Article Title

Emblems of Folly in the First Othello: Renaissance Blackface, Moor's Coat, and "Muckender"


In lieu of an abstract, the first paragraph of the essay follows:

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 aptly named A Short View of Tragedy (1693), labeled Othello 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 any consequence from it;' while he concluded that "There is in this Play, some burlesk, some humour, and a ramble of Comical 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 merely to farce, I not only believe that Rymer was astute in detecting a surprising amount of comedy in Othello, and even more remarkably a disturbing comic potential in the character of Othello himself; but I suggest that his neoclassical bias against the mingling of comedy and tragedy-ultimately a bias against comedy itself-is instructive precisely because it has been so persistent in subsequent traditions of Othello performance and criticism. While the notion of Othello as merely "Bloody Farce"1 has long been rightly abandoned, critics and directors alike have still tended to shy away from integrating the troubling humor into an interpretation of the play as a whole. It is only relatively recently that commentators have begun to attend to the play's employment of disturbing humor based on racial stereotypes to enhance its tragic effect. Michael Bristol, for instance, arguing that the play's organizing principle is the humiliating "comedy of abjection" evident in the custom of charivari, claims that in the Renaissance Othello "would have been seen as comically monstrous,""a kind of blackface clown. ... [a] monstrous, and funny substitute who transgresses the norms."2


1Thomas Rymer, A Short View of Tragedy, in The Critical Works of Thomas Rymer, ed. Curt Zimansky (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1956), 160,153,160,164.

2 Michael Bristol, "Charivari and the Comedy of Abjection in Othello," in Materialist Shakespeare: A History, ed. Ivo Kamps (London: Verso, 1995), 143, 147.

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