115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

“Give me the Ocular Proof”:  Misogyny and Seeing “Nothing” in Shakespeare

Mark Heberle, University of Hawaii, Manoa

Attitudes toward patriarchy in Shakespeare vary, but misogyny is always repudiated.  In Much Ado About Nothing, Othello, and The Winter’s Tale, such repudiation is effected through falsely performed and interpreted scenes, self-degrading voyeurism, invisible fantasies, and observed objects charged with male sexual anxieties and slander of women. 

Proposal: 

“Give me the Ocular Proof”:  Misogyny and Seeing “Nothing” in Shakespeare 

Mark A. Heberle

               Although Much Ado About Nothing, Othello, and The Winter’s Tale are generically distinct as romantic comedy, romantic tragedy, and tragi-comedy, each is focused on the generation, representation, and repudiation of misogyny.  Misogyny here and elsewhere in Shakespeare is a product of male sexual suspicions and anxieties that misinterpret or misrepresent visual signs and actions in a way that figuratively or literally blinds male observers and makes them act in ways that are destructive to women and ultimately to themselves.  In Much Ado About Nothing, Claudio’s and Don Pedro’s secretive false noting of Hero’s apparent pre-marital infidelity leads to a false noting in public that terminates the planned marriage, destroys her public reputation, and requires her to “die” in order to regain it.  The charges against her amount to “nothing” yet they reduce her virtue and value as a woman to nothing, since Claudio’s misrepresentation extends to viewing every gesture of innocence as proof of guilt.  His public slander reflects males’ anxieties about their own sexual adequacy as well as fundamentally slanderous assumptions of female infidelity that are fantastically represented in the invisible cuckold’s horns that are a “standing” joke among the men in the play. 

               The misogynist voyeurism that initially misled Hero’s accusers is the degrading culmination of Othello’s submission to murderous misogyny, as he watches and listens to Iago’s deceptive interactions with Cassio and Bianca.  A continuous series of visual signs and their interpretation—true, partial hypothetical, false (including a lost and endlessly circulating woman’s handkerchief) becomes the means by which Iago’s psychotically obsessive misogyny so effectively summons Othello’s own that the two become each other’s necessary complement. As with Hero but more extensively and horrifically, everything that Desdemona says or does becomes evidence of her adultery once the misogyny within Othello has been released.      

               The Winter’s Tale recapitulates many of the visual motifs of the earlier plays, with Hermione’s heavily pregnant womb the equivalent of Desdemona’s handkerchief.  This play begins, however, with Leontes’s misogyny already fully developed after his boyhood friend Polixenes’s nine-month visit to Sicily and his close friendship with his own wife. His delusion-led offenses include imprisoning his wife, separating his son from his mother, ripping away his newly born daughter and sentencing her, effectively, to infanticide, and putting Hermione on trial for adultery, treason, and attempted regicide.

Leontes’s awareness of his faults and his immediate remorse come too late to prevent the death of his only son, his wife, and loss of his daughter. The Winter’s Tale illustrates fully how misogyny destroys patriarchy itself, and the play’s miraculous recovery therefore is exclusively the work of women who have not given up faith that Perdita will be found.