Dr. Kate Liu
May 30, 2000
Seeing is Believing!? Spectatorship in Shakespeare's Othello
Thesis Statement: According to Lacanian psychoanalysis, gazing is vital in the mirror stage for it relates to the baby's recognition of self and other and initiates its constitution of symbolic order. The first gaze of mother and self represented as a gestalt roots in a child's psyche and becomes the child's life-long goal to search for the reunion with mother and to achieve the state of unity and totality. In Shakespeare's Othello, the Moor considers Desdemona as an ideal female image of obedience, tenderness, submissiveness and chastity. By giving Desdemona his mother's handkerchief, Othello claims his possessiveness through the vision of Desdemona with the handkerchief. It also constitutes a pseudo reunion image with his mother who is displaced by Desdemona. However, Othello is trapped by many ocular images or scenes set up by Iago. In this way, I would like to investigate the deceptive spectacles in Othello's vision and argue the possible women's resistance in male voyeuristic manipulation via Desdemona and Emilia.
I. Significance of "gazing" in Lacanian psychoanalysis: According to Lacan, the mirror stage indicates that the baby gradually recognizes its reflection in the mirror, it sees itself as a totality in the mirror, a gestalt. "The child's identification with its specular image impels it nostalgically to seek out a past symbiotic completeness, even if such a state never existed and is retrospectively imposed on the pre-mirror phase; and to seek an anticipatory or desired (ideal or future) identity in the coherence of the totalized specular image" (Grosz 39). Then the baby initiates its conception of self by distinguishing subject from other and constituting the ideas of social self and symbolic order.
II. Seeing is believing!?
A. "Give me the ocular proof" (III, iii, 360)
1. Iago entices Cassio into talking about his affair with Bianca. (III, iii, 100-45)
B. After Iago wins Othello's trust, Othello asks him to observe Desdemona, to be his eyes. Losing his own eyes refers to Othello's blindness and symbolic castration of losing power to perceive the truth.
III. The handkerchief connects with three couples, Othello and Desdemona, Iago and Emilia, Cassio and Bianca.
A. The significance of handkerchief for three female characters
1. Desdemona has the handkerchief as the first gift from Othello.
2. Emilia picks up the handkerchief to please her husband.
3. Bianca is jealous about the owner of the handkerchief which Cassio gives her.
B. The significance of handkerchief for Othello (III, iii, 58-63)
1. Charm of love: There is magic power in the handkerchief. It is Othello's self hallucination.
2. Symbol of mother: displacement of mother and Desdemona,
3. Symbol of chastity:
a. strawberries in the white silk
b. Othello gives the handkerchief from his mother to Desdemona that is a label of Othello's ownership.
c. The loss of handkerchief = the loss of chastity. The handkerchief at last is in Bianca's hand and she is a prostitute. Without seeing the handkerchief, Othello thus associates it with Desdemona's infidelity.
IV. Women's Resistance against male voyeuristic domination through verbal power
A. Desdemona denies her husband. "I have none." (IV, ii, 103)
1. Emilia's subversiveness: "Then let them use us well; else let them know,/ The ills we do, their ills instruct us so." (IV, iii, 102-3)
2. Emilia speaks out the truth about Iago's malignant scheme. (V, ii, 219-22, 224-28)
V. Conclusion: The marriage of Othello and Desdemona suggests a state of unity in pre-Oedipal stage, a gestalt with mother, who is transferred by Desdemona through owning the handkerchief. But the specular reflection of totality in the mirror is actually an illusion-the impossible symbiotic subjectivity. Othello challenges the convention "seeing is believing" by showing the protagonist, Othello, being deceived by specular illusions/ artificial truth that are manipulated by Iago out of jealous and ambition. In Iago's scheme, the play elaborates the communication gaps in visual and verbal forms. Othello, as a whole, presents in an unstable state of chaos, violence and domineering male authority. The tricks and misunderstandings lead to the tragic ending of the death of Othello, Desdemona and Emilia. However, there are some passages revealing women's resistance against male voyeuristic hegemony by Desdemona and Emilia, specifically Emilia's turning out Iago's malicious conspiracy at the expanse of her death.
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