Performance, Cognition, and the Representation of Interiority
Othello: Personality and Personality Building in Shakespeare’s Tragedy and Verdi’s Opera
1. The Cognitive Framework
Shakespeare’s tragic heroes may seem prime candidates for a cognitive approach: they act and interact, they speak in monologues and asides and, like veritable ‘scientists’ (see Mischel, Introduction esp. 87–110; 202–222),1 reveal their feelings and intentions; they construe or abstract behaviour, categorise, interpret, label, and judge themselves and others, thus performing vital acts that allow audiences to construe them as ‘personalities’ in the sense of Walter Mischel’s seminal Introduction to Personality (Mischel 98). Still, what makes them apparently so appealing – their universal humanity – is precarious, a) because theirs is an imitated humanity refracted through the lens of a particular culture and through the eyes of a particular creator, and b) because theirs is an outstanding humanity.
The dynamics of Shakespearean tragedy involve both human and sub- or larger-than-human qualities. While the tragic flaw aligns the hero with the psychology of ‘everyman’, his actions are momentous and exceed those of common human beings. Shakespeare’s heroes plot and kill, create and ruin worlds. What they do can be outrageous, even monstrous: thus Desdemona prays “Heaven keep that monster from Othello’s mind!” (my italics, 3.4.163).2 ‘Monster’ carries disparate associations, and whether we interpret it in terms of a fit of madness or growing psychic disorder, a lack of empathy or criminal inclination, will depend on a range of social, political, cultural and theatrical parameters. For audiences experience happenings on stage in the context of their real lives, and, in...
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