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186Philosophy and Literature The Properties of "Othello," by James L. Calderwood; viii & 159 pp. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1989, $22.50. Calderwood's "mostconsistent interest in this book is in the notion ofproperty as identity," (p. 12) and it proves a fruitful notion. He skillfully teases out the various meanings of the family of terms comprised by property, propriety, appropriate , proprietor, and proper, with their underlying emphasis upon the relationship between possession and identity. His approach, though, is not merely ingenious: it illuminates Othello by producing valuable insights about the problematic nature ofattempts to externalize the self in the form of property, about propriety in gender roles, about language as mediating sign, and about aesthetic disinterestedness as a shaping principle in great art. The book opens with a discussion of ownership: "Property is the clothing of the self; it prices and displays one's inner worth" (p. 14). As masculine property in marriage Desdemona becomes a kind of objective correlative of Othello's sense of his own "perfect soul." But Othello's property also includes Iago, his ensign, bearer of his sign as a general, and the tension between these two standard-bearers splits Othello's identity. Calderwood then turns to the significance of property rights in gender roles, to the way masculine appropriation of women subverts the mutuality of love, blurring the distinction between wife and whore. Desdemona's function as a sign of Othello's nobility depends on the value he assigns to her, and his transcendental signifier is "honest." But Iago knows that signs only mediate—their meaning must be interpreted—and with chilling ease he seduces Othello into a ritualized parody of marriage, a bond not of love but of hate, consummated in the murder scene, a sublimation of the aborted war with the Turks. The most extended, subde, and original part of the book is Calderwood's "speculations about Othello's speech, its self-fashioning powers, and its vulnerability to Iago's deconstructive maneuvers" (p. 1 8). As an outsider in Venice Othello can never really enter into dialogue with others. "To grasp the meanings lying outside and around and behind words he is dependent on those in the know. And of course Iago is always in the know" (p. 68). Othello relies on selfnarration , which relegates Desdemona to the status of an external metaphor mirroring his inner nature. But a mirror, like language, is common; it reflects whoever employs it, so its meaning lacks the platonic stability diat Othello seeks. Similarly, Othello's distinctive verbal style is a mirror of his self, so to destroy him Iago needs only to corrupt his language, to reduce him to the sputtering prose of his tortured collapse into a trance early in Act IV. Calderwood is particularly satisfying on the old question: Is Othello admirably noble or deeply flawed? He suggests that Othello L· flawed, and his flaw is his nobility, an instance of "the familiar fact that in Shakespeare all bright ideals Reviews187 cast shadows," and "language has litde truck widi idealistic purity" (p. 73). In his discussion ofiterance, he shows how repetition and replacement are central in Othello. Othello and Desdemona attempt to fashion and sustain their identities by repetition, but Iago, die great replacer, sees everyone as alike, lacking the private property of a unique self, and hence interchangeable. Calderwood concludes with an examination of Iago's character and motives, arguing that "Iago stands for mediation, for inbetweenness and the shaped made-up-ness of things" (p. 113). He is thus a metacharacter, a walking lie who, Janus-like, reveals artifice to the audience but "reality" to the characters on stage with him. His motive is thus Shakespeare's—that is, aesthetic disinterestedness in the fashioning of an effective drama. This book is distinguished by its intellectual vigor and erudition, its humane good sense, and its graceful style. For anyone interested in Othello, it belongs alongside Robert Heilman's classic study of die play's imagery, Magic in the Web. Willamette UniversityWilbur S. Braden From Topic to Tale: Logic and Narrativity in the Middle Ages, by Eugene Vance; xxxiii & 131 pp. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987, $25.00 cloth, $12.95 paper. Eugene Vance...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 186-187
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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