Shaping Scepticism, Arousing Belief
The Case Of Othello
The visceral responses of theatrical audiences to Othello across time and place clash oddly with the scepticism often ascribed to this play, and famously discussed in Stanley Cavell’s seminal work, Disowning Knowledge (2003). The debate aroused by Cavell’s sharply philosophical, and partly psychoanalytical inquiry into Othello’s reasons for “disowning knowledge” has brought fuel to the issue of Othello’s scepticism. After taking initial stock of Cavell’s reading and of the main objections raised against his subtle argument, this essay explores the textual and cultural reasons for the contradiction between the shapes of scepticism moulded in Othello and the extreme emotional responses of audiences recorded by Mason Vaughan (Othello: A Contextual History, 1994). What the essay aims to highlight are the ways scepticism was deflected into potential scandal. Section one addresses the socio-cultural aspects of the early modern sceptical gaze in topical passages of Othello, with an eye on issues that mark the epistemic shift underlying the early modern philosophy of scepticism. Reference is made mainly to the performative strategies of inwardness – as well as to the related issues of race/colour and of military/marital service. Section two shows how Desdemona’s instability is a vehicle for deflecting extreme discursive and theatrical aspects of scepticism in Othello into potential scandal and radical improbability.