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Karen Newman Othello Criticism

In her 1987 article “‘And wash the Ethiop white’: femininity and the monstrous in Othello,”1 Karen Newman sets out re-examine prior critical analysis of Shakespeare’s Othello with the goal to re-read Shakespeare in ways which […] contest the hegemonic forces, [his] plays at the same time affirm (158).” Her argument scrutinizes the “the male-dominated Venetian world” (152) of the play and the criticism that it has generated against correlating historical perspectives. Her main thesis about the play asserts that “the union of Desdemona and Othello represents a sympathetic identification between femininity and the monstrous which offers a potentially subversive recognition of sexual and racial difference.” Employing a feminist approach Newman reveals the racial and gender prejudices inherent both in the play and the critique levelled at it from 1600 through to 1980. In seeking new ways of reading Othello Newman draws on Derrida’s poststructuralist ideas to establish parallels between the relationship of gender and race. She contends that Desdemona and Othello are equally marginalized by Venetian society; Othello’s race and Desdemona’s progressive sexuality presenting equivalent risk to the dominant white male society.
In verifying how these attitudes pervade the play itself, Newman points out that fear of miscegenation functions on two levels. Firstly Shakespeare uses the “white man’s fear of the union of black man and white women (144)” to generate the plot, and secondly through the binary opposition of black and white characteristic of the plays discourse. To substantiate she quotes from the play: “Black ram” tups “white ewe” and “O, the more angel she, And you the blacker devil.” The last line illustrates what Newman terms “rhetorical miscegenation.” Outlining the frequency with which black and white were used to “denote polarization” during the Renaissance, (145) she comments on how the emphasis in Othello of Desdemona as “the idealisation of fair female beauty” is usually read to emphasise the contrast between these two characters, and declares that contrary to early critics she views Desdemona not as a representative of opposition to “blackness and monstrosity, as black is to white,” but as identifying with it. Newman’s assertion that the “play is structured around a cultural aporia, miscegenation” is the first cornerstone of her argument.
Newman’s next device is to establish a link between femininity and the racial attitudes inherent in the play. Again she refers to Ridley’s criticism, claiming that his choice of example portrays a generalization of women as “petty,” thereby confirming his gender prejudice. Ridley has displaced “the struggle of white against black man onto a cultural femininity.” Newman is sympathetic to Stephen Greenblatt’s (1980) view that Othello’s identity is reliant on his “loss of his own origins, an embrace and perpetual reiteration of the norms of another culture,” but criticises this focus as failing to recognise the “other” as black and female: “Othello internalises alien cultural values, but his otherness remains apparent, dividing him from that culture and thereby linking him to the play’s other marginality, femininity.” Newman claims critical considerations with regard to the symbolic significance of the handkerchief reflect gender prejudices. “Reigning critical preoccupations” result in the significance of the handkerchief being limited to a sign of adultery. Contrasting this she terms the handkerchief a “snowballing signifier”, acquiring figurative and literal meaning as it passes from hand to hand. Newman contests psychoanalytical readings as problematic since they “privilege a male scopic drama” casting the women as a “failed man” once again negating her “otherness” and limiting female sexuality to fetish. (156)
Identifying racial attitudes as inclusive of attitudes towards black sexuality, Newman references popular travel accounts of the time, outlining African as “presented descriptively […] but also mythically” (148) concluding: “always we find a link between blackness and the monstrous, and particularly a monstrous sexuality.” These attitudes Newman asserts assimilated into the drama of early modern England. (149) Newman observes the portrayal of Desdemona as “voracious” and “devouring with a greedy ear”; threatening to masculine perceptions of femininity. Her desire is presented in terms of an aural/oral libidinal causing Othello anxiety. Newman sees this anxiety as having a duel source – the monstrous difference it invokes against his adopted culture, and that it “allies her imagined sexual appetite with his own.” Othello and Iago are linked in representing white male sexuality in the play. Simultaneously and paradoxically Othello also represents the threat to it. Newman’s investigation of historical criticisms surrounding femininity as represented by Desdemona, uncovers several ironies. Rymer and Cinthio in a cautionary moral link Desdemona’s social disobedience to her sexual duplicity. Othello’s punishment of Desdemona however simultaneously confirms the cultural prejudice which labels him a monster. In addition Iago’s dramatic construction which leads Othello to see Desdemona as a whore, demonstrates how theatrical representation can provide false influence.
Newmans undoubtedly subscribes to a feminist school of criticism, seeking to expose the nature of gender inequality and opposing the inherent male hegemony represented within the play. In addition, by her own account, her reading is also political in that it “exposes the ideological discourses which organise the text.” She comments that poststructuralist approaches highlight that even “highly formalist readings are political, inscribed in the discourses both of the period in which the work was produced and of those in which it is consumed.” Newman references Derrida’s work on racism and in addition to employing deconstructionist discourse his influence can be seen in Newman’s design. Recognizing the binary opposition denoted by the polarization of Othello’s “blackness” and Desdemona’s “whiteness”, Newman develops this to assimilate the implied opposition of monstrosity or miscegenation represented by Othello and femininity represented by Desdemona. Deconstructive discourse incorporates the notion that difference exists both between signified and signifier, and at the same time that the signified defers meaning to the signifier. The role of the literary critic is seen as seeking a “slippage” in the text, thereby denoting duplicity and revealing how the internal linguistic and thematic rules are inexact. Newman finds this critical slippage in both Rymers “Short view of Tragedy” (1693) and again in Ridley’s criticism 250yrs later, to be the lapse from blackness to femininity. (155)
Newman’s approach offers new and valuable insights through its address of past criticisms, detailing not only how they relate to the ideology of the time they represent, but also illustrating how criticism in itself can be read to demonstrate new ideas and ways of reading the play. Her analysis however, places its emphasis on the Desdemona’s interracial relationship with Othello and how her disobedience to her father and her choice of black man threaten the prevalent white male hegemony. Newman does not address other characters marginalised through class distinctions and gender. One such relationship is that between aristocratic Cassio and the courtesan Bianca. The secret nature of their liaison is both essential to the plot but also preserves Cassio’s social standing. Cassio treats Bianca with little respect scorning her foolishness in loving him. Cassio, Iago and Brabantio all share a mutual sexist prejudice in a similar way to the racist disdain which shapes their worldview. Othello can be seen to be outside this racial bigotry but Newman does not address the question of whether he accepts the central stereotyped perception of women. Newman’s outline of historical women’s roles focuses solely on a westernized version of society and does not address the way in which women were historically regarded within non-westernized cultures.
Hinging on the underpinning social apprehension with regard to miscegenation, Newman’s argument takes it lead from Bennett’s notion that “the position a text holds within relation to the ideology at its origin is not necessary an indication of the position which it may subsequently come to hold in different historical and political contexts.” Some critics however claim Newman is anachronistic, applying modern concepts of racism historically. Shakespearian audiences would have understood race in a totally different way to contemporary audiences. It would then follow that Newman’s application of contemporary ideas with regard to other cultural constructs such as gender would be equally out of place. Acknowledging that Shakespeare was “certainly subject to the racist, sexist, and colonialist discourses of his time,” Newman declares that by making Othello a black man and through Desdemona’s love for him, “Shakespeare stands in a contestory relation to the hegemonic ideologies of race and gender in early modern England.” Newman’s argument is detailed and engages the play against historical points of view, addressing feminist issues and at the same time employing poststructuralist thinking to achieve her goal of establishing a link between femininity and race. Newman sees such strategies of reading as a social responsible in that they illuminate artificial enactment of works which may falsely represent “those marginalised groups standing outside culture and simultaneously within it.” This representation she sees as being obscured by the immediacy of dramatic performance. Her analysis of Othello is a demonstration of how seamlessly racial attitudes in early English drama where transmitted to viewpoints surrounding gender and sexuality, illustrating how mutually constitutive race, gender, and sexuality can be.

Manliness in Macbeth, Shakespeare

Manliness should not be considered a quality that can be possessed only by men. It is a set of values which can be possessed by anyone who’s determined to live as a strong, moral and free person. All of the characteristics such as strong identity and free will can be considered positive if they are in a harmony with making the community a strong unit. William Shakespeare’s Macbeth brings several characteristics which supplement the manliness, making it even a stronger ideal connected not only to the single person but to the whole community as well. In the play the king who represents the whole country is murdered by his bravest soldier Macbeth. Thus the society and the nature shake and they lose their stability. After this betraying act the other noble lords try to restore the broken order by dethroning Macbeth and his wife. In this dramatic play the author shows that “manly” means to fight for the interests of the nation and it also symbolizes the strong volition and the belief in one’s own ability to maintain control over their life. According to Shakespeare manliness means to make things right in harmony with the natural and social order.
One of Shakespeare’s ideas about manliness is the idea of the man fighting for fairness and having the strength to oppose the evil. In the play Macbeth and Lady Macbeth often times threaten the social order and shake the stability of the country. The first action which reveals which qualities are manly and which are not is the murder of King Duncan. He was a person who was naturally given the right to rule Scotland because after his assassination it is revealed that “the earth/ Was feverous and did shake” (2.3.60-2.3.61) The nature reacted to this brutal act in order to show how unmanly this action is. The king is Scotland and he represents the whole nation. Killing the leader of a community means ruining the whole community and destroying all social norms. Macbeth interfered with the rules of nature while a real man has the ability to follow the laws dictated by God and the supreme power, because they are relevant to the survival of the whole nation. A man does not have a sick ambition to break the order, as Macbeth does. In fact with every new crime something dies inside him. The Thane of Cawdor can be definitely characterized with the phrase of the witches that “Fair is foul, foul is fair.”, because he is double-faced (1.1.10). One real man would never pretend to be someone else and he would be sincere and honest. Macbeth breaks the sacred loyalty; he is a betrayer which certainly does not make him a man. Manliness characterizes only a person who is trustworthy, a person like Macduff who sacrifices his whole family in order to reestablish the peace and order in Scotland. This action requires a lot of strength which is not only physical but psychical as well. To abandon the family means putting the society as a number one priority. In general all of the people who oppose Macbeth can be considered manly. All characters who kept thinking that Duncan’s murder was a breach of the nation’s stability risk their lives in order to return the fairness. Young Siward “has paid a soldier’s debt: / only lived but till he was a man;” which shows that they are very selflessly devoted to succeed (5.8.39-5.8.40). Another thing that this quote shows is that in Macbeth’s society even the children are taught that saving of community’s strength is a major moral value. Previously Macbeth was also considered selfless, as he “nev’r shook hands, nor bade farewell to him (Macdonwald),/ Till he unseamed him from the nave to th’ chops,” (1.2.21-1.2.22). Maybe he was also taught in such a way as Siward’s son. It seems that as the play goes on Macbeth transforms from a person who fights the betrayers to a person who becomes a betrayer. The Thane of Cawdor is not a real “man”, because he opposes the natural order and he also does not posses steadfastness.
Another characteristic of manliness is not to succumb to the influence of other people, which can make a person do rash things. One can possess many moral values, but if one does not have the strength to keep them one will break them. That is what happens with the character of Macbeth as well. He deserved once to be called a “worthy” man because of his bravery but his credulity made him take the wrong way. Macbeth believed in the prophecy of the witches and their words started feeding his sick ambition. If he was manly, however, he would not believe in it so credulously. One of the etymologies of the word “man” comes from the root men- “to think”. That is why one of the characteristics of manliness is the process of thinking sensibly. But Macbeth was so enchanted by the words of the witches that he also says “Stay, you imperfect speakers, tell me more :”( 1.3.70). In contrast to Macbeth, Banquo says wisely “The instrument of darkness tell us truths,/ Win us with honest trifles, to betray’s/ In deepest consequences.” (1.3.124-1.3.126).That makes Banquo a real man because he is a realist who depends only on his own strength. Banquo also does not allow the witches to brainwash him and he does not believe them so credulously. A real “man” like him should be able to distinguish between what is good and what is bad, i.e. what is fair and what is foul. On the other hand Macbeth keeps on believing in the prophecy and we see him as he goes to the witches by himself and asks them for his destiny. The Thane of Cawdor depends not only on his abilities, but he also expects help from the witches. A real man would rely only on his strength because this shows that he is certain about his abilities. Another fact that proves that Macbeth has a very weak character is that he is very easily manipulated by his wife. In the seventh scene of act 1 Lady Macbeth says “From this time/Such I account thy love. Art thou afeard/ To be the same in thine own act and valor/ As thou art in desire?”(1.27.38-1.7.41)This shows that the change in Macbeth’s behavior is due to his weak spirit. He is not able to control his volition as he is mostly affected by the will of his wife. The man is the stronger sex and he should have the power to act according his own outlook. In contrast Macbeth does not know himself because he has lost his identity: “To know my deed, ’twere best not know myself.”(2.3.72). A manly deed can be considered again the act of Macduff who sacrifices his family in order to maintain the welfare of the whole nation. In fact in Macbeth all men except Macbeth are real men because they do not weaken and they save their ability to control their lives only by their volitions
Shakespeare’s play Macbeth brings the topic of manliness. The progressing action in the play makes the characters face different difficulties and their different reactions bring the contrast between what is manly and what is not. The “manly” qualities which are presented in Macbeth enrich the reader’s view of life and how it has changed during the centuries. Morality has changed and the values of the communities have changed. In conclusion what William Shakespeare tries to teach the reader is that manly is not a word that describes only men, but manliness is a moral value that makes one combine the ability of being an individual with the ability of being a social efficient member of a community.

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