How does Shakespeare look, after #MeToo and Black Lives Matter? Scenes of sexual coercion, from Richard III to Pericles, have become more immediate. In Measure for Measure, Isabella’s predicament – should she agree to sleep with Angelo, corrupt deputy to the Duke of Vienna, in order to save her brother from execution? – gets audiences on her side. Shakespeareans now recognise that their period saw the construction of modern ideas about race which were used in part to justify the enslavement of Africans. Critical accounts of the ex-slaves Aaron in Titus Andronicus and Othello, as well as of Caliban, who is called a ‘savage and deformed slave’ in the Folio edition of The Tempest, acknowledge that white supremacy has a long prehistory.
In some of the most striking recent work, consent and race-making go together. Fictions of Consent, Urvashi Chakravarty’s study of bondage and servitude in early modern England, which deals with the desire to represent slaves as consenting to their fate, is the first monograph in a series overseen by the RaceB4Race collective, ‘by and for scholars of colour working on issues of race in premodern literature, history and culture’.Now Amanda Bailey’s Shakespeare on Consent argues that sexual choice is problematic because of the power imbalances not just between genders but between racial groups, inequalities that have led down the years to a disproportionate number of accusations of sexual assault being made against black men in America (she teaches at the University of Maryland). Any account of consent in early modern writing, she argues, needs to think about race formation because of the parallels between gender and race inequality and their tendency to intersect.
There is a growing consensus that consent is an inadequate test when it comes to sex. Choices are always constrained, and for many women and some men extremely so. When Angelo urges Isabella, ‘Fit thy consent to my sharp appetite … Redeem thy brother/By yielding up thy body,’ he makes a familiar demand, that consent bend to power and enable domination. In Isabella’s case, no means no, but she also helps audiences see that yes could also mean no. With her brother’s life in danger, she might accept the demand without assenting to her own consent. As Amia Srinivasan says in The Right to Sex, we need to ask ‘what forces lie behind a woman’s yes; what it reveals about sex that it is something to which consent must be given; how it is that we have come to put so much psychic, cultural and legal weight on a notion of “consent” that cannot support it’.
Bailey’s own approach is more polemical. She rounds on the ‘liberal, wealthy, predominantly white celebrities’ who took over the #MeToo movement (Isabellas on a mission). Conservatives used to claim that #MeToo was creating a lynch-mob mentality; Bailey offers a version of this from the left: ‘With its righteous call for zero tolerance and championing of the injured, white, able-bodied, cisgender, female victim, #MeToo’s notion of sexual justice resonates with the individualist and punitive logic underwriting the most problematic aspects of US criminal law.’ She wants us to understand from Shakespeare, and by arguing against Shakespeare, how problematic the notion of consent is in racially divided America. ‘The long and troubled history of unleashing retribution in the service of protecting white female integrity,’ she writes, ‘is one of the many challenges the #MeToo movement has yet to contend with.’
Although Bailey writes with clarity about ‘the injurious outcomes of fictions of consent’, there is an obscurity at the heart of her book. ‘As there are power differentials in every relationship,’ she asks, ‘is authentic consent ever possible?’ Even ‘affirmative consent can be coerced and always operates in social and professional contexts that are themselves unequal and perhaps intimidating.’ This reduces consent to a figment. Yet inequality can, of course, encourage consent. People have a way of saying yes and meaning yes to those who are richer, better-looking or higher in status. Consent then becomes an affirmation with characteristics of a speech act, creating a zone within which difference can be arbitrated.
To understand consent in Shakespeare’s England we need to get into semantics. The word could mean agreement by a group of people and entail a plot. The ladies in Love’s Labour’s Lost are said to consent – to act together – to make a mockery of the men. The tribunes in Coriolanus were elected ‘by the consent of all’, which makes democracy, from a patrician point of view, a mass conspiracy. Consent could also mean the accordance of one thing with another, regardless of volition: musical lines consent in harmony. Yet the ‘con-’ of consent does not always resonate etymologically with Latin cum, ‘with’. Shakespeare detected what is contra in it. As the archbishop tells Henry V, ‘many things, having full reference/To one consent, may work contrariously.’ So although consent can mean ‘feeling together’ (Latin con-sentire), or even (from Middle French) ‘complicity’, it can also be the truce-line of conflict. Singular and inward, it requires another party if it is to be more than assent. It happens within the heart (according to King John) but becomes consent only when it is declared. The word could mean, as now, agreement to a proposal, but Shakespeare’s plays reflect social conditions in which consent between lovers depends on the consent given by friends and family. As Petruchio tells Kate, with shrew-bashing relish, ‘your father hath consented/That you shall be my wife, your dowry ’greed on;/And, will you, nill you, I will marry you.’
One shift in usage is notable. The Oxford English Dictionary dates consent as applied to sexual decision-making to 1598, with a quotation from John Florio. In his World of Words, Florio defines rape as ‘a ravishing … of a woman against her consent and will’. Until the middle of the 16th century, rape was thought of as a crime against the property of a father or husband. During Shakespeare’s lifetime, it was redefined as an assault on the person. This was progress, but it made rape harder to prove. Women looking for justice faced questions about their complicity. They were expected to show marks of resistance. One vicious peculiarity was that female sexual pleasure was believed necessary for pregnancy, so a woman who became pregnant after a rape was held to have given consent. The doctrine was convenient for magistrates who wanted to marry off couples rather than have illegitimate children become a burden on the parish.
Shakespeare’s Lucrece is worried that she might have been impregnated by Tarquin. ‘This bastard graft shall never come to growth,’ she says before killing herself. Some have argued that she must fear her body was gratified while her will resisted. The poem explores the ambiguities associated with the legal redefinition of rape and the changes of sensibility that went along with it. Lucrece’s state of mind is central: her revulsion at being assaulted, the distress, shame and ineffectual complaint that follow. Yet retribution lies with her father, her husband and Junius Brutus. The word ‘consent’ is used several times, but not yet to articulate the affront to sexual decision that the poem is all about.
When Bailey discusses The Rape of Lucrece she avoids a one-track approach: ‘Shakespeare’s poem reveals the intersection of heteropatriarchy, racial capitalism and colonialism’ and explores ‘the Republican rape topos’. For Bailey, the Republic in question needn’t (just) be Rome. After the American Civil War, she writes, ‘the pernicious fragility of white women spoke to anxieties of a white order challenged by free Black men.’ As a way into thinking about Lucrece, this is oblique as well as unsympathetic, but it does lead somewhere. According to Bailey, D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, the first American movie to be screened at the White House, ‘is our Rape of Lucrece’. ‘At the centre of the film is the attempted rape of a white woman who chooses to leap to her death when confronted by her Black assailant. Her suicide serves as the justification for the creation of the KKK.’
When I first read this it seemed a long way from Stratford-upon-Avon. Returning to it during a stay in America, in the ambit of Fox News, Bailey’s argument began to seem more plausible, especially her claim that Shakespeare ‘authorises one of the most powerful white supremacist narratives of pathological blackness … what Tarquin threatens is not simply Lucrece’s chastity but also her whiteness.’ Her beauty is called ‘white entitlèd’ and her virtue is also ‘white’, while Tarquin’s deed is ‘black’. Bailey reproduces a painting by the 16th-century Flemish artist Jan Sanders van Hemessen of a dark-featured Tarquin with curly black hair grabbing a snow-white Lucrece. Opposite is an image by Artemisia Gentileschi (c.1650) of a black slave looking on while Tarquin attacks Lucrece with a dagger. Did early readers assume, when Tarquin threatens to kill Lucrece and place a murdered slave next to her, as though the two had been taken in adultery, that the slave was black? It’s not impossible. The poem’s colour coding belongs to the period of England’s early involvement in the Atlantic slave trade.
Critical race theory takes the correlation of vice with black and virtue with white as features of a Christian heritage biased against people of colour. Bailey notes that, once ‘polluted’ by rape, Lucrece is stained or un-whitened. The blood that bubbles from her breast after she stabs herself divides into two streams, one ‘pure and red’, the other stained ‘black’ by Tarquin and surrounded by a watery margin. Lucrece may or may not be pregnant, but the pollution has been internalised. Bailey doesn’t say it, but a hint of miscegenation hovers over the scene.
After Lucrece stabs herself, Brutus vows by the Capitol, the sun and ‘our country rights’, as well as by her blood and soul, to avenge her death. The men in her life display her body to show what the rapist has done. This encourages the citizens, in the final couplet of the poem, ‘plausibly’ to ‘give consent/To Tarquin’s everlasting banishment’. For Bailey, this use of the Republican rape topos anticipates the lynch-mob-style takeover of the Capitol in Washington by the 6 January rioters. She misses a trick when she ignores the hint of conspiracy in ‘give consent’. But Shakespeare does not say that the Romans exile Tarquin in a ‘state of outrage’. There is nothing in the text about ‘the ginned up hysteria’ of a Trump rally. Only by taking ‘plausibly’ to mean ‘not … fully authentic’ can she deduce an affront by Trump/Brutus to ‘the rational decision-making’ of democracy. The OED notes that in this passage ‘plausibly’ means ‘with applause; approvingly’, so Bailey’s reading is itself not plausible.
She continues to be resourceful, developing, for example, a comparison between the stain on Shakespeare’s heroine and the stain left on Monica Lewinsky’s dress after her encounter with Bill Clinton. Like Tarquin, Clinton was a white man darkened not just by the right-wing commentators who saw his ‘insatiable appetite’ for food and sex as a blot on the whiteness of the White House, but by supporters such as Toni Morrison who said, along with the Congressional Black Caucus, that ‘white skin notwithstanding, this is our first Black president.’ In some ingenious sense, the media framed the affair as a ‘modern-day Rape of Lucrece’. Bailey’s account of shame and stickiness and of Lewinsky’s rollercoaster of emotions is absorbing, but it is not clear how much of it belongs in a book about Shakespeare.
From extrapolation comes distortion. Presenting Titus Andronicus as yet another version of The Rape of Lucrece, with a posse of vengeful men using a rape to justify a revolt, Bailey wrongly tells us (twice) that Lavinia, who is ravished in the woods by princely but immigrant Goths, kills herself. In fact, she is disposed of in an even more patriarchal fashion than Lucrece: stabbed by her own father to save her from shame. The Clinton chapter ends by asserting, modishly but with no textual support, that Old Hamlet is punished in the afterlife for sexually abusing his son. The trauma is supposedly played out when Hamlet visits Ophelia in her closet with his genitals on show. This is an odd deduction to make from Ophelia’s report of the unbraced doublet and untied stockings of a self-neglecting, melancholy lover. ‘Is he pressing her against his exposed crotch?’ Bailey inquires.
Bailey has published valuable books on fashion and masculinity and on debt in Renaissance England. Why this swing into presentism? The answer lies only partly in the polarisation of American politics. There is also the reaction against historicism’s stranglehold on early modern studies, driven by a concern that unless Shakespeare, Milton and the rest are made relevant to students they will opt for contemporary literature or not study English at all. The past is being presented not as a place that challenges our values or ideas but as the source of current problems. ‘Shakespeare occupies an outsized role,’ Bailey writes, ‘in the invention of the putatively universal, modern individual, otherwise known as the Willful Subject.’ Books are starting to appear with titles like Shakespeare as a Way of Life. His plays are being read as out-of-date lifestyle guides and scoured for teachable moments. ‘Why,’ Bailey asks, ‘are we still teaching literary works that sanctify a heteropatriarchal, misogynistic imaginary?’
The answer of the editors of Shakespeare and Virtue, Donovan Sherman and Julia Reinhard Lupton, is that Shakespearean drama ‘trains judgment, attention and empathy’ and ‘has the power to reinvigorate the role of virtue in our lives’. Consent and race are prominent in the essays here. Jennifer Flaherty is keen to stress that chastity is not a tepid quality but requires autonomy and gumption. In Shakespeare, it is not a matter of acquiescence. ‘Consent is crucial to Shakespearean chastity, placing it in direct opposition to the virtue of obedience when a daughter disagrees with her father about her own marriage.’ This is a familiar pattern in the comedies, and continues through Othello and King Lear (Cordelia, in some ways) to the late romances. The heroines who are most committed to their virginity (Isabella in Measure for Measure and Marina in Pericles) act ‘in defiance rather than compliance with male authority, challenging the patriarchal ideal that female virtue serves the interests of men’.
That this still needs to be said is shown by one piece in the book that provocatively alludes to ‘the passive aggression of such sanctimonious pseudo-martyrs as Isabella’. Flaherty is closer to the mark when she says that ‘Isabella’s refusal to contribute to a corrupt system of sexual exchange takes on new meaning in the era of the #MeToo movement.’ Yet this is Shakespeare, where nothing is quite as it seems, and Isabella’s willingness to let Mariana, Angelo’s betrothed, whom he has abandoned, take her place in bed to stop her brother being executed looks exactly like a contribution to a corrupt system of exchange. By doing this, awkwardly enough, she breaches Angelo’s consent by deceiving him into sleeping with someone he doesn’t want to sleep with. Shakespeare subtly pairs Isabella with the drunken murderer Barnardine, who refuses to have his head chopped off in prison even though it would suit the Duke to send it to Angelo as a substitute for that of Isabella’s brother. ‘I will not consent to die this day,’ he flatly insists, and gets his way. He will no more give up his head to satisfy Angelo than Isabella will give up her maidenhead. Mariana loses her virginity in place of Isabella, and the head of Ragozine the pirate substitutes for that of Barnardine.
Flaherty mentions Measure (Still) for Measure, an adaptation project that uses feminist theory to ‘facilitate difficult conversations’, in the words of its founder, ‘about consent and rape culture; and to instigate policy change in educational institutions’. Later in the book, Katharine Craik and Ewan Fernie describe Marina, a collaboration with the RSC that puts Marina’s defiant chastity at the centre of an updated, multicultural version of Pericles set in a scruffy supermarket next to a mosque. Her virtue, they admit, seems out of date, but it can be reconstituted as a version of agency. Shakespeare’s Marina resists when Lysimachus, the governor of Mytilene, tries to take her virginity in a brothel, but she goes beyond Isabella by persuading the pimps and punters there to give up sexual commerce. She ‘follows through’, in Craik and Fernie’s words, ‘on chastity’s teleological promise, transforming sexual withdrawal into a powerful and generative way of saying “no” to worldly vice’. No as a systemic no.
When they set out to educate both audience and actors, such performance projects are consistent with the broader reaction against historicism. Shakespeare and Virtue samples classroom responses to Measure for Measure and assesses the value of Shakespeare in the re-education of prisoners. In an enlightening essay, Michael Bristol recounts some of the things students said to him about Isabella, including the kid who argued, invoking Aristotle on continence, that ‘unwanted sex is not a trivial consideration.’ Chastity, in this view, means upholding ‘a standard of personal integrity that really is “more” valuable than the life of a brother who is himself, after all, incontinent’. A jot of historicism would qualify that judgment, since Claudio is contracted to the pregnant Juliet and calls her his ‘wife’, much as Shakespeare married the pregnant Anne Hathaway. But there is substance in this defence of Isabella’s right to say no, as there is when another student says that Barnardine is the only attractive character in the play because ‘he just won’t put up with any of the Duke’s B.S.’
Since this is Shakespeare, we are given reasons to be sceptical about Barnardine’s defiance. It’s not just that he is drunk, though that puts fire in his belly. Like others in the play, he benefits from his connections. ‘His friends’, we are told, have ‘wrought reprieves for him’, so he does not take the latest threat of execution seriously. According to the provost of the prison, the false threat of execution has been used to try to improve his conduct: ‘We have very oft awaked him, as if to carry him to execution, and showed him a seeming warrant for it. It hath not moved him at all.’ The ineffectiveness of play-acting as a way to re-educate old lags is attested by Mariacristina Cavecchi. Productions of Shakespeare, she writes, are often staged in prisons in the belief that this will aid rehabilitation, but those involved develop skills that have little application outside prison walls. These productions can even entrench discipline by requiring prisoners to conform to roles.
The prize-winning film Shakespeare behind Bars (2005), which documents a production of The Tempest in a Kentucky penitentiary, presents the play as humanising ‘by accepting the inevitability of incarceration, framing Shakespeare performance as moral instruction’. As Cavecchi points out, the logic of imprisonment and re-education has been challenged by Black Lives Matter, with its focus on racially slanted rates of incarceration. The playwright Armando Punzo has responded to similar doubts in Italy by staging adaptations that encourage prisoners to move beyond assigned roles. After the Tempest (2016) invited prisoners in Volterra to transform themselves rather than be transformed by Shakespeare. They slipped out of their parts, in a play that does resemble a prison, with Prospero in control and disciplining the inmates, from Caliban to Ariel and Ferdinand, who is condemned to stack logs for having the effrontery to be attracted to Miranda.
This chimes with Vincent Lloyd’s essay on ‘The Virtues in Black Theology’, which presents Prospero’s chastened reacquisition of ducal power at the end of the play and the courtship of Ferdinand and Miranda as commending a respectable morality based on white domination. ‘Black ways of life tend to be condemned as vicious,’ Lloyd writes, ‘when, in fact, black ways of life involve habits forged for survival and struggle, the truest sense of Christian virtue.’ Caliban has learned that Prospero’s morality is merely a show to establish his command. He only obeys his master because of physical force. Caliban may be a sinner: he is a drinker and a would-be rapist who cuts through Miranda’s consent. But this is because he is isolated and lacks the guidance of black society. ‘Virtues,’ Lloyd concludes, ‘are not good actions but good habits, not performed alone but in community.’
The rising tide of presentism in Shakespeare and Virtue never reaches the high-water mark of Shakespeare on Consent, which has chapters on Romeo and Juliet and the ‘dead girl aesthetic’ encouraged by pornography, and on A Midsummer Night’s Dream as a comedy about date rape and somnophilia. Bailey opens the latter discussion with a series of Reddit posts from 2020. The authors are troubled by the fact that, when Helena and Demetrius marry at the end of the play, Demetrius is acting under the influence of a juice extracted from a plant called love-in-idleness. As Pumpkin Pal puts it, ‘he was basically drugged into loving someone.’ Bailey wonders ‘whether we should be teaching this play in secondary schools and colleges’ when it ‘naturalises somnophilia and desensitises readers and viewers to a particularly disturbing formulation of consent’.
That consent and travesties of consent are crucial to the comedy is indisputable. In the opening scene, Hermia tells Theseus that she will not obey her father and marry Demetrius because she loves Lysander. She refuses to give up her virginity when her ‘soul consents not’. Her flight from Athens with Demetrius triggers the quadrille of interchangeable affection that the four lovers are put through by dream and magic. It is bewildering as well as funny, and the play has often been seen as capturing the irrationality and danger of falling in and out of love. But the script makes a clear distinction between true love and the false love that can obscure it, out of social convention, infatuation or the magic spells spoken over the love-juice that Oberon, the king of the fairies, and his disruptive minion Puck streak on unsuspecting eyelids.
When Oberon applies this potion to his sleeping queen, Titania, he says: ‘What thou seest when thou dost wake,/Do it for thy true love take.’ He does not say that Bottom topped with an ass’s head will actually be her true love (a niche he wants to keep for himself). The charm operates similarly when Oberon chastises Puck for switching Lysander’s affection from Hermia to Helena: ‘Thou hast mistaken quite,/And laid the love juice on some true love’s sight.’ The sap of love-in-idleness has produced ‘Some true love turned, and not a false turned true’. When Demetrius’s eyes are anointed to return him to his pre-play devotion to Helena (to whom, we are later told, he was betrothed), Oberon says: ‘When his love he doth espy,/Let her shine as gloriously/ As the Venus of the sky.’ So the outcome of the comedy is not a druggy delusion. Helena was Demetrius’s ‘love’ even while he was encouraged by Hermia’s father to love another.
The Reddit contributors and Bailey are wrong about the play, but we can learn from social media. The fickleness of Demetrius and Lysander is impelled by what TikTokers call ‘the ick’. This is the sudden feeling of revulsion that can sweep into a relationship, often but not always irreversibly. In language that already anticipates a return to his true love, Lysander says he must have turned against Hermia because ‘a surfeit of the sweetest things/The deepest loathing to the stomach brings’. Much the same happens to Demetrius when he realises that his suit to Hermia, led by social expectation, no longer feels right, and he returns to Helena: ‘Like a sickness did I loathe this food;/But, as in health come to my natural taste,/Now I do wish it, love it, long for it.’
Both these speeches are highlighted in Bradley J. Irish’s Shakespeare and Disgust because they show the importance of the visceral. In the early modern period, as now, people were triggered by the actual or perceived risk of what is contaminating, infected or alien. As Neema Parvini notes when discussing sanctity in Shakespeare and Virtue, the evolutionary and psychological root of disgust lies in our fears about unsafe food. But it is driven by other reminders of our animal natures and mortality: sex, excrement, body smells, bloated fat, signs of ageing, the corpse. ‘Disgust,’ Irish declares, citing scientific research, ‘is one of the central engines of human behaviour.’ It is also, as becomes apparent in his account of a series of plays, ‘one of Shakespeare’s central dramatic concerns’.
Titus Andronicus is a showcase of disgusting scenes, staged or vividly reported: rape, mutilation, the butchery of human bodies and the bloody, vengeful banquet presented by Titus, in which Tamora, queen of the Goths, is fed the flesh of her sons in a pie. People regularly faint at performances or leave the theatre. As Irish points out, though, avoiding what threatens us is not the only dynamic at work here. He cites research showing that we ‘have an attentional bias towards disgusting objects, even as the emotion simultaneously warns us to withdraw ourselves from them’. How far does this ambivalence affect the ending of the tragedy? It strikes me as still present when Aaron the Moor, the director of Lavinia’s rape, is led away in the final scene to be thrust into a hole in the ground, a hole that doubles as a stomach, when he is condemned to starve where he stands. He will consume his own flesh, like Tamora.
Aaron is isolated in his punishment. If anyone feeds or even pities him, they will be executed. Like Tamora, whose corpse is thrown out of the city, he is ejected from the social body the better to preserve it. In Shakespeare, as Irish shows, and more generally, disgust is both a ‘vital affective process through which humans protect the boundaries of their physical bodies from material contaminants’ and an incentive to ‘protect the boundaries of their social bodies from moral contaminants’. The insight isn’t new, and Irish praises, among others, Martha Nussbaum – who is also celebrated in Shakespeare and Virtue for her Aristotelian approach to ethics and drama, and her work on liberal education – for her thinking about culture, law and disgust. Cognition, Nussbaum likes to remind us, is not disembodied, and emotion is not unshaped by ideas. We try to avoid what is repulsive in ourselves by building carapaces of pride, and by projecting disgust onto the racially other.
In Citadels of Pride (2021), Nussbaum skewers the psychology of men who shun the task of looking for desire in women and want them as objects of conquest. ‘The fundamental issue,’ she declares, ‘is not sex; it is power. Sexual abuse and sexual harassment … are abuses of power by people encouraged to believe that they are above others and that others are not fully real.’ Setting aside the question of whether power can be extricated from attraction, this allows us to think about the connection between the pride of those who breach sexual consent and such other forms of arrogance as ‘white race pride’. Disgust figures because hyperanimality and hypersexuality is imputed to outside groups. ‘If those allegedly subhuman humans embody the stench and smell of the body,’ Nussbaum observes, ‘that is because they are beneath us, and we are not like that.’ The proud only look at themselves but the disgusted won’t look at themselves.
Racial discrimination and denial of consent are both calculated to subordinate and when they are piled together can be crushingly oppressive. But measures to curb the former can be turned against the latter. This was shown in America by the use of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act to support a black bank teller, Mechelle Vinson, when she sued Meritor Savings Bank and her supervisor after she was sexually coerced by him and had to leave her job. For Nussbaum, Vinson’s victory encourages us to believe that the defeat of racism can be harnessed to progress on consent. In a New Yorker interview quoted sceptically by Bailey, she argues that those accused of sexual abuse should not be pilloried without due process in the way encouraged by #MeToo. Instead, we should use what Martin Luther King called radical anger to bring about change.
Because Bailey is moving at this point from Titania’s bed in A Midsummer Night’s Dream to the abuse and breach of consent that led Lorena Bobbitt to chop off her husband’s penis and throw it out of a car window, she is impatient with Nussbaum’s advice that we ‘lop off the desire for retribution’ and ‘combine the outrage with a move forward that involves hope and faith’. This is to underestimate, she feels, how difficult it remains to prevent marital rape and the extent of sexualised violence. Certainly, the murder of Desdemona, when Othello suffocates her in a travesty of the sex act, is horribly familiar. Picking up Nussbaum’s phrase about lopping off retribution, Bailey writes: ‘As a culture, apparently, we are still on the fence about what needs to be lopped off.’
What if the murder of Desdemona shows Shakespeare stirring up fears in his audience about black men attacking white women? Is the climax of Othello racist? Irish helps us see that this question can only be answered if we look not just at the way the role of Othello is culturally constructed but the way the tragedy shows him being driven by those around him into the abject role he plays out. ‘Othello’s undoing is underwritten,’ he writes, ‘by the extent to which he becomes construed as a disgusting object by his fellow Venetians.’ Just as Shylock is provoked into becoming the cruel and usurious Jew that hostile Venetian Christians expect him to be, so Othello mutates from warrior nobility and poise into a negatively stereotyped African, rolling his eyes and gnawing his nether lip as he kills an innocent woman.
The play starts with a shocking burst of racist banter as Iago and Roderigo stir up Brabantio, Desdemona’s father, with news that his white ewe is being tupped by an old black ram. Animality is projected as a motor of disgust. The drama also begins with a distinctively early modern breach of consent. Like Hermia, Desdemona overrides her father’s permission when she elopes with and marries her lover. To secure the support of the Senate, or because this is the way she thinks as a white Venetian, Desdemona says that she looked beyond his vile countenance: ‘I saw Othello’s visage in his mind.’ The racist ploy is repeated when the Duke urges Brabantio to accept his daughter’s choice: ‘Your son-in-law is far more fair than black.’ So the new couple’s marriage is socially grounded on denial and is readily taken apart when they go to the garrison island of Cyprus. There, as Irish shows, disgust is stirred up by Iago and used to corrupt Othello himself.
This is the pity of it, that Othello should be so vulnerable. The audience won’t be surprised to hear Iago tell Roderigo, Desdemona’s dimwit suitor, that she will come to ‘heave the gorge, disrelish, and abhor the Moor’. This merely develops, with a racist twist, the link between over-indulgence and getting the ick that Shakespeare has already drawn on, in Demetrius and Lysander’s words about their own fickleness. What is more alarming is how daringly he plays on Othello’s insecurity in a racially distorted society, so that we see Othello convincing himself that Desdemona was disgusting in turning down eligible suitors and seizing on him: ‘Faugh! One may smell in such a will most rank,/Foul disproportion, thoughts unnatural.’ Othello admits the poisonous thought that must already have been stirring, that if there is something repulsive about Desdemona’s desire (‘Goats and monkeys!’) it is because, in Irish’s words, ‘he, at his core, is disgusting.’ Like The Merchant of Venice, and to some extent Titus Andronicus, Othello is going to be harder to programme and perform as audiences become more sensitive to the obscenity of racist incitement. But Shakespeare’s attention to the way such abuse meshes with widely condoned irrationalities about colour and sexual consent makes the play indispensable.
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