(& scroll all the way down to read my literary sleuthing posts)
Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, now living in "Portlandia"!

Friday, March 18, 2016

“I (really) am not what I am”: The Hidden-in-Plain-Sight Identity of the Potty-Mouth Clown in Othello

Over the past half century, there’s been a surprising amount of scholarly discussion about a relatively minor Shakespearean character, who (i) only appears in two short scenes, (ii) only speaks a total of fourteen short speeches in total, (iii) seems to be in the play for some unfunny comic relief, and (iv) seems to have no impact on the progression of the plot.  As my Subject Line indicates, I’m talking about the Clown in Othello, who appears only in Scenes 1&4 of Act 3. In both instances, we see him outside in front of the Governor’s Castle in Cyprus where Othello, recently returned ashore after a successful campaign against the Turks, is celebrating his marriage to his lovely new bride, Desdemona.

Here’s the first scene with the Clown, which begins Act 3 and immediately follows the final speech of Act 2, in which Iago has just shared with the audience his appalling game plan for destroying his General’s new marriage. Cassio has arranged for a small wind ensemble to serenade Othello to start the day, whereupon the Clown appears and puts a quick stop to the little concert while engaging in brief ribald repartee with the head performer, and then accepts Cassio’s request to discreetly pass a message on to Emilia:

Act 3, Scene 1: Enter CASSIO and some Musicians
CASSIO  Masters, play here; I will content your pains; Something that's brief; and bid 'Good morrow, general.'
Music     Enter Clown
CLOWN: Why, masters, have your instruments been in Naples, that they speak i’ the nose thus?
FM: How sir, how!
CLOWN: Are these, I pray you, wind instruments?
FIRST MUSICIAN: Ay, marry, are they sir.
CLOWN: O, thereby hangs a tail.
FIRST MUSICIAN: Whereby hangs a tail, sir?
FIRST MUSICIAN: Well, sir, we will not.
FIRST MUSICIAN: We have none such, sir.
CLOWN: Then put up your pipes in your bag, for I’ll away: go, vanish into air; away!
Exeunt Musicians
CASSIO:  Dost thou hear, my honest friend?
Exit Clown       Enter IAGO….

Notice also that the next event onstage after the Clown’s exit is the entrance, after an unstated gap of time, of Iago, who then converses with Cassio in furtherance of Iago’s scheming.

And now, here is the scene a short time later in 3.4, when we find Desdemona and Emilia with the Clown outside that same Castle, with Desdemona seeks the same help from the Clown that Cassio requested, but in reverse—i.e., she asks the Clown to help her find Cassio:

Act 3, Scene 4.  Enter DESDEMONA, EMILIA, and CLOWN
DESDEMONA Do you know, sirrah, where Lieutenant Cassio lies?
CLOWN I dare not say he lies any where.
CLOWN He's a soldier, and for one to say a soldier lies, is stabbing.
DESDEMONA Go to: where lodges he?
CLOWN To tell you where he lodges, is to tell you where I lie.
DESDEMONA Can any thing be made of this?
CLOWN I know not where he lodges, and for me to devise a lodging and say he lies here or he lies there, were to lie in mine own throat.
DESDEMONA Can you inquire him out, and be edified by report?
CLOWN I will catechise the world for him; that is, make questions, and by them answer.
DESDEMONA Seek him, bid him come hither: tell him I have moved my lord on his behalf, and hope all will be well.
CLOWN To do this is within the compass of man's wit: and therefore I will attempt the doing it. Exit

In the dozen or so scholarly reactions to Othello’s Clown that I retrieved and read during the past two days, the discussion mostly focuses on how unusual a Shakespearean clown this Clown is, including (i) the small size of his role compared to the clowns in Lear, Twelfth Night, As You Like It, All’s Well That Ends Well, and The Winter’s Tale, (ii) how unfunny Othello’s Clown is; and (iii) the hard-to-fathom function of these very short scenes within the arc of the storyline in Othello. The most extensive and insightful of these modern scholarly analyses of Othello’s Clown, is the earliest,  “The Comic Scenes in Othello” by Robert A. Watts, Shakespeare Quarterly, 19/4 (Aut., 1968), 349-54.  I’ll now quote Watt’s highlights most relevant to my revelation of “the hidden-in-plain-sight identity of the potty-mouth Clown”. Please read these excerpts, to set the stage for my “punch line”, below:

“…the comic scenes in Othello serve an important function…as a microcosm of the major themes of the tragedy…resulting in a reversal of the emotional reaction of the reader, who now laughs at a theme which…was part of the tragic progression of events...Certainly the Clown in Othello does not have the functional role of Lear’s Fool, nor does he engage in the subtle, enigmatic punning of the comical Gravedigger in Hamlet. Nevertheless, both…reflect SS’s most subtle use of comic scenes as thematic microcosm…
The Clown first appears in the opening scene of Act III…Before this seemingly unimportant event has any significance for us, we must see what role the theme of music has played in the drama as a whole…
Since the music was meant to soothe Othello after the ribaldry of the drinking scene in Act II, the Clown’s motives basically are those of Iago’s, since both wish to create disharmony and unrest.
Indeed, the Clown is Iago, in that both the Clown and Iago share means, but not ends. What the Clown does for the sake of comedy, Iago does for tragedy. The Clown even talks like Iago. Note his use of rustic and obscene animal imagery as he exchanges words with his unwitting straight man, the First Musician…
The rationalist Iago, who defeated Cassio by causing discord, cannot tolerate this demonstration of harmonious passion. He vows to ‘untune’ the music and thereby dispel the illusion that passion can be as ordered, meaningful, and cohesive as reason. Only a few scenes after this episode, the Clown enters and banishes music from the stage…
…The Clown’s punning on the word ‘lie’ includes three implications: that of lodging, that of telling untruths, and that of sexual activity. Certainly, if the Clown represents a comic Iago, it is altogether fitting that he use the demeaning, sexual connotations which characterize Iago’s speech throughout the play. Even more important, however, is the fact that Desdemona’s question “Can anything be made of this?” might well be a universal cry against the deception and trickery as used by Iago. After the confusion, Desdemona finally asks the Clown to seek out Cassio for her. He agrees and terminates the conversation (and the scene)…This passage concludes what little comedy there is in this almost uniformly tragic drama, but it is a meaningful last note. If the Clown has aped Iago each minute on the stage, we can be certain that this last comment is an important aspect of Iago presented in microcosm.
…Iago spurns witchcraft in favor of wit to achieve his ends, and, indeed, it is only in the realm of wit that Iago and the Clown can be effective. Both of these characters, then, combine forces to banish music from the witchcraft world of Othello and Desdemona and to utilize their superior wit to achieve their goals.
…the Clown, with his wit, is superior to anyone who shares a scene with him, just as Iago is intellectually superior to any of his associates. When either Iago or the Clown enters a scene, he dominates the stage and forces all others into the role of victim. This fact adds in an important dimension to Shakespeare’s technique of comic inversion. Our laughter at the Clown tempers our hatred for the villain, Iago, and reminds us that we respect the intellectual powers of both characters regardless of their motives. By thus focusing the major themes of the tragedy into these infrequent scenes of comedy, Shakespeare evokes from the audience a duality of response which tempers the themes of the tragedy and renders them more effective links in the chain of tragic events.” END QUOTES, WATTS ARTICLE

Now read what Laurie Maguire, without citing Watts, wrote in Othello: Language and Writing (2014):
“…Productions that cut the Clown ignore the way his role paves the way for Iago’s, both linguistically and dramaturgically. The mid-line stage direction below shows us the sequence in 3.1 in which Cassio bids goodbye to one Clown as he welcomes another…The Clown exits just as Iago arrives: the latter replaces the former, using his tactics, occupying his place. Iago may not be promoted to military lieutenant in the plot, but he is a lieutenant (literally “place holder”) in the play’s comic dramaturgy.”

I found Watts’s article while sleuthing out a different subtextual thread in Othello (which I’ll also be blogging about in the near future); so it was pure serendipity when I read….
“Indeed, the Clown is Iago…”
…and a light bulb switched on brightly in my head. I.e., although Watts was being metaphorical (while describing multiple points of resonance and similarity between the Clown and Iago), I made the leap to wondering whether, in the fictional world of the play, Shakespeare actually intended the sharp elves among his readers/audience to recognize that the Clown literally was Iago…but in disguise----a disguise so effective that he’s not recognized by either Cassio or Desdemona---although Emilia, who knows that Iago is using Desdemona’s handkerchief (that Emilia purloined at his request) for some intrigue, surely knows that the Clown is her own husband!

In other words, I realized that Watts’s imaginative literary detection and analysis brought him to the threshold of a significant discovery, as to which Shakespeare had very deliberately provided numerous subtextual clues, like proverbial bread crumbs, in Act 3. However, because a trick of such magnitude on the reader/viewer was not dreamt of in Watts’s philosophy of interpretation, he never crossed that conceptual threshold, but left it for the likes of an unabashed literary sleuth such as myself to do so nearly six decades later!

Since my epiphany, I’ve quickly amassed a rich array of textual and extratextual evidence for the Clown as Iago in disguise----in particular that the character of Iago was strongly modelled by Shakespeare on certain villain types prevalent in Italian theater prior to Othello [in The Comedy of Errors, Antipholus of Syracuse even refers to "Soul-killing witches that deform the body, DISGUISED CHEATERS, prating MOUNTEBANKS, / And many such-like liberties of sin" (1.2.100-102)]. And I find it quite funny and striking that some scholars have speculated over the years that Robert Armin, Shakespeare’s great “fool”, played the Clown, while others have suggested that Armin played Iago--whereas my reading suggests that Armin played both roles…..which are actually the same role!

Today, I’ll merely provide to you my explanation of why Shakespeare would resort to such authorial trickery. In my opinion, Shakespeare was not an angry literary Iago taking malicious, mean-spirited pleasure at the expense of trusting readers/viewers. Rather, Shakespeare was a benign Iago, who wished us to struggle to see through his deception, and to recognize the Clown as Iago, thereby making ourselves wiser and sharper readers of literature, and of life. And when we do the work, I hope you’ll agree that it adds to our understanding of Othello.

For starters, of all Shakespearean characters we might suspect of adopting a disguise so as to do harm to others, who would be higher on the list than Iago? He announces the essence of his character early on with "I am not what I am"- a parody of God's "I am that I am" in Exodus 3:14. And pretty much all that Iago says or does is, on a metaphorical level, a disguising of his true, malevolent intent. He uses his enormous insight into human nature and persuasive skill to make others believe he cares about them and wishes to help them, all the while disguising his intent to trick them into destroying their own lives. So it can hardly be considered out of character for Iago, if we now find out, four centuries after he was created, that his palette of deceit includes actual physical, as well as metaphorical, disguise. Plus, on top of all that, Iago advises Roderigo to provoke Cassio to blows in Act 2, taking advantage of Cassio’s not knowing Roderigo by sight—a kind of disguise by ignorance. Iago, like Shakespeare, is a connoisseur of point of view.

And stepping back to the level of metafiction: how fitting that Shakespeare would disguise his protagonist Iago as "Clown" and leave it to us to unmask him. What better way for the audience to understand the experience of those whom Iago deceives during the course of the play—by which I mean, pretty much every other character who has the misfortune to come into contact with Iago—than to feel this experience of being tricked on our own skin.  

And here’s the best part of Shakespeare’s disguising of Iago as the Clown. Once we view the Clown’s two brief appearances through the lens, and in the full context, of the overall action of the play—in particular as part of Iago’s elaborate, methodical and daring plot, we see that Iago’s plotting is even more daring and resourceful than we previously knew. So, please don your deerskin caps and cogitate about all of this with me, and see if you agree with my take, below, on the strategy and tactics I detect behind Iago’s decision to disguise himself not once but twice as the Clown, in the short period of time covered in Act 3, in order to further his nefarious goals—I would not be at all surprised if some of you come up with additional explanations for Iago’s disguise as the Clown!

First in 3.1: aside from his crude banter with the First Musician, the “Clown” (of course, meaning, Iago in disguise) accomplishes an obvious goal---he stops the music from playing. Some commentators have suggested that music is a metaphor for sex in Othello, and so they see the Clown, on a metaphorical level, as putting a stop to the sexual concord that Othello and Desdemona presumably wish to reach in their bedroom, above. But, in stopping the music, what else does the Clown accomplish, on a practical level, and in a non-obvious way? 

I suggest that Cassio’s curious choice to hire musicians to play a morning serenade for his General has a second unstated motivation. I.e., this is Cassio’s only way of discreetly getting Desdemona’s attention, so that he can request that she intercede on his behalf with Othello, and redeem him for his drunken riot the evening before (that Iago incited him to).  Desdemona is awaking to the new day with her new husband upstairs in the Cyprian Castle, but it’s 1606, not 2016, so Cassio cannot text her! So he finds an ingenious solution:  getting her attention via music---perhaps asking the musicians to play a song which was played when Cassio wooed Desdemona on Othello’s behalf, so she alone would know it was Cassio outside.

But Iago, who is staying at the Castle as well—he’s Othello’s right hand man, after all----recognizes this, because it was he who got Cassio drunk, and then suggested he reach out to Desdemona! So Iago has already planned to turn Cassio’s obvious desperation, and Desdemona’s likely empathy, to full advantage, but he must prevent a meeting between Cassio and Desdemona until the time is just right. And that right time will only arrive when Iago has first set the stage, by positioning himself at Othello’s side, and pouring poison into his General’s ear about what Cassio and Desdemona were doing, right after Othello watches Cassio walk away from Desdemona.

So the music is a little premature, and must be stopped. But Iago cannot just come outside as himself and stop it, because it’s also crucial that Iago retain Cassio’s trust and goodwill—and if Iago, as Iago, shuts down the music, that goodwill will evaporate on the spot. So Iago improvises a disguise and a character, taking on the look of the “Clown”—an apparent servant of Othello---and comes outside just in time to abruptly silence Cassio’s musical signal before it reaches Desdemona’s ears.

And then, to complete this shutdown of communication between Cassio and Desdemona, Iago must also make Cassio believe that his message will get through to Desdemona by other means. So the “Clown” assures Cassio that he will deliver that message to Emilia on Cassio’s behalf. And the “Clown” thereby succeeds in delaying delivery of that message to Emila, until Iago is ready. 

And that is my account of Iago in the role of the “Clown” in 3.3, which carries Iago’s plot forward up till the moment when opportunity knocks--or rather, when Iago’s tireless planning finally yields fruit---when Desdemona attempts to care for Othello’s “headache” and in so doing drops her handkerchief, which Emilia, already prompted by Iago to be ready for just such an occasion, then purloins and gives it to Iago.  Iago now knows he holds the key to success of his plan, and he tells the audience that he’ll drop the handkerchief in Cassio’s digs, and then make sure Cassio finds it. So, even though Shakespeare does not show Iago doing this, we know that he has accomplished this before 3.4 begins.

But how Iago do it? He cannot very well risk being seen going to and from Cassio’s place, so once again he dons the disguise of the “Clown” in order to move about unnoticed and do the deed. And that’s the reason why we find him in conversation with Desdemona in the garden of the Castle in 3.4: he’s on his way back from having just accomplished that dark deed. And when he runs into Desdemona, she has now been rendered desperate by Othello’s suspicions about the handkerchief, and so she is looking for Cassio. But it would utterly defeat Iago’s entire plan, if she were to actually meet with Cassio---somehow she could wind up getting her handkerchief back before Othello can demand that she produce it.

So Iago must find a way to prevent that meeting ever happening. Therefore, when she asks him where Cassio is, the “Clown” pretends to take on the task of finding Cassio, even though it is a task he’ll never even attempt to perform. He wants Desdemona to have to meet Othello without having any idea where her handkerchief is. And so Iago goes back into the Castle to quickly change back into Iago, and then we may well guess that Iago wastes no time in also telling Othello that Desdemona is outside looking for Cassio.

And then it’s only after Iago knows that Othello has gone off on Desdemona that he then brings Cassio back to Desdemona. At that point, no further disguise is required to complete the plan, and so the “Clown” therefore disappears from the play without Iago having to kill him (as he kills Roderigo, to silence him).  So we see that Iago dons disguise as the Clown twice, to liaise between between Cassio and Desdemona and both times to gum up the works, so that his slanders will work.

I also see another motivation for Iago to be in disguise in these two scenes, as he speaks in the first one to Cassio and in the second one to Desdemona. Iago gets what he wants from others by sweet talking them, but he is so clearly filled with rage and contempt for those he tricks, that it must cause a huge buildup of restrained anger when he interacts with his victims. So, perhaps another benefit to Iago from adopting the Clown persona, is that it gives him license to safely vent some of his disgust and contempt at Cassio and Desdemona, via his crude sexual innuendoes. Even Iago is human enough to need this outlet.

And there I will end my post, and hope to receive some lively responses to my interpretation.

Cheers, ARNIE

@JaneAustenCode on Twitter


Anonymous said...

This interpretation is very fun! And well thought out. Iago's obsession and focus (and know-how) on disguise can be seen as well in 1.3 when he advises Roderigo to wear a disguise to Cyprus ("defeat thy favor with an usurped beard.")

Anonymous said...

Fascinating theory! I’m sold.

Something that most people don’t realize is that Shakespeare (and other Elizabethan dramatists) frequently employed multiple monikers to refer to the same character. So, for example, Shylock is sometimes indicated by the speech prefix “Shylock,” other times by “Jew.” Edmund is sometimes called “Edmund,” but mostly referred to as “Bast.” or “Bastard.” Shakespeare employs like half a dozen epithets to label Lady Capulet. These speech prefixes appear to vary depending on how the character is to be contextualized within a particular scene.

Chris said...

For more on the original speech headings in Shakespeare, read Lukas Erne’s Shakespeare’s Modern Collaborators.

There’s no question whatever that Iago and the Clown could easily by the same person, since Shakespeare regularly used multiple speech headings in reference to the same character in his plays.

And here is a fascinating theory by another amateur scholar, Bob Marks, that argues persuasively that Cordelia and the Fool are one and the same person. It all fits, and these plays are greatly enhanced if we read them in light of these new perspectives:

Arnie Perlstein said...

Thank you all for your excellent replies!