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"Othello's Back": Othello as Mock Tragedy in Rita Dove's Sonata Mulattica

From: Journal of Narrative Theory
Volume 41, Number 3, Fall 2011
pp. 362-377 | 10.1353/jnt.2011.0101

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The intrusion of Shakespeare's Othello marks the defining moment in the fate of the hero for whom Rita Dove's Sonata Mulattica is named, the black violinist George Augustus Polgreen Bridgetower (1780-1860). Popularized Othello is invoked to dramatize and to explain the protagonist's cross-racial sexual moves that occasion his falling out with his musical sponsor Ludwig van Beethoven. The famous composer rescinds his dedication of the Mulatto Sonata to Bridgetower, leading to the abrupt reversal of Bridgetower's remarkably successful rise and future promise. This drastic turn of fortune, represented in terms of the automatic inevitability of Othello's fate, should shape our response according to the conventions of tragedy. Yet Dove rescues the violinist from the seemingly fatal clutches of the Othello-Bridgetower equation that she herself has set up. The purpose of this essay is to explore what artistic resources enable Dove to intervene in Bridgetower's tragic destiny to produce a different outcome.

The novelist Caryl Phillips offers useful testimony to the force of Shakespeare's tragic model of interracial sexuality. As a son of parents who came to England from St. Kitts in the first wave of Caribbean immigrants, Phillips explains that his father, then married to a white woman, passes this cultural information to the next generation: "he told me that I must be very careful if I was out driving at night with a white girl in the passenger seat. He warned me that I should be prepared to have the police stop and harass me for no other reason than the fact that I was with a white girl" (Phillips 2011: 14). Phillips traces this lesson about interracial pairing back to "Shakespeare's pioneer migrant Othello," who has no one to advise him: "I reflected upon the supreme loneliness of the migrant to Venice, who also had a white wife though it never occurred to him that the police were going to pull him over, until, of course it was too late" (Phillips 2011: 15).

Phillips' reality is uncritically absorbed and perpetuated in the melodrama of contemporary popular culture, as exemplified by Tim Blake Nelson's film adaptation O (2001). The "O" contains no expression of surprise: we know what to expect. Following the long-standing, widely disseminated Shakespearean template, black male-white female relationships are coded troubled and tragic. It is this fixed generic code that Rita Dove sets out to break.

Dove avoids the tragic outcome by imagining an alternate scenario in which she can refuse to take the tragic bait. In the face of the Othello precedent, she remains unflappable and unfazed. She disarms the power of the Othello paradigm by translating the Shakespearean source into a form of popular culture, which she then subjects to her own jaunty, satiric insouciance in order to expose the absurdity and needlessness of the original premise. In Dove's eyes, Othello-driven tragic logic, even if reinforced by the authority of Beethovan, cannot destroy the black violinist's reputation. To the contrary, Dove's poetic perspective succeeds in resurrecting his legacy and in restoring his honor as a gifted musician and triumphant hero.

In Sonata Mulattica, Doves creates a burlesque version of Othello with Tussi the barmaid standing in for Desdemona and Bridgetower self-consciously playing up the attraction and frisson of his role as an exotic black male: "I'll let you in on a little secret: / A black man's kiss is a dangerous item" (Dove 2009: 135). Beethovan's Brabanzio-like stance completes the Shakespearean triangle. In short order, the plot shuttles Beethovan from his maudlin "embrace" (20) of Bridgetower as "Mein Sohn!" (128) to—just as sentimentally—the peremptory disowning of Bridgetower as a "savage!" for his sexual approaches to the barmaid whom Beethovan idealizes as "a goddess" (137). As she explains in a note, Dove mimics a culturally specific popular Shakespeare: "The Austrians are notorious for their delicately warped humor—occasionally obscene, sometimes coarse, always outrageous. No icon, beloved or feared or revered, was exempt; social satire flourished in an unremitting stream of farces one could file under the rubric of Travesties of Great Literature" (214). Dove's, and Bridgetower's, release from the...



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