Essay, Research Paper: Othello

Shakespeare: Othello

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"I am not what I am." An essay on Othello, question No 4. I will
discuss this quote in relation to Lacan's ideas about language as the symbolic
order. My aim is to show how Othello finds his identity threatened by
Desdemona's reaction to his tales. In order to explain Lacan's ideas very
briefly I will quote from Pam Morris: Literature and Feminism, (Blackwell, 1993)
where she discusses the resolution of the Oedipal crisis. For Freud the outcome
of the child's fear of castration is its submission to the reality principle and
hence its entry into the social order. For Lacan this must coincide with the
child's entry into the language system.....Language is thus the Law of the
father; a linguistic system within which our social and gender identity is
always already structured. (p. 104) Othello's identity in the Venetian society
is his role as "the Moor". Few people use his real name when talking
about him. When speaking the given quote, Othello is telling the Venetians how
he won Desdemona's heart by telling her the story of his life, and he now
retells it to the Venetians. This tale-telling is a way of employing the
linguistic system to reshape for himself a new identity with more positive
connotations than "the Moor" can offer. "The Moor" is an
expression the Venetians connect to other expressions in the linguistic system
which all have a negative value. Examples are such expressions as "old
black ram, a Barbary horse, lascivious, and a devil." The negative overtone
of these words will reflect back on Othello. He can't change his origins but he
can try to change the connotations of "the Moor". He can fill the
expression with a new content and thereby give himself an identity he can be
more comfortable with. This is what Othello is doing when he is retelling his
history. Othello is obviously a good narrator; Desdemona can't get enough of his
story. Expressions like "seriously incline", "with haste"
and "greedy ear" show Desdemona's eagerness for his storytelling.
"And ever..../She'ld come again" shows that this has been happening
over a period of time without Desdemona growing tired of his tales. The given
quote implies that Othello feels he has been too clever for his own benefit.
Desdemona's craving for his autobiography is felt as a threat; it may jeopardize
his new identity. Othello says that she would: "Devour up my
discourse". It is in this discourse that his identity exists. If she
devours up his discourse, she devours up his identity and leaves him where he
started; as "the Moor". Desdemona may represent the all-engulfing
mother of the pre-Oedipal stage. This is a stage without structure, language or
identity, an opposite to the linguistic system, the Law of the father. It is
with a "greedy ear" she "devours up my discourse". An ear is
sometimes used to symbolize female genitalia and will here emphasize the fact
that Othello feels the threat to be feminine. That he, through his discourse, is
devoured shows that this feminine threat is all-engulfing. If Othello refuses to
accept his old role as "the Moor" he will either be without an
identity or be dragged by his self-fashioned identity back into the pre-Oedipal
stage. These options are two sides of the same coin, he will lose himself either
way. To give up one's self is the same as suicide. Both death and the
pre-Oedipal stage are spheres without language, structure, intention or
identity. To give way to the one or the other will have the same result for
Othello; he will no longer be a conscious being. To save himself, Othello must
get control over this "greedy ear". Female sexuality was considered
something scary which could best be controlled through marriage. A loose tongue
was a sign of loose sexuality. Othello extends this notion to include
Desdemona's "greedy ear". He marries Desdemona and all is well until
Iago implies that Desdemona is unfaithful. Unfaithfulness in a woman will
reflect back on her husband. A cuckold is a ridiculous figure in other people's
eyes. He must be seriously lacking in person for his wife to run after other
men. Othello sees himself in the same situation as before the marriage. Instead
of using her ears she is now using her sexuality to destroy the identity he has
built up for himself. I have already pointed out how ears and sexuality are
connected in Othello's mind. Either way the results are the same for Othello's
identity. He sees his positive image of himself slipping away: "Farewell
the plumed troops and the big wars/ That makes ambition virtue!....Farewell:
Othello's occupation's gone." (III, iii, 352-353+360) The one way to
control this threat is to passivize Desdemona completely by killing her. He
realizes too late the effect this action will have on his own situation. She was
the only person who would accept the identity he had been fronting. He even had
difficulties believing in it himself, which made him an easy victim for Iago. So
when he killed Desdemona he killed the positive image of himself. The person he
saw as a threat to his identity was the only person who actually sustained it.
Because he had such difficulties in believing in himself he found it impossible
that anybody else should do so. This insecurity proves his undoing. His positive
self-image gone, he is left a choice between "the Moor" or
nothingness. The moment Emilia realizes Othello is the murderer she reverts to
calling him expressions connected to the negative image of "the Moor":
"And you the blacker devil!...thou art a devil." (V, ii, 129, 131) He
can't stand being this person, the only one society and the symbolic order can
offer him. To construct his own identity has proven impossible. To be without an
identity, a non-personn implies death. He chooses to free himself of this
unwanted identity by stepping out of the social order and the language system by
means of suicide.
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