While many of Shakespeare's alchemical allusions are noted for their language of positive regeneration and healing, the playwright's departures from these conventional uses of alchemy deserve further attention. This essay presents an examination of inversions in the redemptive alchemical paradigm of Othello, a play whose connections to alchemy are not announced by obvious references to gold making, the philosopher's stone, or other key terms relating to the discourse of the opus that a modern audience is likely to recognize. I argue that in Othello, alchemical allusions are more subtly deployed in the language that describes Othello and Desdemona's marriage, in the metaphorical speech of Othello's self-doubt, in Desdemona's characterization, and in Iago's references to medicine. My reading of the alchemical context of the play shows the following: Othello and Desdemona's marriage, a figurative manifestation of the hermaphroditic union in which man and woman consistently appear as equals, counters representations of patriarchal dominance in the early modern period; Othello's capacity for rhetorically gifted expression remains intact instead of disintegrating, as evidenced by the alchemical metaphors in his lamentations of the "loss" of Desdemona's purity; Desdemona's role in the tragedy is illuminated by her characterization which is reminiscent of dual Mercury; and Iago's own alchemical language offers insight into his role as the instigator of tragic events. Taken together, these alchemical associations suggest that Shakespeare found in alchemy a fitting framework in which to present the drama of destabilization.



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Humanities; English



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Shakespeare, alchemy, alchemist, opus, inversion