A Fury in the Words: Love and Embarrassment in Shakespeare's Venice

A Fury in the Words: Love and Embarrassment in Shakespeare's Venice

A Fury in the Words: Love and Embarrassment in Shakespeare's Venice

A Fury in the Words: Love and Embarrassment in Shakespeare's Venice

Synopsis

Shakespeare's two Venetian plays are dominated by the discourse of embarrassment. The Merchant of Venice is a comedy of embarrassment, and Othello is a tragedy of embarrassment.

Excerpt

“I understand a fury in your words,/But not the words.” So a perplexed Desdemona stubbornly resists acknowledging the obvious cause of her husband’s sarcasm in Act 4 Scene 2 of Othello. One of the criticheroes of my youth, Richard P. Blackmur, borrows her words in the titular essay of his 1952 collection Language as Gesture. They introduce the anecdote with which he opens his account and I, in turn, open mine.

Blackmur tells how, as a small boy in Cambridge, passing by little dead-end streets and looking up at the street-name signs, he was struck by an inscription mounted on a placard beneath the signs. It read “Private Way Dangerous Passing.” This was how the city warned passers-by that it was responsible neither for the state of the roadbed nor for any injury “sustained through its use.”

But the placard “meant something else” to young Blackmur. It turned the dead-end street into a monstrous maw. “It meant,” he writes, “that there was in passing across its mouth a clear and present danger which might, and especially if it was dusk, suddenly leap out and overcome me. Thus… whenever I passed one of these signs, I had the regular experience of that heightened, that excited, sense of being … we find in poetry. I understood the fury in its words, but not the words…. There was a steady over-arching gesture in those words… that… meant more and touched me more deeply than any merely communicative words, deprived of their native gesture, can ever do.” “Gesture in language,” Blackmur concludes, “is the outward and dramatic play of inward… meaning,” and it “so animates… [meaning] as to make it independent of speaker or writer.”

1. R. P. Blackmur, Language as Gesture (1952; rpt. New York: Columbia University Press, 1981), 4–6.

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