Shakespeare's Universal Wolf: Studies in Early Modern Reification

By Hugh L. Grady | Go to book overview

3
Othello and the Dialectic of Enlightenment: Instrumental Reason, Will, and Subjectivity

REIFICATION AND SUBJECTIVITY IN OTHELLO

Othello continues the exploration of the hidden connections between autonomous reason and desire which we saw at work in Troilus and Cressida, while it largely leaves aside the societal issues of political power and the market. However, the play's older reputation for artistic simplicity, as a taut drama of passion presenting few of the intellectual puzzles associated with its companion tragedies Hamlet and King Lear, cannot survive a survey of the recent criticism of this play, which probes the cultural codings of gender and male possessiveness, the status of colour prejudice and toleration in Jacobean England, issues of identity and the alien, and the epistemology of seeing, hearing, and believing. Othello has now emerged as among the most complex of Shakespeare's tragedies; given this complexity, I am choosing here to focus on the Othello-Iago relationship as most relevant to the concerns of this study, at the expense of facets of the play central to a number of recent commentators: the role of Desdemona and the phenomenology of male possession, for example -- although inevitably I refer to these in what follows as well. But the figure of Iago is a focal point for one of Shakespeare's most incisive and revealing delineations of the thematic complex I am labelling reification, while Othello is a powerful representative of the new forms of subjectivity arising in connection with the new impersonality of reified society.

Iago's discourse acts out a logic that presciently recapitulates that dialectic of enlightenment defined in the twentieth century, as we have seen, by Horkheimer and Adorno1 as well as key components of the disciplinary society described by Foucault's related theory.2 We can

____________________
1
Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, trans. John Cumming ( New York: Seabury, 1971)
2
See Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, first pub. as Surveiller et punir: Naissance de la prison ( Paris, 1975); trans. Alan Sheridan ( New York: Vintage, 1979).

-95-

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