Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Stage-Managing "Otherness": The Function of Narrative in 'Othello.'

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Stage-Managing "Otherness": The Function of Narrative in 'Othello.'

Article excerpt

New historicist and postcolonial research has lent to narratology's concern with voice and location of voice a heightened awareness of the sociopolitical as well as ideological functions of narrative discourse and the ways that literary texts inscribe and exploit these functions. In Hayden White's view, narrative is "not merely a neutral discursive form that may or may not be used to represent real events...but rather entails ontological and epistemic choices with distinct ideological and even specifically political implications" (ix). More concretely, Foucault's Discipline and Punish, and Said's Culture and Imperialism, draw critical attention not only to the sociopolitical and psychic dimensions of narrative discourse but to questions of power relations that inform narrative structures and practices.

Although Shakespeare's Othello is a dramatic rather than a narrative work - or perhaps because it is drama in which racially-turned narrative performance is conspicuously, structurally staged - the play offers a fascinating, if unusual, site for examining narrative production and use. The plot in itself is simple enough: Othello, a General in the Venetian army and a Moor, secretly weds Desdemona, the young daughter of a Venetian senator. Iago, Othello's ensign, beguiles him into believing that Desdemona has been adulterous with the lieutenant, Cassio, and in a jealous rage, Othello murders Desdemona. The period in which the play was written-the Elizabethan age of exploration and colonial expansion, a time of shifting geographic boundaries and of unprecedented crosscultural transaction - has already attracted considerable attention on the part of theorists concerned with the constitution of institutionalized sociopolitical structures and the textualization of these structures, as well as those concerned with modes and processes of literary representation and the ideological and rhetorical tensions that it necessarily inscribes. What needs more attention, however, is how these features are concretely conjoined in a work like Othello and how this play makes a unique contribution to our understanding of the politics and poetics of the Elizabethan period.

Thus in the following essay, I want to focus on the significance of the narrative/dramatic strategies that Shakespeare employs in Othello, arguing that these strategies subtly distinguish and operate along the geographic, political, and cultural boundaries that the play's Renaissance world stage draws. With a view to showing how the contrastive interplay of these generic techniques enacts the ideological accountability of narrative functions in general as well as of Shakespeare's manipulation of these functions, I will first analyze Shakespeare's use of these formal literary devices in the play to create a thematics of absence/presence that comments tellingly on Othello's dubious identity in Renaissance society. Then, I will elaborate on Shakespeare's procedure by linking it to the dynamics of fiction-making in general, going on to explore what his particular construction of Othello reveals about his poetic agenda. Finally, I will expand my argument to explore relations of power in imperialist culture and the signs of this power in Shakespeare's art and canonic status. In this way, I wish to demonstrate not only how Shakespeare's schizoid casting of the Moor as, at once, central subject and marginalized object reflects colonial power relations but also how the play's colonializing instrumentality extends beyond the literary text and pertains to Shakespeare scholarship and criticism of the play as well.

In the last scene of Othello, the protagonist, aware of how he has been duped by Iago, is confined with the corpse of his wife whom he has just murdered; the time seems to have come finally for what Othello has not yet done: self-examination in the heroic tradition of Shakespearean tragedy. Though Othello's predicament is markedly different from that of Richard II, one might expect that like Richard he would study how to "compare this prison. …

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