I. “The Arbaian trees their medicinable gum”: Othello’s Weeping Trees
During Othello’s suicide speech, he makes several references that have attracted the attention of modern editors and scholars. The most famous concerns the textual variations between the Quarto and Folio versions of the line “Like a base Indian, threw a pearl away.” Whereas the Quarto reads “Indian,” the Folio reads “Judean.” While modern editors typically choose one or the other, they characteristically explain these variations in the footnotes. Both variations bear with them interesting interpretive frameworks and lenses, and, yet, both add to what some critics have noted as the tendency towards the “exotic” in Othello’s speech. In this post, however, I would like to address a footnote in nearly all modern editions that has attracted little critical attention. While not a textual variation, the consistent gloss on Othello’s “Arabian trees” which drop their “medicinable gum” as myrrh might be somewhat misleading.
Just after referring to either “the base Indian” or “the base Judean,” Othello directs his auditors’ attention towards his eyes, asking the assembled company to speak of him as he is and
…of one whose subdued eyes,
Albeit unused to the melting mood,
Drops tears as fast as the Arabian trees
Their medicinable gum. (V.ii. 357-360).
Having just murdered Desdemona, the militaristic Othello, who has “done the state some service” (V.ii. 348), points to his predilection against weeping to prove the truth of the passion behind his current tears. His posturing before the gaze of the witnesses to his cruel actions attempts to shape the interpretive framework through which they see and remember him and his life. The unusual simile Othello adopts in this passage should give us pause and should, I would think, peak out interest to which “Arabian trees” Othello refers. Modern scholarly editions almost invariably gloss the reference as “myrrh.” I would like to propose an alternate possibility—that the reference can also be glossed as acacia, valued for its production of the Gum Arabic or gummi arabicum.
Both weeping trees, acacia and myrrh, align themselves with the play’s motif of vision and visuality. This focus on the visual has been the subject of much scholarly debate and criticism, but few, to my knowledge, addresses the subtle way in which Othello’s reference to those weeping trees plays into that motif. While early modern herbals and treatises on the eye note both myrrh and acacia’s value in medicines for the eyes, the gummi arabicum is much more readily found in pre- and early modern regimens for diseases and pains of the eye. This fact, of course, does not prove that Shakespeare intended the references to be taken as acacia and its Gum Arabic rather than to myrrh, but I do think that the critical predisposition to gloss the “Arabian trees” and its “medicinable gum” as myrrh obscures the way in which Othello’s simile reveals an important aspect of the way the visual plays an important role in the concluding scene of Shakespeare’s Othello. The “Arabian trees” and their “medicinable gum” Othello mentions in act five, scene two can be glossed as either myrrh or acacia, but, in their cultural associations with eye medicines, the simile becomes a metaphor for how Othello’s eyes and Phantasy, poisoned by Iago during the course of the play, become purified and cured, purging him of the private fantasies and phantasms that Iago shaped through the oral and the aural.
Before I turn to the “Arabian trees” directly, I first want to locate the reference within the immediate context of Othello’s suicide speech. Othello ends his life defending and trying to control the image of himself or, if you will, his species or phantasm in others’ Phantasies, by shaping how they will report his behavior and witnessed events.[i] He begins:
Soft you, a word or two before you go.
I have done the state some service, and they know’t.
No more of that. I pray you, in your letter,
When you shall these unlucky deeds relate,
Speak of me as I am. Nothing extenuate,
Nor set down aught in malice. (V.ii. 347-352).
Just as Iago uses narrative to shape and manipulate Othello’s perception of Desdemona and of objects related to her like the handkerchief, Othello attempts to shape perception through narrative. He begins by conjuring Venice’s previous image of him within their Phantasies, making present for them his prior service to the state and the “parts,” “title,” and “perfect soul” that, he claimed, had “manifest[ed him] rightly” (I.ii. 31-32) during the inquest about his marriage. Othello stirs such images up in the witnesses’ minds only to dismiss them as no longer reflecting his social person and public image.
It is at this point that Othello makes the two references with which I opened this post. Even if Othello strives to control the codified narrative, he moves from desiring something that he hopes accurately depicts the events and circumstances to a slippery series of fictions and metaphors. He claims that, if the witnesses present things as they are,
Then must [they] speak
Of one that loved not wisely but too well,
Of one not easily jealous but, being wrought,
Perplexed in the extreme; of one whose hand,
Like the base Indian, threw a pearl away
Richer than all his tribe; of one whose subdued eyes,
Albeit unused to the melting mood,
Drops tears as fast as the Arabian trees
Their medicinable gum. Set you down this… (V.ii. 347-360).
That Othello wants this narrative to be “set down” makes sense considering the ways oral narratives morph, combine and re-combine in the private Phantasy to shape the perceptions of people and objects. Explicitly calling attention to his current appearance at the point of weeping, Othello also explains his actions as jealousy to externalize his potential inward hiddenness.
Having lost the “reputation” and social standing he previously so rigorously defended and guarded, it can no longer overpower the shaping of his image resulting from his murderous actions. Since his prior standing no longer commands the narrative of his current state, Othello shifts towards narrative shaping of others’ perceptions. Having been schooled by Iago in the ways orality shapes the perception of people and objects, Othello uses the shifting ground of spoken language to shape the eventual codified narrative of his person and actions. As we have already seen by this point, perception never innocently represents reality and the witnesses’ “malice” might encourage fault-magnifying phantasies. Preferring the seeming purity and stability of written language, Othello hopes to use ephemeral orality to shape the codified account.[ii] Wanting them to report the “truth” of his situation and character, he hopes to avoid additions or extenuated perceptions, but he also imagines that his current words and actions will become codified in a “letter.” This “letter,” he hopes, will not be tainted by the phantasies of his auditors which might taint the relation with malice, allowing others to see him as he supposedly is.
While stressing the importance of an uncorrupted narrative, Othello moves towards metaphor and fiction-making to shape other’s perceptions of his character and actions. In one simile he deploys, Othello cryptically describes his weeping eye peculiarly and pointedly as “Arabian trees” that drop “medicinable gum.” The Norton Shakespeare, following nearly all of the modern editions I know of, glosses this as a reference to myrrh, and no other editions, to my knowledge, seriously consider a second possibility. While the “Arabian trees” which drop “medicinable gum” might be myrrh, there is evidence that Othello refers, not to myrrh, but to what early modern herbals call the acacia or Aegyptian Thorne.
In an early gloss of Othello’s line that mentions Gum Arabic, Sir John Charles Bucknill’s 1860 The Medical Knowledge of Shakespeare, dismisses the possibility, saying, “Othello compares the tears, which flow in his dread remorse, to the gum of Arabia ; probably not gum Arabic, but myrrh is meant” (Bucknill 274). Bucknill does not explain why he discounts the possibility that “medicinable gum” might refer to acacia and its gummi arabicum, but late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century editions of Shakespeare often cite him as an authority and leave it at that.[iii] Most twentieth-century editions that I know of do not even propose that one read “Arabian trees” and their “medicinable gum” as acacia and its gummi arabicum.
In my recent research while revising this post, I did discover one Shakespearean scholar who does take them as references to acacia and Gum Arabic. Geraldo De Sousa’s At Home in Shakespeare’s Tragedies, makes mention of the Gum Arabic, and offers that Othello’s reference relates to English commerce and trade with Africa and the Middle-East as well as to how late sixteenth to early seventeenth-century English representations of Africa and the Middle-East often collapsed their separation and obscured the boundary between them. De Sousa raises several interesting interpretive possibilities as they pertain to Othello’s possible reference to the Arabic Gum.[iv] As its trade relates to international trade and to England’s relationship with Africa and the Middle-East, his discussion of gummi arabcum does seem to take the possibility that Othello refers to acacia and its gum seriously and without question. To my knowledge, De Sousa is unique in his critical approach to the references, standing alone in his assurance that Shakespeare refers to the Arabic Gum, but he does not develop how taking Othello’s “Arabian trees” as acacia plays into the motifs of vision and visuality.
Both myrrh and acacia serve as exotic references of the order that typically populate Othello’s speeches, but they are additionally significant in that each tree produced products used in eye medicines. While both are associated with eye-medicines, the gummi arabicum has stronger associations with the eyes in sixteenth-century herbals and optical treatises. First, I want to look at several early modern herbals’ descriptions of acacia before I set those against descriptions of myrrh. The main value of the acacia or “Aegyptian Thorne” was a product harvested from it called Arabic Gum or Gummi Arabicum. Thomas Halle, in an appended “Table” that is mostly a translation of the work of thirteenth-century surgeon, Lafranco of Milan, describes the gum collected from the Aegyptian Thorne as “Gummi Arabicum founde (and also so called) of the Arabians, because it is there moste plentifull, and also Bibilonicum & Sarasenicum, vpon lyke reason, is ye teares of the thorny tree called Acacia & Spina Aegyptia” and may be “called Gummi Acaciae, or Gummi Spinae Aegyptiae” (Lanfranco 47-48).
It is significant that Lafranco describes the gum of the acacia itself as “teares.” Inverting the metaphor of “Arabian Trees” found in the later Othello where Othello likens himself to a tree, Lafranco personifies the trees as having tears. The relationship between acacia and the eyes do not, however, end with the metaphor. Both Othello and Halle’s Lafranco associate their “medicinable gums” with the eyes, and the gummi arabicum’s relationship to vision becomes even clearer when one turns to its supposed “vertues” and uses. Lanfranco goes on to state that Gummi Arabicum is an excellent cure for the eyes, for “it is (as the tree wherof it commeth) of cooling and drying facultie, without sharpenes or byting: And therfore a commodious lenitiue medicine, for the grefes and peines of the eyes” (Lafranco and Hall 47-48). I will return to its use against the “grefes and peines of the eyes” a little later, but first want to turn to how other late sixteenth-century herbals describe acacia and Gum Arabic.
Several other contemporaries like Jacques Guillemeau, and William Bullein mention Gummi Arabicum as an ingredient in cures for the eyes. In his Bulwarke of Defence, Bullein declares,
Acacia commeth from a thorne in Aegipt, whych hath coddes growing vpon it lyke a Broome, out of which coddes, leaues, and seede, is pressed forth the gumme Acatia, which wyl restraine and stoppe most effectually, and is cold and dry. This Acatia aboue all gummes hath vertue to coole and stop bloud, and bloudy flixes, and coole the burnyng of the eyes. (Bullein 61).
Following Dioscorides, John Gerard describes the Aegyptian Thorne in a similar fashion:
Dioscorides maketh mention of Acacia, whereof the first is the true and right Acacia, which is a shrub or hedge tree, but not growing right or straight vp as other small small trees do: his branches are wooddie, beset with many hard and long Thorns; about which grow the leaues, compact of many small leaues clustering about one side, as in the Lentill: the floures are whitish, the husks or cods be plaine and flat, yea very broad like vnto Lupines, especially on that side where the seed growes, which is contained sometimes in one part, and sometimes in two parts of the husk, growing together in a narrow necke: the seed is smooth and glistering. There is a blacke iuice taken out of these huskes, if they be dried in the shadow when they be ripe; but if when they are not ripe, then it is somewhat red: some do wring out a iuice out of the leaues and fruit: there floweth also a gum out of this tree which is the gum of Arabia, called Gum Arabicke. (Gerard 1149).
While the plant is more of a “shrub” than Othello’s “tree,” most of the herbals mention it as getting as large as a tree, or, like Gerard, consider it a “hedge tree.” Both descriptions above mention the way in which the juice of the acacia is acquired through pressing the cods, leaves, and husks. Whereas Bullein suggests that “gumme Acatia” comes from this process, Gerard and Lafranco note that the gum of Arabia or “Gum Arabicke” drops or flows from the tree itself. The most common method of harvesting Gum Arabic, however, is by wounding one of the tree’s branches, which causes the sap to seep from the tree, hardening into nuggets as the sap dries.[v]
While I have yet to find an herbal that describes the collection of Gum Arabic in a similar fashion, Robert Greene’s Mourning Garment offers an interesting if limited reference in the section where Rabbi Bilessies offers advice to his son, Philador, on the importance of secrecy. He advises, “Be … in secrecy like the Arabick tree, that yeelds no gumme but in the darke night” (Greene Cii verso). This unusual simile in a passage that might have either served as a source for or been inspired by Polonius’ advice to Laertes in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Bilesses reports that the gum collected from acacia would appear only at night and uses this notion to construct a simile of how to act with secrecy. For Bilessies, one should only show themselves at night, only revealing their products when under the cover of darkness. Though I cannot find another source that describes the production of gummi arabicum in quite the same way and while we can never be sure that Shakespeare was familiar with Greene’s Mourning Garment at the time he penned Othello, the notion of secrecy and darkness appearing in this passage resembles the metaphorical valences of light and black in Shakespeare’s later play.
Before I return to the acacia as it relates to Othello, I will now turn to descriptions of myrrh as found in several herbals. The Grete Herball describes,
Myrre is hote and drye in the second degre. It is the gomme of a tre that groweth in Inde whiche in somer tyme cleveth to the tree. Myrre that is yellowe or somwat browne is best. There be two maners of it. One is meane, and the other course. Some call it Troelyten for the place that it groweth in. It hathe vertue to conforte, and joyne lymmes togyder. To waste and sprede humours by the complexion and qualyte thereof It keepeth fro cottynge, and thereof in olde tyme folke anoynted deed bodyes therewyth to kepe them longe. It may be kept a C. yeres. (Anon. [Q.iv.] recto).
Noting that myrrh is used in regimens “for the pose,” “for the brest,” and “for the gommes,” The Great Herball does not mention its relationship to treatments of the eyes even when other contemporary sources do in a way not all that dissimilar from the ways in which the Aegyptian Thorne is described.
As Halle’s Lafranco puts it,
Myrrha … heateth and dryeth in the seconde degree: and therefore glueth freshe woundes, especially of the head : Having also much bitternes, whereby it killeth wormes. It hath moreover a moderate abstertion: by reason whereof, it is mixed with medicines made for the eyes, for the olde cough, & for peinfull breathing. It hath also power to comfort and to defend from putrefaction, and to expell superfluities. It mundifieth rotten ulcers, and provoketh sleape. Howe be it the use of Myrrhe is not altogether hurtles, bothe for that the onely smell thereof acuseth head ache: and also because in the best myrrhe is found Opocarpasum, a thyng sayeth Galen, verye hurtfull and deadly, and hath kylled many unwittynglye takyng it with myrrhe. Myrrha is the teares or droppyng of a tree growynge in Arabia, not unlike to Spinae Aegiptiae, whereof ther are dyvers kyndes. (Lafranco 75-76).
Here, Lafranco describes myrrh as “teares” from an Arabian tree, and likens the droppings to those of the Aegyptian Thorne or acacia. What strikes me, however, is that Lafranco uses the acacia or Aegyptian Thorne as the frame of reference for myrrh rather than vice-versa. In this passage, the acacia becomes the normative tree to which myrrh is likened. In other herbals, one also finds acacia is as important if not more so that myrrh. Gerard, for example, while including a section on the Aegyptian Thorne in his 1597 herbal, does not bother to have an entry on myrrh at all. This is not to say that myrrh was culturally insignificant, but these authors do devote more attention to acacia and set acacia as the normative reference point for weeping trees that drop “medicinable” gum. While both references would be current in the late sixteenth or early seventeenth centuries, one cannot discount the possibility that the “Arabian trees” refer to either classification of Arabian weeping trees.
Similar, too, is the way in which both myrrh and gummi arabicum are harvested from their respective trees. Here, I think, is where Othello’s reference becomes interesting within the context of his suicide speech. Both gums are harvested when their respective trees are wounded, cut into or otherwise gouged. By wounding the bark, the sap is released and can be collected. While none of the herbals I have looked at describe this process in precisely these terms, their descriptions too reveal a violence involved in harvesting Gum Arabic. As John Gerard puts it in the passage on acacia I cited earlier, one must “wring the juice” from the leaves and fruit, and William Bullein offers that the juice is “pressed” from the tree.
The harvesting method relates to Othello as his own tears result from an act of wounding. Having first been injured by the state for questioning his marriage to Desdemona, then through Iago’s internal wounds that corrupt his Phantasy and his image of her, and again through his act of killing her, Othello receives a wounding both internally in his humoral reconstitution and in his mind, and externally in the effects upon his public persona and reputation. These “woundings” cause Othello, whose eyes are unused to the melting mood, to weep.
While sixteenth-century herbals associate both myrrh and acacia Africa and the middle-east, both myrrh and gummi arabicum are harvested from their thorny trees by injuring the bark of their respective plants, the gummi arabicum has the strongest associations with cures for the eyes. The German George Bartisch’s 1583 masterpiece on diseases of the eye, his [Opthalmodouleia] Das ist Augendienst, lists both myrrh and gummi arabicum as ingredients in his cures for the eyes, but much more commonly makes references to gummi arabicum. But, as I’ve said, both are associated with Arabia, both are described as coming from the “tears” of a tree, and both are used in eye medicines.
The Gum Arabic was not only used for eye medicines and cures. As Gerard would go on to say, “The iuice of Acacia stoppeth the laske, the inordinate course of womens termes, and mans inuoluntarie issue called Gonorrhaea, if it be drunke in red wine. It healeth the blastings and inflammations of the eies,” and that “The gum doth binde and somewhat coole: it hath also ioined vnto it an emplaistick quality, by which it dulleth or alayeth the sharpnesse of the medicines wherewith it is mixed. Being applied with the white and yolk of an egge, it suffereth not blisters to rise in burned or scalded parts” (Gerard 1331). Many other contemporary herbals associated not only the juice, but also the gum with cures of the eyes, but I will return below to these other uses as they might relate to Shakespeare’s play.
In a sense, Othello is “curing” his eyes through his tears, and it has been Iago’s affect on them that has “subdued” them. Othello not only wants his listeners to “set…down” the fact that he cries, but he simultaneously points out that those very “subdued eyes” drip their own medicine, and indicate the restoration of his ability to “see” correctly. The tears become the antidote to Iago’s poison, and his “eyes” have been cured of the malicious shaping of envy and jealousy. The watery eye is likened to an “Arabian tree” (whether acacia or myrrh) that also helps “restore” or “cure” sight. To take this even further, Gerard notes that the gum “dulleth or alayeth the sharpnesse of the medicines wherewith it is mixed,” and Othello’s tears “dull or alayeth the shaprnesse of [Iago’s] medicines.”
The Phantasy which had been prodded into service of Iago’s envious revenge on Othello’s ability to see has not vanished entirely, however, because Othello turns from “speak[ing] of [himself] as [he is]” to once more tapping into the fantastic as he continues,
And say besides that in Aleppo once,
Where a malignant and a turbaned Turk
Beat a Venetian and traduced the state,
I took by th’ throat the circumcised dog
And smote him thus. (V.ii. 361-365).
Othello deploys the Phantasy to enact the radical self-splitting of his “bloody period.” This fantastical tale, a product of Phantasy, captures the sense of self-splitting that misrecognition has encouraged within him, and which makes Brabanzio’s earlier question about Othello’s ability to “see” prophetic.
II. “If thou hast eyes to see”: Othello’s Jealous[e]ies
While Iago will ultimately push Othello over the edge, it is Brabanzio that first questions his Othello’s ability to “see.” The problem of “seeing” surfaces that conceal hidden desires, motivations and actions emerges in the trial scene just after Brabanzio discovers his own inability to penetrate the hidden secrets of his daughter’s appearance and is refused “justice” by the court, when Brabanzio offers Othello a warning, “Look to her Moor, if thou hast eyes to see,/ She has deceived her father and may thee” (I.iii. 291-292). Brabanzio’s conditional “if” seems startlingly out of context in this line, and Brabanzio questions Othello’s ability to “see” beyond the potentially deceptive visual to the truth.
One wonders how one could have eyes but to see, but here Brabanzio launches a subtle attack on Othello’s humanity by suggesting that he has eyes that insufficiently discern truth beyond the realm of the immediately visible. Brabanzio broaches the issue for Othello and of the play as a whole that what is seen may in fact not be what is real, and this suggestion leaves Othello in a quandary. The lesson Brabazio teaches here, is one that he has just recently learned from his daughter. Since Brabanzio can no longer trust the external appearance and behavior, coding it with an ulterior and hidden motive, he claims that were he to have a daughter besides Desdemona he should become a “tyrant”. While the “lesson” may be part of the reason Brabanzio makes this statement to Othello, it does not explain his framing it in the conditional. The conditional “if” questions Othello’s eyes, and it does not make much sense to wonder if he has “eyes to see” unless Brabanzio questions Othello’s ability to perceive and judge the hidden truths behind the world of appearances.
Similar questions about Othello’s ability to “see” rightly emerge when Iago confesses to Roderigo that Othello chose Cassio as his lieutenant in spite of what Othello’s eyes had seen in battle, choosing a lieutenant who practices the stratagems and deceptions of war rather than one proved in actual battle. A special reciprocity in the form of Iago’s later attack and the perceived injustice he voices in this earlier exchange with Roderigo. Iago claims that Othello chose Cassio for his “bookish theoric” and did so against [Othello’s] “eyes which had seen the proof” (I. i. 25) of Iago’s military prowess. According to Iago here, Othello fails to discern the truth of value through what he has seen, and Iago sets out to punish Othello’s eyes for that inability. His attack focuses on the very aspects of Othello’s character by which he feels slighted; Othello’s power to advance Cassio before him, and Othello’s eyes for that have been responsible for failing to “see” a perceived truth and misjudging Iago’s worth in respect to his rival. Iago finds “judgment” lacking in Othello’s eyes, and his method of attack will prove to turn Othello’s Judgment or Reason against his eyes.
The play returns to the idea of not being able to discern truth from falsehood and a failure of the eyes in Othello’s later interaction with Brabanzio. During the trial scene, Othello emerges on the stage as a seemingly flawless figure, appearing “all in all sufficient,” until Iago begins to undermine that self-image and his image and reputation for others by corrupting his Judgment. Brabanzio’s statement about Othello’s inability to see haunts him through the remainder of the play and those anxieties are prodded by an Iago who thinks, too, that Othello’s eyes lack judgment. Iago reminds Othello of Desdemona’s ability to deceive, insinuating hidden faults as sin lie behind her proper appearance, when prompting him to recall that “She that so young could give out such a seeming,/ To seel her father’s eyes up close as oak,/ He thought ‘twas witchcraft!” (III. iii. 213-215).
Brabanzio’s “seel[ed]” eyes echo Othello’s own concerns that his marriage to Desdemona will negatively affect his military office. Othello famously proclaims that he does not desire Desdemona’s wishes to be fulfilled because he wants to “please the palate of [his] appetite” (I.iii. 261), but rather to be “free and bounteous to [Desdemona’s] mind;” the very mind that was able to picture his own. The origin of their love marks an appropriate and positive function of the ability to construct mental images of another person, where the internal images correspond to the external appearances of truth. In addition to assuring the Senators not only that he desires Desdemona’s company to be “free and bounteous” to Desdemona’s mind, Othello assures that her traveling with him will not be “scant” in their “serious and great business,” saying,
…No, when light-winged toys
Of feathered Cupid seel with wanton dullness
My speculative and officed instruments,
That my disports corrupt and taint my business,
Let housewives make a skillet of my helm,
And all indign and base adversities
Make head against my estimation. (I.iii. 267-273).
The implication is that Othello cannot “see” the gap between the external and internal, between appearance and reality, between externally verifiable and internally concealed. The irony is that light-winged toys and “trifles light as air” do “seel” Othello’s speculative instruments later, although not as a result of “featherd Cupid,” but instead because of the interpretive framework Iago instructs and insinuates within Othello’s mind and Phantasy.
Othello assures the Duke and Senators that his “disports” will not “corrupt and taint [his] business,” but the ultimate irony will be that Iago will be able to “seel” his “speculative and officed instruments,” and that Iago’s envy rather than Othello’s disports will “corrupt and taint [his] business.” It is later that Iago reminds Othello that Desdemona had been able to “seel her father’s eyes up as close as an oak,” but the “seeling” of Othello’s eyes will come from a very different type of “corruption” than the “wanton dullness” he dismisses here. Not only does Iago’s narrative “seel” Othello’s “eye,” but his “indign and base adversities” make head against his “estimation.” The “estimation” to which Othello refers means not only others’ “estimation” of his qualities, but also his to his Reason. The “Estimation” and the “Cogitation” were dual processes that had been consolidated under the powers of reason in the middle ventricle of the brain, but closer to the composition and performance of Othello, the two were often subsumed under the broadened powers of Reason or Judgment. It is not his “disports” and dalliances with Desdemona that “corrupt and taint” him, but instead Iago’s ability to “puddle [Othello’s] spirit,” including his “vissive spirits” upon which the Reason and soul depended to make proper judgments.
When Iago’s “poison” begins to work, we will come to see that all kinds of “adversities” begin to attack his Reason. This is not to say that Othello is not simultaneously referring to “indign and base adversities” he associates with “housewives” that will turn his helmet into a “skillet,” rendering his implements of war into domestic ones. Additionally, however, the “housewives” here could also refer to the sensory apparatus itself, which Du Laurens and others considered the “handmaidens” to the Soul that could threaten to turn his helmet or the head within it into a skillet that would open him to all kinds of “vaine apprehensions and phantasies” when corrupted, shaped, or distorted.
Othello’s tears signify not only his return to the ability to properly “see” the consequences of his actions and the world around him, but also brings him back to the ability to properly shape his Phantasy to produce a counter-narrative and counter-perception of the ways in which Venetian society misrecognizes him in a way parallel to his own eventual misrecognition of Desdemona. The real tragedy here is that he had the ability to “properly judge” before those acts of misrecognition and Iago’s counter-narrative were able to convince him he had not. If Othello can be read as an exploration of the problems of a visual based epistemology, Othello’s reference to the medicinable gum enacts its cure; the eyes themselves metaphorically “drop” their own “cures.” This reference serves a dual function as Othello counteracts the denial of his of eye/ I/ [e]I[e] that emerged from Brabanzio’s conditional “if thou hast eyes to see,” as well as to reinforce the cleansing and healing of those eyes that Iago has prompted him not to trust through tears.[v]
The radical self-dividing within Othello’s fictional framing of his own suicide, as is often noted, pits three Othellos against one another. The “turbaned Turk,” being the racist image of the “uncivilized” aspect of Othello’s identity which commits violence against Desdemona, “beat” a Venetian, the “civilized” aspect of his identity that commanded reputation and authority, but Othello claims a stable “I” in the moment of self-slaughter. Turning from the fictional setting of “Aleppo,” Othello brings both the narrative and himself into the present to assert a new “I” that finally defeats the “Turk.” The three Othellos constitute not only an internalized self-splitting, but also speak to the fractured public perception of his roles and place within Venetian society.
The movements out of fictional narrative and towards action, and from radical self-splitting to stability, come only at the moment of his death, and only after the truth comes to light and his tears drop a type of “medicine.” Othello’s “cure” to his jealousy and madness arrives too late, but, I would argue, the change comes both through his murderous actions and through his act of weeping. While herbals associate both with eye medicines, they typically associate Aegyptian Thorne more thoroughly with the eyes. As I have suggested, Othello’s tears do operate as a type of medicine for his jealous condition and for counteracting the pestilence with which Iago has infected Othello.
While I cannot say that the reference to the “Arabian trees” and their “medicinable gum” points definitively to either the acacia or myrrh, I do think that both of their properties and their relationship to eye-medicines have some bearing on the play’s dominant visual metaphors. And while both “medicinable gums” come from “Arabian trees,” the fact that the gummi arabicum actually refers to its supposed place of origin speaks in its favor. Both “Arabian trees” have similar descriptions and some overlapping properties but differ in some of their “vertues” and uses in ways that might be important for Othello, and might lead to potentially rich readings if glosses did not prune the possibilities.
Other “vertues” differ substantially for the acacia in ways that might have some bearing on readings of Othello. Bullein notes that acacia “stoppeth the blouddy flixe,” and Gerard details that “the iuice of Acacia stoppeth the laske, the inordinate course of womens termes, and mans inuoluntarie issue called Gonorrhaea, if it be drunke in red wine.” While critics rarely speculate anymore about Othello and Desdemona’s interrupted wedding night, Stanley Cavell offered a reading of the play that suggested the interrupted wedding night, the wedding sheets, and the handkerchief all might represent the possibility that Desdemona either did not bleed during their consummation, or that their marriage was unconsummated.[vii] With such psychoanalytic readings, however, Othello’s final reference might have some relationship to either Desdemona’s lack of blood upon consummation or to her possible menstruation. Additionally, it might relate to the possibility of Othello’s sexual dysfunction and impotence in that gummi arabicum might also have a relationship to sexually transmitted diseases.
Even without speculating about this interrupted wedding night, the possible allusion to sexually transmitted disease and to menstruation relates to feminist critiques of Othello’s anxieties over human, especially female, sexuality. As critics have long noted, Othello has an unusual aversion towards and outright repulsion from sexuality in general and female sexuality in particular. The metaphors of vision, poison and disease, and an anxiety over female sexuality and sexual organs might converge and purge one another in the simile Othello deploys to describe his tears. Unfortunately for Desdemona, this cure comes too late to save her, but it also only comes at the moment just before the eponymous hero kills himself. Realizing that his skepticism and anxieties over female sexuality and bodily corruption caused him to kill his innocent wife, Othello finds a momentary cure for his ailments just before his own death.
If the reference to “Arabian trees” is taken as a reference to acacia rather than to myrrh, its associations with both sexually transmitted diseases and with menstruation should give us pause. The reference then represents his tears as metaphorical cures for disease and as a medicine to curtain “the inordinate course of womens termes,” but both of these concerns with regards to Desdemona’s body or his own reveal either a continuing anxiety about human sexuality or as a cure for those very anxieties that made him susceptible to Iago’s machinations. On the one hand, Othello implies that both disease and menstruation need to be “cured,” and that his tears signify a type of cure for each. On the other hand, Othello implies that his weeping cleanses his mind of both concerns, as if the tears themselves purge his brain of those very anxieties.
Although the metaphors of sight in Othello have been worked and reworked in countless book chapters and articles, the reference to the “Arabian trees” towards the conclusion of the play informs the motif of the visual that runs through it. While I will address the effects of the visual on the Phantasy and the significance of opening the interpretive possibilities by acknowledging that the line may refer to the acacia or Aegyptian Thorne in later posts, I do think I have offered enough evidence to prove that Othello’s “Arabian trees” should not be too readily glossed as “myrrh.”
III. “My life upon her faith”: Cleansing Othello’s Eyes and Phantasy
If I am correct that the reference (even if read as myrrh) metaphorically associates his tears with medicines for the eyes, it illuminates an aspect of this motif that previously remained in the shadows. Othello’s tears represent a cure of sorts. A cure for the jealousy Iago inspired. A cure for the wrath this jealousy caused. A cure for Othello’s delusional beliefs about Desdemona’s fidelity. And all of this constitutes a cure for his manner of seeing. The jealousy Iago so carefully fostered and generated produces in Othello a manner of jealous “seeing as” that keeps Othello from seeing Desdemona properly and correctly. In a sense, Iago shapes Othello’s phantasm or species of Desdemona from one that inspires attraction to one that provokes revulsion, jealousy, and rage.
In another post, I will discuss the important role of the Phantasy in this process in relation to Othello in particular, but in my earlier post on Petrarch’s Secretum, I discussed the Phantasy’s privileged position in determinations of good and evil, attraction and revulsion. There, I argued that Petrarch aligns the Phantasy with the body and links its evaluations with the corporeal world and its objects which detract from and distract the soul. Similarly, Iago manipulates Othello’s image of Desdemona by infecting his Phantasy and corrupting the phantasms of her that it contains. Iago shapes the phantasm from one that inspires attraction and reverence to one that produces repulsion and attraction. As such, Iago perverts the functioning of Othello’s eyes, causing him to see her differently.
The tears function as a cleansing act, purging Othello of the false phantasms to which he has become susceptible. Through Othello’s reference to the “Arabian trees” and their “medicinable gum,” Othello underscores the eye-infection Iago has caused through his shaping language, suggesting that he is cured of this corruption. As I noted above, however, if read as simultaneously registering a continued anxiety over the status of Desdemona’s body and of female sexuality, his disease persists, but, even still, Othello’s phantasm of his wife is stripped of the puddling Iago created.
This metaphorical and perhaps literal cleansing restores the phantasm of Desdemona as the faithful and chaste wife, stripping her of the pollution caused by Othello’s belief that she has been unfaithful, reclaiming that phantasm from being a source of revulsion to one of attraction and from being a source of hate to one of love. Iago’s ability to manipulate Othello’s private Phantasy and his phantasm of Desdemona constitutes a secular version of the power over the phantasms that Kramer and Sprenger attribute to the devil and to demons in their Malleus Maleficarum. In their Malleus, the Phantasy and its species or phantasms, as with Petrarch’s Secretum, were positioned as central to the personal emotional responses to perception.
As Kramer and Sprenger state in their Malleus regarding the supposed transformations of humans into the forms of non-human animals,
…Devils can by witchcraft cause a man to be unable to see his wife rightly, and the converse. And this comes from an affectation of the fancy, so that she is represented to him as an odious and horrible thing. (Kramer and Sprenger 63).
While referring immediately to questions about the possibility of demonically inspired transformations of human into non-human animals, the passage can be read in relation to Othello in a very different context. While Kramer and Sprenger reveal that such issues were couched in controversy, they state that the devil and demons do have some power over the internal and external senses. The devil and his minions, they offer, cannot force feelings of love and hate directly, they can, however, delude by manipulating the sensitive soul and the sensory apparatus.
In Othello, we find a very different scenario that the immediate context of the previous passage in the Malleus Maleficarum, but the different contexts allow us to see a similar cognitive structure at work in the parallels. Instead of the devil or his demons, we find the secularized figure of Iago. While not transformed into the form of a non-human animal in Othello’s sensory apparatus, Desdemona’s image is rendered just as “odious and horrible” as any borrowed form. While not rendered “invisible,” Iago’s manipulations and Othello’s jealousy have made it impossible for him to see her correctly just the same. Instead of making Othello physically incapable of seeing his wife or metamorphosing her external form in Othello’s exterior or interior sense, Iago shapes the reception of that form, phantasm, or species in Othello’s inner sense. Instead of directly turning Othello’s love into hate, Iago manipulates Othello’s sense of Desdemona, turning her from an object of love into one of hate by way of the Phantasy and the private phantasms.
Instead of gum that appears only under the cover of darkness as in Robert Greene’s description of “Arabick trees” in his Mourning Garment, Othello’s gum-tears appear publically and for all to see. While they might suggest a purging or cleansing of Othello’s visual powers and his judgment, they, like the narrative in which he embeds them, might only be shed and discussed to shape other’s perceptions of Othello’s characters and actions. In the world of the play, however, this remains a secret that will never come fully to light. It was secrecy and the threat of potential secrecy that partially led to Othello’s “blindness” in the first place. As Iago discusses his plot to poison Othello’s mind by making him suspect his wife and in his assault upon the Moorish eyes he feels have wronged him, “Hell and night/ Must bring this monstrous birth to the world’s light” (I.iii.385-386).
It is the poisoning or pollution of the senses that are (at least partially) washed away with Othello’s tears. Those tears are produced by and produce an anagnorisis where the recognition comes not through some external object, symbol, birthmark, or other external form, but through a shift in a way of seeing—specifically a way of seeing his now dead wife. The metaphor of the “Arabian trees” and their “medicinable gum”—regardless of whether the reference is to acacia or to myrrh—highlights the “curing” of Othello’s eyes as well as his manner of “seeing as.” The main dfference here is that this late recognition serves as a corrective to the earlier misrecognition inspired and cultivated by Iago. Othello’s private Phantasy, which had rendered Desdemona as something “odious and horrible,” now cleansed of his jealous[e]ies and Iago’s manipulating influence, once again “sees” Desdemona and the truth of his odious fantasies and his horrible actions. Inverting the paradigm of Oedipus, his recognition leads not to blindness but to sight, but, as with Oedipus, this recognition comes too late.
The whole is further complicated by the fact that Othello self-consciously constructs the “tale” of his own personal history and subsequent suicide. His tears and his metaphor of those tears shape the phantasm of himself and the narrative controlling his previous actions and culminating suicide. In this sense, Othello deploys the tricks of Iago to self-consciously control the narrative shaping of the phantasm of himself in the minds of his auditors. The pre-jealous Othello was no stranger to this trick of narrative as the stories of his travels and travails transformed the species or phantasm of himself within Desdemona’s inner sense from one that inspired repulsion to one that attracted and inspired love. As an inverse to Iago’s verbal manipulation, this process too parallels the one found in the Malleus Maleficarum where angels and devils are granted special access to and manipulation of the contents and objects of the Phantasy.
The intersection of the visual, the aural, and the oral brings up one more complicating layer to the early modern sensory apparatus which stressed the interrelation and conjunction of the external senses within the inner senses, and especially in the inner sense’s sensus communis and the attached and related Phantasy. While we are typically inclined to see the sensory data from each of the discrete external senses as separate and incommensurate, the theories of the sensitive soul, its Phantasy, and its objects as species and phantasms, stressed their interrelation and conjunction.[viii]
It is Othello’s tears that purge him of the tainted phantasms Iago narratively and interpretively sculpts and shapes within Othello’s mind and Phantsy. Those tears metaphorically and perhaps literally purify his image of Desdemona and represent a return to her right reception within his inner senses. Restoring the ability to “see” which has been questioned by Brabanzio and shaped by the “demi-devil” Iago, Othello turns his eyes inwards to see the “odious and horrible” form he has become, and sees the effects of his tainted judgment and manner of seeing. His reference to the “Arabian tree” and its “medicinable gum” highlight the notion Othello’s eyes and Phantasy are cured through tears.
While this aspect might be visible if taken for myrrh rather than for acacia and its gummi arabicum, that aspect comes into greater relief and focus when one considers how much the Gum Arabic was associated in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries with restoratives or cures for the eyes. But it is not the physical eye alone that his tears cure. Those tears also purge, clean, and cure the sensory apparatus that connects that external sense to the internal senses. It is Othello’s Phantasy as well as his “spirits” that Iago has “puddled,” causing him to misrecognize Desdemona by shaping how her species and phantasm are received by his Phantasy. This eventual misrecognition of Desdemona, in part, has its origins in the Venetian misrecognition of Othello as becomes apparent in Brabanzio’s question of whether Othello has eyes to see during the trial scene. Othello’s anxieties that he might not have eyes to see, the fear that he might be deficient in his judgment produces the very result he fears he is already plagued with. Iago gives birth to his monstrous plot not only against Othello by also Othello’s eyes and the judgment to which they are linked. This plot sets out to produce in Othello’s manner of seeing the very deficiency he (most likely wrongly) senses in Othello’s election of Cassio as lieutenant. Iago punishes Othello’s eyes. The secularized “demi-devil,” Iago, distorts and twists the reception of Desdemona’s phantasm in such a way as to turn her into something “odious and horrible,” but Othello restores his sight just before the moment of his death.
Anonymous. The Grete Herball. London: Peter Treveris, 1521.
Bartisch, George. [Opthalmodouleia] Das ist Augendienst. Dresden: durch Matthes Stockel, 1583.
Bucknill, Sir John Charles. The Medical Knowledge of Shakespeare. Longman, 1860.
Bullein, William. Bulwarke of Defence. London, 1579.
Cavell, Stanley. Disowning Knowledge in Six Plays of Shakespeare. New York: Cambridge UP, 1996.
Gerard, John. The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes. London: John Norton, 1597.
Greene, Robert. Mourning Garment, Given Him by Repentance at the Funerals of Love (etc.). George Purhlowe, 1616.
Kramer, Heinrich and James Sprenger. The Malleus Maleficarum. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1971.
Lafranco, of Milan and John Hall. A most excellent and learned woorke of chirgerie. London: Thomas Marshe, 1565.
Park, David. The Fire Within the Eye. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton UP, 1997.
Shakespeare, William, and Modern Language Association of America. A New Variorum Edition of Shakespeare: Othello. [c1886. J.B. Lippincott & Company, 1886.
Shakespeare, William. The Norton Shakespeare: Based on the Oxford Edition. Norton, 1997.
Sousa, Geraldo U. De. At Home in Shakespeare’s Tragedies. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2013.
[ii] Othello already proves his adroit use of narrative to shape perception, emotion, and belief even before he succumbs to Iago’s influence when he describes his courtship with Desdemona. There, his fantastic tales inspire Desdemona’s love for him. While his tales of travel and travail shape Desdemona’s perception of and feelings towards him, Othello has encountered and recognized how powerful narrative can be in the shaping of perception of others through his interaction with Iago.
[iii] See, for example, A New Variorum Edition of Shakespeare: Othello, page 322.
[iv] See pages 67-70. As it is somewhat tangential to his arguments about representations of Africa and the Middle-East, Sousa does not debate the issue, but takes it for granted that Othello’s lines refer to the gum Arabic. This is all the more striking considering that very few even consider the possibility.
[v] I will return to the method of acquiring the Gummi Arabicum later in this post as it relates to Othello’s struggle with identity.
[vi] I have written on this elsewhere, and I will post my thoughts on this later.
[vii] See Cavell’s Disowning Knowledge pages 132-137.
[viii] I will not comment on this further in this post, but will return to some much more speculative thoughts on the relationship among the external senses in pre-and early modern senses of sense-making in later posts.