The opening scene of Othello features a politic Iago sounding an alarm in Brabantio’s household:
Awake! what ho, Brabantio! thieves, thieves, thieves!
Look to your house, your daughter and your bags!
Thieves, thieves! (1.1.78–80).
With his attention-grabbing imagery and brief, memorable phrases, Iago intends to impress upon Brabantio a sense of urgency, modeling a rhetorical strategy of repetition that he uses throughout the play to manipulate others to echo his words verbatim. He displaces Desdemona’s actions onto unknown “thieves” with the hopes that her father will adopt his interpretation of Othello as a criminal and replicate his phrasing to an influential audience: the Venetian senators. By providing enough “truthiness” to his lies, announcing a stereotype associated with Moors in popular literature that listeners feel to be true, regardless of evidence, Iago is successful in his objective to find accepting audiences who will perpetuate his misinformation. Brabantio adopts the same sensational language when he seeks retribution in the next scene, crying out “Down with him, thief!” and “O thou foul thief, where hast thou stowed my daughter?” (1.2.57, 1.2.62). But a slight modification occurs between the two iterations. Unlike Iago, whose first rendition of “thieves” is plural and thus more ambiguous, Brabantio’s replication accuses Othello of being the singular “foul thief” responsible for his daughter’s disappearance. With his repetition of “thief” comes exponentially more clout. The words of a senator are weightier than those of an ensign and have more potential to affect the other senators’ perception of Othello as they evaluate Brabantio’s grievances and decide whether to unseat Othello’s position in the Venetian army.
Within a few lines, Iago deploys the same method to characterize Othello as a beast in addition to a thief, proffering another thread of misinformation to attach to the general. He conveys the immediacy of Othello and Desdemona’s consummation with a startling description of an animalistic coupling:
’Zounds, sir, you’re robbed, for shame put on your gown!
Your heart is burst, you have lost half your soul,
Even now, now, very now, an old black ram
Is tupping your white ewe! Arise, arise,
Awake the snorting citizens with the bell
Or else the devil will make a grandsire of you,
Arise, I say! (1.1.85–91).
His “now, now, very now” forcefully brings the imagined scene to the immediate present, with Desdemona “covered with a Barbary horse” as she and Othello make “the beast with two backs” (1.1.110; 114–5). The vivid imagery of the “old black ram … tupping your white ewe” continues in the vein of Iago’s first warning, but recasts the theft in bestial terms that remain in circulation for the rest of the tragedy. In the first scene, then, Iago combines discourses of criminality and animalistic monstrosity that other characters adapt. Indeed, by the final scene, this racist rhetoric has infiltrated Othello’s speech. Just before stabbing himself, Othello imagines his identity as a combination of human and animal, embodying a Turk, Venetian, and dog before “tupping” Desdemona one last time in a horrific re-enactment of Iago’s “beast with two backs.” What began as a rumor with the “old black ram” having stolen Brabantio’s daughter is literalized with the “tragic loading of this bed” at the play’s conclusion (5.2.361).
Iago’s language—which consists of repetition and striking images—persists throughout the play and takes on an agency of its own. His calculated, viral words are transmitted by other characters, and, host-like, they repeat and repurpose the original messages. The terms that Iago adapts from sources—like Rabelais, as I will discuss in this essay—and recirculates among other characters accrue weight with their repetition, and, when echoed by those with authority, have real political effect. For example, the potential energy of Iago’s call for Brabantio to “Arise, arise” is actualized when the senator calls for others to “Raise all my kindred” and to “raise some special officers of night” to formulate an alliance to reclaim what the anthropomorphized thief has stolen (1.1.165, 1.1.180, my emphasis). Whether Brabantio is aware of this linguistic inheritance is irrelevant. His adoption of Iago’s language, consciously or not, forces the Venetian politicians to direct their attention to Othello as a domestic “thief” with beastly desires for a senator’s daughter, fulfilling the ensign’s original target for his accusation.
This process of how lies become truth, a topic prevalent in the news of the twenty-first century, preoccupied seventeenth-century audiences of Othello who paid particular attention to Iago’s curious influence over the action of the play. Thomas Rymer, an early critic of Shakespeare more frequently cited for his racist and sexist interpretations the play, warns maidens against “run[ning] away with blackamoors” and to “look well to their Linnen”; he also explains how he finds Iago’s machinations intolerable for their implausibility. For Rymer, the play is full of inconsistencies and unlikely truths. “Nothing is more odious in Nature than an improbable lye,” he claims, “[a]nd, certainly, never was any Play fraught, like this of Othello, with improbabilities.” His evidence for “improbabilities” focuses on the unlikelihood that a handkerchief could be proof of marital infidelity, but the plausibility of this fiction depends on Iago’s manipulations. Criticism since Rymer has similarly explored the efficacy of Iago’s lies and attempted to find reasons for his success when, out of context, his fabrications seem ridiculous.
And these meditations on how circulating lies become credible should be familiar to us, although in another register. Twenty-first-century politics face similar concerns as phrases like “fake news” and “post-truth” permeate articles, conversations, and social media. Just as Othello ostensibly demands “ocular proof” but accepts the most tenuous evidence as true, today people sift through a barrage of information about current events, and sometimes recirculate material that feels accurate rather than being founded in facts. In both cases, news follows a pattern of repetition and proliferation in a way that parallels the replication of memes, and studying both the current moment and Othello in light of memetics is mutually illuminating. I argue that Othello stages the acceptance of “improbable lye[s]” to depict how language can take on new meanings with repetition, becoming more believable with each iteration and garnering additional context from the hosts that perpetuate them. Iago releases incendiary images for his listeners to adapt and replicate as they will. The efficacy results from Iago’s use of pre-existing patterns, adopting memorable material from other sources, and attaching new associations to them. Reading Othello’s meme-like language alongside twenty-first-century politics allows for a capacious network of connections between echoed lines and images to rise to the surface of the play, and, in turn, portray how Othello’s “memes” facilitate new understandings about the potential of memes in today’s politics. Community members and politicians can relay commentary through a readily adaptable and transmittable media, reaching new individuals to join their efforts through sharing.
For instance, as I showed above, Iago uses destructive language and imagery that lends itself to repetition by other characters, and this replicability is in part a result of the pre-existing patterns that he chooses to draw upon. Take, as a case study, “the beast with two backs.” This phrase was already familiar in early modern sex talk. Rabelais uses the expression “la beste à deux dos” in Gargantua when describing the sex life of the titular character’s parents, Grandgousier and Gargamelle, which is then translated as “the two backed beast together” in the English edition.
Resituated in Othello, however, the phrase accrues a new intensity because Iago emphasizes the transgressive nature of this sexual act. When Rabelais uses the phrase in his narrative, he celebrates the carnality between giants, joyfully reveling in the physicality of his characters. Iago attaches a new dimension of anti-miscegenation to the meme by associating “the beast with two backs” with racialized animals metaphorically assigned to Desdemona and Othello. This connotation becomes a fixture of the play, and, similar to today’s memes, the consequences of this remediation is evident in how the phrase is subsequently used, including offstage. Following the performances and publications of Shakespeare’s play, appearances of the phrase proliferate as a recognizable idiom for illicit intercourse—typically to refer to extramarital affairs, not exclusively to interracial sex—by the mid-seventeenth century. Iago’s meme-like description of the “beast with two backs” associates the phrase with racism, politicizing what was before a sensual revelry of excess to cast a shadow on the morality of the general. Iago draws from a broader tradition of grotesque imagery to portray Othello and Desdemona’s coupling as animalistic but, as he makes his own replication, he adapts the striking image to suit his purpose—a purpose that has a particular role within the play, but then is perpetuated in other texts later in the century.
Iago’s machinations in the first scene are emblematic of the underlying politics in the world of Othello, which stages the power of repetition, imitation, and replication to transform lies into seeming truths. A well-rehearsed argument among scholars such as Catherine Shaw, Michael Neill, Kenneth Gross, and Blair Morris claims that Iago’s rhetoric is effective because of his vague yet suggestive language. Listening characters fill in gaps of logic with what they want to hear, and their imaginations construct meanings where they are lacking. The advent of social media and its use in modern politics, however, allow for a different lens on the efficacy of Iago’s language. With their analyses of memes that garner meaning through transmission, current scholarship in the fields of communications and political science about how ideas circulate and multiply via internet memes can help us to see into the success of Iago’s repetitions, which consist of striking language that is then repeated by other characters. The proliferation of memes has real-world consequences that belie their benign and humorous reputation, and deserves attention as a political agent now and in the early modern period.
In Othello, meme-like phrases circulate after being adapted by Iago from known tropes, altered to be memorable and engaging to recruit other characters for his racist purposes. The play reveals how disinformation in the early modern period circulated: the crises of today are nothing new, and the popular texts of the period—like the cheap print of playbooks and ballad broadsides—are the most salient materials to analyze the distribution of media. For this essay, I will first explore how memetics can be used as a methodology in literary study, and one that has serious implications for analyzing the transmission of knowledge. The study of memetics, originally based in theories of evolution, has adjusted to new applications in the digital age; in terms of digital media, memetics refers to the modification of image and text and their transmission over the web. The most familiar form of memetics, internet memes, provide a means to communicate social and political commentary that is available to anyone with an internet connection and a social media account. The second half of this essay considers how memes circulated in the early modern period more generally, and I use ballads—the ideal genre for readings based on memetics because they were ubiquitous in the period and rely on repetitive images and text—to trace connections between lyrics and woodcuts, and to show how these may relate to the politicized memes in Othello. Indeed, what emerges from my analysis is that ballads exemplify the pictorial associations and repetitive phrases that linked networks of information, becoming excerptable pieces for future renditions in the process, a process that the twenty-first century is experiencing with the popular media of today with malleable and adaptable internet memes. A methodology relying on memetics contains political valences by decentering power and provides a particularly fruitful language to analyze how misinformation is propagated: Iago, like today’s meme-literate internet user, adjusts and replicates images and language to disseminate political ideology within the world of the play. Modern correspondences suggest that people aware of memes, including internet memes, can be prepared to be critical of them, and potentially re-deploy them to enact political change.
I. Memetics: A Brief History
The political universe of Othello is not so remote from current crises about what constitutes reality in a “post-truth” society. For instance, in the example above, “honest Iago” creates a fictional account to explain Desdemona’s disappearance. Iago’s fabrications quickly become ‘facts’/ factoids when characters such as Brabantio come to believe his claims to be true (“This accident is not unlike my dream: / Belief of it oppresses me already”), and therefore trust him and repeat his accusations. Much like Stephen Colbert’s “truthiness,” Brabantio believes Iago because his claim aligns with what he already expects, what he feels in his gut. And, of course, although Othello emphasizes that he must have “ocular proof” of Desdemona’s infidelity (3.3.363), he famously believes the ensign without evidence, operating on his feelings and suspicions instead of reason. Iago sets in motion meme-like phrases associated with race and sexuality that align with the worldview he has chosen to believe, and other characters become hosts similarly infected with the ideas that he has replicated.
The study of memetics derives from Darwin’s theory of evolution and seeks to account for how ideas, beliefs, mannerisms, and customs persist and spread through imitation. In 1976 Richard Dawkins coined the term “meme” in The Selfish Gene:
We need a name for the new replicator, a noun that conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation. ‘Mimeme’ comes from a suitable Greek root, but I want a monosyllable that sounds a bit like ‘gene.’ I hope my classicist friends will forgive me if I abbreviate mimeme to meme.
Memes are transmitted through imitation and encompass ideas, songs, customs, or styles as “replicators.” Replicators, or “anything of which copies are made,” and the vehicle, or “the entity that interacts with the environment” to make these copies, are the two requisite components for a meme to survive. Just as a virus infects a host cell and changes its future genetic replications, a meme affects the brain of a person, who then acts as a vehicle that repeats the meme and potentially spreads it to others. The replicator’s sole purpose is to survive via imitation, and its agency derives from the effect it has on its vehicle. But, like genetic mutations that can increase or decrease the odds of reproduction, replicators might survive by being copied or they might be ignored. Similar to genes in the theory of natural selection, some memes replicate more quickly or frequently, and are more successful as a result. A few memes enjoy a brief window of rampant popularity before disappearing, while other memes remain in the “meme pool” for longer amounts of time and resurface after periods of stagnancy. As they are adopted and copied by new hosts, memes spread beyond their original instantiation. Promulgating copies—regardless of whether they are ethical, or true—is preferable to no copies at all from the perspective of the replicator.
Internet memes are perhaps the most familiar instantiations of memetics. This genre encompasses short video clips, gifs, or still images accompanied by a pithy phrase, most often transmitted through social media. Internet memes provide (usually humorous) commentary on politics and popular culture. Internet memes gain a variety of connotations as they are reposted, and occasionally altered, by anyone with online access. Although internet memes are one species under the genus of memetics, they provide a window into the world of memes that both represent and shape human thought and action. Recognizing how memes survive and reproduce can be empowering. Since humans are “built as gene machines and cultured as meme machines,” they are the only organism “[who] can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators” through awareness of how they can become hosts.
But countering memes, much less employing them for political activism, requires understanding their mechanisms for survival. Although Dawkins wrote The Selfish Gene before the advent of the internet, he has since acknowledged that memes have found a particularly suitable habitat for survival in social media, where information can be replicated, altered, and spread to new audiences. The internet’s facility for replicating memes quickly—with the click of a “share” button through a social media site, for instance—can be used to perpetuate lies or to advocate for activism, especially in grassroots efforts, at least in the terms that Dawkins outlines. In some regards, internet memes are natural avenues for political engagement since they only require online access to be disseminated. Digital tools can be used to receive and alter memes, and social media allows these images and texts to be shared with audiences, potentially beyond their original recipients.
Increasingly, memes are appearing in political discourse, and activists, researchers, and politicians have begun exploring both their destructive potential and their capacity to bring about change. Most scholarship pinpoints internet memes emerging as a political force in 2008. At the same time that rickrolls infiltrated hyperlinks, internet memes permeated the US presidential election. Barack Obama’s “Hope” campaign featured a design created by Shepard Fairey that circulated widely on the internet before it was adopted as the campaign poster, and the image has since become iconic of Obama’s campaign. In typical meme reiterations, the original image has since become a subject of parody. It is a representative example of how “[m]emetic texts … attract ‘extensive creative user engagement,’ particularly through imitation and remixing, and parody accounts [that] demonstrate recurring participation and reimagination of the form.”
Since the outbreak of memes in the 2008 election cycle, political figures have attempted to exploit internet memes for their campaigns, and their supporters and critics have created memes in response to contemporary issues. The 2016 election cycle received significant attention in popular news for the prevalence of memes in the media, including memes instigated by political figures. Karrin Anderson and Kristina Sheeler argue that Hillary Clinton’s use of Twitter during the summer of 2013 is an example of a political “meta-meme,” or a “message that invokes an existing meme while revising it and deploys the revision in order to generate a new meme.” By adopting and adapting “quotidian discourses” circulating online, Clinton’s campaign purposefully used her internet presence and reclaimed memes about her during the 2016 election cycle. Anderson and Sheeler observe that she engaged with popular memes about her (such as the “Texts from Hillary” meme), but that Clinton’s meme-use marks a “postfeminist presidential era,” where success navigating the online arena as a feminist does not necessarily equate with political success.
Anderson and Sheeler’s article, published in June 2014, proved prescient. The 2016 US presidential election evinced the centrality of internet memes and social media use, including to stoke and perpetuate fear. The Republican candidate and elected president, Donald Trump, once known for his prolific tweeting. One researcher even defined Trump as “a walking meme,” in part a result of his adept use of accessible slogans that are repeated and repeatable (“Build that wall!” and “Lock her up!”) and imagery-provocative language (“Blood coming from her … wherever”), analogous to Iago’s strategies in Othello. Trump popularized and redefined the terms “fake news” and “fake media” through his tweets, which claims that news organizations like The New York Times, CNN, ABC, CBS, and NBC misrepresent his words and actions and therefore mislead the American public. In practice, Trump’s use of these phrases focuses on defending his actions and undermining the news as a reliable source. Not only has Trump tweeted about “fake news,” but he has also been in the public eye for fabricating news. Altered TIME magazine covers dated March 1, 2009 showing Trump with the headline “Donald Trump: The ‘Apprentice’ is a television smash!” were discovered and removed from several of his golf clubs in June 2017 and instigated an outburst of internet memes in the process. Responses ranged from political figures spoofing the president’s false cover to news organizations mocking the attempt in addition to the satirical images created by general internet users. This case is emblematic of a larger concern about how to interpret and verify sources. Paranoia about news, particularly debates about the truth of the media, has resulted in repeated conversations about what it means to live in a “post-truth” era.
Internet memes, then, can clearly constitute political commentary, although, as these examples attest, they sometimes emerge from racist or sexist contexts and perpetuate them online. For Limor Shifman, this is the present reality of political activism. Yet one avenue for “[P]olitical participation has been broadened to include … commenting on political blogs and posting jokes about politicians,” and this new form of political involvement corresponds to the increasing accessibility and capability of digital technology. Political leaders are enticing fodder for satire in the realm of internet memes. Memories of the 2012 presidential debates are now haunted by the multitude that instantly interpreted and memorialized Mitt Romney’s image of “binders full of women” in thousands of memes, made by people watching the debates. Later, Hillary Clinton hearkened back to Romney’s comment during the 2016 election when Donald Trump could only name his daughter, Ivanka, as a woman who he would ask to be in his cabinet if elected president, writing “We know a guy with a binder, @realDonaldTrump. (He might not take your calls, though.)
This memetic example reveals both the ground-up, potentially redemptive effects of memes, as well as the efforts of politicians to deploy memes in order to relate to citizens or engage with them on a divisive topic. Regardless of the fate of Romney’s ill-fated binder of female candidates, depictions of “binders full of women” have endured in the cultural imagination and have been used by political leaders and the attentive public as a shorthand for the persistence of gender inequality in the US workforce. In another example of a sexist phrase reclaimed and reframed through memes, Hillary Clinton supporters adopted “nasty woman” as an empowering slogan, transforming Trump’s insult of Clinton into a celebration of feminist ideals. Later, in February 2017, Elizabeth Warren’s attempt to read a letter from Coretta Scott King to oppose the confirmation of Senator Jeff Sessions was silenced by Mitch McConnell. When McConnell defended his actions, he said that “She [Warren] was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted”, his phrasing was immediately picked up in memes that supported the political agency of women and celebrated historical figures who worked to counter sexism and racism.
Now, then, is the time to be critically attentive to anethical memes perpetuated by human hosts, wary of their destructive potential and, in some cases, their redemptive possibilities. Ironically, one of the most pressing memes of the twenty-first century is the notion that the world has entered a post-truth era, when a demand for factually grounded information is waning. Resurfacing in news and popular media has been the notion that the public prefers appeals to emotions and affirmations of previous beliefs rather than claims based on reason. Oxford Dictionaries Word of 2016 selected “post-truth“ as the defining term of the year after observing a spike in its use in political commentary about Brexit and the 2016 US presidential campaign. Not only does a post-truth world facilitate the reproduction of anethical memes, but phrases associated with a post-truth society are memes themselves. Memes and their hosts affect our society and our politics and interact with the ideas and values of individuals. Already the shifting grounds of truth during and following the 2016 US presidential election have many concerned that what is being replicated is not factual. Journalists have discussed the ethics of using a term like “fake news,” which has evolved to refer to information that is not factually true or about news that does not align with an individual’s world view, regardless if it is factual or not, instead of “lie,” “hoax,” or “misinformation.” The perpetuation of the meme-ified phrase “fake news” exemplifies the unnerving malleability of memes; social media and digital transmission have contributed to its now ubiquitous use. Similarly, “alternative facts,” a term created by Kellyanne Conway, then-Counselor to the US President, has filtered through media in innumerable headlines, videos, articles, tweets, and social media posts. “Alternative facts” often refers to information that is conveyed through a particular viewpoint; functionally, “alternative facts” are lies that do not align with any perceivable truth. Since information about these political memes proliferates and circulates online, our contemporary moment is saturated with the language of post-truth, “fake news,” and “alternative facts.” Concerned scholars like Maggie Farley have even created open-source games to help readers evaluate their abilities to recognize “fake news.” The political atmosphere and news media have inflected each other to create a climate of uncertainty and mistrust, where what is propagated as true is faced with justifiable doubt.
II. Early Modern Memes: A Case Study
If any Shakespearean play can be thought to depict a world analogous to a post-truth society, it is Othello. The play is famously interested in the process of how seeming truths become (seemingly) irrefutable knowledge. The drama’s tragic events result from “ocular proof” simulated through the proliferation of “alternative facts,” or rather, lies, circulated by Iago. Iago’s motives, although unclear, do suggest that he seeks to affect the social order by bringing his superior to social and personal ruin. The pain from watching Othello radiates from the knowledge that the proof is not proof at all: the handkerchief signifies nothing about Desdemona’s infidelity, yet we must watch as a rational Othello loses his sense of self and sacrifices his spouse over a trifle.
Of course, Othello is not the only character assessing evidence for truth, and, in fact, the plot stages the proliferation of multiple narratives that may or may not be true. Conflicting news accounts appear throughout the play and are a source of debate for characters to sift through information. For instance, before the action moves from Venice to Cyprus, the duke receives conflicting news about the location of the Turkish fleet. His discernment is tested by the various messages delivered to him. He pronounces that there is “no composition in these news / that gives them credit,” expressing his misgivings about the veracity of the messages (1.3.1–2). Such skepticism is warranted. A senator claims that the first report is probably a military action meant “To keep us in false gaze” and mislead the Venetians to pursue the Turks in Rhodes, rather than to protect Cyprus (1.3.20). The leaders of Venice are forced to parse the news that is delivered to them, all on their own. The political environment of the play repeatedly performs culling truth from the proliferating news and rumor, using logic and political savviness to determine actuality for themselves.
The play’s conclusion is similarly invested in the truth of news that will be relayed to the government. Lodovico promises that he will “straight aboard, and to the state / This heavy act with heavy heart relate” (5.2.368–9). Although Othello’s final words make a request about the stories that will survive him—indeed, as Ian Smith notes, Othello’s last line are a “stated chief concern regarding posthumous biography”—there is no guarantee that Lodovico will remind the Venetian government of Othello’s military service for them, or that he should be known as “one that loved not wisely, but too well” (5.2.342). No characters suggest that they will intervene to tell Othello’s story or provide counternarratives to the racist language Iago has set into circulation. As Justin Shaw has shown, Cassio does not defend Othello to Lodovico; instead, his eulogy is emblematic of his failure of care, complicit in maintaining the status quo of anti-Black sentiment against Othello through his inaction. What Lodovico will say when he returns to Venice is unclear; after all, he is a member of Desdemona’s family. He may or may not adhere to Othello’s appeal to “Nothing extenuate, / Nor set down aught in malice,” especially considering his disgust and horror at the “tragic loading of this bed” that “poisons sight” (5.2.340–1, 5.2.361–2). The dead cannot dictate the tales the living tell about them, which is its own source of tragedy.
Not only does the play depict memes and the variability of political truth within the text, but it invites this reading because of the intertextual resonances of the term “Moor.” The title page of Othello engages with the complexity of truth by drawing on early modern memes of Moors. The Tragœdy of Othello, the Moore of Venice replicates the idea of the Moor and places it within a Venetian context, associating Othello the character with Catholic and cosmopolitan Venice in addition to his presumably “Heathenish” origins in Africa. The play continues to complicate conceptions of the “Moore” in the plot by drawing on the pre-existing ideas, with slight alterations, to represent Othello’s character.
III. A Methodology for Memes
Ballads, the most popular and ubiquitous genre transmitting text and image during the early modern period, provide insight into the memes about Moors that may have circulated among London audience members. Broadside ballads are a particularly generative medium to examine early modern memes because of their prevalence and their multimedia transmission. People of all levels of literacy would have been familiar with images, tunes, lyrics, and visual composition of ballads. The pages were hung from tavern walls, the snippets of lyrics were sung by neighbors, and tunes like “Greensleeves” and “Fortune my Foe” were repurposed to many songs, gaining multiplicities of meanings in the process. These images, texts, and sounds all gained connotations from the various contexts in which people experienced them, and they provide a useful backdrop to investigate additional resonances to Shakespeare’s plays.
Not only were ballads familiar, but they were also a genre suitable for transmitting news, including real and fake varieties. Una McIlvenna makes clear in her article “Fake News is Anything But New“ that ballads were a source of information for audiences, and that their news was often both sensationalist and moralizing. For McIlvenna, the “appetite for fake news” is not unique to the twenty-first century, and indeed, the seventeenth century saw many ballads based in truth and fiction.
A number of ballads have survived that represent Moors, often under the guise of moralistic stories, and help us to see how Iago’s anti-Black racism participates in a network of circulating early modern phrases and images. “A lamentable ballad of the tragical end of a gallant lord and Virtuous Lady together with the untimely death of their two children, wickedly performed by a heathenish and blood-thirsty blackamoor, their servant” survives in fifteen copies, printed from around 1658–1820. Although these ballads postdate performances of Othello, they still participate in the same popular discourse, and very possibly circulated earlier in the seventeenth century than surviving copies suggest. By 1775, the ballad has an alternative title that forefronts the word “Blackamoor” in the title: “The Blackamoor in the wood: Or, A lamentable ballad on a tragical end of a gallant lord and virtuous lady.” The two titles appear to have been interchangeable by the late eighteenth century, since a surviving copy of “A Lamentable BALLAD” has a manuscript “X” over the title, with “The blood-thirsty blackamoor.” written above in what appears to be a later hand. The lyrics do not significantly change over the course of two centuries; most differences only include variations in capitalization and spelling, with the occasional swapping of minor words (mostly in what seem to be errors).
What is striking, however, are the small alterations in the title. “a Heathenish Black-amore” appears as “Heathenish and Blood-thirsty Black-a-Moor” in another copy, which also adds to the sense that this song is “the like of which Cruelty and Murder was never before heard of.” A few copies of the ballad make a sensational change from “untimely End” to “untimely Death,” marking the lethally violent content. These differences mark an amplification of the bloodiness of the ballad, especially emphasizing the Moor as a dangerous and horrifying figure.
The various woodcuts of this ballad similarly emphasize the blackamoor as bloodthirsty and cruel. In all of the images that accompany the text, the Moor holds at least one of the children from the story, portrayed in the moment immediately before the murders with his arms outstretched. Although usually the castle and pleading father are depicted, one woodcut (EBBA 33308) includes the Moor only, and the image’s main role seems to be to convey the murderer’s glee and his blackness. This woodcut is significantly simpler than the others and has been cut to allow for only a little white space on the figure. Eyes, nostrils, mouth, and navel are the only parts that have been carved from the block, allowing for the suggestion of the human form, while stripping the humanity of the Moor figure. Other accompanying woodcuts, like EBBA 34453, retain the impression of violence in medias res and the darkness of the figure. This particular design is notable for its meme-like spread within the various printings of this particular ballad. Although it exists in a few slightly different iterations, many of the same components (kneeling father, falling child, hunting scene, and Moor figure) are consistently present. In all of these iterations, the Moor‘s torso is still bare, but his features and chest have white outlining to suggest hair and musculature. This woodcut features a horse in the background that is also left black, presumably to contrast its human rider, but as the only other dark entity in the illustration, also associates the creature with the “heathenish and blood-thirsty BLACKAMOOR.” The ballad opens with the father’s love for hunting, which is why he needs the Moor’s assistance: the top of the woodcut hearkens back to the opening of the ballad, before the father criticizes his servant and triggers the events of the rest of the ballad. Since the Moor is not portrayed in the hunting scene (even though he is present in the text of the ballad), the blackness of the horse is suggestive, as a reminder of the Moor’s presence and the nobleman’s original transgression.
In addition to the visual resonances between the bestial and the “Blood-thirsty Black-a-Moor,” the lyrics reinforce these connections. When the lord of the household returns to find his family threatened by the Moor, he orders his servant to “hold thy hand,” and, if not, that he shall make sure “Wild horses shall thee tear.” By the end of the ballad, after the children and wife have been killed and the lord has died from grief, the Moor repeats his master’s threat, choosing to jump from the parapet to preemptively escape the “Wild horses [that] will my body tear.” The torture proposed by the lord—to have his murderous servant quartered by wild horses—becomes the impetus for the Moor’s final choice since he internalizes the threat. He preemptively assumes agency from the wild horses, an association that his last words in the ballad reiterates when he repeats his master’s warning. The Moor’s words mark a lyrical change that gives him possession of his body (from “thee tear” to “my body tear”) by choosing suicide over accepting punishment.
Clearly, the association between the Moor and horses resonates with Iago’s vivid bestial descriptions that began this essay when the ensign elides Othello with a “Barbary horse” that makes “the beast with two backs” with Brabantio’s daughter. This is not to say that this passage from Shakespeare inspired this ballad, or vice versa, but the meme-like movement of the association between the blackamoor and horses persists in early modern fictional depictions. Therefore, it is not surprising that Iago, who is the most adept and self-aware vehicle for memes, perpetuates ideas that are similarly disposed to be copied and recirculated by other characters. Moreover, people who encountered the ballad or attended the play participated in the circulation of such anti-Black memes.
Given the twenty-first century anxiety about “fake news” and “alternative facts,” we can see in a renewed way the familiar fact that Othello’s fixation on truth, and that of the other characters in Othello, is part of the struggle of interpreting information. Cognizance of the power of memes is one angle to analyze circulating evidence, particularly in the process of studying how news is propagated by various agents. The awareness of this power also provides an avenue for a democratization of authority. The malleability and replicability of information that Iago so devastatingly deploys resonates with memes replicated by politicians and politically minded people on social media. When Iago confidently claims to Othello that “I will make him [Cassio] tell the tale anew / Where, how, how oft, how long ago, and when / He hath and is again to cope your wife,” he exhibits a flexible understanding of the potential of “fake news” delivered by evoking pre-conceived notions and providing memorable images and text that are easy to repeat (4.1.85–87).
This analysis emphasizes that text and image that worked as memes-like things are nothing new; the early modern period saw meme-like media, including text and images that operated like twenty-first-century memes. Considered alongside Dawkins’s theory and recent political experiences with internet memes, attention to how ideas, customs, styles, and behaviors are passed between individuals, sometimes over generations, and even over millennia, is necessary and timely. Memes are one way of understanding why humans say and act as they do. The evolving truths and erratic inconsistencies in Othello, as well as the play’s adoption and manipulation of tropes from outside sources like ballads, constitute a constellation of information made possible by meme-like replications, not so different from the internet memes during twenty-first century US election cycles.
Part of the tragedy of Othello derives from its staged perpetuation of memes. The bloodthirsty stereotypes of moors, the racist ideas perpetuated by Iago, the proliferation of “fake news” and “alternative facts” ultimately maintain a pessimistic status quo: moors are affirmed as bestial and murderous because of Iago’s machinations and their adoption by other characters. He destroys Othello’s character as a Christian moor and a successful general of Venice by the lies he circulates, convinces Othello of his wife’s infidelity, and brings the play to a conclusion that only offers political uncertainty. The play ambiguously insinuates that the record delivered to Venice may only perpetuate lies, and with Lodovico as the final vehicle of transmission in the play, it is impossible to know which memes (of Othello, of Iago, of moors) will survive. Outside of the confines of the play’s world, Othello created memes of its own by engaging with previous conceptions of moors, and contributing phrases that were perpetuated by subsequent literature, as in the case of the “beast with two backs.” And in the current US political clime, where the reigning mode supports catchy, simple phrases and “fake but accurate” hoax news as the foundations for public policy, the same consternation about what narrative will be passed to future generations looms large.
But at the same time, there is some potential for optimism in the awareness of and possibilities for the deployment of memes. This reading of Othello provides a literary example for how people conscious of the influence of memorable, portable images and phrases can have an effect, from the lower rungs of the political ladder to the most authoritative at the top. The meme-like movement of phrases and images in the play, adapted from popular media of the seventeenth century, resembles how social media takes up and recycles visual and textual elements to comment on our current political landscape. Memes can be an avenue to engage with contemporary issues, and the analogies between Iago’s language, including his lies that other characters adapt and circulate, are potent reminders of how today’s pervasive internet memes can perpetuate or disrupt social norms. Twenty-first-century digital tools and platforms for dissemination may be new, but the mechanism of influential adaptation and repetition of media—regardless of veracity—is not.
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Truthiness is what you want the facts to be, as opposed to what the facts are. What feels like the right answer as opposed to what reality will support.”Stephen Colbert, The Colbert Report, October 17, 2005