chapter  4
30 Pages

Disclosing the feminine eye of death: tragedy and seeing in the dark (Othello)

Through its elaboration of an aesthetically specific ars moriendi, or art of dying, Shakespearean tragedy unsettles the complacency of conventional conceptions of knowledge in a variety of ways. In particular, by dramatizing the crises in an ostensibly objective and implicitly masculine model of knowing, these plays often associate tragic experience with the discovery of the subtle difference of a sensory or bodily knowledge which is intimately allied to the enigmatic physicality of death. Given woman’s close tropical affinity with death, it is no surprise that the female body is frequently invoked as an abjected emblem of this other knowing. For by using tragic suffering to problematize not only familiar assumptions about speech and hearing, but also other key aspects of human sensory perception, including smell, taste, and, perhaps most important of all, vision, these plays violently unsettle the authority of the masculine subject position along with the responses of their audiences. This chapter will consider how the masculine eye of its heroic protagonists-whose ‘grim looks’ are often emphasized-is dislocated in Shakespearean tragedy, along with the hero’s ‘I’ or focused identity, as it is turned away from an implicitly limited, monocular point of view, and towards a more obscure, mutable, yet also implicitly enlarged or ‘dilated’ perspective. This uncanny seeing in the dark has a close affinity both with woman’s perceived bodily

darkness and with paradoxical spectacles of lively death. By compelling the heroic protagonist to see with a difference, or to see ‘nothing’, tragedy’s dark dilations of vision remind us that in its move from ignorance to knowledge, tragic anagnorisis, or recognition, often involves a complex, indeed highly contradictory, visual experience: a spectacle whose semiotic instability unsettles any confidence that what is seen can be intellectually deciphered and understood.2