Theatre of Passion: Othello and The Two Noble Kinsmen

The Theatricality of the Emotions, the Deceived Eye and the Emergence of Modern Love

by Irmgard Maassen


At parting in Venice, Desdemona’s father issues an ominous warning to his unwelcome son-in-law: “Look to her, Moor, if thou hast eyes to see: / She has deceived her father, and may thee.”[1]


Connecting eyes and the activity of looking with the latent deceptiveness of shows of love, Brabantio’s lines point to a complex interrelation of manifestations of feeling with conventions of seeing, an interrelation that informs not just Othello but also The Two Noble Kinsmen. This is my subject today. By contrast to the other papers, I particularly focus on the first term in our workshop’s topic, namely on the ‘performance’ of the passions, on their theatricality. I am adopting a historicising approach to look at the function of emotions, or passions, in the context of a culture where identity and authority were intricately bound up with public visibility and ritualised spectacle.

My argument is based on the assumption that the popular theatre of Shakespeare’s time did not just passively reflect the early modern culture of feeling. Rather, by deploying the affective, and affecting, power of theatrical performance, it actively participated in the formation of emotional codes and economies. As Thomas Heywood wrote in his Apology for Actors (c.1608), “lively and well spirited action [...] hath power to new mold the hearts of the spectators and fashion them to the shape of any noble and notable attempt.”[2] Theatrical representation, with its mutually reinforcing interplay of a highly literary rhetoric with embodied performance, served both to display, instigate, and literally infect with emotions, as well as to discursively shape them.[3] Simultaneously, it self-reflexively drew attention to the inevitable artificiality of its own emotional performances. The theatre thus played a central part in modelling the emerging early modern subjectivity, to the extent that this subjectivity, with its new licence to individual self-fashioning but also its heightened awareness of the political dangers inherent in the new individualism, was constructed around the tension between interiority and appearance. This dichotomy between what an older criticism liked to refer to, unhistorically, as the universal human conflict between ‘being’ and ‘seeming’ emerges as the organising structural and thematic principle in genres as diverse as the revenge tragedy, the comedy of manners, moral satire, and especially in courtesy and conduct literature where it manifests itself in the friction between an inward morality and external manners.[4] It is in the specific representational mode of the theatre itself, however, that the contradiction, but also the close interdependency, of ‘genuine’ and ‘staged’ feeling becomes embodied and self-reflexively performed. The representation of emotions in Shakespeare’s theatre, I contend, collapses our neat late modern distinction between authenticity, on the one hand side, and performance, on the other, in favour of a historically more appropriate concept of the ‘performativity of emotion’.[5]


Both plays, I would argue, are centrally concerned with the potential deceptiveness, or inadequacy, of performed feeling, but both significantly fail to envisage a viable alternative to the need to perform “that within which passeth show”.[6] The pervasive suspicion that a display of emotion may be feigned manifests itself in a preoccupation with ‘seeing’ and the relation of the visual sense to truth and dissimulation. Each play addresses, and critiques, a specific order of seeing that entails a different conceptualisation of the nature and the function of passionate love.[7]

Take The Two Noble Kinsmen. The reason, I believe, for which it appears such an alien and uncomfortable play today lies in its exploration of a world utterly ruled by formal ceremony and highly ritualised communication, a world which strikes us today as pre-modern. The play presents us with a superabundance of processions staging weddings, funerals, or military victories, of folk dance and ballads, hunting, games and ritual combat, of rigidly choreographed supplications and prayers in temples. The fact that it is Theseus, above all, who keeps insisting on the necessity to perform rites properly down to the minutest detail – “omit not anything / In the pretended celebrations” he repeatedly urges (1.1.209-10)[8] - highlights the function of ceremony: princely power, noble honour, and courtly hierarchy are all invested in spectacle and ritual.

Identity, in this world, is constituted by the public display of noble qualities to an expert audience, whose appreciation or disparagement can make or unmake the performer. Thus Arcite, released by a princely pardon from prison but unwilling to comply with the condition of his banishment, acquires a place of service which affords him a new identity - conferred on him by the exterior markers of a livery and a horse - by performing, incognito, in a running and wrestling competition. He gains recognition by exhibiting himself to the view of courtly spectators, who frankly discuss the virtues of this unknown performer, going over his abilities, his face, his body, his garments, and his speech in a formal catalogue of praise reminiscent of the literary blazon of female beauty. (2.5.10-29)

We encounter here an order of seeing which derives, theoretically, from platonic philosophy, and was shaped socially by the courtly culture of the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance.[9] Seeing here is still ‘allegorical’, in the sense that it is bound up in the traditional analogy between macrocosm and microcosm and confirms the homology between physical and spiritual beauty. External appearance, in this view, is indicative of internal truth - the body, like a heraldic shield or coat of arms, bears the infallible signs of someone’s true being. Bembo in Castiglione’s Cortegiano expresses the classical neoplatonic view of the convergence of external beauty and inner goodness thus: “[...] outward beauty is a true sign of inner goodness. This loveliness, indeed, is impressed upon the body in varying degrees as a token by which the soul can be recognized for what it is [...]”[10] In this context the appraising gaze functions as an instrument not only of aesthetic evaluation but of moral approval as well. Looking is a performative activity in that it re-enacts and confirms the normative and social order of courtly society; it not merely discovers but constructs and confers value and identity.

The performative power of looking is further underlined by its function in establishing legality. Palamon stakes his right to possession of Emilia on the fact that he saw her first, before Arcite did.[11] It is significant to find that the outcome of the play corroborates his claim, a ‘right of first sight’. Similarly, the trial by combat depends for its legitimacy on the validating presence of eye witnesses, in particular of Emilia for whose favour the two men are fighting, as Theseus points out when he urges Emilia to attend the tournament: “The knights must kindle / Their valour at your eye.” (5.3.29-30)[12]

Whether sending or receiving rays of light, the eye in this philosophy serves as the gateway to the heart. Looking and loving are closely intertwined activities, both playing their part in the construction of social value. Love, like other incorporated dispositions, to paraphrase Bourdieu, acts as a shortcut in the complex social negotiations of norms and ideals.[13] As Niklas Luhmann has pointed out, however, love in the early modern period does not yet underwrite the uniqueness of the individual person, as does modern love encoded as passion which evolved in the course of the 18th century.[14] Instead, love within the old allegorical order of seeing valorises generic qualities, seeking representational perfection rather than the singular qualities of an individual. As Bembo explains in the Cortegiano: “[...] from the particular beauty of a single body [love] guides the soul to the universal beauty of all bodies [...]”.[15] Within the medieval code of love as idealisation that is explored in The Two Noble Kinsmen love derives its legitimation and irresistible force from the ideal perfection ascribed to, or perceived in, the beloved object.[16]


Historicising love in this manner, I’d like to argue, can help us clarify some of the critical cruxes of the play. First, it may serve to redeem Emilia from critical opprobrium. Her inability to choose between the two kinsmen has provoked the harsh, if utterly anachronistic, comment that in matters of love she behaves like a silly dithering shopgirl who does not know what she wants. But the normative framework of courtly culture makes it impossible for her to choose between two lovers who are presented as emblems of perfect equality in noble blood and chivalrous virtue. Emilia’s perusal of her suitors’ pictures in 4.3. may reveal to her differences of colour and character but can only confirm, as indeed it does, sameness of merit. A love that is governed by the order of allegorical seeing must necessarily fail to distinguish between two who are by definition equal in worth, no matter if one appears merry and the other sad. By contrast to modern love, courtly love as presented in the play is not a distinguishing faculty that appreciates individual singularity and validates the uniqueness of the beloved, but is a normative faculty that acknowledges ideal perfection, seeing the type of the honourable knight in the individual aspect of face and expression. This is why the two kinsmen are by necessity fully interchangeable in the eyes and the love of the lady. Conversely, one glimpse of the lady from the prison window is sufficient to inspire undying love in Palamon and Arcite, as her appearance does indeed convey all a lover will ever need to know about her.[17]

Secondly, historicising ‘love’ can shed a new light on the much discussed conflict between homo- and heterosexual passion in the play. The Amazon Emilia’s reluctance to prefer one kinsman to the other, which smacks of a general indifference to men, has been greeted, citing her childhood love to Flavina, as a sign of an invincible homoerotic orientation. The unbreakable “knot of love” (1.3.41) between Theseus and Pirithous has been similarly interpreted, as has, of course, the love that unites Palamon and Arcite: two souls growing together so that they are each father, friend, acquaintance, family, and heir, and, most significantly, even “wife” to one another. (2.2.80-84) It makes sense to read the play as discussing the competing claims of homosexual, or rather homosocial, love and normative heterosexuality. It grows out of a historical moment when the blatant misogyny and homosocial court culture of James I clashed with the Protestant doctrine of holy marriage which had prevailed after the Reformation and was, as Catherine Belsey has argued, increasingly forcing unruly passions into the domestic mould of patriarchal marriage.[18]

However, I would like to complicate the smooth and, I believe, unhistorical conflation in these readings of homosexual and homosocial bonding.[19] To regard the desire, the ‘love’, which is fuelled by the courtly code of honour as primarily sexual is an anachronistic fallacy. Next to love as sexual passion, standing under the aegis of Venus, the play explores the power of a desire, also figured as ‘love’, which is directed at the gratification honour can provide. Instead of leading to conquest and possession, this love is enacted in competition and emulation.[20] Rather than be content to uncouple sexuality from gender difference, as is customarily done in those readings of early modern plays that tease out covert homosexual meanings, I suggest we need to uncouple desire itself from sexuality. This will enable us to acknowledge the presence in these plays of an attraction emanating not from difference of gender but from sameness of rank and honour. What draws Palamon and Arcite to each other can then be seen to be their outstanding knightly valour — each loves in the other the ideal type he himself represents. In the early modern period romantic love tends to confirm the naturalness of the aristocratic hierarchy of rank, manifest in the visibility, often through all disguises, of virtue and honour[21], rather than the naturalness of the heterosexual order as in today’s Mills and Boone romance, which celebrates the triumph of eroticised gender difference over class difference. The Two Noble Kinsmen teaches us to be alert to the plural intersections and overwritings of sexual difference with rank difference in the early modern construction of desire.


The subplot mirrors the Amazon Emilia’s predicament in telling ways. Contrary to Emilia, the Jailer’s Daughter initially has no difficulty distinguishing Palamon from Arcite. While this might be read as gesturing towards the more modern concept of love as a passion that individualises, the fate of her love contradicts this interpretation. By contrast to Ophelia, an analogy which is often drawn, her love sickness, which grows into melancholy, is not elevated into an ennobling passion. While in Hamlet madness and melancholy become the mood/mode in which an interiority asserts itself that exceeds the preordained forms of social ritual and convention, The Two Noble Kinsmen allows no space for such interiority to the Jailer’s Daughter. Instead, she is recruited in to act the madwoman in the morris dance, a popular entertainment that neatly contains her excessive passion in the mould of an approved ritual, effectively de-individualizing the emotion. In making her perform what she is - mad - the morris dance precludes any opening of a gap between being and seeming.

Furthermore, the madness of the Jailer’s Daughter is cured by recourse to traditional Galenic medicine. She has the balance of her humours restored through coitus, in a plot that takes advantage of her mad delusions in which she confuses her real and her imagined lover - just like Emilia, she cannot, after all, differentiate between individuals. An excess of looking has created excessive passion: “That intemperate surfeit of her eye hath distempered the other senses,” the Doctor notes. (4.3.69-70). In turn, excessive passion hampers vision: the cure thus works as a comic figuration of the old commonplace that love is blind - blind to individual difference, that is, which is, of course, the flip side of the ideology of love as idealisation.[22]


The deceptiveness of appearances plays a crucial part in Othello as well. Iago, famously, is not what he seems. On all levels the play is informed by a deep anxiety about the possible discontinuity between external manners and internal virtue, or between performed emotions and inner feelings. ‘Ocular proof’, knowing by looking, is in high demand, but fails; Othello cannot prove Desdemona’s adultery by physical observation, so Iago has to create a vivid mental image of the act. When Othello does observe Iago interviewing Cassio, his eye is deceived: he mistakes banter about Bianca for boasting about Desdemona. In the mercantile world of Venice, the platonic bond between inner essence and outer appearance that propped up courtly love has been severed; the locus of truth has shifted into the realm of the unobservable interior.

This is most strikingly embodied by the paradox of Othello himself, whose black countenance is emphatically not indicative of his inner merit. When Desdemona claims that she “saw Othello’s visage in his mind” (1.3.253) she inverts the allegorical order of seeing, and professes a love that has liberated itself from the compulsive equation of outer and inner. This love takes on the form of a ‘passion’ aspiring, in Luhmann’s terms, to perfection of itself rather than to the perfection of its object, as is poignantly illustrated by Othello’s declarations of love. But the modern affectionate marriage that is thus made possible produces its own tragic dilemma: “O curse of marriage! / That we can call these delicate creatures ours / And not their appetites!” (3.3.272-274) Othello exclaims, revealing the fear that arises from the ultimate invisibility of interior feelings, feelings that, as the contemporary conduct advice keeps warning, can so easily escape control and patriarchal government.

Othello’s jealousy is thus a symptom of the derangement of feeling caused by the modern disjunction between seeing and knowing.[23] It grows to tragic dimensions as he makes a last fatal mistake, mis-interpreting what he sees: When Desdemona is lying on her bed, “that whiter skin of hers than snow / And smooth as monumental alabaster” (5.2.4-5) should have told him that she is what she seems - an emblem of innocence. Instead, schooled by Iago in the deceptiveness of appearances, he takes her unspotted beauty for the epitome of her falsity, and kills her. In the depiction of Desdemona, as generally of female virtue in the comedies, Shakespeare falls back on the old platonic epistemology, holding out the promise that the confusion caused by the disassociation of seeing and loving is only temporary, the reversible effect of some evil interference. As we now know, reversible it wasn’t - neither for Desdemona nor for modern love.


[1] William Shakespeare, Othello, ed. by  E. A. J. Honigmann. The Arden Shakespeare 3rd Series (Walton-on-Thames: Thomas Nelson & Sons, 1997), 1.3.293-4. All subsequent references are to this edition.

[2] Thomas Heywood, An Apologie for Actors (1608?), B4r. Quoted from Katharine Eisaman Maus, “Horns of Dilemma: Jealousy, Gender, And Spectatorship in English Renaissance Drama”, English Literary History 54 (1987), 561-583, here 566. Note that in Heywood’s view theatrical representation stimulates emulation of an ideal, which highlights the theatre’s affinity to public spectacles such as tournaments and other feats of competitive emulation characteristic of the homosocial court culture.

[3] See Steven Mullaney, “Mourning and Misogyny: Hamlet, The Revenger’s Tragedy, and the Final Progress of Elizabeth I, 1600-1607”, Shakespeare Quarterly 45,2 (1994), pp. 139-162, here 144: “As a forum for the representation, solicitation, shaping, and enacting of affect in various forms, for both the reflection and [...] the reformation of emotions and their economies, the popular stage of early modern England was a unique contemporaneous force. [I]t certainly served as a prominent affective arena in which significant cultural traumas and highly ambivalent events [...] could be directly or indirectly addressed, symbolically enacted, and brought to partial and imaginary resolution.”

[4] For the ideology of female conduct as predicated on the opposition of external manners and internal morals, see the “General Introduction” to William St Clair and Irmgard Maassen eds., Conduct Literature for Women 1500-1640 (London: Pickering & Chatto, 2000), vol. 1, pp. ix-xli.

[5] See Irmgard Maassen, “Formal Ostentation, Maimed Rites, and Madness: The Theatrical Spectacle of Mourning in Shakespeare’s Hamlet”, in Stephen C. Jaeger and Ingrid Kasten eds., Codierungen von Emotionen im Mittelalter / Emotions and Sensibilities in the Middle Ages (de Gruyter: Berlin and New York, 2003), forthcoming.

[6] William Shakespeare, Hamlet. ed. by G. R. Hibbard. The Oxford Shakespeare (Oxford: Oxford University Press 1998, 11987), 1.2.85. - See the predominance of scenes of observation, spying and eavesdropping in Shakespeare’s plays.

[7] I’m not concerned here with the theorisation of the ‘gaze’ as done by Laura Mulvey. As Mulvey herself has warned, see discussion in fn. 31 in Edward Pechter, “‘Have you not read of some such thing?’ Sex and sexual stories in Othello”, Shakespeare Survey 49 (1996), pp. 201-216, the notion of a masculine, reifying and colonialising gaze is an anachronism in the period under discussion. Looking and being looked at, under conditions of a courtly culture where identity and status were dependent on public display and visibility, were enabling as much as repressive activities. The division between subject and object of the gaze with its modern, scientific and centrally perspectived regime of seeing was at that time still competing with alternative orders and theories of seeing.

[8] All quotations from John Fletcher and William Shakespeare, The Two Noble Kinsmen. ed. by Lois Potter. The Arden Shakespeare 3rd Series (London: Thomas Nelson & Sons, 2002).

[9] For an exploration of different orders of seeing in Shakespeare’s sonnets, see Gisela Ecker, “Das Drama der Blicke und die Krise des Gesichtssinns in Shakespeares Sonnets”, Shakespeare-Jahrbuch 131 (1995), pp. 140-153.

[10] Baldesar Castiglione, The Courtier, transl. by George Bull (Harmondworth: Penguin 1976), p. 330.

[11] See Palamon: “I, that first saw her; I that took possession / First with mine eye of all those beauties in her / Reveal’d to mankind.” (2.2.167-69) The pun on I and eye underlines the interdependency of being and looking.

[12] See also 3.6.134, where the kinsmen’s offence is said to lie not so much in the fact of their duelling but in the secrecy of their duel, without witnesses and officers of arms.

[13] See Pierre Bourdieu, Sozialer Sinn. Kritik der theoretischen Vernunft. Stw 1066 (Frankfurt/M.: Suhrkamp 1993), chap. 1.4. “Glaube und Leib”, pp. 122-147.

[14] Niklas Luhmann, Liebe als Passion, Frankfurt/M.: Suhrkamp 1984.

[15] Castiglione, p. 340.

[16] Luhmann, pp. 57ff. and passim.

[17] See, for example, the anachronistic criticism of Madelon Lief and Nicholas F. Radel, “Linguistic Subversion and the Artifice of Rhetoric in The Two Noble Kinsmen”, Shakespeare Quarterly 38 (1987), p. 412, that the knights do not know her at all when they profess their love.

[18] See Catherine Belsey, Shakespeare and the Loss of Eden. The Construction of Family Values in Early Modern Culture (London: Basingstoke 1999). - There is no doubt that in the overall conception of the play fruitful wedded love is supposed to triumph over sterile, ‘narcissistic’ (see 2.2., Emilia in the prison’s garden) homoeroticism - but the dark mood of tragedy infusing the comedy and the disturbing lack of romantic idealisation of heterosexual love, usually a feature of comedy, point to a less than wholehearted rejoicing in this triumph.

[19] For a discussion of these terms see Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Between Men. English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985). I am indebted to Judith Klinger’s revisionary reading of desire and sexuality in the Middle Ages, see her “Gender-Theorien: Ältere deutsche Literatur”, in Claudia Benthien and Hans Rudolf Velten eds., Germanistik als Kulturwissenschaft. Eine Einführung in neue Theoriekonzepte (Reinbek: Rowohlt 2002), pp. 267-297, and to illuminating discussions with Jutta Eming and the gender workshop of the Sfb Kulturen des Performativen in Berlin.

[20] Imitation is the mode of Emilia’s and Flavina’s love, see 1.3.64-78. For masculine rivalry, see Donald K. Hedrick, ”’Be Rough With Me’: The Collaborative Arenas of The Two Noble Kinsmen”, in Charles H. Fry ed., Shakespeare, Fletcher and The Two Noble Kinsmen (Columbia: University of Missouri Press 1989), pp. 45-77.

[21] As when prince Florizel’s love of the shepherdess Perdita in The Winter’s Tale correctly signals that she is a lost princess.

[22] This love, conceptualised as an imbalance of the body’s humoral fluids, assumes the porous body of Galenic medicine, which intersects with the world in a constant exchange not just of fluids and vapours, but of looks as well. The closing-off of a an autonomous body that is required by the subject-object split which marks modern subjectivity, a split which brings forth interiority and enables individualisation, has not yet left a mark here.

[23] Katherine Eisaman Maus (1987) sees the jealous male in Renaissance drama as representative of the paying spectator in the theatre who is most agonizingly involved and at the same time most marginalised and out of control, thrown back on his powers of interpretation. See her “Horns of Dilemma”, p. 578.


Die frühneuzeitliche Subjektivität, mit ihrem hohen Bewußtsein für die individuellen Chancen, aber auch die politischen Risiken des self-fashioning, entfaltete sich im Spannungsfeld von Innerlichkeit und Performanz, von ‘Sein’ und ‘Schein’. Das Theater der Shakespearezeit stellt diesen Konflikt zwischen Authentizität und Simulation nicht nur in der Thematik seiner Stücke, sondern auch durch selbstreflexive Verweise auf den eigenen performativen Repräsentationsmodus aus. Mein Beitrag liest Othello und The Two Noble Kinsmen in diesem Kontext als Auseinandersetzungen mit dem latenten Täuschungsverdacht, der der Vorführung von Gefühl anhaftete. In der Betonung der Bedeutung des Augensinns und der Ungewißheit, ob der Augenschein Wahrheit oder Täuschung vorspiegelt, verhandeln die Stücke eine sich wandelnde Ordnung des Sehens, die auf das engste mit der Emergenz einer neuen Ordnung des Fühlens, mit ‘Liebe als Passion’ (Luhmann), assoziiert ist.

In The Two Noble Kinsmen generiert die traditionelle neoplatonische Gleichsetzung von innerem Wesen und äußerer Erscheinung Gefühlsperformanzen, die heute ritualisiert und überaus artifiziell anmuten, die jedoch in der die öffentliche Tugendausstellung fordernden Kultur des Hofes verankert sind. Othello dagegen ist im kommerzialisierten Milieu Venedigs angesiedelt und verhandelt, indem es die Beweiskraft des Sehens - ocular proof - problematisiert, den neuzeitlichen Bruch zwischen innerer Tugend und äußeren Manieren, zwischen echtem und vorgespieltem Gefühl. Othellos Eifersucht ist als Reaktion auf die zunehmende Unmöglichkeit zu lesen, den Glauben an die Eindeutigkeit der die Gefühle signalisierenden Körperzeichen aufrechtzuhalten. Während Liebeswahnsinn und Eifersucht in The Two Noble Kinsmen in ritualisiertem Spiel und Duell aufgefangen und entschärft werden, brechen diese Leidenschaften in Othello alle zeremoniellen Ausdruckskonventionen und werden zum - tragisch besetzten - Modus, in dem das frühmoderne Subjekt sich individualisiert.