Theatre of Passion: Othello and The Two Noble Kinsmen

Discussion Statement
‘This is where the action is’: Performing Emotions in the ‘Twin Plays about Love’, The Two Noble Kinsmen and Othello

by Kay Himberg

[This is the written-out version, reconstructed from memory, of an unprepared response to the papers read at the “Wissenschaftliches Seminar”. In accordance with the idea of rendering the performative spirit of a live seminar, the character of a spontaneous oral contribution has been kept, so that in style and formulation there are only minor changes and parenthetical extensions. The questions addressed to the presenters have been curtailed here in favour of a brief discussion of the responses given.]

We have heard (not read!) presentations which focussed on Othello largely as a play governed by a sense of sight, e.g. the “deceived eye” or the visual arrangement of the corpses at the end of its film adaptation, while The Two Noble Kinsmen, if discussed at all, was analysed mainly in such insinuously visual terms as that of “public spectacle”, or the difference between its ‘love at first sight’ and its “homosocial desire”. In response to this, and as a supplement, I’d like to add a reminder of the predominant role of speech or the aural channel of communication – not just on the Elizabethan stage and its conception of theatricality in general, but in these two plays, and their presentation of emotions, in particular.


Beginning with the secondary issue of homosocial desire, and the proposition that it should be analysed as quite distinct from love, and rather be placed on ‘this side of love’, the side of mere politeness, consideration, care for the other’s interest etc., one could point out that these ‘merely’ courteous terms are also the terms of – courtship! As the case of Arcite and Palamon demonstrates, they extend seamlessly to tenderness and the emotional communication of ‘soul-sharing’ as well as to a frequent and intimate corporeal communication of embraces and ‘contact sports’ like armed combat, for which they dress and arm each other with the utmost – well, if not love, then care and kind words, tenderness and the promoting of the other’s interest even at one’s own expense – all of them elements, if not constituents, of love.

Furthermore, it is accepted that there is also a ‘homosocial desire’ with implications of sharing good and bad experiences, competing and otherwise interacting with each other emotionally and physically (being engaged in courtly activities, knightly games etc. ;-)) and that the intrusions of heterosexual episodes, on the other hand, do not end but rather re-inforce the homosocial bond according to E. K. Sedgwick, and to Shakespeare/Fletcher: the two kinsmen laugh about past amours, and celebrate their jealousy of each other about a present one just as they celebrate their own unrivalled, ‘eternal’ love and marital relationship (2.2.80-117, with female homosexual implications). Though this is then ironised by the falling-out over a girl, it does hold until ‘death does them part’.

If even the intrusion of conventional love (i.e. the falling for some heterosexual token, such as Tamina’s picture) serves to rekindle a desire for each other, in addition to the affections and ties of friendship, soul-sharing, kinship, camaraderie in arms, in prison, and in amours – then does all this still not add up to a love, to something like caritas combined with agape, desire and jealousy combined with such behaviour of tender professions and delight in each other’s presence and concern for the other’s well-being? These would seem to be objective criteria for ‘love’ in most senses of the word short of overt sexual desire or the brute fact of physical sex (then a punishable offence), neither of which are necessarily present in, and so cannot be essential to, all heterosexual love. The strong presence of an additional element of jealousy (the loving desire turned into anxiety about another love-object, the tertium homosocialis, becoming disruptive) is supportive evidence for this; and so is the fact that Othello can be seen as presenting the sinister twin of The Two Noble Kinsmen, a pathological version of a homosocial love/hate-bonding in the extremes of male rivalry, envy, jealously, and battling to death: the ‘homosociopathological’ variant. (In both cases, to be sure, there is not actual homosexuality nor the homophobia that is also often associated with homosociality, but more or less homosocial desire, homosocial aggression, elements of love as well as of hate, of ‘androphilia’ and ‘misanthropy’ among particular men.)

If, then, the relationship has nearly all the elements of loving behaviour plus stable bonding, plus a homosocial desire, plus a homoerotic subtext, yet if we were still to insist a priori that only the performance of sexual desire constitutes love, whereas the performance of social desire can be anything else but not that – then the rubber band could snap, and our overstretched categories come flying in our faces: a mere heterosexual fantasy and hyperbolical topos, a single sighting of a distant appearance, killing off all the other, infinitely more substantial claims (the mere name of love, a Dulcinea, being ‘mis-taken’ as more essential than actual performances of love). It might be more comfortable to speak of the former as the token of love, of the latter as an actual instance of it; we do not have to separate desire from the concept of love if we are willing to talk of a love relationship being possible without overt sexual practices. But whatever we call it, the kinsmen’s relationship is a complex and quite exclusive emotional bonding, long before the homosocial desire finds a legitimate third party to legitimise its getting going and being performed again – bonding, competing, falling out and being reconciled and fighting again, willing to go so far as to have one die in the other’s arms – traditionally the ultimate, Tristan-and-Isolde kind of love. While all this happens in the name of the third party, that party is of the remotest, nominal presence only, one mere glimpse without any actual influence (she is less of a presence even than that other famous third party, King Mark). And indeed, Arcite dies in Palamon’s arms, while Emilia is merely disposed of between them like an inheritable piece. The Two Noble Kinsmen is a case study of how much there can be to the ‘homosocial love’ within an affaire trois, and how little to the heterosexual, indeed ‘heterosocial’ one.


At the same time, and this gets us to the primary issue, this actual love (that now might dare to speak its name) is a very ‘well-spoken’ relationship, in opposition to the fantastical fata morgana of ‘love at first sight’. It is conceived, developed and acted out in the medium of language. While they fall in love with the replaceable object of their discourse at first sight, apparently they never take a second look!  The falling in love is instantaneous, by convention, and while this may be a marvel, it does not actually give it a claim superior to the existing relationship, as the opposition between ‘love’ and ‘in love’ (‘Liebe’ and ‘Verliebtheit’) confirms, for one thing. Moreover, it is ridiculed by the fact that Cupid’s arrow is cleft, and the lightning penetration of the heart at the moment of visual contact is doubled (it might have been trebled if a ‘third man’ had been around ;-)) Thirdly, that comically superficial ‘falling in love together’ says more about the bond between the men, than about their affinity to the so-incidental object of their shared passion. That object becomes disposable as soon as it has done its work and incensed a desire that surprisingly does not live on what one should expect, namely more of the same visual or preferably closer-range sensuous input (which suggests that it is not the material cause, but rather the occasion for that love). Even when there is a closer look and a conversation, in the case of Arcite, that makes no difference and is not requisite, as shown by Palamon. Rather, it lives on the doubling of itself, on the friction between the two breasts in which it is homologously and homosocially raised – on a dialogical discourse. If ‘love talk’ is anything to go by, well, it is performed between the men – both before their heterosexual incandescence, and after. Each time, it is characterised by the same ‘histrionic’ exuberance as in Othello – but in both plays this exuberance is a rhetorical one. (The English acting tradition has carried that reliance on speech rather than mere mimics, on the capability for distinguished oral delivery, declamation and incantation up to today, as any comparison with American acting shows.)

The ‘falling in love with lightning speed’ depends on the visual channel, the slower channel of verbal communication is where the love is mainly ‘performed’ – worked out by the two who continue to explicitly be ‘lovers’ of each other, even in the very fact of sharing their visual infatuation. Partly due to the demands of the genre, but only partly so, they are constantly conversing, and even the ‘falling in love at first sight’ is presented to us verbally – it is not a secondary circumstance but a central fact that, as always, they present also this to each other, that they validate and upgrade their feelings, even mood swings, by exchanging them constantly in a closed circuit of mutually amplifying and counteracting interferences, that they are vying to add value to them, and that even when they are separated by a prison wall, they are unable to keep up that love without the other (that is to say, without the soul-mate, rival and dialogue partner – without the ostensible but insubstantial love-object, they keep it up very well ;-)).

So it is not just their previous amours that they go over and rehearse with each other (like Romeo and Mercutio), but nearly all of their present amour is acted out and performed between the two friends – without Emilia even knowing of their existence, for a time at least. And apart from the initial gazing, nearly all of this new emotion is performed verbally. Even when this rhetorical performance of an extremely unattainable love fought out between two best friends and ‘wives unto each other’ turns into a physical battle between two jealous rivals, this is embedded in so much talk justifying, explaining, interrupting it, that even if their weapons had actually produced some result other than further talking, it would have been an offshoot of their rhetorical heat – of histrionics which are predominantly verbal. To end also this second discussion at the point of Arcite’s death: again, it is the two males who do all the requisite talking, perform the emotional speeches that serve to embed and make meaningful also this final moment of a shared life – while Emilia is standing by without a say, and disposed of like a chattel, or let’s say a pet, with a mere kiss, and a handing-over to the inheritor.


The case is similar in Othello (to extend the second point, and primary thesis). Here, there is not even a suspicion of ‘love at first sight’. As literary scholars like to remind each other, here the love is inspired by a verbal, indeed poetical narrative performance (and in the time covered by the play, he continues to cultivate that love, and exhibit his emotionality, by means of his eloquence). There is no spectacle, and no spectatorship, and the resulting love is much more real. Othello, in his turn, falls in love with the ‘audienceship’ of Desdemona, which demonstrates her qualities of verbal, rather than mere visual reception: apart from imagination, responsiveness, curiosity and patience, most importantly there is compassion and other sympathetic identification. The whiteness of her skin is a symbol of this pure responsiveness and complete identification, but of as little consequence in its own right as any other visual attributes. Even the black-and-white contrast is not predominantly a visual one. (Here too we must beware of the prejudices imbibed by those weaned to an increasingly visualised media world, as compared to those practiced listeners to the plays and sermons of Elizabethan London, when there was less to see than to hear, and this not just due to the visual conditions of the English, as compared to the Southern Californian weather.) The objections, e.g. of the unwilling father-in-law, to Desdemona’s marriage to Othello, seem not so much directed against his skin, as against the suspicion of a blackness of soul, of a dark and impure mind, of black arts and crafts – for he changes his mind quite easily when he learns that the magic was in the poetic art of narration: again, the visual is outdone by the verbal! The irony, of course, is that this suspected darkness of soul and mind, rather than body, is exhibited and performed by the play’s other male protagonist, its ‘Other’ in the psychoanalytical sense as well as that of the play’s genesis: the suppressed eponymous hero, Iago. The visible contrast is superseded by the contrast between words and deeds. And the blackest deeds are not the acts of killing, but what they are embedded in, the verbal contexts that make them betrayals – it is the circumstances that make a killing a murder, it is the context that makes the originator a murderer, the executioner a victim. Hence the darkest deeds, as the acts of purest love, are on the whole verbal performances. And so, of course, is the exceedingly ‘dramatic’ acting: Othello’s much-noted histrionics do not, at least let’s hope not, necessarily consist in wild gesticulating, rolling of the eyes etc., so much as in a continual richness and exuberance in his rhetorical outpourings.

But what about the deceiving of the eye: is that at least a central visual matter of ‘ocular proof’ – or is it ironised and deconstructed in the same manner? Visual appearences are unreliable, quod est demonstrandum by this tragedy, as by others where love is killed by looks, such as that of Romeo and Juliet (and we should remember this when comparing the heterosexual gaze in Two Noble Kinsmen to the homosocial desire, and performance, which is fed by that merely optical object shared between the two partners in war, prison, passion, and dialogue). Not even within the play is it surprising that visual appearances should be unreliable; the amazement rather comes from the persuasion that verbal performances should be so that Desdemona, who has been such an appreciative listener to Othello’s ‘histoires’, and such a convincing speaker on behalf of her love, should prove false. True, ocular proof is on the surface taken to be decisive, while mere words do not count as conclusive – by an Othello already mad with jealousy. Yet as in the case of the visual contrast between the skin colours, the play shows this superficial appearance to be tragically mistaken, with a heavy irony: the ocular evidence would have been neither conclusive nor even existent if it had not been framed by the prior web, not of ‘ocular proof’ but of ‘aural evidence’, laid by Iago to seduce ‘the Moor’. It is the aural deception that deceives the eye; poison in the ear, that disaffects the visual perception.

The final insult to the pretensions of ocular perception is that in considering the fact of white innocence slain by a black hand, or rather by the black heart behind it, linked to it through insinuous speech, it is no use viewing the corpses, however strikingly arranged – it is only the verbal evidence against Iago that clears matters up, and the refusal of Iago to speak any more, that leaves his blackness unilluminated. It is the speeches that make the tragedy and present a riddle – not the tableau of corpses heaped on one other – clips from films can again give a one-sided impression here. Not looks, but words are decisive, and serve as the main medium for the ‘performance of emotions’.

Meeting Objections

The objection that no such revision is called for, since the verbal dimension is included in the concept of spectacle anyway, does not acknowledge the point in question: there is a real problem here about the emphasis we should attribute to each of the two main channels of communication involved, and my argument has been to show that this is not a mere technical question, but closely linked to the interpretation of a play; in particular, the claim that the ‘performance of emotions’ here proceeds by verbal rather than by visual means, in speech/dialogue rather than sight/show.

Likewise, it is somewhat beside – or beneath – the point either to cite in agreement that the battle in Two Noble Kinsmen is not shown but described off-stage – the argument is not primarily about minor technical aspects like word-scenery and staging conditions; or to cite against my argument the fact that rhetoric is criticised in the caricature of the schoolmaster – that is the usual occasion for a parody on learning, but there is of course a proper use of learning and of rhetorical skills, and the interest in satires on inept rhetoricians actually indicates the poet’s concern for the proper art; anyway, my use of ‘rhetorical performance’ referred not to the scholarly systems of rhetoric but to the effectiveness of verbal communication to engender, transmit, express and ‘act out’ emotions.


Dies ist die schriftliche Ausfertigung eines unvorbereiteten Diskussionsbeitrages in Reaktion auf eine Reihe von Vorträgen im Wissenschaftlichen Seminar. Im Interesse der Wiedergabe des ‚performativen Charakters‘ des Seminars sind die Attribute der spontanen mündlichen Äußerung weitgehend beibehalten worden, so dass nur wenige Änderungen bzw. zusätzliche Einlassungen hinzukommen. Die abschließenden Fragen an die Vortragenden habe ich zugunsten einer Zusammenfassung meiner Thesen und die Anführung sowie Kommentierung der als Antwort vorgebrachten Punkte ersetzt, deren unbefriedigend erscheinender Charakter zu dieser schriftlichen Ausfertigung führte.