Othello begins at the moment when comedies end, with a happy marriage. It also begins, where The Merchant of Venice and Twelfth Night leave off, with the question of ethnic or social outsiders as the catalysts for the destructive elements within society. It might seem that the terms are reversed, with the dangerous alien now the hero, while the mysterious, incomprehensibly malicious, diabolical villain is the insider. The fact aroused the indignation of Thomas Rymer, who in a notorious attack published in 1693 declared that Othello "impiously assumes the sacred name of tragedy," but was, on the contrary, nothing but "a bloody farce". The essential element of the drama that is omitted is Iago, and one of the most interesting things about Rymer's account of the play is that Iago really does not figure very significantly in it. Rymer ridicules William Shakespeare from the outset for having a black hero.
The Renaissance revival of the classics was a revival of the classical sense of plagiarism, which was clear and explicit. Don Cameron Allen discovered a flagrant example of plagiarism in that indispensable classic of Elizabethan literary criticism, Francis Meres's Palladis Tamia. Christopher Ricks finds a general tendency to excuse or overlook or argue away plagiarism. If Luminalia constitutes plagiarism, so does William Shakespeare's use of old plays like Hamlet, old romances like Romeus and Juliet, old novels like Rosalynde. Plagiarism is the symptom, not the disease: the attack on plagiarism becomes almost at once an attack on Virgil, Ovid, and Aristotle. That is the disease: literature, culture, and the classics are precisely the problem. Sir Thomas Browne's gives a compendious list of classical offenders, including many of the monuments of ancient literature, history and science: Aristotle, Pliny, Lucian, Apuleius, Aelian, Athenaeus, "and many more".
The history of anti-theatricalism from Plato onward assumes that actors are indeed changed by their costumes. In William Shakespeare's own theater for the most part plays were costumed in Elizabethan dress; the Italy of Romeo and Juliet was a version of England. Disguises in Shakespeare are almost always absolute, with a small number of exceptions, nobody ever sees through a disguise. The famous Peacham drawing for Titus Andronicus gestures toward ancient Rome in the costume of Titus, in the center; but queen Tamora's costume is quite generalized, vaguely medieval, certainly neither Roman nor Elizabethan. By the end of the eighteenth century the vogue for historic costume in drama was well under way. The thrilling, visually stunning Franco Zeffirelli films of Romeo and Juliet and The Taming of the Shrew are set in fifteenth-century Verona and Padua, with historically accurate costumes and sets.
This book focuses on performance construed in the largest sense, as the deployment of a personal style, as imagery of various kinds, and even as books, which in the early modern era often include strongly performative elements. The chapters in the book fall logically into four groups: on personal style and the construction of the self, on drama, on books, and on the visual arts. Personal style is performative in the simple sense that it is expressive and in the more complex sense that it thereby implies that there is something to express. The book takes a broad view of the question of performance through disguise. Disguises in Elizabethan drama are nearly always presumed to be impenetrable, effectively concealing the self, whereas costume is designed to adorn the self, to make the self more strikingly recognizable. The book considers the changing effects of disguise and costume both on concepts of the self and on assumptions about the kind of reality represented by theater. As a practice that makes performance visible as such, theater is characterized by an ongoing reflection on the very norms that make dramatic performance legible and indeed possible. Images are never more performative in and for a culture than when they offer a view onto the differences through which culture is made.
This chapter focuses on a particular kind of evidence, illustrations, and addresses what kind of information they contribute to or encode in books. Illustrations in early modern books serve a wide variety of functions. As in scientific texts, they are essential explanatory devices; but even in these cases pictures are rarely merely explanatory. The repetition of illustrations strikes us as inept, an index to the inadequacies of early printing, though in terms of design it might actually be considered a virtue. That it was at least considered an available visual convention is clear from one of the most extraordinary pieces of early English book illustration, John Heywood's The Spider and the Flie, 1556, with astonishing woodcuts by an unknown artist. Illustrium Imagines has here ceased to be a coin collection, a record of images drawn from the material remains of the past, and has become an iconology, fanciful when necessary.