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Monday, March 21, 2016

Ironic echoes in Othello of Acts 13:1-12, Sonnet 116, & the Anglican Marriage Vows

In further response to my posts suggesting that the Clown in Othello is Iago in disguise, I received two very interesting responses in the Shaksper listserv:

OTHELLO & ACTS 13:1-12:

Steve Sohmer wrote: “You might want to give a thought to that Biblical Clown (Fool) who traveled to Cyprus with Barnabas (Acts 13), then went on to catechize the world. There’s more in play here than a disguise. Hope this helps. Steve”

Steve, although I think you’re creatively stretching to bring Iago-as-the-Clown into the picture, as opposed to Iago generally, I nonetheless find your suggestion very interesting, Steve! I just read the KJV text of Acts 13: 1-12, to which you have referred, and have a comment, below:

“Now there were in the church that was at Antioch certain prophets and teachers; as Barnabas, and SIMEON THAT WAS CALLED NIGER, and Lucius of Cyrene, and Manaen, which had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. As they ministered to the Lord, and fasted, the Holy Ghost said, Separate me Barnabas and Saul for the work whereunto I have called them. And when they had fasted and prayed, and laid their hands on them, they sent them away. So they, being sent forth by the Holy Ghost, departed unto Seleucia; and from thence THEY SAILED TO CYPRUS. And when they were at Salamis, they preached the word of God in the synagogues of the Jews: and they had also John to their minister.
And when they had gone through the isle unto Paphos, they found a certain sorcerer, a false prophet, a Jew, whose name was Barjesus: Which was with the deputy of the country, Sergius Paulus, a prudent man; who called for Barnabas and Saul, and desired to hear the word of God. But Elymas the sorcerer (for so is his name by interpretation) withstood them, seeking to turn away the deputy from the faith.
Then Saul, (who also is called Paul,) filled with the Holy Ghost, set his eyes on him. And said, O FULL OF ALL SUBTILTY AND ALL MISCHIEF, THOU CHILD OF THE DEVIL, thou enemy of all righteousness, wilt thou not cease to pervert the right ways of the Lord? And now, behold, the hand of the Lord is upon thee, and THOU SHALT BE BLIND, not seeing the sun for a season. And immediately there fell on him a mist and A DARKNESS; and he went about seeking some to lead him by the hand. Then the deputy, when he saw what was done, believed, being astonished at the doctrine of the Lord.”

First, I find it remarkable that in this very short passage of 13 Biblical verses, we find
(1) “Simeon that was called Niger” [of course, this word meaning “black” suggests Othello];
(2) the prophets and teachers sail to Cyprus [and a quick search tells me that the only references to Cyprus in the entire Bible are in Acts];
(3) the description of Elymas is a perfect description of Iago as well; and
(4) Paul’s striking Elymas blind and casting him into “a darkness”  echoes strikingly with what I read the other day in Elizabethan Stage Conventions and Modern Interpreters (written by Alan Dessen, who was, coincidentally, the first Shaksper participant to respond to my post the other day) beginning at P. 80:    “…By far the most complex rendition of such metaphoric darkness can be seen in the final movement of Othello…Even more important for the spectator watching the action in ‘imaginary darkness’ is an increased awareness of the manipulative power of Iago, who literally controls the light during much of the scene….[D]arkness is linked not to verisimilar night or lighting but rather to a failure to ‘see’ associated both with Iago’s poison and a blindness (or vulnerability) on the part of the observer….the darkness of misperception, the blindness of inner night.”

So I think it’s pretty clear from this dense interconnectivity that Shakespeare did have this very passage in mind as he wrote Othello.

Second, Steve, perhaps you are already aware of the following very relevant and specific discussion of Acts 13:1-13/ Pauline subtext in Othello in Islamic Conversion and Christian Resistance on the Early Modern Stage by Jane Hwang Degenhardt (2010):

“Cyprus resembled Ephesus through its particular association in the New Testament with Pauline conversion – an association that distinctly illuminates both the miracle of Othello’s Christian conversion and the failure of inner sight that prompts his damnation. It was in Cyprus that St. Paul performed his first prominent conversion of a Gentile. As detailed in Acts 13.5-12, Paul visited Cyprus with Barnabas and John when a Roman proconsul called upon them to ‘heare the worde of God” (13.7). Paul proceeded to teach the proconsul about Jesus, when a “Jewish sorcerer” named Elymas intervened and tried to “turn away the Deputie from the faith” (13.8). Paul then blinded the sorcerer, and, in turn, the Gentile proconsul was persuaded to convert to Christianity. Thus, the impossibility of the Jewish sorcerer’s conversion was set against the miracle of Gentile conversion. It was at this moment (13.9) that Paul, heretofore referred to as Saul, began to be called Paul. St. Paul’s momentous conversion of the Gentile proconsul, who, in being made to see the blindness of the Jewish sorcerer, is himself brought into the light, resonates powerfully with Shakespeare’s representation of a tragic protagonist whose demand for ocular proof belies an inner blindness. The resonance between Othello and the Jewish sorcerer is further reinforced through Brabantio’s charges of witchcraft (1.3.105-7), as well as by Othello’s own association of himself with a handkerchief given to his mother by an Egyptian charmer (3.4.58-9, 72).  What Shakespeare exposes through Othello’s damnation is the impossible conversion that both undoes and sustains Pauline universalism.  Othello’s potential connection to witchcraft and to the Jewish sorcerer in Acts 13 may, as Burton argues, constitute a ‘sign of his irrevocable non-Christian origins,….Just as the play equivocates about Othello’s capacity for Christian conversion, it is unclear about whether its critique of ocular proof is aimed at Othello or at the logic that consigns him to damnation. Leading up to its tragic conclusion, the play seems caught between endorsing the universal sway of Pauline faith and insisting upon a narrower understanding of faith….”

So, thanks for bringing that angle to my attention!


Sidney Lubow responded to my post about Iago as Othello's Clown as follows:

“Is the Clown Iago, Shakespeare’s alter ego of the Sonnets? Full Definition of alter ego. : a second self: as, a : a trusted friend, b : the opposite side of a personality, c : counterpart.
 Lord Narcissus, speaking to his own mind in the Sonnets, is talking to his alter ego, the other I that one might punningly call an Iago, as the bard might have cleverly associated with the double name, alter ego, done perhaps a bit too cleverly to be easily recognized in Othello, ‘O, the llo’rd,  Narcissus, the son of Cephisus, the river King, and the naiad, Lirope, who swam in his stream Othello’s alter ego, his trusted lieutenant, Iago, proved as disloyal as the bard’s did in the Sonnets. Shakespeare’s  Phoenix and Turtle also recalls the line, “Single nature’s double name.” The alter ego?  You are on the right track, it seems to me.”

Sidney, I am reticent about making interpretations of the Sonnets on a global scale. However, I will take this opportunity to point out that, as part of the research I did the past week, I became aware that there is an extraordinary degree of resonance among three texts which have not previously been connected by Shakespeare scholars, as far as I can tell:  Othello, Sonnet 116 (“marriage of true minds”), and the Anglican marriage vows!

I came upon that extraordinary resonance when my eye was caught by the word “impediment” in Othello’s speech in 5.2 just before he kills himself, and then I also found that word in a speech by Iago early in the play, in which he refers to Othello and Cassio as impediments to the marriage that the greedy Roderigo seeks with the heiress Desdemona:  

Sir, [Cassio] is rash and very sudden in choler, and haply may strike at you: provoke him, that he may; for even out of that will I cause these of Cyprus to mutiny; whose qualification shall come into no true
taste again but by the displanting of Cassio. So shall you have a shorter journey to your desires by the means I shall then have to prefer them; and the IMPEDIMENT most profitably REMOVED, without the which there were no expectation of our prosperity.

Given that Iago can be seen as a Satanic marriage-breaker, the exact opposite of what happens in an Anglican marriage ceremony, I believe Shakespeare made a point of echoing in Othello many words from the following two famous texts, the first of which he of course was the author!  (see the words in ALL CAPS):


Let me not to the marriage of true minds 
Admit IMPEDIMENT. Love is not love 
Which ALTERS when it ALTERATION finds, 
Or bends with the REMOVER to REMOVE:
O no; it is an ever-fixed MARK, 
That looks on TEMPESTS, and is never shaken;  
It is the STAR to every wandering BARK,
Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken.
Love's not Time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks 
Within his bending sickle's COMPASS come; 


I shall now ask you if you freely undertake the obligations of marriage, and to state that there is no legal IMPEDIMENT to your marriage.
Groom: I do solemnly declare that I know not of any lawful IMPEDIMENT why I, N.N. (full name, including surname), may not be joined in matrimony to N.N. (bride's full name)
Bride: I do solemnly declare that I know not of any lawful IMPEDIMENT why I, N. N. (full name, including surname) may not be joined in matrimony to N. N. (groom's full name).

To fully unpack all the nuanced usages of the ALL CAPS words in Othello would require several pages of analysis, which collectively embody the notion of Iago as Satanic marriage-breaker.

Given that Sonnet 116 is among the most famous of Shakespeare’s sonnets, how is it that I am apparently the first Shakespeare scholar to notice this striking thematic and verbal resonance?

Cheers, ARNIE

@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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