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‘Have you not read of some such thing?’ Sex and Sexual Stories in Othello

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  28 March 2007

Stanley Wells
Affiliation:
University of Birmingham
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Summary

Why does Othello suddenly abandon his affectionate trust in Desdemona for a conviction of betrayal? This question, by placing the protagonist’s understanding at the play’s centre, takes us back to Bradley’s first words about the play in Shakespearean Tragedy: ‘the character of Othello is comparatively simple, but . . . essentially the success of Iago’s plot is connected with this character. Othello’s description of himself as “one not easily jealous” . . . is perfectly just. His tragedy lies in this – that his whole nature was indisposed to jealousy, and yet . . . unusually open to deception’. Bradley has long been discredited – a story with which we are all familiar. In 1933 L. C. Knights’s ‘How Many Children Had Lady Macbeth?’ repudiated the notion of treating dramatic characters as the authors and origins of their own histories, autonomous agents with lives outside the dramatic action. Knights’s essay coincided with a redirection of Shakespeare studies from character to language, from the ‘whole nature’ of the protagonist to the coherent artifice of the play itself. Wilson Knight’s ‘spatial hermeneutics’ figures notably in this move away from Bradley, as part of a ‘modernist paradigm’; psychological integrity is fragmented into linguistic patterns that re-achieve wholeness in a self-reflexive rather than representational text.

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Shakespeare Survey , pp. 201 - 216
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 1996

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