-80). In the following scene, Emilia echoes her husband's language: They are not ever jealious for the cause, But jealious for they're jealious. It is a monster Begot upon itself, born on itself. (3.4.160-2) But even as she retains the language of personification, 'monster', she undermines it by exposing its birth in the sick mind of the jealous man. She returns Iago's allegory to its psychological origins. Desdemona's fervent response, 'Heaven keep the monster from Othello's mindV (1.163, emphasis added), indicates that she has understood Emilia properly. In these twin scenes, allegory is once more vanquished. Othello, ironically adapting Iago's stance, denies the essence altogether. He has no room for jealousy in his scheme of things. Emilia and Desdemona here are closer to the unmetaphorizers. They transmute an extravagant literary figure into the stuff of everyday reality; in Spenserian terms they turn deformed Gealosie back into Malbecco, the suspicious old husband (Faerie Queene, canto 3, stanza 10). But beyond the building up and breaking down of the allegorical image, these two sets of passages, the one centring on patience, the other on jealousy, have other points in common. For, incongruously enough, Iago's Jealousy and the Duke's Patience both have mocking natures. Allegory would seem to discredit itself and words to confirm Brabantio's low opinion of them, if two such antithetical essences can be endowed with such
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similar traits. Furthermore, we can now see that there is something awry in this image of Patience who, unlike her resigned sisters who smile at their ills (cf. 'Patience on a monument, / Smiling at grief Twelfth Night, 2.4.114-15), positively mocks. The Duke's Patience is, in short, not merely a passive suffering posture, but the superior consciousness of irony: When remedies are past, the griefs are ended By seeing the worst, which late on hopes depended. To mourn a mischief that is past and gone Is the next way to draw new mischief on. What cannot be preserv'd when Fortune takes, Patience her injury a mock'ry makes.

Patience emerges as the attitude of superior awareness by which man distances himself from the necessities of history. Although mislabelled, this Patience is an allegorical figure of irony. Retrospectively, then, we might see that Brabantio's ironic dissection of the Duke's allegory - 'These sentences, to sugar or to gall, / Being strong on both sides, are equivocal' (1.3.216—17) - redoubles rather than destroys the effect. Othello, who has heard both the Duke's abortive allegory and Iago's, plays with these ideas. Had physical afflictions or poverty been his lot, he could have borne them: 'I should have found in some place of my soul / A drop of patience' (4.2.52-3), he avers. His fund of patience is too depleted to fashion a full-bodied allegory, but when his thoughts race on and he sees himself as the taunted cuckold, he allegorizes both himself and his tormentors: . . . but, alas, to make me The fixed figure for the time of scorn To point his slow unmoving finger at! (4.2.53-5) Public opinion is personified as time of scorn, possessed of a slow unmoving finger. Here, mockery, the unexpected common denominator between Patience and Jealousy, achieves

SHAKESPEARE SURVEY independent allegorical status. Allegory fixes irony. But at the same time, the speaker, frozen in his humiliation, casts himself in archetypally allegorical terms: he is a 'fixed figure', a parody of allegorical figuration that mocks its own emptiness. Allegory is unmasked by irony, and irony, in turn, is re-allegorized. Bound up in each other, neither motive triumphs. On the contrary, in a gesture characteristic of the tragedy, the vexed paradox is just waved away: 'Yet could I bear that too, well, very well' (1.56). Even as he articulates the central impasse, as he illustrates the paralysis of art, Othello simply sidesteps the difficulty. Scorn does not touch him as nearly as he had expected. He then approaches more closely to the one insupportable torture, not the jeering world, but the very private pain of losing Desdemona: But there, where I have garner'd up my heart, Where either I must live or bear no life; The fountain from the which my current runs Or else dries up: to be discarded thence! Or keep it as a cestern for foul toads To knot and gender in! Turn thy complexion there, Patience, thou young and rose-lipp'd cherubin— Ay, here look grim as hell! (4.2.57-64) Allegory returns, with this new personification of Patience, endowed with a young and rosy visage, Desdemona's perhaps. At any rate, it is the very antithesis of the black and ageing speaker. Yet in the act of personifying, as the puns on 'complexion' and 'Ay' suggest, Othello metamorphoses the maiden Patience into his own likeness. Rose-lipped Patience will become the thick-lipped Moor when she beholds the hideous sight. The same metamorphosis had already occurred more openly in act 3: I think my wife be honest, and think she is not; I think that thou art just, and think thou art not.
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I'll have some proof. Her name, that was as fresh As Dian's visage, is now begrim'd and black As mine own face. If there be cords, or knives, Poison, or fire, or suffocating streams, I'll not endure it. (3.3.384-90) Here Desdemona's chaste, young face becomes as 'begrim'd' as Othello's. The final 'I'll not endure it' also hints at the figure of Patience and its dissolution into furore. Less obviously perhaps, the impasse between allegorization and irony represented in our passage in 4.2 by the paradoxical knot of images is expressed here with less strain by the first two lines. Each, self-contradictorily, by turns, affirms the validity of idealization, and Iago-like, denies it. Yet taken together and read as chiasmus - the first element joined to the fourth and the second to the third - the rejection of the unseen essence can never be total. For if Desdemona's honesty is an illusion, Iago's justness is thereby upheld, and vice versa. But to return to our passage in act 4, the key verb 'turn' - a synonym for 'trope' - initiates the destabilization of the allegory. As Patience 'turns' to view the horror, she is assimilated to monstrous Jealousy and to 'black vengeance', the spirit Othello had conjured from 'hollow hell' (3.3.447), both twisted semblances of his own wracked mind. Once again Othello refashions his reality in line with words he has heard earlier. Iago had assured him that a husband's worst fate is to be an unwitting cuckold: O, 'tis the spite of hell, the fiend's arch-mock, To lip a wanton in a secure couch, And to suppose her chaste! (4.1.70-2) Irony can go no further than this, but presumably the Ancient's timely warnings have preserved the Moor from this ultimate disgrace. And yet Othello contrives for himself a fate even more humiliating. The decline of Othello's young cherubin inverts Iago's scheme: he lips a figure properly rosy and

ALLEGORY AND IRONY IN 'OTHELLO' chaste, until his overwrought imagination supposes her black and grim. This indeed is the fiend's arch-mock, as the Moor himself ironically subverts the potentially healing allegory. The system of mirroring figures also yields up heaven's arch-mock: 'If she be false, O then heaven mocks itself / I'll not believe't' (3.3.278-9), Othello says, as the entry of Desdemona elicits a final upsurge of faith. Malone's gloss is most suggestive: 'If she be false, Oh, then, even heaven itself cheats us with "unreal mockery", with false and specious appearances, intended only to deceive'.17 Making explicit what Cassio's divinizing rhetoric had implied, Othello reads Desdemona as a figure of heavenly grace. Unmetaphoring cannot go further. Othello keeps nothing in reserve, his faith riding on Desdemona alone. Just as her virtue was taken as a sign of heaven's goodness, so her dishonesty must point to its falseness. The formulation is devastating, because it holds the universal moral order hostage to Desdemona. If she proves false, good will be proven evil, and the benevolent allegorical order that sustains the world will be devoured by irony. The divine allegorist will reveal himself to be an ironist, using a beautiful form to represent its moral opposite. Conversely, Iago, pre-eminently the ironist, will finally resist understanding by any but allegorical categories; 'I look down towards his feet; but that's a fable' (5.2.286), says Othello of his unmasked enemy. Beyond the fiend's arch-mock and heaven's, Shakespeare's arch-mock scorns both. Allegory and irony, despite their totalizing pretensions, despite the exclusion of each by the other, cannot exist independently. The crumbling of allegory is again enacted when Iago would invoke truth in his campaign to convince Othello of Desdemona's disloyalty: 'If imputation and strong circumstances / Which lead directly to the door of truth / Will give you satisfaction, you might have't' (3.3.406-8). He conjures up a Spenserian House of Truth, where we might expect to
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find Desdemona as mistress. Yet the deflection of our attention from the allegorical edifice, represented by no more than a door, to the pathways which lie outside it, already belies the essential quality. Truth itself is defenceless against misappropriated allegory. The relationship between the allegorical body - the road to the house - and the spiritual abstraction - truth - is so oblique that allegory ceases to be itself and turns ironic. A similar decomposition occurs when Desdemona exonerates her murderer with her dying gasp. Othello underscores the point: 'You heard her say herself, it was not I' (5.2.127). Emilia responds: 'She said so; I must needs report the truth' (1.128). Here is a more poignant rehearsal of the two earlier paradoxes, Iago's 'As I am an honest man . . . ' and Othello's 'I think my wife be honest.' Allegory falsifies itself, not to ensnare Cassio, nor to show Othello's confusion, but largely for the sake of the audience, which, after all, has never been given any cause to doubt Desdemona, and being neither in the camp of the sceptics (who will not believe) nor in that of the unmetaphorizers (who believe too well), probably continues to believe in allegorical idealization. Truth's last words are a barefaced lie. If Emilia repeats the truth she falsifies, but if she lies, she will be telling the truth. The thought of heaven mocking itself shook Othello's belief in idealization, and this final spectacle of lying truth is meant to shake ours. It is inadequate to attribute the knotted embrace of allegory and irony solely to malicious cynicism or to naive unmetaphoring. Even as Emilia solemnly pronounces her verdict, the unintentional pun betrays her. .. I am bound to speak. My mistress here lies murthered in her bed—


Othello, ed. Horace Furness, A New Variorum Edition of Shakespeare (1866; repr. New York, 1965), p. 192.

Her dead lady is simultaneously the icon of sacrificed innocence and the nay-saying voice that always gives the 'lie' to such constructions. The downward spiral of a self-invalidating art cannot be arrested. Essential truth is an illusion, and Shakespeare will not allow us to be deceived. Othello's final accusation against her, * She's like a liar gone to burning hell' (5.2.129), brooks no denial; her protest notwithstanding, we know who killed her. Desdemona, the honest, the chaste, the true, is false, and heaven mocks itself. Othello, always given to extremes, never learns this lesson. Released from the error foisted upon him by Iago, he immediately instals Desdemona back in the 'marble heaven' from which she fell. The execution itself prepares her for her apotheosis as a fixed figure: Yet I'll not shed her blood, Nor scar that whiter skin of hers than snow, And smooth as monumental alablaster, (5.2.3-5) Once she has realized the permanence of a statue, outside the flux of life, Desdemona's unseen essence becomes manifest. The snow imagery here foreshadows the ultimate naming: 'Cold, cold, my girl? / Even like thy chastity' (5.2.275-6). Once separated from the ironic consciousness with which, in a postSpenserian world, it is necessarily wed, allegory degenerates into something frigid and narrow, not Spenser's flexible and resilient mode, but the dead fiction that Coleridge deplored. Alternatively it is swallowed up by a kind of unthinking symbolization, as the microcosmic chrysolite, for which he would not have traded her before the recognition, reappears as the cast-out pearl after. Howard Felperin, in a superbly supple reading, urges that Othello's famous last speech signifies a kind of wiser reallegorization that shows he has learned the dangers of previous excesses: 'He has reinvented his own earlier dramatic language with a new understanding that prior sign and present sig132
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nificance, conventional role and distinctive self, can never fully coincide, and creates in the process a more authentic, because more human, magic than that displayed in any of his previous rhetoric of self-definition.'18 While the rush of images, one giving way to the next, demonstrates Othello's new flexibility in defining himself, the role-playing continues, leading Felperin to argue that the tragedy concludes on a note of endless oscillation between de- and re-mystifying: 'We are left with a character and an action "true" in their acknowledged indeterminacy and indeterminate in their presented truth.' In my own terms we might similarly see the closing speech as Othello's understanding, at least as it pertains to himself, that allegorical projection needs its uneasy alliance with irony. Now Othello is both the deceiving Turk and the perspicacious Venetian, the pageant maker and the pageant breaker, the launcher of ships and their wrecker. Much earlier, on the occasion of his reunion with Desdemona following the stormy sea voyage, in language literally intended, yet recognizably allegorical, Othello had exclaimed grandly: If after every tempest come such calms, May the winds blow till they have waken'd death! And let the laboring bark climb hills of seas Olympus-high, and duck again as low As hell's from heaven! (2.1.185-9) The tragic hero prefigures his own destiny, his climb to heaven and plunge to hell. The doughty bark sails to Olympian heights, but the remorseless sea effaces its achievement in a flood of irony. Yet as 'hills of seas' suggests, Olympus itself is built of water. Allegory and irony, heaven and hell, the cresting wave that crashes, are all products of the same watery element. 'False as water' (5.2.134), says Othello, 'More fell than . . . the sea' (5.2.362),
Shakespearean Representation: Mimesis and Modernity in


Elizabethan Tragedy (Princeton, 1977), p. 85.

ALLEGORY AND IRONY IN 'OTHELLO' exclaims Lodovico in the final summing up. The oscillation is instantaneous, consuming itself in a dying fall. Allegory needs the bracing effect of irony as a reminder of its fictionality. But, shaky construction that it is, it may be consumed by irony's mordancy. This tropology defines Othello. The conditions which enable art to credibly hold forth the promise of order and meaning are inherently unstable, and the promise is immediately retracted. Tut out the light, and then put out the light' (5.2.7). In this phoenix of a line, our pattern of allegorical going forth and ironical return is beautifully expressed and doubled. The figure rises and burns out and rises and burns out again. Each half is a complete and simultaneous instant of flashing and quenching. The flaming mixture of incompatibles briefly yields up an instant of belief without self-deception or, alternatively construed, of scepticism willing to entertain saving fictions. It is a self-limiting moment. Left in its wake are a cold, burned-out corpse which is allegorized to the skies and, in Iago, a bleeding irony so baleful, speech itself is too affirmative. As the fates of Desdemona and Iago show, neither unchecked allegory nor unmitigated irony offers any possibilities for further dramatic development. Perhaps, however, the almost alarming resiliency of the line, Tut out the light, and then put out the light', does enclose a lesson. Earlier I remarked how Othello waved away the knotted paradox and started anew. Here in most concentrated form we find the same recovery, even when a strict logic would seem to rule it out. A light quenched cannot be put out again. And yet it is. Indeed Desdemona dies only to shine forth with luminous forgiveness, and Emilia dies but revives long enough to recall her mistress's song and speak the truth. Even Roderigo, it is reported, 'spake / (After long seeming dead)' (5.2.327-8), to set the record right. Othello's parting words fulfil a similar pattern: 'I kiss'd thee ere I kill'd thee. No way but this, / Killing myself, to die upon a kiss' (5.2.358-9). Kiss/ kill bound fatally together once are resurrected in the hero's final gesture. If the tension of the allegorical/ironical mixture is self-limiting, it may be equally self-renewing. After all, despite their being repeatedly discredited, Patience and Jealousy have a way of reasserting themselves. Seen alone, these dying moments exemplify dramatic irony. As a reprise of an earlier moment, however, they are triumphant. At a time when essences like truth lie in ruins, Emilia confidently returns to certainty: 'she was chaste .. . / So come my soul to bliss, as I speak true' (5.2.249-50). Here Iago's 'As I am an honest man' is honestly redeemed, as is the problematic nature of Desdemona's dying words. Tut out the light, and then put out the light.' For all its finality and despair, the repetition signals duration and hope.

Shakespeare Survey Online © Cambridge University Press, 2007

Shakespeare Survey Online © Cambridge University Press, 2007

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