Academic journal article Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England

"O Blood, Blood, Blood" : Violence and Identity in Shakespeare's Othello

Academic journal article Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England

"O Blood, Blood, Blood" : Violence and Identity in Shakespeare's Othello

Article excerpt

At the moment when Othello finally becomes fully convinced of Desdemona's infidelity, he cries out "O blood, blood, blood."1 Because early modern writers participate in a collective cultural attempt to stabilize existing categories of difference by attaching them to fixed biological characteristics, one might be tempted to understand the visceral and seemingly unsophisticated nature of this utterance as a sign of Othello's atavistic descent into murderous rage, his barbarous nature emerging from beneath his heroic selfpresentation.2 Understanding the word "blood" in this light evokes the entire apparatus of biological determinism that develops over the course of the early modern period in which "blood" dictates rank, culture, and identity itself.3 However, focusing on the burgeoning language of biological determinism obscures the persistent centrality of violence, also implicit in the word "blood," in early modern constructions of self that continue to rely on humoral ideas of bodily fluidity.4 This single word encapsulates the tensions between these two modes of self-understanding-one that sees blood as stable and another that understands it as constantly in flux. Not simply a marker of barbarism, blood and the violence it connotes is a flexible form of self-fashioning that Othello uses to repair his understanding of the world shattered by Desdemona's purported infidelity and to negotiate this tension between stability and fluidity.

Recent critics have persuasively shown the implication of the play in a burgeoning racialism that focuses on skin color as a measure of moral worth.5 However, this system of difference is not yet fully instantiated and competes with a much different understand of biology that threatens the biological stability often associated with the notion of blood. As Jean Feerick explains, while the early modern understanding of the word "race" relies primarily on notions of bloodlines, the physiological fluid itself is seen as in constant flux and danger of degeneration. Thus, "Early modern racial ideologies ... articulate with compelling force what modern racial ideologies seek to bury: the ever-present prospect of racial reversibility."6 Ian Smith similarly notes the instability present in early modern racial ideologies and understands skin color as a means of stabilizing categories of difference, encapsulated in the notion of barbarism, that are based on varying degrees of linguistic facility. To be a barbarian is by definition to be one who is lacking the ability to use language and is hence, bestial. Smith attributes focus on the "apparent biophysical fixity of color" as a means to buttress classical tropes of barbarism "whose inherent weakness is linguistic adaptation."7 Othello, whose linguistic facility wins over Desdemona and secures his defense before the Duke, is a prime example of the sort of linguistic adaptation that makes barbarism an unstable category of difference. In this reading, Othello returns to a barbarous state under pressure: lacking other means of persuasion he resorts to wanton violence and savage cruelty. Smith's reading, by opposing civilized rhetoric and barbarous violence, presumes that the play and Elizabethan culture more broadly work ultimately to stabilize modes of ascribing difference and the identities on which they are based. This fixity in turn serves as the foundation for humanist ideas of selfhood as individual and autonomous. Shakespeare's play, however, dramatizes the tension between a social system that values stability and one that relies on flexibility, valorizing one as much as the other.

Because "blood" is implicated equally but distinctly in both the stabilizing force of biological determinism and the fluid nature of humoral physiology, this single word both highlights and embodies the tension between these two systems of difference-one that sees flexibility as dangerous and another that acknowledges and negotiates fluidity. Surely, Othello's cry is one of anguish that signals the breakdown of the previously firm foundations of his sense of himself, assiduously constructed through linguistic performance. …

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