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"Off, off, you lendings:" The Exposure of Social and Generic Artifice in Shakespeare

About the Author: Claude Fretz
Claude Fretz read English at Royal Holloway, University of London, and is currently studying for the MA in Shakespeare Studies at University College London. He will be starting a PhD in September. His main research interests are Shakespeare and Renaissance literature and culture. His paper was submitted last year, when he was an undergraduate at Royal Holloway, and again this year.
By Claude Fretz | General Essays


In A Short View of Tragedy (1693), Thomas Rymer attacked William Shakespeare for dismissing the classical rules of tragedy and thus creating inconsistencies, improbabilities and characters acting contrary to nature.[1] Shakespeare’s understanding of genre is indeed distinct from Aristotle’s and essentially fluid, not least because he presumably never read Aristotle, but derived his understanding of the genres of comedy and tragedy from medieval sources.[2] David Bevington has noted that the preface to Troilus and Cressida hints at the play’s ostensibly comedic nature, whereas the Quarto and Folio title pages present the play as history and tragedy respectively.[3] As I shall show, the same difficulty applies to Twelfth Night, Othello, and Cymbeline, which are plays with seemingly more straightforward generic identities. By smuggling comic scenes and fools or clowns with privileged knowledge and comprehension into tragedy, and solemn themes into comedy, Shakespeare plays havoc with the traditional association of the lower social strata with comedy, and noble, dignified themes and realms with tragedy. In contrast to Rymer’s argument about Shakespeare’s inappropriate use of genre, the subversion of classical genre theory and conventional class or gender prejudices in fact enables Shakespeare to display his supreme understanding of human nature. 

Shakespeare’s critical engagement with existing categories of plays is epitomised by Polonius’s inexhaustible repertoire of mock-genres in Hamlet: “The best actors in the world, either for tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, tragical-comical-historical-pastoral, scene individable or poem unlimited” (II.ii.363-66).[4] As Peter Holbrook highlights with reference to the evolution of Shakespearean comedy over time, a gradual complexity of traditional social hierarchy coincides with a growing sophistication of genre.[5] Regarding the subversion of hierarchy, it might even be argued that its climax is an egalitarian vision, as in As You Like It, where Rosalind’s, Celia’s and Orlando’s exile in the pastoral locus amoenus (pleasant place) of Arden enables them to escape their constrained lives. However, these observations do not only apply to comedies, for Shakespeare has a fluid view of generic patterns.

William Butler Yeats has astutely called all of Shakespeare’s plays tragicomedies,[6] and his assertion takes us right to the heart of Shakespeare’s interest in generic identity. In Twelfth Night, Othello, and Cymbeline, Shakespeare connects this complexity of genre with the subversion of the social classes associated with comedy or tragedy to raise concerns about the innateneeds and desires of humans, all of which are ensnared in social and public personas. This enables Shakespeare to unfold the uncomfortable Dionysian nature of humans that may occasionally escape Apollonian self-restraint. It also helps him to expose the inability of restrictive generic categories to represent humans accurately as well as the incompatibility of humanity with society. 

1. Patriarchal Tension

In Twelfth Night, Othello, and Cymbeline, the underlying egalitarian fundamentals of human nature are concealed and oppressed by culturally generated hierarchies and artificially constructed modes of classification. These plays exhibit heteroglossic communities yoked together in an Early Modern patriarchal system. Sara Munson Deats has noted that in Renaissance household politics, absolute authority was granted to men, unless it contradicted God’s.[7] The tragedy Othello features several patriarchal figures, such as Othello, Iago, and Brabantio, who strive to dominate their wives or, in Brabantio’s case, his daughter. Moreover, the play’s Venice is a conservative world dominated by male aristocrats, with each individual holding their fixed place and matters of disagreement being judged by a senate composed of noble personages. Brabantio even goes as far as describing patriarchy as the natural order of things, claiming that Othello’s marriage with his daughter is “[a]gainst all rules of nature” (I.iii.102).[8] This epitomises Shakespeare’s challenge to artificial social systems that are perceived as the necessary and natural status quo.

Shakespeare seems in disagreement with Brabantio about the nature of things. In Othello, he has created a parvenu protagonist, a former slave turned general, or worse, a black slave having made his way up right through the very heart of a conservative, white society. Thus, the existing social structures, such as patriarchy, are demonstrated to be contingent. Hence, the “Moor” (II.i.279) is a bizarre social amalgam, simultaneously fulfilling the roles of patriarch and socio-cultural Other. Shakespeare further upsets the established order by marrying the former slave to Desdemona, a woman coming from the old Venetian aristocracy. For Brabantio, Desdemona’s disobedience towards him[9] goes beyond understanding, and he cannot help but blame dark magic for her elopement with the Moor: “She is abused, stolen from me, and corrupted/ By spells and medicines bought of mountebarks” (I.iii.62, emphasis mine). Othello, he believes, has “practised on her with foul charms” (I.ii.73), which reveals the huge gulf between the world of Venetian patriarchy and the alternative world in which Shakespeare places the lovers. According to Brabantio, should this subverted world become the norm, “[b]ondslaves and pagans shall our statesmen be” (I.ii.99), as in a Carnivalesque realm.

This social and political storm in Othello coincides with a generic tempest, for Shakespeare paradoxically includes comedic scenes in this tragedy. Featuring a patriarch’s daughter’s elopement with her lover, the play in fact begins like a comedy. Moreover, Iago’s and Roderigo’s plot to inebriate Cassio culminates in a carnivalesque dimension, with the Cypriot governor Montero seeing his authority undermined – “Let me go, sir, or I’ll knock you o’er the mazard” (II.iii.144) - and Cassio threatening Montero as the latter attempts to prevent his assault on Roderigo. Moreover, the inclusion of the clown’s subversive, evasive discourse, which not really “anything [can] be made of” (III.iv.9), addressed to an aristocratic lady, further complicates the purity of Othello as tragedy, not least because it reminds us of Feste in Twelfth Night. Similar instances of carnivalesque subversion can indeed be found in that comedy. Twelfth Night presents us with two a priori conventionally hierarchical households within which roles are attributed according to rank. However, their social organisation is challenged by several carnivalesque agents. Sir Toby, for instance, fails to “confine [him]self within the modest limits of order” (I.iii.7-8)[10] that Maria, and by extension her mistress Olivia, require. Later on, Olivia’s steward, Malvolio, sees his authority and self-respect humiliated when Maria, Feste, and Sir Toby conspire in order to “fool him black and blue” (II.v.9), placing him under the illusion of being loved by his mistress and thus depicting him as an erring “madman” (IV.ii.33).

Lisa Jardine has highlighted that submissiveness in the Renaissance was shown by good manners.[11] Considering Feste’s, Sir Toby’s and Cassio’s misbehaviour, it is surely legitimate to suggest that bad manners show subversion of authority. In a community where an aristocratic lady is called a “fool” by Feste (I.v.37-5),[12] the laughter that is typical of a comedy may indeed be interpreted as “dismantl[ing] monolithic power structures,” as is done by Gary Waller.[13] There is hardly any speech in the play that an audience would approve of more strongly than Sir Toby’s attack on Malvolio, the embodiment of prohibitive hierarchy: “Dost thou think because thou art virtuous there shall be no more cake and ale” (II.iii.106-8). Moreover, Penny Rixon has pointed to the fact that Olivia and Viola are two women who have been deprived of their patriarchal environment as the result of premature deaths and shipwrecks respectively,[14] which compares with Desdemona’s escape from her father’s household. Hence, some obvious parallels can be drawn between the comedy Twelfth Night and the tragedy Othello: regardless of their generic identities, both plays appear to be striving towards a feeling of discontent vis-à-vis the patriarchal state that ensnares their characters. Speaking in terms of genre, tragedy contains carnivalesque components, whereas comedy is to be taken more seriously than the genre would intrinsically allow. As Mario DiGangi states, the difference between Shakespearean comedy and tragedy is not one of “kind”, but one of “degree”.[15] In tragedy, the focus is on noble characters, their duties, and their tragic fall, whereas in comedy, the emphasis is more on the plebeian, comic elements. However, none of the genres completely excludes elements of its opposite.

A similarly inflexible power structure can initially be found in the tragicomic romance Cymbeline. The world of this play is governed by King Cymbeline, who gives the play its title and unifies the plots of the king’s exiled sons, the war against the Romans, and the love story between Innogen and Posthumus. King Cymbeline embodies the same patriarchal obstacle to erotic and romantic fulfilment for Innogen and Posthumus as Brabantio for Othello and Desdemona. However, this conservative structure is inherently problematic, because the real protagonist is Innogen, whereas Cymbeline himself is a passive and peripheral figure and, like Brabantio, a comedic device. The king only sees his power and kingdom restored through the return of his previously kidnapped sons, making them the “Preservers of [his] throne” (V.iv.2),[16] as he himself acknowledges. The complexity here lies in the fact that these very sons had previously been involved in Belarius’s political, social, and theological rebellion against the king[17] because Belarius had raised them as his own sons. This displacement of Cymbeline’s power to Belarius, to summarise one of Erica Sheen’s arguments,[18] combined with the weakness of it, as epitomised in Cymbeline’s unsatisfying submission to Rome at the end (“we submit to Caesar” (V.iv.458)), heavily contributes to the play’s frustration of our expectations. Pointing to the king’s relative absence throughout the play and his indecisiveness even with regard to the war against the Romans, Ruth Nevo wittingly writes that in Cymbeline, “Britain’s heirs [...] are mothered by a man, Britain itself is kinged by a woman [the queen]”.[19] Male patriarchal dominance is undermined at the highest political level. Cymbeline not only proves incapable of preserving his supposed position as a powerful patriarch in terms of controlling his daughter, but is even unable to be the strong king that his country so badly needs in a state of war. In terms of genre, like Othello, Cymbeline is also fraught with comedic scenes of vulgar conduct, the agent of which seems to be Cloten: “I had rather not be so noble as I am! They dare not fight with me because of the Queen my mother” (II.i.17-18), he declares, underpinning his ambition to parallel Sir Toby.

Shakespeare’s concern with the inadequacy of a prohibitive and static patriarchy as a natural mode of hierarchy is a recurrent feature in Twelfth Night, Othello, and Cymbeline. Although there is a sense of reconciliation with social conventions and traditional power structures at the ends of Twelfth NightOthello (because the transgressive hero dies), and Cymbeline, their temporary suspension unsettles them, exposing their “insubstantiality” and making them contingent, as Michael Bristol argues.[20] Likewise, the insufficiency of the artificial rules of comedy and tragedy is exposed, since the rules are inadequate for a representation of humanity and society, both of which are fluid, impulsive, and mercurial and thus cannot be accommodated by restrictive structures. Across all genres, Shakespeare depicts a polyphonic and unruly society yoked together in artificial structures, which is visualised by carnivalesque scenes (e.g. the fooling of Malvolio and Olivia). According to Bakhtin, the carnivalesque opposes “feudal culture” and encourages the vision of a “shifting from top to bottom”, “into the material bodily lower stratum”.[21] It thus leads to a levelling of distinct social hierarchies and shows that even though plebeian characters may serve their masters, they are not (always) their servants.

2. Desire and Subversion

The Bakhtinian carnivalesque in Twelfth Night, Othello, and Cymbeline finds its strongest catalyst in the characters’ drives to satisfy their desires and loves. Desire, as I shall show, encourages transgression and undermines the adequacy of patriarchy which fails to accommodate the natural human drives and needs. It contributes to solving the problems posed by OthelloTwelfth Night, or Cymbeline and enables the contemplation of characters stripped of their artificial social and public identities. In these plays, love and desire can doubtlessly be described as what Dympna Callaghan terms “force[s] of disorder”.[22]

In Twelfth Night, love subordinates the lover Orsino to Olivia, making him become the “servant” (III.i.100) of the woman who is socially inferior to him. Also, it enables Viola and her brother Sebastian to be married to a duke and a countess respectively. While Viola indeed serves Orsino, she ultimately does so for her own purpose - that is, to fulfil her love (for Orsino). Olivia’s infatuation with Viola when the latter is disguised as the page Cesario underpins the argument that love in Shakespearean comedyexposes the artificiality of social rank, although Viola and Sebastian are eventually revealed not to be of low birth.[23] Further evidence of Shakespeare’s use of love’s transgressive qualities lies in his focus on the pre-marital aspect of it. Twelfth Night ends with marriage, with marital life itself being left undramatised. Marriage signifies the institutionalisation of love, the loss of independence for women and subordination to men and patriarchy. In order to emphasise transgression and equality between different characters, Twelfth Night dramatises the success of pre-marital feelings in terms of their egalitarian, transcendental potential while being liberated from their social, patriarchal framework, which is enforced either by marriage or by the father’s rule over his daughter.

Quite frequently, the transgression of restrictive social structures is thus related to women, and women are hardly ever passive in pursuing their desires. In Othello, even the traditionally masculine tragic genre that focuses on the fall of a heroically-acting male protagonist is thus feminised because of the significant role of female desires and feelings. In her book on women and Renaissance tragedy, Callaghan argues that woman functions as “the instigator of tragic action”.[24] However, the precondition for subversion or disobedience is always an authoritarian social environment, one which permeates both classical tragedy and Othello. Love in Othello is tragic because it stages the moments of institutionalised love - that is, patriarchy’s subdual of love and oppression of the liberties associated with the boundless pursuit of desire. Since desire is only allowed to manoeuvre within a marital and therefore restrictive framework, feelings are referred back to the tensions between patriarchy and social liberty that are resolved through the enactment of pre-marital love in Twelfth Night. In Cymbeline, the original sin is not committed by the love-driven Innogen, but by the king, for he is the one who functions as the oppressive obstacle to Innogen’s erotic fulfilment and attempts to marry her to the villain Cloten.

Desdemona’s speech to her father shows that her love for Othello and her desire to break free are the driving forces behind her disobedience:

My noble father

I do perceive here a divided duty:

To you I am bound for life and education;

My life and education both do learn me

How to respect you: you are the lord of duty,

I am hitherto your daughter. But here’s my husband;

And so much duty as my mother showed

To you, preferring you before her father,

So much I challenge that I may profess

Due to the Moor my Lord. (Othello, I.iii.179-87, emphasis mine)

“Divided duty” means that Desdemona’s love leads to the transferral of her obedience from her father to Othello, who is now her “Lord”. Brabantio’s opposition to her marriage suggests that the hearing before the Duke of Venice marks for Desdemona a transition from Brabantio’s rule over her to her union with Othello in which, despite being a woman, she interestingly becomes socially superior to the man at her side. To use Cassio’s words, she becomes “our great captain’s captain” (II.1.74), a statement which, given the disparity in rank between the Moor and the senator’s daughter, must be taken most literally. As Iago comments, “[Desdemona] may make, unmake, do what she list” (II.iii.331). Since the social positions of both Brabantio and Othello are thus weakened through their loss of complete control over their households and wives (who follow their own desires), patriarchy is once again subverted.

Callaghan’s argument about female upheaval being the origin of Shakespearean tragedy must be disputed because of Iago and the reasons for Othello’s growing madness towards the closure of the play. Iago plants within Othello’s mind a sense of dispossession of Desdemona’s body and, as a result, of social and political control,[25] for a non-patriarchal private household was seen as a threat to patriarchy and public order as a whole.[26] The reason for the fertility of the ground on which Iago spills this seed then is twofold. First, it is important to see female rebellion against patriarchy as an act of liberation rather than a dangerous revolution from below: “To liberty, and not to banishment” (I.iii.128), as Celia proclaims in As You Like It.[27] I have shown how Othello is a regressive tragedy as opposed to Shakespeare’s progressive comedies in that it displays the post-marital, tragic outcome of the equalising wooing staged in Twelfth Night. Not woman, but patriarchal or aristocratic oppression, is the origin of Othello’s tragic fall. Othello fails and falls because, despite commanding the Venetian army, he remains a racial, social, and cultural Other in the eyes of many. The second reason for his susceptibility to Iago’s manipulation resides in his anxiety about meeting the expectations of a Venetian society that requires him to be in complete social and sexual control of his wife. Kim Hall, for example, has pointed to the need for men in Early Modern England to exercise total command over their wives because women were seen as “inherently sinful”.[28]

However, Othello’s abuse of male power, exemplified when he calls Desdemona a “cunning whore” (IV.ii.90), legitimises female resistance within the unstable status quo of male dominance. Emilia’s recurrent challenges to Iago’s authority also express a drive to escape the oppressive domestic sphere:

Let husbands know

Their wives have sense like them; they see, and smell,

And have their palates both for sweet and sour

As husbands have. [...]

And have we not affections,

Desire for sport, and frailty, as men have? (IV.iii.88-96)

Whereas Desdemona’s disobedience might be interpreted as the necessary transferral of obedience from father to husband and therefore as pragmatic, Emilia’s speech shows that female disobedience in Othello is ideological and systemic. Shakespeare’s interest in women’s feelings engenders an unconventional emancipation of female characters. He creates sympathetic unruly heroines or, in the eyes of patriarchs like Brabantio or Cymbeline, “disloyal thing[s]” (Cymbeline, I.i.132) who, like Desdemona or Innogen, are “senseless to [patriarchs’] wrath” (I.i.135) and establish their independence. Through them, desire, the catalyst of their transgressions, exposes the inadequacy of social conventions in terms of accommodating things innately human, such as feelings and emotional needs and drives. Also highlighting this opposition between artificial construction and natural state in Shakespeare’s plays, David Scott Kastan asserts that “class positions are exposed as something other than essential facts of human existence, revealed, rather, as changeable and constructed” (emphasis mine).[29] Hence, the fixed and definitive class positions envisaged by the patriarchal system are shown to be contingent, and they may shift according to a variety of social, ontological or emotional factors, for instance.

Janet Adelman has contended that Cymbeline creates a reinforcedmale realm that displaces the initially socially superior Innogen into the position of simple wife, and therefore “recover[s] masculine authority at the end”.[30] In the final act, the re-established king even engages in a parthenogenetic vision: “Oh, what am I,/ A mother to the birth of three?” (V.iv.368-9). However, the mere inclusion of scenes of disobedience and the vindication of Innogen’s unruliness by her final marriage with her lover invite us to reflect on the impact of restrictive socio-political environments on purely human existence itself. The argument that Shakespeare’s treatment of love is ultimately conservative cannot be maintained, since transgressive, subversive episodes are more than amusing. They change our perception of the characters and their actions and ultimately overshadow the final return to the status quo ante. In Cymbeline, the ending consists of a poetically weak commitment of Cymbeline to the union with Rome (which had been previously broken, leading to a war) as well as of his unsatisfactory reconciliation with the formerly banished Belarius, which make it pale in comparison.

It must be noted though that desire does not always lead to transgressions, and especially not to ostensibly blissful endings. Similarly, the deconstruction of patriarchy does not exclusively promote a cheerful egalitarian vision of society. “Thou took’st a beggar, wouldst have made my throne/ A seat for baseness” (Cymbeline, I.i.141-2), Cymbeline tells Innogen. While alluding to Posthumus’s lower rank, this accusation may also be taken as a starting point for a discussion of love’s quality as ontologically debasing. Shakespeare’s treatment of love and marriage is fraught with ambiguities. I have already stressed marriage’s institutionalisation of love and the resulting resubmission of women to men.[31] As regards love itself, it can be both liberating and imprisoning; it may contribute to the play’s resolution or further complexity. In Othello and Cymbeline, love and women expose men’s vulnerability in terms of their ontological and social identities. One reason for this resides in the pressure that society puts on men to control their wives socially and sexually, thus cultivating within them an obsessive anxiety about cuckoldry, something which Iago ruthlessly exploits. “A horned man’s a monster and a beast” (IV.i.58), Othello explains, thus drawing attention to the vulnerability of men to unruly wives. In Cymbeline, not even the “manacle of love” (I.i.122) with which Posthumus attempts to bind Innogen to him fails to prevent the anxiety about being cuckolded from haunting him.

In Othello and Cymbeline, men are “at the mercy of their own fantasies about loss of control of women”, as Bevington states.[32] In Cymbeline, Posthumus encounters the same anxiety that leads to Othello’s tragic fall, but is saved by his servant’s disobedience (which casts yet another positive light on unruliness). In its protagonist’s obsession with social and sexual weakness, Cymbeline replicates the bleak vision of love set out in the tragedy Othello.[33] Posthumus’s mind is poisoned by Iachimo in the same way that Othello is manipulated by Iago,[34] namely by conjuring up their fears about cuckoldry. In both plays, women and love make men feel apprehensive, not least because the possession of a woman signifies the acquisition of social and political credit. It seems that this insecurity about the danger of female power may in fact lead to Cymbeline’s fantasy about parthenogenesis, which looks like a monstrous cure of the monstrous debasement into a “beast” that Innogen’s and Desdemona’s supposed infidelity instigate in Posthumus and Othello. The anxiety about women’s active pursuit of their lust, described by Othello as “O monstrous! Monstrous!” (III.iii.428), strips men of their reassuring public and social personas and opens up the possibility of a much darker form of equality between humans than previously shown, an aspect which I shall more fully explore in the fourth chapter; in Twelfth NightOthello, and Cymbeline, this equalisation of characters on the grounds of their ontological baseness, which is exposed by jealousy and sexual anxiety, coexists with the transgressions instigated by their desire. 

3. Transgressions and Alternative Hierarchies

The Janus-faced aspect of love discussed thus far exposes the twofold nature of transgression and equalisation that I shall explore in this and the subsequent chapter. As I shall demonstrate, socially marginal characters in Twelfth NightOthello, and Cymbeline, such as the former’s fool Feste with his subversive humour, resist patriarchy and hierarchy, and instead seek social mobility and transgression. As I have argued, gender ideologies and social classifications do not take into account emotional drives and other human, biological factors. In Twelfth Night, Shakespeare makes us witness Viola disguising herself as the page Cesario. She then gains the trust and love of Duke Orsino, who “unclasp[s]/ To [her] the book even of [his] secret soul” (I.iv.13-14), an assertion which turns the relationship between the socially inferior page-woman (even if Orsino is not yet aware of that at this stage) and the duke into a male bond between equals. Like social and public identities, gender difference is insubstantial and performable; it is changeable by means of simple disguise, a device which is able to transform plebeians into arrivistes. Although, ultimately, the marriage between Olivia and Sebastian (whom the former believes to be Cesario) is not strictly transgressive because Sebastian’s and Viola’s social ranks turn out to be reputable, the countess’s decision to marry someone she believes to be a page is very intriguing in terms of subverting social conventions. In the page Cesario and by extension Sebastian, Twelfth Night thus features two real parvenus, despite the factors that reconcile it with its Early Modern habitus. Viola ascends because she becomes ‘the lamb that [Orsino] do[es] love’ (V.i.126). Of similar magnitude is the fact that Olivia, when proposing to Sebastian, violates the conventions of female propriety that ought to prevent women from actively seeking the fulfilment of their love: “I prithee, would thou’dst be ruled by me” (IV.i.62). The social mobility that love thus generates helps to construct an egalitarian vision, albeit temporarily, because we are eventually awakened from this utopian dream to contemplate the play’s reconciliation with reality. Also part of Shakespeare’s levelling is the display of superior wit, as epitomised by the clown Feste, Olivia’s “corrupter of words” (III.i.34-5). Following Maria’s warning that Olivia will hang him for his absence from her court, he retorts: “Let her hang me. He that is well hanged in this world needs to fear no colours” (I.v.4-5).

The same equalising vision prevails in Othello, where we are presented with a Moor, a ‘black ram’ (I.i.88) whom, as Karen Newman notes, Early Modern theatre convention would only have allowed to be ‘a villain of low status’.[35] But in Othello’s case, social status is subject to social mobility, and rank is neither inherent nor conditional upon racial and social prerequisites. In The Phenomenology of Spirit (1807), Georg W. F. Hegel disproves any ontological inherency of social status and analyses the process of social transgression that leads out of slavery and towards freedom. He argues that slaves are dependent because what they do “is really the action of the lord [...] [The lord’s] is the pure, essential action in this relationship, while the action of the bondsman is impure and unessential.’[36] However, Hegel proceeds, work makes the servant or slave “conscious of what he truly is” and helps him to acquire his full self-consciousness, whereas the master becomes entirely passive.[37] Because the “thinghood” that had previously held the servant in bondage now becomes his own creative work, and because of the acknowledgement that humans need each other, dependence turns into interdependence.[38] When Othello declares that “[the] services which [he] ha[s] done the Signory [Brabantio]/ Shall out-tongue his [Brabantio’s] complaints” (I.ii.18-19), it becomes apparent that Shakespeare had already discerned the inadequacy of any claims to an intrinsic social rank. From being a slave, Othello has metamorphosed into the Venetian general who takes on the Turks. He feels that the service he has done suffices to empower himself to an extent that makes him immune against accusations made on the ground of his initial social and racial inferiority: “[M]y demerits/ May speak unbonneted to as proud a fortune/ As this that I have reached” (I.ii.22-4). It appears as if the logic of Emilia’s egalitarian speech about women’s ascension might well be applied to Othello’s ascension as well. With Othello being a priori unable to marry the daughter of a senator, Shakespeare allows an improbable and, for an Early Modern audience, appalling marriage to happen. Similarly to Othello, Cymbeline’s Posthumus, called “basest thing” (I.i.125) and “poison to my blood” (I.i.128) by the king, is allowed to enter a transgressive marriage with the heiress to the throne who, according to Cymbeline’s plans, would have married the Queen’s villainous son. In both Othello and Cymbeline, traditional master/ servant relationships in marriage are reversed, with the a priori inferior woman becoming socially and politically superior.

While highlighting the flaws of the existing system of social order, Shakespeare nonetheless does not destroy it, but juxtaposes it with his own. He establishes an alternative order that is not based upon social or materialistic factors, but on intellectual and moral ones; his mode of stratification is related to conduct rather than to social and monetary inheritance. In fact, the latter criterion is intrinsically unstable because of its essentialising quality that fails to consider the heterogeneity of a given class or gender in terms of moral conduct and rational or emotional intelligence. In Othello, women are not subordinated, but rather morally exalted. Having been fatally assaulted by Othello, Desdemona displays one last grand assertion of her unconditional submission to her husband, and declares that she herself caused her own “guiltless death” (V.ii.123-5). By remaining heroically submissive until the very end, she ironically rises above Othello in terms of audience respect and admiration not least because, as A. C. Bradley’s admiration for her made him put it, “[Desdemona’s] nature is infinitely sweet and her love absolute.”[39] Likewise, Emilia morally surpasses her husband Iago when his vicious plotting is exposed in the fifth act: she addresses him with “thou” (V.ii.171), thereby rhetorically subjecting him as the beast and thing of the play (previously, she had addressed him using the pronoun “you”). While Othello thus conflates submission and independence, transgression ultimately prevails, for Desdemona’s arguably heroic death vindicates her virtue and, in addition to her determination to marry Othello against her father’s advice, represents yet another enactment of her own will.

Callaghan has argued that “[b]reaking taboos, violating social order, is a vital part of tragic action [in Early Modern plays]”.[40] Shakespeare makes use of these characteristics of Renaissance tragedy to strengthen his equalising vision. He employs a classical model, reshapes it, and accommodates a potentially provocative and unsettling transgression of a female character. Desdemona, in her moral and perhaps intellectual superiority, is comparable to Cymbeline’s Innogen,[41] notably when considering the latter’s casuistic defence of Posthumus when Cloten calls him a “base wretch” (II.iii.107) because of his social inferiority:

Profane fellow,

Wert thou the son of Jupiter, and no more

But what thou art besides, thou wert too base

To be his groom! (II.iii.118-21)

As her retort shows, worthiness depends on the subjective criteria by which it is judged, and these may be moral or emotional rather than social.

In Cymbeline, there is a constant struggle between subordination or obedience on the one hand, and morality on the other, the climax being Posthumus’s order that his servant Pisanio murder Innogen. The princess, in her desperation, urges him to comply: “Come, fellow, be thou honest,/ Do thou thy master’s bidding” (III.iv.62-3). However, Pisanio refuses to allow his sword to “damn [his] hand” (III.iv.72) and thereby reinvents himself as an independent unruly servant who is vindicated and even elevated as a model of morality, for Innogen in fact never was false to Posthumus. Regretting his order, the latter himself admits later on that “[e]very good servant does not all command” (V.i.6). Another example of a servant disobeying his master is Cornelius’s lucid judgement of the queen’s wickedness (“I do know her spirit” (I.v.34)) when she asks him for a deadly poison to murder Innogen, but is merely given a soporific drug. In terms of subversion of social class, plebeian honesty and ethics might contrast with aristocratic or royal hypocrisy. Hence, human qualities work against prejudices, pre-constructed classifications, and, to use Newman’s words, “hegemonic ideologies of race and gender”[42]

In Twelfth Night, Othello, and Cymbeline,Shakespeare rejects the artificially established social and economic criteria of classification. He replaces them with norms that pertain to the human being rather than to the artificial construct of society: intelligence (which is also epitomised by the wit of Shakespeare’s fools), emotionality, and morality. These alternative measures of assessing status enable women, servants, and fools to rise above those who are superior by social status but who lack the resources that give the underdogs their grandeur. They thus complement the complication of hierarchy instigated by the social transgression in which Shakespeare enables his characters (for example Othello and Viola) to engage. I have argued that Shakespeare smuggles comedic scenes into tragedy and tragic elements into comedy, thus creating tragicomic universes. Cymbeline is generally considered to be a straightforward romance or tragicomedy, and as such naturally entails the representation of a “parallel world”:[43] it consists of an (ostensibly) upbeat ending which could easily have turned out to be bleaker, more destructive, and thus tragic. In Cymbeline and the other two partially tragicomic plays of Twelfth Night and Othello, this hybrid genre also exhibits a social parallel world, a mode of classification that differs from the volatile status quo. Even though this vision is artificial and, above all, idealistic, its contrast with patriarchy constitutes an effective way for Shakespeare to point out the flaws in the existing patriarchal and monetary modes of rank and social class.

4. Bestiality and ‘Bare Life’

Having discussed Shakespeare’s vindication of plebeians and women over aristocratic or royal male characters, the twofold nature of Shakespeare’s egalitarian dream requires us to now put its darker side in the spotlight. As Othello teaches us, transgressions may fail and turn into monstrosities. Iago, who is unhappy with his rank and “know[s] [his] price, [is] worth no worse a place” (I.i.10), does not take his dissatisfaction as a starting point for social transgression (in contrast to Othello or Viola), but embarks on a crusade to destroy Othello’s rank.[44] The ruling class’s vulnerability to assaults from the lower stratum is thus once again displayed. But Iago’s case also shows that Shakespeare not only dramatises the positive thrive to transgress, as championed by Goethe in Faust. In fact, Twelfth NightOthello, and Cymbeline point to defects in Hegel’s concept of necessary, unavoidable transgression and interdependence. They stage the collapse of illusory social and patriarchal stability at the same time that they expose human baseness and our potentially monstrous existence. For Shakespeare, simple life, stripped of its social or public aspects, is not necessarily a straightforward locus amoenus, but can involve forgiven atrocities and unprosecuted crimes, as epitomised in Guiderius’s murder of Cloten in the lawless forest of Wales in Cymbeline (IV.ii).

As I have contended, female transgression in a social and political context exposes male vulnerability to women, whose drives a husband was expected to manage. Whereas classical tragedy happens to superior characters, Shakespearean tragedy results from this superiority and its intrinsic instability. The undoing of established public and social identities unveils the bare self, which in turn enables an equalisation of characters at the lowest possible level. As Sir Toby and Sir Andrew in Twelfth Night prove, characters of noble birth cannot automatically be idealised because they possess the same animal instincts that are manifested in the scenes of common, vulgar drunkenness featuring clowns and fools. An unstable parvenu character, Othello becomes the epitome of this downward transgression. Bradley asserts that Othello’s sick jealousy and his anxiety about being cuckolded turn his “human nature into chaos” and “liberat[e] the beast in man”.[45] Bradley’s other remark that Shakespeare was not interested in racial, cultural, or national discrimination[46] can be further explored in relation to this. Like Bradley’s dismissal of racial discrimination in the play, which makes Othello’s baseness ontological, Iago’s baseness - “And what’s he then that says I play the villain” (Othello, II.iii.321) - spoken as part of a soliloquy addressed to the audience, affirms the meta-theatricality and universality of monstrous vices. As Iago suggests in his conversation with Brabantio, his villainy does not derive from social rank, but is systemic and affects even the noblest classes:

Brabantio: Thou art a villain.

Iago: You are a senator. (I.i.117)

The precise syntactic parallelism here juxtaposes the terms “villain” and “senator” to suggest a link between high political rank and villainy. Since, in addition, Othello’s monstrosity is an ontological condition rather than an isolated crime committed out of jealousy, Shakespearean tragedy, as opposed to its classical predecessors, is not limited to individual characters onstage. Instead, it revolves around the entire human mind and thereby happens to everyone.[47]

“Reputation, reputation, reputation! O, I have lost my reputation. I have lost the immortal part of myself, and what remains is bestial” (Othello, II.iii.253-5, emphasis mine), Cassio exclaims after he has been removed from his position as Othello’s lieutenant following his drunken vandalism. Linda Charnes has defined reputation as a “paradigmatic intercourse between social production and desire” that consolidates “gender identity” and thus enables a character to be “erected as a legend”.[48] In Othello, Cassio’s legendary public identity to which he has always aspired is removed as his repressed and “bestial” identity breaks through the surface. The bestiality that is thus unveiled constitutes Shakespeare’s darker form of egalitarianism, as opposed to the utopian levelling of differences and distinctions manifested in much of Twelfth Night. In the essay, “On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth” (1823), which analyses Macbeth’s terror when the porter knocks at the gate, Thomas de Quincey writes:

Murder in ordinary cases, where the sympathy is wholly directed to the case of the murdered person, is an incident of coarse and vulgar horror; and for this reason, that it flings the interest exclusively upon the natural but ignoble instinct by which we cleave to life: an instinct, which, as being indispensable to the primal law of self-preservation, is the same in kind, (though different in degree) amongst all living creatures. This instinct, therefore, because it annihilates all distinctions, and degrades the greatest of men to the level of ‘the poor beetle that we tread on,’ exhibits human nature in its most abject and humiliating attitude. (emphasis mine)[49]

The same thought can be applied to Cassio and Othello, who lose their reputation through base conduct and, in this state of bestiality, desperately try to cling to the remaining shreds of their social identity. Whereas in the case of Macbeth, this situation is caused by the murder of Duncan, it is provoked by a suddenly awakening consciousness of vulnerability in the cases of Cassio and Othello. 

Despite the prevalence of utopian egalitarianism in Twelfth Night, expressed by Olivia’s love for Orsino’s ostensible servant Cesario, and Viola and Sebastian’s marriage with Orsino and Olivia respectively, who are well above their own social rank, the darker dimension to equality that inhabits Othelloor Shakespeare’s problem plays is already prefigured in this earlier comedy. In fact, the play’s closure, with Malvolio’s vow to be “revenged on the whole pack of [Olivia’s household]” (V.i.368), suggests that Olivia’s steward is an embryonic Iago. Moreover, the sinister side of love discussed earlier is present here as well: in the face of Cesario’s (believed) marriage with his beloved, Olivia, Orsino threatens to “sacrifice the lamb that he do[es] love” (V.i.126). In this comedy too, it thus seems that once public identity, social aspiration, or reputation have been shattered, bestiality, murder, crime, and vicious plotting begin to dominate. Similarly to Orsino, Malvolio does not achieve the marriage he aspires to;[50] he fails to ascend and consequently decides to descend. Furthermore, Malvolio’s dissatisfaction at the end threatens to undermine the happy ending of the comedy, which in turn risks frustrating generic expectations and derailing the comedic genre. Malvolio and Orsino are similar to the queen and Cloten in Cymbeline: unable to turn Innogen into Cloten’s wife, they become villains and instigate a series of murderous plots.

I have shown thus far how characters are stripped of their public identities and see their ambitions fail. Consequently, they descend onto the lowest level of human existence where they are equalised. But what is it that constitutes this low sphere? The answer to this question may be derived from the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben’s work Homo Sacer (1995).[51] Agamben begins with a discussion of the homo sacer, a criminal or vagabond in Roman times who was deprived of his rights in both his bodily and spiritual life and could therefore be killed without the murderer being punished (p. 60). Agamben terms the homo sacer’s existence, which happens on the very borders of what may be called being, “bare life” (p. 8), and argues that every society, irrespective of the historical epoch, determines their own homo sacer. According to Agamben, this “life devoid of value” (p. 138) represents the “threshold between nature and culture” (p. 181), which brings us back to Shakespeare’s interest in nature as opposed to artifice.

The fall of Othello that follows his remarkable transgression can be placed in the context described by Agamben. His vulnerability to irrational forces that he cannot control, reinforced by patriarchal pressures, suspicions, and accusations, turns his existence into “bare life” and makes his underlying disgusting nature break the chains of self-restraint. Towards the end of the play, he calls himself a “cursed slave” (V.ii.275), and Lodovico remarks that “Othello, that was once so good,/ [Has] [f]allen in the practice of a damned slave” (V.ii.290). Both instances epitomise the conflict between Othello’s failing Apollonian identity and his now irresistible Dionysian self. Ultimately, Othello’s last and only line of defence is suicide.

Cymbeline provides us with a more complex instance of “bare life”, which is here visualised through geographical displacement. Guiderius and Arviragus, Cymbeline’s sons who had been kidnapped in revenge by the exiled Belarius and raised by the latter as his own sons, live a “bare life” in a cave in a forest of Wales. This life, Belarius asserts, “[i]s nobler than attending for a check,/ Richer than doing nothing for a bribe” (III.iii.22-3), which suggests a contrast between pure life in nature and corrupted life in court. A speech by Arviragus similarly epitomises the natural state of these figures, devoid of culture, artifice, and social or legal rules:

We are beastly: subtle as the fox for prey,

Like warlike as the wolf for what we eat.

Our valour is to chase what flies; our cage

We make a choir, as doth the prisoned bird,

And sing our bondage freely. (III.iii.40-4)

Whereas this speech depicts an animal life which, combined with the instance of the murder that Guiderius commits, might prove that homo homini lupus, it is nonetheless necessary to critically engage with Agamben’s statement that the homo sacer lives a life “devoid of value” (Homo Sacer, p. 138). As Aristotle already asserted, “doubtless there is some element of value contained even in the mere state of being alive.”[52] Despite Arviragus’s description of his life, the base equalising existence that Shakespeare hints at in Twelfth Night and then more fully unfolds in Othello and Cymbeline is strangely redeemed and vindicated in the latter play. The more obvious examples are Guiderius’s celebration of their bondage or else Belarius’s eulogy of nature as the “breed of greatness” (IV.ii.25) and his pantheism (IV.ii.168-9). Another aspect of bare life’s value can be derived from Guiderius’s killing and beheading of Cloten in IV.ii. What appears to be an animal act because of Guiderius’s awareness of Cloten’s status is in fact justifiable to us, because we are aware that Cloten is one of the play’s villains. Furthermore, the murder encourages the three “outlaws” (IV.ii.67) or homines sacri to change their location, which they now deem insecure.[53] This in turn leads to their involvement in the war, the rescue of Cymbeline, and the resolution of the play, since Innogen loses her status as heiress to the throne and is allowed to marry Posthumus. Ultimately, only the input from the realm of “bare life” can resolve the conflicts of a corrupt and wicked society. It can be argued that Belarius, by raising Cymbeline’s sons in a Welsh forest, saves them from the corruption of the court, war, and politics. Therefore, while Shakespeare depicts a natural life in Cymbeline, it is never animal and is even vindicated, albeit not as a result of the characters’ conscious actions. The positive impact of the princes’ deeds on society and the country as a whole is acknowledged by the play’s consciousness and by the audience.


Because of the princes’ eventual return to civilisation, the episode of bare life in Cymbeline is merely temporary. For all the characters in the plays studied, the need to be part of society is too strong to enable bare life to become a permanent state. The desire to return to the city or court ultimately prevails. However, as Othello shows, patriarchally conditioned social life is incompatible with the characters’ ontological nature. Like genre and gender prejudices, society is an artifice that cannot meet humans’ innate needs, such as love and desire, which, as a result, cannot be freely enacted. Whereas the human self is mercurial, society is governed by inflexible structures that essentialise and polarise, something which classical literature does as well, by contrasting comedy with tragedy. Humans, as the instances studied disclose, are also bestial under the surface, and the suggestion that our default setting is savagery turns us into brothers and sisters under the skin. While this baseness may be a lesser threat outside society, as in the forest in Cymbeline, it is perilous in an oppressive patriarchal society where it cannot be contained. The social and sexual anxieties created by patriarchy may in fact conjure it up, as in Othello, where the hero’s only salvation ultimately resides in his self-destruction. Jonathan Dollimore writes about “daemonic” desire that is “antagonistic to the social” and argues that the containment of desire does not prevent it from “escap[ing] or resist[ing] control”.[54] The Dionysian thus triumphs over the Apollonian which of course includes oppressive patriarchy.

The question that remains left to be answered concerns the relation between the two ostensibly contrary versions of equalisation thus far explored. It is only in Shakespeare’s temporary dream of a utopian, liberal society (as in Twelfth Night or As You Like It) that the sinister baseness may be prevented from emerging, and desires and innate needs are accommodated. As regards “bare life”, there is a suggestion of some value in this existence because the murder in Cymbeline is vindicated by the play. Given this asocial life’s opposition to the corruption in the city or in court, it is through contrast that the positive effect of this crime highlights the artificial and hypocritical morality prescribed by society, where, as Belarius affirms, “false oaths prevail[l]/ Before [...] perfect honour” (Cymbeline, III.iii.66-7). In fact, society sanctions actions that preserve the patriarchal status quo, but often lack moral or legal justification. Moreover, this vindication alleviates the fear of the incalculable nature of man, but only in the context of a non-patriarchal society, for as Othello, Malvolio, and Cymbeline’s queen teach us, patriarchy, in its restrictions and expectations, nurtures corruption and causes any attempts at self-restraint to collapse.

In the three plays studied, Shakespeare exhibits an unrealistic vision with idealistic actions, lifestyles, and hierarchies which, because of their opposition to the existing patriarchy, unveil the latter’s flaws. Therefore, and because of the eventual return to Early Modern reality and failure to permanently resolve the problem of ontological baseness, the question of whether Shakespeare succeeds in creating a society that successfully accommodates human needs cannot be answered in the affirmative. As Malvolio and Orsino show at the end of Twelfth Night,baseness becomes apparent as soon as the carnivalesque dream ends. However, Shakespeare’s ability to generate this alternative universe, albeit artificially and temporarily, testifies his success in bending the rules of comedy and tragedy, thus producing more flexible and less restrictive plays which are adequate for depicting humanity as it truly is: neither fully comic nor tragic, but something in between, and sometimes a synthesis of the two.

[1] Rymer cited in: Kim F. Hall, ‘Othello and the Problem of Blackness’, in A Companion to Shakespeare’s Works: The Tragedies, ed. Richard Dutton and Jean E. Howard (Oxford: Blackwell, 2003), p. 361.

[2] David Scott Kastan, ‘”A Rarity most beloved”: Shakespeare and the Idea of Tragedy’, in A Companion to Shakespeare’s Works: The Tragedies, ed. Richard Dutton and Jean E. Howard (Oxford: Blackwell, 2003), p. 7.

[3] William Shakespeare, Troilus and Cressida, ed. David Bevington (London: Cengage Learning, 1998), p. 3.

[4] William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, ed. Philip Edwards (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

[5] Peter Holbrook, ‘Class X: Shakespeare, Class, and the Comedies’, in A Companion to Shakespeare’s Works: The Comedies, ed. Richard Dutton and Jean E. Howard (Oxford: Blackwell, 2003), pp. 74, 78.

[6] William Butler Yeats, Essays and Introductions (London: Macmillan, 1961), p. 240.

[7] Sara Munro Deats, ‘”Truly, an obedient lady”: Desdemona, Emilia, and the Doctrine of Obedience in Othello’, in Othello: New Critical Essays, ed. Philip C. Kolin (London: Routledge, 2002), pp. 236-7.

[8] William Shakespeare, Othello, ed. Michael Neill (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008). Subsequent references are to this edition.

[9] It is noteworthy that, by siding with Othello before the senate, she challenges her father politically, in front of the institution he represents in public life.

[10] William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night, ed. Roger Warren and Stanley Wells (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008). Subsequent references are to this edition.

[11] Lisa Jardine, Reading Shakespeare Historically (London: Routledge, 1996), p. 69.

[12] Rather than as part of a fool’s characteristic, subversive wit, I read this joke as more direct and offensive in degree than could be expected of a typical fool in Renaissance theatre.

[13] Gary Waller, ‘Much Joy, Some Terror: Reading Shakespeare’s Comedies Today’, in Shakespeare’s Comedies, ed. Gary Waller (London and New York: Longman, 1996), p. 25. Waller discusses the conflicting responses to a play that can be generated by the action on stage, such as sympathy or joy for comedic endings, and antipathy in face of characters wronged by society, such as Malvolio. In a carnivalesque fashion, laughter and lightheartedness, he argues, can help to dismantle the social structures responsible for that antipathy. 

[14] Penny Rixon, ‘Twelfth Night’, in Shakespeare: Texts and Contexts, ed. Kiernan Ryan (Houndmills, Basingstoke: Macmillan, 2000), p. 197.

[15] Mario DiGangi, ‘The Social Relations of Shakespeare’s Comic Household’, in A Companion to Shakespeare’s Works: The Comedies, ed. Richard Dutton and Jean E. Howard (Oxford: Blackwell, 2003), p. 92. DiGangi contends that tensions exist in both tragedy and comedy, with the only difference being that they are destructive in tragedy where as they can be ‘successfully dispelled’ in comedy.

[16] William Shakespeare, Cymbeline, ed. Martin Butler (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009). Subsequent references are to this edition.

[17] Their rebellion has a religious dimension because they worship nature, as opposed to the Roman gods worshipped at court.

[18] Erica Sheen, ‘”The Agent for his Master”: Political Service and Professional Liberty in Cymbeline’, in The Politics of Tragicomedy: Shakespeare and After, ed. Gordon McMullan and Jonathan Hope (London and New York: Routledge, 1992), p. 71.

[19] Ruth Nevo, ‘Cymbeline: The Rescue of the King’, in Shakespeare’s Romances: Contemporary Critical Essays, ed. Alison Thorne (Houndmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), p. 107.

[20] Michael D. Bristol, Carnival and Theater (London: Methuen, 1985), p. 178.

[21] Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, trans. Helen Dwolsky (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1968), pp. 4, 82.

[22] Dympna Callaghan, Women and Gender in Renaissance Tragedy: A Study of ‘King Lear’, ‘Othello’, ‘The Duchess of Malfi’ and ‘The Whote Devil’(London and New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1989), p. 140.

[23] Their social rank may be seen as part of the reconciliatory aspect of many of Shakespeare’s plays, suggesting discontent or contemptus mundi in the plays rather than radically revolutionary spirit.

[24] Callaghan, Women and Gender in Renaissance Tragedy, p. 52.

[25] The parallelism between the female body and the body of the state is a recurrent motif in Shakespeare’s works (see for example Lucrece).

[26] Jardine, Reading Shakespeare Historically, p. 67.

[27] William Shakespeare, As You Like It, ed. Michael Hattaway (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).

[28] Hall, ‘Othello and the Problem of Blackness’, p. 369.

[29] David Scott Kastan, ‘Is there a Class in this (Shakespearean) Text?’, Renaissance Drama, 24 (1993), 107.

[30] Janet Adelman, ‘Masculine Authority and the Maternal Body: The Return to Origins in Cymbeline’, in Shakespeare: The Last Plays, ed. Kiernan Ryan (London and New York: Longman, 1999), pp. 117, 127.

[31] Or, even worse, marriage can be a means of punishment, as in Measure for Measure.

[32] David Bevington, ‘Othello: Portrait of a Marriage’, in Othello: New Critical Essays, ed. Philip C. Kolin (London Routledge, 2002), p. 225.

[33] The ending in Cymbeline, however, is reconciliatory, thus comedic, with Posthumus’s plot to murder Innogen failing because of an unexpected turn that is typical of tragicomedy, and with the lovers being reunited at the end.

[34] Iachimo’s name interestingly looks like a variation of “Iago”, which implies that he is a substitute for Othello’s villain.

[35] Karen Newman, ‘”And wash the Ethiop white”: Femininity and the Monstrous in Othello’, in Othello: A Casebook, ed. John Wain (Houndmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 1994), p. 219.

[36] Georg W. F. Hegel, The Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A. V. Miller, ed. J. N. Findley (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), p. 116.

[37] Ibid., p. 118.

[38] Ibid., p. 115.

[39] A. C. Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy: Lectures on ‘Hamlet’, ‘Othello’, ‘King Lear’ (Houndmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), p. 133.

[40] Callaghan, Women and Gender in Renaissance Tragedy, p. 62.

[41] George Fletcher already drew attention to Innogen’s moral and intellectual qualities. See his Studies of Shakespeare (London: Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans, 1847), pp. 49, 85.

[42] Newman, ‘”And Wash the Ethiop White”’, p. 219.

[43] John T. Shawcross, ‘Tragicomedy as Genre, Past and Present’, in Renaissance Tragicomedy: Explorations in Genre and Politics, ed. Nancy Klein Maguire (New York: AMS Press, 1987), pp. 28-9.

[44] Whilst Iago could return to his position by removing Cassio, he chooses to destroy Othello, the only man who could rehabilitate him.

[45] Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy, p. 132.

[46] Ibid., p. 157.

[47] Classical tragedy seeks to purify the audience’s minds through catharsis, through what they see on stage; Shakespearean tragedy annihilates the distance between stage and audience through self-reflexivity and might be seen as anticipating Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt.

[48] Linda Charnes, ‘”So Unsecret to Ourselves”: Notorious Identity and the Material Subject in Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida’, Shakespeare Quarterly, 40:4 (1989), 440.

[49] Thomas de Quincey, ‘On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth’, in The Oxford Book of Essays, ed. John Gross (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), p. 133.

[50] I am referring to Orsino’s initial failure to marry, for Viola eventually becomes his ‘mistress’ (V.i.317), thus substituting for Olivia.

[51] Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998). Subsequent references are to this edition.

[52] Aristotle, Politics 3.1278b. Book.

[53] Another reason why they change location is the approaching Roman army (IV.iv).

[54] Jonathan Dollimore, Sex, Literature and Censorship (Cambridge: Polity, 2001), p. 73.


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Deats, Sara Munson, ‘”Truly, an obedient lady”: Desdemona, Emilia, and the Doctrine of Obedience in Othello’, in Othello: New Critical Essays, ed. Philip C. Kolin (London: Routledge, 2002), pp. 233-54. 

De Quincey, Thomas, ‘On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth’, in The Oxford Book of Essays, ed. John Gross (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), pp. 131-5.

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Kastan, David Scott, ‘Is there a Class in this (Shakespearean) Text?’, Renaissance Drama, 24 (1993), 101-23.

Nevo, Ruth, ‘Cymbeline: The Rescue of the King’, in Shakespeare’s Romances: Contemporary Critical Essays, ed. Alison Thorne (Houndmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), pp. 91-116.

Newman, Karen, ‘”And wash the Ethiop white”: Femininity and the Monstrous in Othello’, in Othello: A Casebook, ed. John Wain (Houndmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 1994), pp. 209-23.

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Sheen, Erica, ‘”The Agent for his Master”: Political Service and Professional Liberty in Cymbeline’, in The Politics of Tragicomedy: Shakespeare and After, ed. Gordon McMullan and Jonathan Hope (London and New York: Routledge, 1991), pp. 55-76.

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