Academic journal article Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England

"A Wording Poet": Othello among the Mountebanks

Academic journal article Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England

"A Wording Poet": Othello among the Mountebanks

Article excerpt

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

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

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

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

In turning our attention to the mountebank entertainers we see that, while they resemble other itinerant performers in the early modern period, mountebanks are immediately distinguished by the fact that they conflate entertainment and medicine in a performance of cures, and--very importantly--that they make money from the selling of those cures. In fact, all their entertainments were prelude to the moment of the big sell. It is perhaps this monetary transactional moment, the selling of cures, which in part inspired John Oberndorf's 1602 attack on mountebanks. "Consider his person," Oberndorf writes, and you will find the mountebank,

  lewd, shameless, practiced in all cozening,
  legerdemaine, coney-catching, and all other shifts and
  sleights, crackling boaster, proud ... a secret
  back-biter ...
  a common jester, a liar ... a cogging sycophant ...

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

While Ben Jonson in Volpone creates a brilliant, accurate, and obvious description of a mountebank entertainment with his Scoto/Volpone character, throughout Othello Shakespeare weaves in references to mountebank entertainments that might be lost on us, but apparent to his audience. …

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