Nearly 400 years after Shakespeare’s death, his strange expression about goats and monkeys as images of lust continue to draw attention. The Milwaukee Shakespeare company even chose, in forming a new group out of the ashes of the defunct one, to use it as their name. But where does this strange image come from? It appears in Othello both as a curse but also as a kind of metaphor in Iago’s speech in Act 3, Scene 3, which is worth quoting in full:
What shall I say? Where’s satisfaction?
It is impossible you should see this,
Were they as prime as goats, as hot as monkeys,
As salt as wolves in pride, and fools as gross
As ignorance made drunk. But yet, I say,
If imputation and strong circumstances,
Which lead directly to the door of Truth,
Will give you satisfaction, you may have’t. (III.iii.404-411)
Neither the Arden nor the New Variorum editions of Shakespeare have anything helpful to say about where this imagery comes from or what might conceivably link these peculiar concepts of goats, monkeys, salt, drunken ignorance or a “door of Truth.” But I do want to draw your attention to a brilliant, certainly obscure piece of research by Dr. Roger Prior, formerly of Belfast University. It appeared, unfortunately, in the Journal of Anglo-Italian Studies, published by the University of Malta, which means it is almost impossible to get through interlibrary loan and even of the eight U.S. libraries that carry the journal, not all have the 2008 volume in which it appears.
Prior’s work concerns the small Italian town of Bassano, north of Venice. In the main square, there was an apothecary known as “the Moor,” after the large sign of a moor’s head that hung outside. There was also another apothecary in the square, which until 1591 was run by a man named Giovanni Otello. Several other members of the Otello family lived in the town and two of them, both notaries, ordered pictures from Jacopo Bassano, the town’s most famous artist.
A smaller square in the town was known as the Piazza of Salt. Prominent in this square was the rather dilapidated building depicted in the black and white photograph above. Covering the front was a remarkable fresco. It could only be properly seen in the early morning when there was good light and all the window shutters were closed. When opened, these shutters, known as gelosie (literally jealousies), would have blocked out much of the artwork. The fresco was painted in 1539 by Bassano. Until 1583, the house was owned by the philosopher Zuanne Corno, an ambassador to the Venetian senate, whose title was the Count Palentine and was known for writing a sonnet about weeping. His surname, Corno, meant “Mr. Horns,” the Elizabethan image of cuckoldry. His son-in-law Zanetto, a salt merchant, operated his shop out of one of the ground floor storefronts.
The fresco is divided into several bands. At the top is a series of animals, with a prominent sheep. Next to it, a large goat underneath which there is seated a monkey. (The theme reflects the New Testament warning that people will be divided into sheep and goats.) Roughly underneath this monkey is a large painting of a naked woman — Truth — who stands between two of the arched windows. She can only be seen, of course, when the shutters are closed; at other times, the shutters form a door and cover her over. To the left of Truth is another large allegorical figure, with two faces and a snake around her arm, signifying Prudence. Finally, beneath Truth is a painting of the Drunkenness of Noah, and to the left, the daughters of Lot after their escape from Sodom.
The connections between Othello and the town of Bassano begin, therefore, with the character of Othello, who supposedly uses drugs and medicines to seduce Desdemona and can be traced to Otello’s apothecary in the main square.
Iago’s speech, meanwhile, suggests the author of Othello had actually seen this fresco and associates it with the theme of cuckoldry that dominates the play. As if moving vertically down the fresco, Iago’s account begins with the goat and the monkey, then it refers to the figure of Truth as being covered with the shutter doors, or “jealousies.” The salt refers to the salt shop on the ground floor and “ignorance made drunk” refers to the drunken Lot having sex with his daughters and to the drunken, naked Noah. The author’s interest in this fresco — a Biblical allegory, in which Truth is concealed by jealousies — is compatible with the other Biblical allegory in the play.
The problem, of course, is that if he ever went to Italy at all, why would the man from Stratford visit the small Italian town of Bassano, which was not on the usual tourist trail? It makes much more sense — as indicated in my last column — that the author of the play was Amelia Bassano Lanier. She would have had every reason to visit her family hometown. Indeed, three of her cousins — the sons of Anthony Bassano — took a leave of absence from their jobs in the recorder troupe from September 1593 to March 1594, which normally meant they would have traveled abroad. In my view, their companion on this journey was their first cousin Amelia, and it was during this trip that she developed the firsthand knowledge of Italy that she later incorporated into a dozen of the plays.
John Hudson is a strategic consultant who specializes in new industry models and has helped create several telecoms and Internet companies. He has recently been consulting to a leading think tank on the future of the theater industry and is pioneering an innovative Shakespeare theory, as dramaturge to the Dark Lady Players. This fall he is Artist in Residence at Eastern Connecticut State University. He has degrees in Theater and Shakespeare, in Management, and in Social Science.