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Othello in female duplicity during the central temptation scene: ˜I know
our country disposition well; / In Venice they do let God see the pranks /
They dare not show their husbands: their best conscience / Is not to leave
undone, but keep unknown™ (©©©. . ll. °µ“). The next stanza picks up
Iago™s words, both in the narrator™s observation that ˜feminine delight™
is ˜resigned / Rather to hide what pleases most unknown™ (©. ±µ) and
in the choice of ˜tokens™ of love. The contiguity between the narrator
of Don Juan and Iago is disturbing because it hints at how the reader™s
responses are being directed, like Othello™s, towards the handkerchief. We
too are being led by the nose and encouraged to assemble evidence from
±± Byron, Poetics and History
insinuations. This dramatises the way in which the reader™s imagination
works over fragments, and can draw a pattern out of personal interest.
The narrator comments on this process directly in stanza ± as he points
up the exigencies of metrical composition:
I own no prosody can ever rate it
As a rule, but Truth may, if you translate it.
(©. ±)
The draft variants for this couplet demonstrate Byron™s insistence on the
conditional nature of experience: he corrected ˜but Truth will™ to ˜but
Truth may™, opening the stanza to philosophical uncertainty just after
battling to ˜close the octave™s chime™ (CPW, , p. °). The digressions
forced by prosody are foregrounded as a set of rules which classically
educated readers used to agree on, whereas in contrast, the shifting codes
of what society ˜requires™ create an invisible ˜whole™ which repeatedly
collides with the parts of Don Juan. However, after the Pope/Bowles
controversy and the rise of the Lake School, the ˜trash of Keats™ and the
Cockneys, the rules of English prosody could also be seen as open to the
risk of becoming historically speci¬c, subject to the whims of fashion,
caprice and the partiality of an untrustworthy public.
A link between sexual mutability and the unreliability of language
prompts Byron™s use of innuendo in the same way that Iago cleverly
plants un¬nished ideas for Othello to complete:
  . What hath he said?
© §  . Faith, that he did . . . I know not what he did.
  . But what?
© §  . Lie.
  . With her?
© §  . With her, on her, what you will.
  . Lie with her, lie on her? “ We say lie on her, when they belie her, “ lie
with her, zounds, that™s fulsome! (© . ±. ll. ± “)
This favourite Shakespearean pun recurs when Byron the narrator shifts
from discussion of Gulbeyaz™s overacted welcome for the Sultan to a
more general admission of dishonesty in sexual relationships:
If fair Gulbeyaz overdid her part,
I know not “ it succeeded, and success
Is much in most things, not less in the heart
Than other articles of female dress.
Self-love in man too beats all female art;
They lie, we lie, all lie, but love no less.
(©. ±)
±±µ
˜Don Juan™, digressive intertextuality and the risks of reception
The misogyny of describing the heart as another article of female dress
is here averted by re¬‚ecting on a hidden whole (loving no less) which
underlies all the different lying ˜parts™. Repeatedly throughout canto ©,
the reader is led to construct a whole meaning from speci¬c tri¬‚es light as
air. An interest in the different grounds for ˜ocular proof ™ ¬‚ickers between
the texts of Othello and Don Juan. Medwin remembered that after reading
Iago™s part in the handkerchief scene, Byron remarked:
˜Shakespeare was right . . . in making Othello™s jealousy turn upon that cir-
cumstance. The handkerchief is the strongest proof of love, not only among
the Moors, but all Eastern nations: and yet they say that the plot of “Marino
Faliero” hangs upon too slight a cause.™
As usual, Byron™s response to a literary text is bound up with an aware-
ness of his own relationship with an audience and what ˜they say™. In
this case, Byron™s response to Othello is also caught in the recent scandal
of Queen Caroline™s trial (for which, as we have seen, he offered ˜some
hints™ to Hobhouse). In ±° the ministry of George IV had attempted
to discredit Caroline by producing ˜ocular demonstration™ of her in¬-
delity. The narrator of Don Juan, in his preoccupation with beds and
sheets ˜white as what bards call “driven / Snow”™(©. µ), juxtaposes
the voices of Iago and Othello with the contemporary divorce trial of
Queen Caroline during which bundles of her bed linen were presented
as evidence of adultery.µ The comparison between Caroline™s sheets and
˜driven snow™ had been made by journalists who supported the Queen,
but the issue of dirty linen also takes us to the lust-stained bed which
Othello is determined to see, and which Byron™s contemporary readers
searched for in Don Juan. Threads of allusion are enmeshed in histori-
cal circumstance as Byron™s digressive performance of a play within a
play draws his readers to re¬‚ect on their participation in the public con-
struction of good taste. The production and reproduction of art in Don
Juan is always historically speci¬c and draws attention to the reader™s
discrimination and judgement of textual inter-relationships.
When Juan ¬nds himself in the harem, the reader™s combination of
fear and curiosity is shared by Gulbeyaz (as another interested party), and
Byron™s ambiguous presentation of the Sultan™s wife derives much of its
poignancy from the stanza which relates her sleepless, suspicion-racked
night:
Oh the heavy night!
When wicked wives who love some bachelor
Lie down in dudgeon to sigh for the light
±± Byron, Poetics and History
...
To toss, to tumble, doze, revive, and quake
Lest their too lawful bed-fellow should wake.
(©. )

Recalling Othello™s lament ˜O heavy hour!™ (. . l. ), together with one
of the scenes which prompt it “ Iago™s ¬ctitious account of his disturbed
night sharing Cassio™s bed (˜. . . and sigh™d, and kiss™d, and then / Cried
“Cursed fate, that gave thee to the Moor!”™(©©©. . ll. ±“)) “ the poem
advertises its turn to the episode of the harem at night. Intertextual echoes
create a confusion of tragedy and comedy as the reader is caught between
the perspectives of Iago and Othello. Byron™s allusive play destabilises
our generic frame of reference while distant echoes from Shakespeare™s
tragedy unsettle the ˜genial™ mood of the seraglio narrative. When we
are told that the of¬ce of ˜“the Mother of the Maids”™ was ˜to keep
aloof or smother / All bad propensities™ (©. °“±), we receive a ¬‚ickering
apprehension of Desdemona™s fate. But having used the rhythms of Othello
to prepare the reader for a decisive outcome once Juan enters the harem,
Byron suddenly puts the tragedy into reverse and reintroduces the earlier
(potentially comic) material of obstacles to marriage. The scrutiny of
Juan casts him as a stranger,
Though differing in stature and degree,
And clime and time, and country and complexion;
They all alike admired their new connexion.
(©. °)

This description of the concubines uses Iago™s hints about Desdemona™s
wilfulness, drawn from the central temptation scene of Act ©©©. Here
Othello™s wonder at Desdemona™s love is turned to disbelief:
Not to affect many proposed matches,
Of her own clime, complexion, and degree,
Whereto we see in all things nature tends;
Fie, we may smell in such a will most rank,
Foul disproportion; thoughts unnatural.
(©©©. . ll. “·)

In a similar way the reader of Don Juan is drawn into an ironic perspective
on the ˜Magnetism, or Devilism™ (©. ) of sexual attraction, and a
consciousness of seeing ˜with Christian eyes or Heathen™ (©. ·). The
episode may also involve the gentle teasing of certain members of the
Pisan circle, for in February ±, Edward Trelawny was recently arrived
±±·
˜Don Juan™, digressive intertextuality and the risks of reception
on the scene, and Mary Shelley in particular had received him as a kind
of Othello ¬gure, noting his ˜Moorish™ appearance and his ability to tell
strange stories. We are drawn further backwards into the plot of Othello
with the description of Dudù:
she sighed,
As if she pitied her for being there,
A pretty stranger without friend or guide,
And all abashed too at the general stare
Which welcomes hapless strangers in all places,
With kind remarks upon their mien and faces.
(©. µ)

This stanza con¬‚ates the dominant moments of the early scenes of Othello,
especially Othello™s portrait of Desdemona™s response to him:
She gave me for my pains a world of sighs;
She swore i™ faith ™twas strange, ™twas passing strange;
™Twas pitiful, ™twas wondrous pitiful.
(©. . ll. ±µ“±)

The way is softened for a lovers™ encounter. After this introduction, how-
ever, the poem suddenly projects the reader forward into the ¬nal scenes
of Othello, as Byron juxtaposes the perilous comedy of Juan and Dudù
with the setting of Desdemona™s death. The comic potential of the scene
is unsettled by hints of tragedy: ˜each lovely limb / Of the fair occu-
pants™ reminds us of Desdemona seeming ˜lovely fair™ to Othello; the
woman ˜slightly stirring in her snowy shroud™ (©. ) takes us back to
Desdemona™s request for her wedding sheets to be her shroud. In a similar
way, the simile of one maiden who,
as the fruit
Nods from the tree, was slumbering with soft breath
And lips apart, which showed the pearls beneath.
(©. µ)

re¬gures Desdemona™s last moments as Othello kisses her: ˜I™ll smell it
on the tree, / A balmy breath . . .™ (. . ll. ±µ“±).
The effect of using tragedy to haunt comedy in this way is complex.
Shakespearean drama is famous for mixing tragic and comic modes, but
it rarely provides the simultaneous ˜scorching and drenching™ that we
¬nd in Byron™s ottava rima verse. What we might call an experience of tex-
tual simultaneity emerges from Byron™s poetics of con¬‚icting particulars
±± Byron, Poetics and History
(now estranged from the clearly-de¬ned satiric universe of Pope, Swift
and Sterne). In eighteenth-century satire, juxtapositions created a chaos
indicative of repeated failures of taste: in Don Juan the reader is involved
in the recreation of chaos at the level not simply of image, but also of po-
etic texture. The process of digressive allusion initiated in footnotes and
eighteenth-century satire, and later censored as an unfortunate ˜part™
of Churchill™s verse, has in Don Juan taken over the poetic texture as a
whole.
Carmela Perri™s work on the poetics of allusion reminds us that iden-
ti¬cation of the source of an allusion is not enough: the reader needs to
be able to negotiate with the context of the source in order to complete
the allusive process. ˜The only freedom left to the reader™, Perri claims,
˜is the certainty that the task is un¬nished™: the meaning of allusion is not
in its content, but in the reader™s perception of a form.· This readerly
responsibility is emphasised by the off-hand self-referentiality of Byron™s
narrative:
“ or what you will; “
My similes are gathered in a heap,
So pick and chuse “ perhaps you™ll be content.
(©. )
˜What you will™ is a ¬‚eeting reminder of the source of the canto™s epigraph
in Shakespeare™s Twelfth Night; but it also alerts us to a wry awareness that
the subtitle can represent an appeal either to personal choice or mere
whimsicality. Byron™s ˜perhaps you™ll be content™ has its uneasy shadow
in Iago™s advice to Othello as he watches Othello™s certainty disintegrate
˜ “ Pray be content™ (©©©. . l. µ). As the reader recognises the voice
of Shakespearean tragedy and co-produces its modulation into sexual
comedy, the act of reading becomes a shared performance that modi¬es
the usual Romantic preference for Shakespeare in the head.
The ˜general commotion™ caused by Dudù™s scream abruptly inter-
rupts the mood of the bedchamber scene and sends the reader back
to Iago™s stage-management of Cassio™s disgrace. Byron reworks ˜the
clamour™, transposing the action from a dispute between soldiers to a
sexual skirmish amongst women “ again teasing the Pisan circle for
the cluster of jealousy and suspicion around Jane Williams and Percy
Shelley. The temporal setting of the scene at the moment ˜ere the middle
watch was hardly over™ (©. ·°) echoes the timing of the Shakespearean
precedent (˜here™s a goodly watch indeed™ (©©. . l. ±µ±)), and the aural
commotion of Shakespeare™s scene (˜Who™s that that rings the bell?™ . . .
˜Silence that dreadful bell, it frights the isle™ (©©. . ll. ±µ; ±)) is re¬gured
±±
˜Don Juan™, digressive intertextuality and the risks of reception
as Juanna™s description of the harem:
And here Juanna kindly interposed,
And said she felt herself extremely well
Where she then was, as her sound sleep disclosed
When all around rang like a tocsin bell.
(©. )

The response to Dudù™s scream, ˜that upstarted all / The Oda™ (©. ·±),
translates the scene of Cassio™s brawl into feminine eclât and the ˜strict
investigation™ (©. ·), replays Othello™s demands for an explanation:
˜give me to know/How this foul rout began™ (©©. . ll. °°“±). Cassio™s
morti¬cation, ˜I pray you pardon me, I cannot speak™ (©©. . l. ±°), is
mirrored in Dudù™s embarrassment:
Dudù had never passed for wanting sense,
But being ˜no orator as Brutus is,™
Could not at ¬rst expound what was amiss.
(©. ·)

This illustrates the way in which Byron™s poetic texture always presents
more than one thread of allusion at a time. The reference to Julius Caesar
juxtaposes a masculine, public, frame of reference with a more intimate,
feminine realm of experience: the topic of Antony™s speech, male honour
and Roman virtue, is reapplied to a sexual encounter. Throughout the
scene, Byron plays down his own responsibility for the narrative:
I can™t tell why she blushed, nor can expound
The mystery of this rupture of their rest;
All that I know is, that the facts I state
Are true as truth has ever been of late.
(©. µ)

This deploys the earnest (˜honest™) puzzlement of Iago: ˜More of this
matter can I not report™ (©©. . l. ±), as the burden of interpretation is
passed to the reader:
And that™s the moral of this composition,
If people would but see its real drift; “
But that they will not do without suspicion,
Because all gentle readers have the gift
Of closing ™gainst the light their orbs of vision;
While gentle writers also love to lift
Their voices ™gainst each other, which is natural,
The numbers are too great for them to ¬‚atter all.
(©. )
±° Byron, Poetics and History
As Byron never tired of pointing out, his readers had to construct the
innuendoes to which they took exception. The mention of ˜numbers™
in the last couplet and the unpicking of ˜natural™ with ˜¬‚atter all™ high-
lights the fact that market pressures tended to compromise aesthetics and
morality. Canto © plays with the ways in which suspicious perception
can shape the reader™s response. As if to drive this home, parenthetical
asides continually stress the ˜honesty™ and ˜modesty™ of the narrator as
opposed, we understand, to the designs of the reader:

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