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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.
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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)
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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.
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