- Metaphor and Shakespearean Drama: Unchaste Signification
Maria Fahey’s book on Metaphor and Shakespearean Drama is part of a series entitled “Early Modern Literature in History,” whose general editors are two British scholars, Cedric C. Brown and Andrew Hadfield. Although it deals in detail with only six of Shakespeare’s plays, it is nonetheless very wide ranging, especially in its conception of metaphor, as the following analysis will attempt to show.
In her brief preface, Fahey says that her book explores “the transformative, fruitful, and potentially unruly nature of metaphorical utterances as revealed in Shakespearean drama” (xiv). Indeed it does, and Fahey begins by challenging the traditional view of metaphor as “a merely ornamental substitution of words” (xv). She is concerned, rather, with the way classical and Elizabethan rhetoricians consider “the tension inherent in metaphor between the need for difference, distance, and interchange and the need for likeness, proximity, and containment” (xv). She believes that metaphor’s dual nature “is the very source of the fecundity that generates rhetoricians’ warnings about its potential unruliness” (xv). Hence, she cites Henry Peacham’s warning against “unchaste signification” and the worry that metaphors might beget “illegitimate” meanings.
Fahey’s first chapter surveys Aristotle’s writing in Poetics and Rhetoric, and the writings of others, such as Quintilian, particularly to discern metaphor’s tendency to “stealth,” as she calls it, that is, the ways metaphor can circulate without the full awareness of the meanings conveyed by individual speakers. Those interested in theories of metaphor will doubtless find Fahey’s twenty-one-page first chapter useful in and of itself, but I will pass directly to her discussions of metaphor in Shakespeare’s plays. Her second chapter, called “Proving Desdemona Haggard: Marriage and Metaphor in Othello,” is one of the best in the book. As its title indicates, the chapter focuses primarily on the metaphor of falconry, as Othello uses it in 3.3.264–74, which Fahey quotes in full. In this speech Othello figures himself as the falconer and Desdemona as his hawk. Fahey interprets the speech in traditional fashion:
Othello’s metaphor transforms the figurative bond of marriage into the literally binding jesses, the leather bands fastened to a hawk’s legs to which a falconer’s leash could be attached. Depicting those jesses as his heart-strings, Othello reveals that he is prepared to cut out a part of himself to be rid of an adulterous wife. To “let” Desdemona “down the wind to prey on fortune,” the heartstrings tying Desdemona to Othello would be excised from Othello’s body and left dangling from her ankles.(23)
Fahey goes on to show that Othello is not the first to use the metaphor, nor is it (as one might expect) Iago; rather, it is Desdemona herself. It is she who figures herself [End Page 448] as Othello’s falconer when in her dialogue with Cassio she says she will “watch him tame” (3.2.23). Iago also sees her as a falconer when he says Desdemona could “seel her father’s eyes up” (3.3.213). These metaphors, Fahey argues, take hold of the world of the play and ultimately have “the power to shape the perceptions upon which people act” (24). The implications are significant and can be disturbing. I shall cite only one that Fahey makes explicit: “Indeed, figuring marriage in terms of falconry … suggests that a man needs to tame his wife because she is naturally more powerful than he and naturally averse to subjugating herself to him” (28).
Fahey takes her understanding of metaphor further in her next chapter, “‘Martyred Signs’: Sacrifice and Metaphor in Titus Andronicus.” She here depends a good deal upon René Girard’s book Violence and the Sacred, particularly his pronouncement that “the sacrificial process requires not only the complete separation of the sacrificial victim from those beings for whom the victim is a substitute but also a similarity between both parties” (51). Likewise, Fahey says, a metaphor’s vehicle must also be separated from the tenor for which...