Ten days ago, I wrote the first of what has turned into a series of posts about my discovery that the Clown who appears in Act 3, Scene 1, and then again in Act 3, Scene 4, of Othello is actually Iago in disguise. Here is a link to that initial post:
" 'I (really) am not what I am': The true identity of Othello’s Clown" http://tinyurl.com/zvk7dc8
Subsequently, as a result of responses I received in the Shaksper listserv, I wrote a few shorter, followup posts on that same subject, which I’ve collected here: http://tinyurl.com/zaj6yda
I’m back again today, because, over the weekend just passed, I took a closer look at one key aspect of my claim that the Clown is really Iago in disguise, which I had only touched on in passing in my prior posts. Specifically, I zeroed in on how extraordinarily closely the Clown’s specific sexual innuendoes echo the specific sexual innuendoes which Iago utters at other points in Othello. And so, today I’ll show that these echoes only make sense if they are the intentional acts of Iago, whether spoken openly by Iago as himself, or in disguise as the Clown.
I start with a series of short quotations from prior scholarly analyses of the Clown’s and Iago’s sexual punning, interspersed with my brief comments as to their significance for my claim that these are all Iago speaking. After these scholarly quotations, I’ll revisit the text of relevant excerpts in Othello to tie it all together:
“ ‘A wording poet’: Othello among the mountebanks” by Bella Mirabella [in Medieval and Renaissance Drama in England24 (2011), p150 et seq.]:
“When in an aside, Iago, commenting on Cassio's kissing Desdemona's hand remarks, "Yet again, your fingers to your lips? would they were clyster-pipes for your sake" (2.1.176), the audience would have understood the complexity of this remark. Not only is this moment a lewd allusion to flatulence and rectums, which was one staple of mountebank humor, the mention of clysters and pipes is also a reference to mountebank cures….The long harangue that Act 3 encompasses begins with a bawdy, musical skit like any mountebank performance, which explains the occurrence of the comic routine in Othello, between a Clown and a musician, who pun on "wind instruments," clyster-pipes, and flatulence (3.1.6). The skit refers back to th[at] earlier scene with Desdemona….”
Shakespeare’s Feminine Endings by Philippa Berry (1999) at p29:
“ …a chain of carnivalesque and scatological imagery in the play which has been very convincingly elucidated by Francois Laroque….He points out that the wind imagery that runs through Othello draws on this carnivalesque tradition of fertilizing bodily winds…..in the motions of bodily wind or flatulence, evoked both in Iago’s scatological medical figuration of the kiss between Cassio and Desdemona in terms of ‘clyster pipes’ (2.1) and in the Clown’s jesting depiction of the human body as a ‘wind instrument’ with ‘a tail’ (3.1)….”
Shakespeare’s Festive World, by Francois Laroque, trans. By Jane Lloyd (1991) at p. 47:
“The ‘circulation of blasts of air” comprises the custom of consuming flatulent foods on Shrove Tuesday and then breaking wind in a way that suggested a correlation between the microcosm of the human body and the cosmic forces as a whole. During this festival period, people were recommended to stuff themselves to bursting point, so as to be at one with the natural elements…”
Significance: Iago pushing Cassio, Roderigo et al into overconsumption of drink is a cruel parody of these Shrove Tuesday traditions.
Time, Narrative, and Emotion in Early Modern England by David Houston Wood (2016), p.78:
“…the Shrove Tuesday (Gregorian) which confronts us in Act 1 of Othello becomes five weeks later in the integration of the two calendars, according to Sohmer, the identical Shrove Tuesday (Julian) which confronts us in Act 2 of the play, in Cyprus (17-21)….”
Early Modern Theatricality by Henry S. Turner (2014) p.216:
“In both Rich and Phillips, social mobility is cleverly critiqued by contrasting the improprieties of class crossing with the appropriateness of pancakes on Shrove Tuesday. Shakespeare, too, draws on the pancake bell’s associations with issues of social class to parody the verbal affectations of courtiers….In All’s Well, when Lavatch wittily asserts that “O Lord sir” is an “answer that fits all questions”, he insists that the phrase is as ‘fit” as “a pancake for Shrove Tuesday”. In both plays, Shrove Tuesday pancakes are mentioned by clowns offering jabs at those who act above their proper station by mimicking aristocratic behaviour…”
Significance: Iago as the Clown in Othello is another example, but this time veiled, of this same point—I.e., Iago is parodying Cassio’s social-climbing affectations.
“’Then Murder’s Out of Tune’: The Music and Structure of Othello” by Rosalind King
Shakespeare Survey 39 (1987): ppg149-58:
“…[Iago] perverts the former innocent though overdone courtesies to a gross anal sexuality [clyster pipes] However, when he likens the embrace between Othello and Desdemona to a well-tuned instrument…he is describing no more than the truth….Roderigo has already drunk ‘potations pottle deep” and Iago “has flustered with flowing cups” the three remaining guards (2.3).
…These musicians are playing wind instruments or ‘pipes’. This is a neat visual and aural pun on the ‘clyster pipes’ that Iago has already said should be at Cassio’s lips, and the bawdy jokes made by the Clown on the nature of anal wind music in this scene indicate that the connection is deliberate…”
Signficance: If you’re wondering why King says “clyster pipes’ are so bawdy, read this:
The Mystery of Hamlet: A Solution by Myron Stagman (2009) p.39:
“…For good measure, Cassio and the Clown both say “honest friend”, the person which practically everyone in the play considers Iago to be. What does the resonance [between 2.1 and 3.1] communicate to us? The key: Iago’s “clyster pipes” remark is filthy. He refers to a syringe for injecting an enema. The Clown echoes this obscenity. His entire patter represents a dirty echo of a filthy remark.
“Wind-instruments” alludes to the posterior. “Tale” means “tail”. “Nose”, because that’s what gets wind of the gaseous substance which emanates therefrom. “Put up your pipes in your bag” corresponds to the modern “Shove it!”, and it refers to the allied employment of Iago’s clyster pipes. “Vanish into air” indicates the dissolution of that gaseous substance into the atmosphere. This kind of humor was not intended to be nice. In delivering it, the Clown acts as a surrogate Iago. Hence his ‘posterior”-humor is sinister. Who—or what—is this Clown who acts on behalf of Othello, echoes Iago, and makes a lewd reference to ‘nose’, anticipating Othello’s “O I see that nose of your [D’s] But not that dog I shall throw’t to. The clown is a materialization of Othello’s Iago-influenced mind…”
Significance: Stagman was sooooooooo close to taking that final step to seeing the Clown as Iago in disguise!
02/12/09 “Iago’s Foul Music” by Matt Wallace
“Act 3, Scene 1…As the musicians perform, the Clown enters the scene to pick up where Cassio leaves off and to serve as his proxy. He begins with the first of his insults:
“Why, masters, ha’ your instruments been in Naples, / that they speak i’th’ nose thus?” (3.1.3-4).
A note to the text explains that the Clown is asking why the instruments “sound so nasal” and suggests that this is “a reference to venereal disease, often associated with Naples, or a phallic or anal joke”. The Clown appears to be suggesting that the musicians are so bad because they are playing with diseased instruments, read infected penises.
…After the Musician asks for clarification, the Clown continues with the second of his insults:
“Are these, I pray you, wind instruments?” (3.1.6).
This begins an exchange which, as the textual note indicates, “depends on the connection between wind instruments, flatulence, and ‘tale/tail’”. After the Musician affirms the Clown’s observation, the Clown replies: “O, thereby hangs a tail”. The Clown is clearly referring to the anus, thus suggesting that the musicians’ playing sounded like flatulence, hence it also stunk. The Musician fails to distinguish between the homonyms and asks: “Whereby hangs a tale, sir?”. The Clown recognizes the homonym and retorts: “Marry, sir, by many a wind instrument that I know”. The Clown is relying on the notion of talking out of one’s hindquarters, the uttering of falsehoods ranging from simple exaggerations to outright lies, all of which have their own peculiar stench about them. With the second compound insult, Shakespeare uses flatulence as a metaphor for the lies used to manipulate sexuality, especially the lies of Iago.”
I think you get the picture by now just how gross and foul the Clown’s and Iago’s joking on wind instruments and flatulence really is, and how there are traces of Iago everywhere in that joking. And now, in light of all the above, let’s first reread Iago’s aside right after his exchange with Desdemona in 2.1:
IAGO: [Aside] He takes her by the palm: ay, well said, whisper: with as little a web as this will I ensnare as great a fly as Cassio. Ay, smile upon her, do; I will gyve thee in thine own courtship. You say true; 'tis so, indeed: if such tricks as these strip you out of your lieutenantry, it had been better you had not kissed your three fingers so oft, which now again you are most apt to play the sir in. Very good; well kissed! an excellent courtesy! 'tis so, indeed. Yet again your fingers to your lips? would they were clyster-pipes for your sake!
The Moor! I know his trumpet.
Viewed in the context of all that Shrove Tuesday flatulence, Shakespeare means for us to understand that “The Moor! I know his trumpet” is Iago’s witty suggestion that Othello is also a social climber whose trumpet is yet another “wind instrument” --- This is nothing less than the grotesque but somehow still hilarious image of Othello’s arrival being announced by a colossal fart! And doesn’t that just about sum up, in a single sound/smell, what Iago really thinks about Othello?
And now seems an opportune moment to respond to what Harry Berger wrote on Friday in that Shaksper thread:
”Looking for hidden meanings? Is that what we do today? I didn’t know that. I thought we were doing this: The play text represents the character as trying to say one thing. At the same time his language “says” more than she/he is trying to say. When we read the play’s text we try to put these two together to see what it shows about the character. Does this = “looking for hidden meanings”?”
Harry, in the case of the Clown’s scatological punning in 3.1 of Othello, I think you’re begging the most important question when you write “his language ‘says’ more than she/he is trying to say”- i.e., if the Clown really were just a random, minor character inserted by Shakespeare for some unfunny comic relief or some other comparably nonthematic purpose, then your description would be accurate—indeed we’d be left with trying to figure out why Shakespeare chose to have the Clown unwittingly echo Iago’s crude sexual wordplay so closely, as I have elaborated, above.
But…to me that would diminish Shakespeare’s artistry greatly, if he felt he had to resort to such a gambit, which damages verisimilitude to real life, by relying on an unrealistic coincidence of word usage between two seemingly unrelated characters, in order to amplify Iago’s repellant sexual innuendoes. In Othello, we are not in the fantastical, unrealistic worlds of the late Romances, or of A Midsummer Night’s Dream or Titus Andronicus, or even of the comedies with their absurdly improbable coincidences bringing the couples together at the end. Strongly coincidental echoes shouldn’t happen without some plausible reason for them within the fictional reality of the play.
Othello strikes me as being among the most realistic of Shakespeare’s plays—which makes it all the more tragic and horrifying, because we can see how a malevolent being in the real world, like Iago, without assistance from ghosts, witches, soothsayers or other supernatural powers, really could, using ingenuity and psychological acuity, do tremendous harm to other people. Whereas, if it really is Iago disguised as the Clown in 3.1 and 3.4, then, using your terminology, the character is knowingly saying exactly what he means to say, even though the major characters he speaks to (first Cassio, then Desdemona) have no idea that it is really Iago, or what he means.
Now, as I suggested in my first post in this thread, I believe Iago pops in as the Clown in 3.1. and 3.4 for the primary purpose of delaying first Cassio and then Desdemona in their movements, so as to prevent them from actually meeting with each other before Iago’s “handkerchief” gambit has time to work.
But the content of what Iago says is irrelevant to that primary purpose, and so Iago can choose whatever topic he wants for his exchanges with the Musicians, Cassio and Desdemona, as long as he keeps things going long enough. And, being the malevolent being that he is, he elects to vent his ugly sexual spleen on two of his victims, as a kind of sadistic private joke for his own amusement. In a way, he’s like the hunter who gives his prey a fair chance to get away, because that spices up the hunt for the hunter—he gets to have a private chuckle at the obtuseness of Cassio and Desdemona, who don’t hear the echoes of Iago in the “Clown’s” joking.
And these two scenes then perfectly complement all other scenes in the play in which Iago works his evil manipulations on others—both the scenes in which he is not disguised and presents himself as the “honest friend” of the very people he is trying to destroy, and also the scenes (like when he slanders Othello while hidden in the crowd outside Brabantio’s estate).when he achieves anonymity by being hidden in a crowd at a distance from the character he is working on—and when he advises Roderigo to don actual disguise to do Iago’s bidding in Cyprus.
Best of all, I suggest that the above analysis provides an extraordinary positive transcendence of the apparent paradox of the question of reading vs. seeing Shakespeare. I believe it would make a spectacular bit of stagecraft if, in 3.1., the Clown delivers his speeches and then starts to leaves the stage in 3.1, but then, just before completing his exit, and while in full view of the audience, but not of Cassio, he quickly sheds his beard, wig, and dirty clothes to reveal……Iago in his normal attire, who then immediately enters and starts talking to Cassio. I think it would elicit a collective gasp, if the clothing, body movement, and voice disguise were really effective (and I’d guess Robert Armin would have excelled at them all). They’d gasp because, suddenly armed with the knowledge that the Clown had been Iago all along in 3.1, they’d start wondering, why has Iago done this? And so then when the Clown reentered in 3.4, the audience would already know right from the start that he was Iago in disguise, and therefore this would add an extraordinary extra oomph to the Clown/Iago’s verbal parrying with Desdemona.
In particular, the audience would be wondering, why has Iago chosen to come back a second time as the Clown and to engage in this crude sexual banter with Desdemona—and that is when they’d surely recall that this was a dark reprise of the relatively mild, witty sexual banter between Iago and Desdemona in 2.1, when Cassio kisses her hand, and then Desdemona playfully invites Iago to say how he would praise her.
I think it clear that this becomes a much more powerful scene if it is Iago, disguised as the Clown, who is using his disguise to safely vent his ugly sex-based anger at Desdemona, than if a servant who is otherwise peripheral to the action of the play suddenly appears and inexplicably starts doing this.
And…one final artistic payoff on stage—when the audience hears the following exchange in 4.1….
Oth. With her?
Iago. With her? On her; what you will.
Oth. Lie with her? Lie on her? We say lie on her, when they belie her. Lie with her! (4.1.34-38)
…they will not merely recall the Clown’s riffing on “lie” in 3.4, they will understand that Iago is reprising his own crude sexual punning, this time with Othello instead of Desdemona, as if to fulfill the arc that runs from 2.1. to 3.4 to 4.1 that I have just outlined. It pulls the whole thread together---instead of leaving the audience puzzled as to why the Clown was in the play in the first place, which is the very question that a number of Shakespeare scholars have wondered over the years.
To conclude: I wonder whether there has ever been a production of Othello in which the above scenario has been enacted—if so, I have searched the Internet and all relevant databases and cannot find evidence of same, but I would not be surprised to find out that it has been done. The best evidence, of course, would have been to know what was done when Othello was first staged, presumably under the direction of Shakespeare himself----but alas, we don’t have such precious data at hand, and probably never will.
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