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False Fidelity: Othello, Otello, And Their Critics James Aldrich-Moodie ? Was this fair paper, this most goodly book, Made to write "whore" upon?—Othello IV.ii.70—71 ' Asking questions, or, playing lago. Fidelity obsesses Othello; from his first appearance before the Venetian senate in which he proclaims his political fidelity, "Most humbly . . . bending to your state" (I.iii.232), to his murder of Desdemona for her supposed infidelity, his actions and words betray his overriding preoccupation . Similarly, the notion of fidelity has obsessed commentators on the two nineteenth-century operatic treatments of the Othello story, by Rossini (in 1816) and by Verdi (in 1887).2 The comparison of the opera with Shakespeare's play in the writings of these critics rhetorically mirrors Iago's manipulation of the relationship between Desdemona and Othello. Thus the operas (like Desdemona) are caught between either praise for their "faithful adherence" to Shakespeare (Othello) or condemnation as "debased" goods. A glance at most writings on the operas serves to reveal the rhetoric of "virtue (fidelity to the original play)"3 which underlies comparisons of either Otello with Othello, and demonstrates the extent to which such criteria unanimously favor Verdi over Rossini.4 Ferrucio Tammaro, in an article dedicated solely to Rossini's Otello, remarks on Rossini's lack of "fedeltà a Shakespeare ,"5 and, while Gary Schmidgall is more complimentary than most, Rossini's work is, for him, as for the editor of the New Cambridge Shakespeare, only fitfully "faithful to Shakespeare "—that is, "loyal to the spirit (if not in many respects the letter) of Shakespeare's action."6 Even Rossini's major biographers use the language of sexual corruption to describe the relationship of Otello to Othello, with Rossini's "liberties taken" 324 James Aldrich-Moodie325 and "spoiling" of Shakespeare,7 in a "dissipated" version,8 while perhaps the most famous Rossini supporter of all time, Stendhal, likewise calls the libretto an "orgy of blunders."9 As noted, many of the same metaphors are often applied to Verdi's opera, although an opposite judgment is intended. For Eduard Hanslick, Verdi and Boito "followed Shakespeare even morefaithfully than Gounod did in Roméo et Juliette or Ambroise Thomas in Hamlet," certainly more than Rossini, of whose Otello "only the last act is true to Shakespeare."10 Verdi is "faithful to Shakespeare," his operas are "fully worthy" of the Bard's plays, because "Verdi was a true Shakespearean."11 In spite of Verdi's occasional "liberties with Shakespeare"12 his "fedeltà,"13 i.e., his "greater artistic integrity," ensured that his opera would outdo Rossini's "degraded Shakespeare."14 While recalling Othello's preoccupation, the use of the rhetoric of sexual infidelity to decry "translations" (as the operas of Rossini and Verdi are often called) pervades the language of many other plays of the Shakespearean canon as well, particularly The Merry Wives of Windsor, as Patricia Parker has shown.15 If the translation scene (IV.i) of that play draws its comic effects from the suggestion of a simultaneity in textual and sexual corruption in the transformation of an original into another medium (from Latin into English), in doing so it demonstrates a rhetorical and conceptual overlap in metaphor against which Othello's concerns about Desdemona's fidelity can be read. During the Renaissance, as Margreta de Grazia notes, "the term 'copy' did not . . . carry the same obligation to reproduce its precedent withfidelity"16 so that, in Parker's words: Adultery is understood as a form of translation, just as translations adulterate, carry off, or bear away the integrity of an original. The wife transported into adultery has a counterpart in the translation or transport of a text into other words that can turn, or vary, it.17 Othello's concern for his wife's purity (or, to use Pistol's language in Merry Wives, that her "will" not be "translated . . . out of honesty" [I.iii.49-50]) can thus be seen as linked to the concern that provoked Richard Greene to complain about the "upstart crow" Shakespeare in his "borrowed feathers"—that is, in stolen plots which have been translated into his plays.18 The rhetoric of commentaries on the Verdi and Rossini...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1936-1637
Print ISSN
0010-4078
Pages
pp. 324-347
Launched on MUSE
2016-10-05
Open Access
No
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