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Emblems ofFolly in the First Othello: Renaissance Blackface, Moor's Coat, and "Muckender" Robert Hornback O murderous coxcomb, what should such a fool Do with so good a wife? Emilia in Othello (5.2.231-32) Critics have struggled to account for the disturbing comic elements in Othello. Most famously, at one extreme, the outraged neoclassical critic Thomas Rymer, in his apdy named A Short View ofTragedy (1693), labeled OtheUo a simple "booby" or fool, "a paultry buffoon," since, he claimed, "the Handkerchief is so remote a trifle, no Booby, on this side Mauritania, cou'd make anyconsequencefrom it,"whUehe concluded that "There is in this Play, someburlesk, some humour, and a ramble ofComical Wit" so that Othello as a whole is "none other, than a Bloody Farce."1 Although I certainly do not share Rymer's rigid, neoclassical "short view" that the play's comic moments are ineffective, reducing it merelyto farce, I not onlybeheve that Rymerwas astute in detectinga surprising amount of comedy in Othello, and even more remarkably a disturbing comic potential in the character of OtheUo himself; but I suggest that his neoclassical bias againsttheminglingofcomedyand tragedy—ultimatelyabias against comedy itself—is instructive precisely because it has been so persistent in subsequenttraditions ofOthello performance and criticism.WhUe thenotion ofOthello as merely"Bloody Farce"has long been righdy abandoned, critics and directors alikehave still tended to shyawayfrom integrating the troubUng humor into an interpretation of the play as a whole. It is only relatively recendy that commentators have begun to attend to the play's employment of disturbing humor based on racial stereotypes to enhance 69 70Comparative Drama its tragic effect. Michael Bristol, for instance, arguing that the play's organizing principle is the humUiating "comedy of abjection" evident in the custom of charivari, claims that in the Renaissance OtheUo "would have been seen as comicaUymonstrous,""akind ofblackfaceclown__ [a] monstrous , and funnysubstitutewho transgresses thenorms."2 Remarkably, what Bristol has so exacdy, but apparently unwittingly, described here is the tradition ofthe so-caUed "natural" fool (in Renaissance parlance), an "innocent" comic butt, who is laughed atbecause he is physicaUyand/or mentaUydifferent and sociallydeviant, a comic transgressor ofnorms to be scapegoated and abused. RecoveringShakespeare's deployment of the troubling natural fool type (often, as we shaU see, depicted in blackface) in the play will help us to understand why Shakespeare is so emphatic about making his characters refer to Othello in terms that suggest an innocent or natural—"credulous fool," "coxcomb ," "ass," "gull," "dull Moor," and "dolt, ignorant as dirt"—and why OtheUo rebukes himselfwith "O fool, fool, fool!" in the final scene. Such a recovery will also clarify one source of the audience discomfort the play is so famous for producing. "Horrid" Blackface If, as Bristol argues, much of "[t]he history ofboth the interpretation and the performance of Othello has been characterized by a search for consoling and anaesthetic explanations that would make its depictions ofhumUiation and suffering more tolerable,"3 there is much work to be done to recover the play's original, unconsoling theater history in the Renaissance in terms ofits disturbing comic aspects. I wiU argue that what Rymer found so bewUdering about OtheUo's characterization can actuallybe explained bypopular associations with the natural fool avaUable to audiences in the earliest performances of the play. Indeed, I will demonstratethat on the Shakespearean stage OtheUo would have recalled such traditional visual emblems of the natural fool as blackface, fool's coat, and "muckender" or fool's handkerchief. Shakespeare draws upon such traditional emblems, I argue further,in order to producewhat Nicholas Brooke has termed the "horrid laughter" characteristic of Jacobean tragedy: "a nightmare of complicit participation in which even the nor- Robert Hornback71 mally gentle will occasionaUy find themselves, disgustingly, involved."4 Indeed, in Othello, Shakespeare explores the "horrid" potential of the normative humor so prevalent in the period (e.g., in laughter at natural fools, cuckold jokes, ethnic jokes, or put-down jokes generally), which always defines or bolsters social norms at the expense of the transgressive or merely different, and thereby makes his audience disgustingly complicit in Iago's jeering sadism. Since at least 1814, when Edmund Kean did not blacken his face as...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1936-1637
Print ISSN
0010-4078
Pages
pp. 69-99
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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