Outline of Stephen Greenblatt's "The Improvisation of Power"

Spenser's Arthur and Marlowe's Tamburlaine are two faces of Renaissance power

principle of social order and moral restraint; principle of individual energy and lustful desire

face shown toward subjects and face shown toward enemies

Power (= Authority, the State, Patriarchy, the Establishment) in the West is characterized by psychic mobility

Machiavelli's Prince uses beast and man--a centaur

Daniel Lerner defines western consciousness as Mobile; possessed with empathy

empathy is psychic mobility; ability to see oneself in other's situation; detachment from tradition and stability

Iago represents Shakespeare's vision of empathy; the cultural trait of empathy underlying western power that originated in the Renaissance (225)

this equation planted like a seed, dropped and returned to, in Iago-like fashion

empathy in operation: conning the Indians

Spanish learned Indian myth of afterlife in other islands; deceived them into travelling to gold mines of Hispaniola in search of it; enslaved them; they died

sensational fact of genocide

method is improvisation

insinuate themselves into preexisting political religious and psychic structures of natives and turn structures to their advantage (227)

how its done

role playing; accept disguise; transform oneself into another and another's reality into a manipulable fiction

perceive another's belief system as an ideology

perceive another's belief system as analogous to one's own, without perceiving one's own as ideology (229)

conceal the fact that you "own someone else's labor"; that you exploit them, and convince them they are acting freely for you

other elements of improvisation and empathy used by power--translating self into other

displacement and absorption [jargon]

example: Anglican church absorbs Catholic-roman ritual for its own purposes

the sacred vestal virgins and madonna

symbolic system displaced from Goddess to queen and humility before the sacred absorbed into sanctifying the queen

rhetorical education of humanists cultivates pyschic mobility; argue on both sides of question (231)


Iago's improvisation

presented as such 1.3.390

his denial of the ability reveals it 2.1.125, while revelling in doing it to everyone

like tricking Indians 1.1.45

another seed--ambiguity of "his" in "too familiar with his wife"

Iago colonizes Othello with ideology; O. doesn't know it (233)

disguised and rendered ambiguous by I's servant status and by Othello's ambivalent relation to Xtian society

Iago's method: narrative self fashioning

telling stories--based on comic possibilities [=gossip?]

seeing his way into other people's stories

seeing the way they interpret discourse, the signals to which they respond and which they ignore (235)

has his own sentensitous theory of self-fashioning 1.3.320

understanding the stories others tell themselves

making himself transparent, in order to displace and absorb the others

Iago himself is a creation of his own narratives; he has no motives, only the stories of motives he tells us and others

Othello's narrative is colonized also by Desdemona

All characters create themselves--their identities--with stories of their lives; "submit to narrativity." [instead of just being themselves, like Montaigne]

conception of one's life as story submitted to public inquiry

Othello has submitted his story to Brabantio, Desdemona, the Senate

to win pity for himself.

Narrative identity is vulnerable to consumption, refashioning, reinterpretation

Male identity is fashioning of one's own story; female is submission to the male's.

Desdemona's submission is not total but threatening

Desdemona's obedience to Othello is disobedience to father

she devours Othello's discourse in her submission

in her greedy ear;

in her responses to his narrative of sexuality (243)

his account is of peaceful tranquility after stormy voyage of passion

hers is of unabating increase

his identity depends on embrace and perpetual reiteration of Christianity through narrative confession of his sins (245)

he demands she confess her sexual sins

The revelation: What is the narrative of Othello that Iago inserts himself into?

that married sex is itself adulterous

this is the ideology that has colonized Othello; and that Iago uses to colonize him (247)

evidence of Power: institutional hostility to desire since it is a release from dogma and constraint (Marcuse and Freud)

Desdemona's excessive experience of pleasure awakens deep current of sexual anxiety in Othello (250)

Iago shares this deep-seated sexual revulsion

the concealed identification of lusts stains and lusts blood is revealed in 5.1.36 Think on thy sins/ they are loves I bear to you/ And for that thou diest"

necrophilia is the final solution along with suicide; he punishes both her and himself for their transgression--this is the concluding submission to narrative; reaffirmation of himself


What's left out and needs filling in--how Othello's imagination as heroic storyteller is prone to generate tragic stories of lost identity--cuckoldry as story; loss of place; the army bedding her; his profession gone; throwing away the pearl of great price; killing the Turk; his life's ending and Desdemona's staged as spectacle of punishment for transgression; of justification; and finally of romantic union, like Antony and Cleopatra's.

Shakespeare and Power

Shakespeare's empathy and improvisation is like Iago's

Counter to Montaigne, who eschewed narrative and became private, Shakespeare pursued power as maker of mass media--that which colonizes with ideology

His submission to his culture--his absorption and love of it is perhaps like Desdemona's, subversive in its very obedience. (254)