Span: Journal of the South Pacific Assoc for Cwlth Lit and Language Studies
Number 36, 1992
Postcolonial Fictions:
Proceedings of the SPACLALS Triennial Conference 1992
Edited by Michèle Drouart

'The Cannibals That Eat Each Other': Othello and postcolonial appropriation

Philippa Kelly

Homi Bhabha's theory has fascinating implications for Shakespeare's Othello. In disrupting the straightforwardly instrumentalist relation between power and knowledge, Othello disavows the court's hegemonic representation of imperial values. In this way, the colonial subject is not effaced by imperial inscription: rather, it remains an impenetrable "other" which disarticulates imperialist knowledge. The imperial power projects the colonial stereotype as "a fixed reality which is at once an 'other' and yet entirely knowable and visible" ("The Other Question" 23); yet as Bhabha argues, in so doing it works against itself because the very denial of colonial knowledge is an acknowledgement of its unknowability, rendering the colonial mode of representation "as anxious as it is assertive ..."

While it is interesting to wonder about ambivalence from a metacritical perspective, I want to read Bhabha and Othello against each other in order to challenge this metacritical perspective itself. Bhabha's ideas eventually beg the question: do literary evocations of resistance to colonial power exist as liberatory texts in themselves, or is liberation inscribed on them by acts of postcolonial projection? If the latter is true, postcolonial criticism becomes something of a parody of the very economy it describes: in writing a text of liberation, the metacritical pen colonizes the text through its own imperialistic assumption of authority. Simon During makes this point in alluding to the ideological appeal of benevolent postcolonial appropriations:

The will to use the term "postcolonial" is not simply driven by a need for narrative order and global harmony, but contains a political promise of liberation. (339)

During's use of the word "driven" implies a compulsive energy about postcolonial criticism - an energy which perhaps has very little to do with its literary subjects. This in turn has disturbing implications for postcolonial theory, and indeed for the act of reading itself.

In Bhabha's use of the term "hybridity" the imperialist culture discriminates between itself and its colonial bastards, itself and its doubles. It does not repress what it disavows - rather, it reinscribes the colonial culture into something it recognizes as different. The difficulty, according to Bhabha, arises when the act of creative distortion for the narcissistic purposes of colonial representation is interrupted by the object's assertion of itself as something other than its inscription. At this point, the object is seen as the site of resistance. Iago experiences Othello as such. It is Othello's very existence as the Moor, the possessor of another knowledge, which threatens Iago's identity. Iago's attempts to diminish him to the level of an "old black ram" (I.i.89), a "barbary horse" (I.i.113), suggest his outrage that this "bombast circumstance/ Horribly stuffed with epithets of war" (I.i.13-14) has somehow hoaxed the Senate. Brabantio, too, represents Othello as the site of an inscrutable knowledge which, "in spite of country, credit, every thing," has inspired his daughter "[t]o fall in love with what she fear'd to look on!" (I.iii.99-100) He wonders about the mysterious African powers which have lured Desdemona:

... with some mixtures powerful o'er the blood,
Or with some dram conjured to this effect,
He wrought upon her (I.iii.104-06)

Because of its impenetrability, the foreigner's "other knowledge" is threatening. To use Bhabha's terms, it unsettles the rules of recognition of dominating discourses as they articulate the signs of cultural difference and re-implicate them within the deferential relations of colonial power. ("Signs Taken For Wonders" 96)

This raises the question: while the Venetians may recognize a power in Othello's Otherness, does this mean that the colonial subject himself does? In White Mythologies, Robert Young addresses this issue:

... with the claim for resistance and intervention, the problem of agency returns: who is "we" here, and when do "we" do what we do? Is Bhabha describing a forgotten moment of historical resistance, or does that resistance remain inarticulate until the interpreter comes a hundred and seventy years later to "read between the lines" and rewrite history? ... Although the claim for active resistance ... inevitably offers a certain political allure, it has to be said that documentary evidence of resistance by colonized peoples is not at all hard to come by, and is only belittled by the implication that you have to read between the lines to find it. (149)

Young goes on to suggest that the Christian missions with which Bhabha substantiates his argument offer "substantial evidence of quite spectacular failures" (149). I want to test out on Othello Young's suggestion that perhaps empowerment belongs less to colonized peoples than to the eye of the theorist bent on inscribing a text of liberation.

Although Othello acknowledges himself as Other, he does not experience empowerment as Bhabha's theory of ambivalence would have it. Rather, while he is aware of his difference, he strives to disavow it by gaining acceptance within the Venetian state. In response to Brabantio's accusations, he insists that the "services" he has done the signiory "[s]hall out-tongue," or overwrite, those complaints which seek to highlight his otherness (I.ii.18-24). From his first speeches, then, Othello implies the existence of what Bhabha calls "the division of 'self/Other' " ("Signs Taken For Wonders" 93) within his fractured identity. The willing colonial subject whose "dangers" have been "pass'd" on behalf of Venice, still feels his difference. Othello manages this tension by renarrating his experience, translating it into a story which has been told at the feet of a white Venetian woman, and which is now being retold before the Venetian Senate.

While Othello aims at singleness, in retelling his story he manifests his fractured self. Bhabha provides here both a way in and a way out of Othello. Bhabha's suggestion that "the visibility of mimicry is always produced at the site of interdiction" ("Of Mimicry," 130) can be usefully applied to Othello's fractured self. It is in his very mastery of the Venetian language that Othello marks himself as Other. His linguistic formality situates him at what Bhabha calls "the crossroads" of what is known and what is concealed. ("Of Mimicry," 130). The crossroads, in Bhabha's terms, is empowering for the colonial subject because it makes the subject not fully knowable to the colonial power. But this is where the text slips out of the metacritical grasp. Contrary to Bhabha's model, Othello is not empowered by the Venetian equivalent of "the difference between being English and being Anglicised" ("Of Mimicry," 130). His whole way of knowing himself is public, constructed by formal, public oration. Because of this, it is precisely the crossroads, the site of interdiction, which is not powerful, but is insupportable, to Othello. As Stephen Greenblatt has noted, Othello's story is his self (Renaissance Self-Fashioning, 237-38). This fragile construct is constantly threatened by his awareness of his otherness, the alien identity which threatens to spill out of his Venetian self. For Othello, otherness is fracturing, disabling, if he cannot repress it beneath the mask of his Venetian self.

In recounting his exploits, Othello affirms his sameness in Venice by designating those he has encountered in warfare as Other: he recalls "being taken by the insolent foe/And sold to slavery ..." (I.iii.137-38), and hair-raising stories of "Cannibals that each other eat/The Anthropophagi and men whose heads/Do grow beneath their shoulders" (I.iii.143-45). Note that he sums all of this Otherness up as alien "dangers" he has encountered, rather than as aspects of himself. He concludes with an archetypically Petrarchan paradigm through which to affirm his Venetian sameness: "She loved me for the dangers I had pass'd,/And I loved her that she did pity them" (I.iii.167-68). He then defuses any residual implication of his own Otherness by adding: "This only is the witchcraft I have used ..." (I.iii.169). The Duke approves Othello's version of himself: "I think this tale would win my daughter too" [I.iii.171]). He goes on a little later to himself disavow Othello's Otherness by affirming him as white: "If virtue no delighted beauty lack,/Your son-in-law is far more fair than black" (I.iii.289-90).

Yet in disavowing Othello's blackness, the Duke, and Othello himself, are in fact acknowledging that there is something to be disavowed - that there is indeed a fissure which can only be painted over by the illusion of whiteness. Whiteness, sameness, is thus always maintained as a part of a tension between itself and incipient Otherness. This tension is strongly manifest in Othello's talk of love. "Valiant Othello" is relatively unfamiliar with his self-as-lover, and he points out the division between the "natural and prompt alacrity/I find in hardness" (I.iii.231-32), and what befits his wife:

Most humbly therefore bending to your state,
I crave fit disposition for my wife,
Due reference of place and exhibition,
With such accommodation and besort
As levels with her breeding. (I.iii.235-39)

While Othello "humbly" bends as the hardy subject of the imperial power, he defines his wife's position ("her breeding") as part of that power itself. In so doing, he acknowledges both his marriage to a white Senator's daughter (and thus his "marriage" to Venice), and the fissure within it. There is always this fissure between himself and "her breeding," however Othello may try to close it. Consequently, it takes only Iago's insinuations to expose it, so that Othello reexperiences all of the ambivalence which he has tried to disavow by affirming himself as Venetian. In his marriage to Venice, Othello has attempted to construct himself as white. Now, with the radical challenge to this identity, he cannot tolerate ambivalence; and so he has conversely to experience Desdemona as black: "Her name, that was as fresh as Dian's visage,/ is now begrimed and black as mine own face." White-masked Othello gives way to black-masked Desdemona.

As Othello shifts from the projection of his own whiteness to Desdemona's blackness, he experiences Desdemona as an alien force which subverts his authority: "She's gone; I am abus'd; and my relief/ Must be to loathe her" (III.iii.271). And as he bids farewell to his security in love, the jilted cuckold farewells also "the plumed troop and the big wars/That make ambition virtue" (III.iii.253-54). In order to restore his soldiership, he has to make Desdemona the enemy; and when her loyalty is subsequently proven, the fissure between self and Other is located no longer within Desdemona, but within Othello's self. He locates this fissure geographically, bringing the base Indian, the Arabian trees, into Desdemona's bedroom. He is both enemy and victor, Venetian servant and turbanned Turk. There is only one way for Othello to escape this ruptured text - to erase it altogether: "I kissed thee ere I killed thee./No more but this, Killing myself, to die upon a kiss" (V.ii.361-62). Himself the subject of kissing, Othello dies on this radical expression of ambivalence.

My question is this: how can Othello's suicide be represented as the action of a character who is empowered by his own otherness? It is one thing to experience one's difference; it is quite another to be empowered by it. Othello cannot play with different discourses; he has appropriated the Venetian discourse so that he can exist and flourish as a black man in Venice. Should he, then, read like Iago? The issue is that he can't do so. Othello writes his story, wanting only to repress ambivalence beneath a coherent construct. Because of this, two types of coherence, the positive and the negative, are counterpoised. Othello inscribes a story of love and warfare, while Iago attempts to superimpose a story which works against it. In the play's last scene, Othello tries to inscribe his text before he dies: he asks Lodovico to tell his story, judging as he sees fit and nothing extenuating. He then goes on, however, to ask him to speak "of one that lov'd not wisely, but too well ..." (V.ii.347). To the very end, Othello is unable to detach himself from his story. He wants to be sure of it. Iago, in contrast, has such a slippery, deconstructive relation to his text that he disavows any relation to a story at all. Note that very early in the play, he says, "I am not what I am" (I.i.66), and that at the end he says simply, "Demand me nothing. What you know, you know./From this time forth I never will speak word" (V.ii.306-07). In comparison with this slippery disavowal, Othello's naive readership stands out all the more clearly.

Othello is not concerned with notions of "truth" or "falsehood," because to be so is to acknowledge ambivalence. He is concerned only with achieving certainty. Othello has an image of himself in I.iii. It is Iago who sets out to disprove this through his negativity, his interrogative assault, and who thus overwrites Othello with the true/false dichotomy. This imposition evokes Bhabha's discussion of Foucault's idea that "truth" is not something inherent, but is rather imposed on the subject by the governing power ("Signs Taken for Wonders," 95). Once Iago establishes governance over Othello, he suggests that Othello's Desdemona - the only version of her that Othello has known - is only a version. In suggesting that Othello's version of Desdemona is false, he implies that he is himself privy to "the truth" about Desdemona: in response to Othello's hopeful words, "I do not think but Desdemona's honest" (III.iii.229), he gives the ambiguous reply: "Long live she so; and long live you to think so ..." (III.iii.230). It appears, then, that what is conventionally seen as the metaphysical axis of the play - the true/false dichotomy - is something over which Othello himself has no control. Othello is concerned not with notions of truth or falsehood, but with certainty and uncertainty. Hence his compulsion, at the play's, end, to deal with ambivalence by externalizing his otherness into images of "the base Indian," the "turbanned Turk." By telling the story of "the Venetian" who "took by th' throat the circumcized dog,/And smote him - thus" (V.ii.358-59), he radically splits himself and kills off his other. Disposing of the other leaves intact the Venetian self, yet as I have mentioned, the irony is that through this naive inscription, Othello destroys the text, his self, altogether.

In imposing the true/false ambivalence upon Othello's naive readership, Iago, in his own words, has led him "by the nose" to the point where he kills himself. In so doing, Iago demonstrates his governance over Othello. What is fascinating about the Othello/Iago relationship is that it does not end within the text. Iago establishes governance not only over Othello, but also over ourselves, the readers and spectators of the play. In interrupting Othello's heroic images of himself with those of "the old black ram" being led by the nose "as asses are" (I.iii.396), Iago imposes the true/false ambivalence upon us as well, and manipulates our view of Othello. He thus deconstructs the perspective that Othello has offered us of himself. The struggle between two types of reading - Othello's and Iago's - consequently becomes our own struggle as we negotiate these poles. In refusing to allow us to read naively, Iago imposes his slippery deconstructiveness on the act of reading. He forces us to split what we read. He suggests that the act of reading, then, is always doomed to reenact the splitting of the subject, because in self-consciously bringing to bear our own interpretive processes, we fracture the subject and expose its ambivalence.

An example of just how a critical stance can thus fracture its subject is offered by Othello's strawberry spotted handkerchief. Thomas Rymer says of the handkerchief: "So much ado, so much stress, so much passion and repetition about an handkerchief!" (Casebook on "Othello," 44) Rymer is outraged:

... that it, at this time of day, be worn on the Stage, to raise every where all this clutter and turmoil. Had it been Desdemona's Garter, the Sagacious Moor might have smelt a Rat; but the Handkerchief is so Remote a trifle, no Booby on this side Mauritania cou'd make any consequence from it. (44)

The words, "no Booby this side Mauritania" are uncomfortably close to Iago's images of Othello as the "old black ram," and as the black "ass." This suggests that Rymer, in very much the same way as does Iago, experiences the resistance of Othello, the inscrutable colonial subject, to interpretive appropriation. In his frustration with the handkerchief, Rymer, like Iago, acknowledges his interpretive frustration with the inscrutability of the native sign. Rymer tries to dismiss this sign's significance, to say that it is inappropriate to a tragedy. But how does Othello feel about the sign? Is it a source of power to him?

I suggest that Othello feels the handkerchief as empowering in the face of neither Iago, his internal reader, nor of any external reader. When the handkerchief first appears in the play, Desdemona tries to bind Othello's aching forehead with it. He pushes it away: "Your napkin is too little" (III.iii.292). Only when Iago suggests that he has seen Cassio wipe his beard with it does it take on, for Othello, the significance of the magical Eastern powers: "There's magic in the web of it" (III.iv.69). It becomes "hallowed" only after the deed. Yet note that Othello is confused as to exactly how it is hallowed; first we hear that his mother gave it to him, then that his father gave it to him. Othello's otherness, therefore, is evoked in fractured glimpses which suggest that in response to Iago's challenges, he tries to re-evoke his own cultural awareness, but experiences only fracture, only ambivalence. "Is't lost? Is't gone?" (III.iv. 80) Far from an image of cultural security, the lost handkerchief is equated with the Desdemona who has "gone." Although in his focus on the handkerchief Othello may evoke an other knowledge which exercises an infuriating power of resistance for Rymer, Othello himself does not feel this power; he sees the lost handkerchief only as a reflection of his own alien, unwanted otherness, and of the loss of Desdemona. While Iago is responsible for both the poles of truth and untruth which confound Othello, it is his own interpretive frustration at the foreigner's inscrutable knowledge which prompts his effort to confound and conquer, and it is this interpretive frustration which patterns Rymer's response.

To see Iago as the source of interpretive difficulty for the readership of both Othello and Rymer is not, however, to go far enough in addressing reading practices. Iago is important not only for what he challenges us to do in reading Othello, but as a paradigm for what we do whenever we encounter texts that deal with the third world. Like the oppressed peoples of the third world, Othello does not come from the sophisticated milieu of the "super-subtle" Venetians. In the course of the play, we watch the "cannibals that each other eat" (I.iii.143) move from the enemy without to the enemy within, the Iagoesque malevolence which eats away at Othello's security, probing his constructs from the inside. But is Iago's cannibalizing so very different from postcolonial attempts to deconstruct, to expose fracture and ambivalence in third world texts? Like Othello's ambivalence, the ambivalence is there in the texts of the third world, but postcolonial theorists try to transform it into liberatory resistance. Doesn't this benevolent over-writing remind us of the malevolent wish with which Iago sets out to inscribe his own text upon Othello's heroic tale of love and warfare? At what point, we must ask, do we ourselves become Iago? Helen Tiffin and Stephen Slemen make this point in Kunapipi:

When reading for textual resistance becomes entirely dependent on a "theoretical" disentanglement of contradiction or ambivalence within the colonialist text ... then the actual locus of subversive agency is necessarily wrenched away from colonised or post-colonial subjects and resituated within the textual work of the institutionalised western literary critic ... (xviii)

When in "Signs Taken For Wonders," then, Bhabha discusses truth and untruth as belonging not to the subject as inherent qualities, but to the governing power, Othello's example suggests that Bhabha is himself implicated within his own reading practices. Iago's cannibalism does not belong to himself alone - it offers a paradigm for the act of reading. Bhabha states:

... the exercise of colonialist authority requires the production of differentiations, individuations, identity-effects through which discriminatory practices can map out subject populations that are tarred with the visible and transparent mark of power ... (96)

He is, however, himself the colonialist authority who insists on tarring the subject with the visible mark of his own power - the power to expose fractures and differentiations. When we look at Othello's suicide which is the result of Iago's deconstructive act, can we turn to Bhabha's exposure of ambivalence within third-world subjects and call it "liberatory?"

Simon During argues just this point about Bhabha, concluding that because Bhabha is caught up in the very economy he describes, the problem is one of engagement. Only in the silence of not being read, says During, can a true alterity emerge in all its heterogeneity, instead of Bhabha's own projection of otherness:

... it becomes strategically apposite for white academics and intellectuals to impose a silence on themselves because their "true" utterances and institutional practices might harm those "others" whose interests they would serve. (351)

In view of During's conclusion, we would approach Othello by observing his silences, rather than by engaging with the ambivalence that he strives so hard to repress. The problem with this conclusion, however, is immediately self-evident. During's model posits identity as something fixed, something it is essential to preserve; and yet to treat a text in this way is to re-evoke the romantic reification of character which twentieth century criticism has tried to avoid. If we want to see identity not as During's fixed essence, but as a product of circulation and negotiation, then we must critique not only Bhabha, but During as well. While we may not want to appropriate the text within Bhabha's paradigm of liberatory resistance, we may also decide that not to appropriate the text at all is to have a text not worth reading.

For me, this dilemma re-enacts a paradox crucial to interpretative engagement with Shakespeare: the paradox that while an act of interpretive engagement, such as Bhabha's, may seek to appropriate a text and thus to speak for its silences in potentially constraining ways, yet not to engage with the text in just such ways is to forbid the creative relation between readers and text which keeps a text alive and shifting, endlessly negotiated and endlessly interesting.

James Cook University

With special thanks to Robert Dixon and Greg Manning.


Bhabha, Homi. "Of Mimicry and Man: The Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse," 28, Spring 1984.

----- "Signs Taken For Wonders: Questions of Ambivalence and Authority Under a Tree Outside Delhi, May 1817." Critical Inquiry 12:1 (1985) 144-65.

----- "The Other Question ..." Screen 24:6 (1983). 18-36.

During, Simon. "Postcolonialism and Globalization." Meanjin 51:2, 1992.

Greenblatt, Stephen, Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985.

Melchiori, Giorgio. "The Rhetoric of Character Construction: Othello," Shakespeare Survey 34, 1981.

Slemen, Stephen, and Tiffin, Helen. Introduction. Kunapipi, ed. Anna Rutherford, University of Aarhus. XI:1, 1989.

Young, Robert. "The Ambivalence of Bhabha." White Mythologies: Writing History and the West, London: Routledge, 1990.

New: 7 January, 1997 | Now: 15 April, 2015