Anthony B. Dawson
Othello as witness
This is a paper concerned with the relation of narratives, intention, and evidence, and I want to begin with a narrative of my own.' On 26 August 2002, National Public Radio ran an opinion piece by Ken Adelman in which he interpreted in some detail the council scene in Othello (1.3) to make an argument in favour of attacking Iraq.' He began by noting the contradictory nature of the evidence provided by the messengers at the beginning of the scene - 107 ships under weigh? 140? 200? or (later) only 30? 'Shakespeare's top security leaders and Othello don't lack facts', he says, 'they have lots of them - too many actually - and their facts are contradictory' .3 From this he infers that facts are unimportant - getting 'the big picture' is what matters: 'Today's intelligence reports are, in the words of Othello, "oft with difference" on Saddam's precise ties with terrorism and the exact size and nature of his weapons of mass destruction. "Yet," as Shakespeare says, "they do all confirm the main thing,"' that he's the number-one threat facing American and all civilized, freedomloving nations today.' And so, says Adelman, stop scrambling after facts, they only get in the way. Instead, 'President Bush and his national security team [should] do what Othello and his team did in Venice on their crises - get the big picture, push the details aside and use force to confront the danger and to protect their people. Myself? I stand with Othello on this one'.
It would be tedious to catalogue all the misrepresentations in this (for starters, Othello is not even in the room), so let me concentrate on only one issue. The worried senators are not unconcerned with facts, the most important of which is that, as quickly emerges, there is a clear threat on Cyprus. The scene dramatizes a process of putting together a detailed and accurate picture - in fact, just to hammer home the point, it does so twice: at the outset with the Turkish threat and later with the accusation and exoneration of Othello. So is Ken Adelman just a bad reader? Who in fact is Ken Adelman? Assistant
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to US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld from 1975 to 1977, Ambassador to the UN as well as director of arms control during the Reagan administration, Adelman and his wife run a company called 'Movers and Shakespeares' which uses 'the insights and wisdom of the Bard' in programs designed for corporate 'Team-Building, Executive Training, [and] Leadership Development'.' Their website carries testimonials from, among others, the Directors of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, a brace of US admirals, and a VP of AT&T. Adelman is also co-author of Shakespeare in Charge: the Bard's Guide to Leading and Succeeding on the Corporate Stage. So it appears that he is an important conduit for how Shakespeare is channelled into the political mainstream.
In his eagerness to use the Bard to bolster a weak argument, Adelman passes over the racial/religious politics of his analogy, the conflation of Turks and Iraqis. To mention that would no doubt be messy. Instead why not deploy Shakespeare as a WMP (weapon of mass persuasion) in a rhetorical battle, a kind of character witness who testifies to the validity of your position? Never mind what really goes on in the scene or the play. Behind the analogy, of course, is the powerful assumption that continuities between Shakespeare's time and our own are valid and can underlie far-reaching claims. (I think it is true that such continuities do exist, though not in the way that commentators such as Adelman assume, and that the efforts of the cultural materialist left to disclaim them is misguided.') Both then, in Othello and now, so the analogy goes, a threat to the Christian West is posed by the Muslim East, driving the need to do something, perhaps to deploy a general whose racial profile complexly mediates the distance between East and West (Othello thus morphs into Colin Powell, who is mentioned in the broadcast as warning Adelman about accepting intelligence reports at face value). The earlier, fictional episode can stand as an exemplar, even a guide, to present action because of the self-evident nature of the link between them (Shakespeare's universality underpins the equation). And is it mere coincidence that of all Shakespeare's plays, the one cited should be Othello, the most far-reaching and disturbing of his many explorations of the dangers of what looks like evidence and of the illusory appeal of ocular proof?
The sequence at the beginning of the third scene, the one quoted by Adelman, is often cut or reduced in modern performance, though its flurry of conflicting messages is germane. Adelman is right to put some weight on this moment, but he misses the point: just because facts (or what look like facts) are hard to interpret does not mean that they are unimportant.' Adelman's view is that because data can be confusing, we shouldn't bother about facts at all (again this notion is echoed by a lot of materialist critics dedicated to indeterminacy). But the play makes clear that accurate interpretation is possible: indeed, what at first looks deceptive turns out to be 'certain' (1.3.43). The Turks
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have constructed a ruse - seeming to head toward Rhodes, only to meet up with an 'after fleet' (that's where the 'thirty sail' come in) and steer for Cyprus (1.3.35-7). The sceptical senators have already suspected this: "tis a pageant to keep us in false gaze' (1.3.18-19) says one when told that 'the Turkish preparation makes for Rhodes' (1.3.14). Just as Adelman says, evidence of troop movements, in the view of strategists used to the cunning ways of the enemy, should not be taken at face value; aggressive intent cannot be so easily disguised. The Turk, in this view, is 'staging' the evidence, constructing a 'pageant' designed to mislead its interpreters. But the point is that the senators are soon proved right - they are apprised of a new set of facts that align with the hypothesis they have already formulated. The threat from the East is both duplicitous and real. Adelman wants to claim the same thing about the Iraqi case, but he ignores the relation between hypothesis and fact that the senators are careful to guard. Once their sceptical view of the international situation is established as the correct one, they realize the need for Othello to answer the Turkish menace, turning naturally to the man they think best can help them. Paradoxically, of course, the senators' choice falls on a man not, in the end, remarkable for his strategic rationality; indeed Othello shows in what follows that while he can undermine suspicion of his motives by a compelling mythic narrative (one that overrides the complexity of those motives), he can as easily fall victim to the power of a less exotic but equally powerful story. Here, perhaps, we can see the fiendish cleverness of Adelman's reading: he erases Othello's credulousness while capitalizing on his mythic credibility.
Worries about the foreign enemy are quickly set aside when Brabantio mounts his accusations (another point left unmentioned by Adelman), but as the careful Duke reminds the unhappy father, 'to vouch this is no proof'; it is all too easy for 'thin habits and poor likelihoods / Of modern seeming' to intrude themselves (1.3.106-9). The ensuing investigation, of course, exonerates Othello on the basis of his story and Desdemona's testimony. But here too the evidence is vexed: Othello is asked directly whether he drugged Desdemona, and his answer is to call for her and let her speak: 'If [they should] find [him] foul in her report', he says, then the senate should whistle him off to prey at fortune (1.3.117). But how can her testimony be trusted if he has successfully overcome her resistance through magic? The question is never asked, though it hovers behind the scene, reminding us, as the Duke says a moment later, that 'opinion [is] a sovereign mistress of effects' (1.3.224-5). That obscure phrase, glossed (in Riverside) as 'public opinion, the ultimate arbiter of what is to be done' suggests further that opinion (a key word in Troilus and Cressida, where it carries strong connotations of interest) produces the effects it arbitrates. Opinion makes things happen, but, as the very existence of broadcasts like that I have been discussing attests, opinion is controversial and changeable.
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There is then a warning here at the beginning of Othello about the complexities of reading evidence. At the same time, there is no doubt about the outcome of either investigation - the Turk really does intend to sack Cyprus, and Desdemona did freely choose her husband. The facts, despite Adelman's insistence on their irrelevance, add up. Sceptical rationality in the face of evidence is clearly salutary, as is understanding the possibility, even the likelihood, of deception. That indeed is what makes evidence an issue in the first place. But scepticism by itself may not be salutary at all - distrust of the usefulness and value of facts (and, as I said, this is an attitude that Adelman shares with a lot of recent cultural critics with very different political views) is a dangerous game that can be played by both sides.
Othello, of course, keeps staging and restaging the problem. That it rings multiple variations on the painful difficulties of interpreting evidence is well known, as is the hero's propensity to succumb to the seductiveness of the sort of compelling narrative that he deploys as proof of his own integrity. Unlike the sceptical senators, he fails to 'test ... poor likelihoods' (107-8). But of course some 'facts' are harder to come by than others, and the temptation to rely on rhetorical persuasion is compelling. Othello's mythic narrative dramatizes the dint of stories, the force of words to sweep away facts, making them seem trivial and unimportant. This is the shadowy side of the Renaissance valorization of rhetoric. If Othello sweeps away facts, as Adelman suggests, Iago stays closer to them, or at least to a simulacrum. Indeed, Iago's mythic narrative is the more compelling for being, seemingly, so ordinary, so dependent on simple observation, gossip, and factoids. But it would be missing the 'big picture' and trivializing the tragedy to derive a lesson that, for example, to set store by facts is to side with Iago. Movers and Shakespeares trades in precisely this kind of reductionism, and to do so it has to run fast and loose with the very evidence it claims to rely on.