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Harry Berger, Jr., A Fury in the Words: Love and Embarrassment in Shakespeare's Venice
by Emily Bartels

Berger, Jr., Harry. A Fury in the Words: Love and Embarrassment in Shakespeare’s Venice. New York: Fordham University Press, 2013. x + 229 pp. ISBN 978-0823241958. $64.00 cloth.


In A Fury in the Words: Love and Embarrassment in Shakespeare’s Venice, Harry Berger, Jr. gives close reading a theatrical face lift. Formerly (he admits) a  “garden-variety slit-eyed reader” who “takes the play out of the theater by inching over its text like a snail and leaving nasty little tracks of interpretive scurf all over the gorgeous language” (2), he attempts in his new book to imagine what “actors, directors, and dramaturges do when they prepare for their performances” (3).  That preparation involves two interpretive moves:  first, to distinguish between “interlocutory action” (“what goes on between characters”) and “intralocutory acts” (“what goes on within the language the characters speak”); and second, from those distinctions, to “parse the competitive and performative worries of their characters” (3).  Berger, like the Shakespeare he presumes, is particularly interested in moments when language becomes gesture, doing something to, for, or with the characters that the characters themselves do not mean to do, say, or hear.  It is then that we see the “practical unconsciousness” of characters who disown their own motives, knowledge, and self-knowledge to avoid recognizing their complicity in a world of “bad faith” (11-12).

To come at that unconsciousness—and imagine interpretation as “rehearsal” (9)—Berger focuses on Shakespeare’s Venetian plays, The Merchant of Venice and Othello, and on an “affective discourse of embarrassment” (12) which they share.  Here “embarrassment” includes not simply or necessarily a moral shaming but also a socially oriented “public humiliation” predicated on “specific acts of criticism, blame, and accusation” as well as on an obstruction of the embarrassee’s desired “access to things, persons, and states of being“(13).  In turn, to embarrass means to deflect culpability and complicity from the self.  Berger does not quite say why Shakespeare would present embarrassment as the modus operandi of Venice, once the envied epicenter of Mediterranean trade and multicultural relations: does expansive mercantilism come at this dehumanizing price?  If early capitalism, like theater, is a prime domain of “artificial persons” as Jean Christophe-Agnew posited in the 1980s (Worlds Apart: The Market and the Theater in Anglo-American Thought, 1550-1750, Cambridge, 1986), it makes good sense that Shakespeare’s Venetian characters would take on a self-preserving “character” (Aristotelian ethos), as Berger contends, to protect themselves from themselves.  But I wonder if we could also read Hamlet, for example, through the same discourse of embarrassment, given the relentless public humiliations and obstructions its morose Danish hero imposes whenever he can on Polonius, Ophelia, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Laertes, Osric, Gertrude, as well as his nemesis Claudius.

As a reader, of course, Berger is anything but “garden variety”—who else would accuse Portia of “motherly boa-constriction” (33)?—and, in providing vivid blow by blow accounts of each play, the book offers a series of often astonishing readings.  The section on The Merchant of Venice is perhaps the more compelling and counterintuitive.  There, Berger brings out the “darker” undertones of the play’s “shiny displays of self-sacrifice and gift-giving” (19).  He sets the stage by defining Shakespeare’s Venice as “a community of speakers who don’t particularly like or trust each other” (25).  Shylock is, in a way, the least of anyone’s (including Shakespeare’s) worries, or at least not the only worry.  Problematic too are the Christian characters who practice “negative usury” (25): giving something for nothing and “embarrass[ing] the victims of donation by placing them under a moral debt they can’t easily pay off, much less shake off” (29).  As Berger moves through the play, one by one the embarrassing dominoes fall.  The ever-loving Antonio actually “goad[s] Shylock into sticking it to him” in order “to keep Bassanio permanently in his debt” (22).  As for boa constriction, Portia sets out to “embarrass not only Shylock but also Antonio—and Bassanio” (19).  Initially “disadvantaged by desire” (30), she attempts to hold her own, more than her own, by not only obstructing the bond between Antonio and Bassanio but also by effectively “castrat[ing]” Bassanio (32).  When news of Antonio’s losses hit home, for example, Berger imagines Portia “cradling her lover in her arms even as she is careful to note that he’s at fault” (33).

In the section on Othello, Berger (taking cues from Lynda Boose) makes the case “that Iago’s basic plan to triangulate the lovers with Cassio was embarrassingly anticipated and put into play by the lovers themselves” (84).  Crucial is the fact that neither Iago nor we hear of Cassio’s mediation of the relation between Desdemona and Othello until 3.3—the dicey moment when Desdemona claims her rights to place serious demands on Othello’s politics and desires.  In a “dazzlingly sudden yet casual disclosure,” she reminds Othello, and informs us, that “Othello is partly indebted to Cassio for the gift of Desdemona” (133).  That revelation invites us to read retrospectively: to consider when and why Othello appointed the Florentine as his lieutenant (as a reward for his courtly services?); to wonder why “Cassio’s role in the courtship [was] elided from Othello’s narrative to the senators” (99); to notice how extremely “dogged” Desdemona is in refusing to believe that her actions “could possibly be misconstrued as promiscuous” (118).  And ultimately the revelation unveils “the residual bonds of triangulated courtship” and the “latent complications that will have been there all along” (133): an Othello who “seems to have used Cassio both to stir up Desdemona’s desire and to keep his own distance from it” (141), who helps—and “disremember[s]” helping—Desdemona lose the increasingly overdetermined handkerchief, and who thus “facilitates the production of the ocular proof that will give him vantage to exclaim on her” (152).  As for Desdemona, “she frames the Cassio Project as an enterprise that has everything to do with gender—with the struggle of will between her and Othello—and nothing to do with sex” (160).  In the end, it is not simply Iago who uses Othello and Desdemona, but they who use him and the jealousy he provokes to express their marital dis-ease: “the rage embedded in wifely love and entwined with lurking contempt” (84) and the husbandly fear of his or his wife’s breach of public decorum. 

With its own dazzling and casual disclosures, A Fury in the Words asks us to take characters on their own terms, as subjects whose interiorities come out most when they seem to figure least.  The book wears its eclectic (and notably humane) engagement with scholarship, and with theater, lightly: it immerses us in what characters say and do and hear, while building its case against them.  Though Berger promotes a single line of fire, his imaginary rehearsal takes into account multiple possibilities for playing and reading.  The result is a critical page-turner, whose audience should be broad.  Scholars, students and teachers at every level, as well as arm-chair readers will find here a vivid interpretation of Shakespeare that is as accessible as it is challenging.  And if “nasty little tracks of interpretive scurf” appear to cover some of Shakespeare’s “gorgeous language,” they lead us into a reading experience full of meaning and pleasure.


Emily C. Bartels
Rutgers University



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Cite as:

Emily Bartels, "Harry Berger, Jr., A Fury in the Words: Love and Embarrassment in Shakespeare's Venice ," Spenser Review 43.3.56 (Winter 2014). Accessed September 24th, 2018.
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