Panel 18: ‘Seeing As’: Shakespeare and Denotement

Iago narrates to Cassio how Othello has ‘devoted and given up himself to the contemplation, mark, and denotement of [Desdemona’s] parts and graces’ (2.3.287-9 emphasis added), and the word, which is a Shakespearean neologism, crops up again in the next act (at least in the Q1 [1622] version) : ‘Such things … in a man that’s just, / They’re close denotements, working from the heart, /That passion cannot rule (3.3.123-5). The word does not occur elsewhere in the canon, and Literature Online does not find it again until the nineteenth century in texts that generally had some connection with Shakespearean ones. In our context, therefore, it is almost a nonce word, but the Q1 text suggests that it may have come to the surface of Shakespeare’s mind twice, perhaps impelled upwards by remembering his composition of Much Ado about Nothing (‘noting’, of course). In the second instance the word word may mean simply ‘indications’, but in the first it obviously designates a process,

This use of the word suggests that Shakespeare was well aware that seeing offered not simple ocular proof, but was part of ‘seeing as’, a longer process of noticing, reading, and interpreting.

In the final Chorus of Henry V the spectators are thus enjoined:

… now behold,
In the quick forge and working-house of thought,
How London doth pour out her citizens.
The Mayor and all his brethren, in best sort,
Like to the senators of th’antique Rome
With the plebeians swarming at their heels,
Go forth and fetch their conqu’ring Caesar in …

(5.Chorus, 23-8; emphasis added)

What is interesting here is that Shakespeare, similarly, does not request his auditors simply to ‘see’ the Londoners in their mind’s eye, but to see them ‘as’ something else, in this case a Roman triumph. The passage reminds of us two things: first of the degree of intellection that takes place in our mental ‘working-houses’ (workshops) as what is apprehended is converted into something to be comprehended and, second, of the opacity of language, the way it is used not just to paint a picture but to tell or explain. Denotements in Othello may derive from what the Renaissance called ‘rumours’ or ‘affects’ (inclinations or dispositions); here the embedded simile (‘Like to the senators …’) reminds us of the diegetic role of language and cultural associations in perception.

In an early work, Titus Andronicus, Lavinia’s uncle Marcus offers an extended reading of his niece’s maimed body first as a tree, then as an overflowing fountain. It is as though the young Shakespeare was determined to resist any call of realism, based upon direct observation. (The speech may work in a way similar to Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbe where a ‘classical’ nude sits between some bourgeois gentlemen.)

Twenty years ago Seamus Heaney, with insouciant brilliance, summed up the inventive and creative facility of the poetic and workaday imagination in the two-word title of a collection of verse, Seeing Things. What is ‘real’ is what is invented.

When it comes to the poetics of theatre we realise that action is eloquence (Coriolanus, 3.2.76) and that the semiotics or languages of performance are welded on to processes of the rendering of written texts: they to do not involve simply ‘seeing’. Words, concepts, ekphrases, theatrical images, and visual signs are, in the working-house of spectators’ thoughts, dissolved, diffused, and recombined in a complex process of re-creation.

In the light of the above, I invite abstracts of papers for this panel that deal with topics such as:

  • appropriate aspects of Shakespearean rhetoric or the way these notions might help us with broader considerations of Shakespeare as thinker
  • metadramatic observations (implied or explicit) about seeing and perception in the plays of Shakespeare’s contemporaries. (Is there something distinctive about the way Shakespeare transmutes experience into words or implied gestures – or vice versa?)
  • comparisons between earlier and later examples of the ways Shakespearian characters ‘denoted’ what they observed on stage
  • ways in which particular and appropriate performances of Renaissance texts have been followed and experienced. Screen versions might be considered, provided that papers acknowledge differences between the poetics of stage and screen.

There will be a 10-paper limit, and you should send your name, email, affiliation, abstract (250 words) and title of your contribution to me ([->]) by 31 July 2013. (I shall be away through most of August and need to send a final list of participants to the conference organizers by the end of that month).