Approaching Othello (8/1/15)

If we approach Othello as a dramatic portrait of psychological and moral negotiations within Shakespeare’s psyche at the time he wrote the play, the principal characters may be regarded as complex symbols of distinct psychological processes, standpoints, functions, levels, and values. The overall course of action may be seen to symbolize the natural outcome of the conflictual relationships between these differentiated psychic factors.

What if, for instance, we approach Iago not as we would a morally accountable human being who should be possessed of a modicum of human sympathy or compassion, but as the personification of an utterly inhuman, motiveless mode of thinking (instrumental reason) that can be arbitrarily employed to serve a wide variety of divergent and even contradictory ends?[1]

Allan Bloom’s thoughtful essay on Othello—‘Cosmopolitan Man and the Political Community,’ from Shakespeare’s Politics—makes very insightful observations about Iago, Othello, and Desdemona (whose name in Greek can mean ‘superstitious’ or ‘ill-fortuned’). Of Iago, he writes:

Iago, as I have said, is only a mirror or an agent that causes the unseen to become visible…Shakespeare is, in the final accounting, very hard. Iago’s speeches, read dispassionately, show that he is the clearest thinker in the play. ‘Honest Iago’ is not merely a tragically misplaced epithet. Iago does tell more of the truth than any other character. It is difficult to understand his motivation; no villain in Shakespeare seems to act without some plausible end in view, an end the value of which all men would recognize, though they might perhaps not be willing to commit the crimes necessary to arrive at it. But Iago, as does the Devil, seems to act from pure negativity. ‘I am not what I am.’ Whatever Othello wants, Iago wants the opposite. He is sub- or super-human. But, in opposing Othello, he shows that the world dominated by Othello is a world of fancy. He speaks out for a freedom which none of the others recognize. Iago wishes to live his own life free from the domination of other men, and especially of other men’s thoughts. He realizes that true tyranny is not imposed by force, but imposes itself on the minds of men. For Iago, man can free himself only by thought. He has thought through the emptiness of most beliefs and will not live in subordination to them. He cannot found his life on self-deception, as Othello does. (p. 63)

If we think of the prejudices or shared illusions (‘ideals’) that bind together, define, and—in a sense—constitute a community (in this case, Venice) as the matter upon which Iago’s caustic intelligence goes to work (‘I am nothing if not critical’), we get a clear glimpse of his function in the tragedy. To every particle of ‘matter’ he encounters, this spirit of ‘pure negativity’ stands figuratively as a particle of antimatter. When divested of all merely human desires, aims, and designs, Iago is indeed no more and no less than a sub- or super-human force of negation or contradiction—an ‘agent’ capable of nullifying or effectively dissolving all those positively asserted and believed-in prejudices upon which the individual (Othello, Cassio, Desdemona, etc.) and the community collectively depend.

Thus, only that being who is genuinely reconciled to the truth or the reality that transcends this war of opposites (i.e., personal/cultural prejudices and their negation) is capable of encountering Iago and coming away unscathed. Such a being (sub- or super-human?) would have already succeeded in reconciling and harmonizing the pairs of opposites that, together, comprise the matrix out of which dramatic, deluded, ordinary human experience is spawned. Such a being would indeed be free, not only of the prejudices that define all mere humans (as exponents of a particular culture), but of the desires and fears that are otherwise guaranteed to keep us mentally imprisoned in the endless cycle of suffering that life—which feeds upon itself—essentially is. (Incidentally, Harold Bloom, noted bardolator, argues that Iago would have been seen through and disposed of right away by two other Shakespearean characters: Hamlet and Falstaff.)

Iago certainly is not free—despite his apparent success in seeing through the delusions and myths that others live by. And why is he not free? He wants to have his cake and eat it too. Clearly he is still subject to desires (for recognition, advancement, power over others, etc.) and fears/anxieties (of being exposed for whom/what he is, of having been cuckolded by Othello, etc.), so we are not entitled to call him disinterested. He has merely pushed his consciousness to the cynical end of a spectrum, the other end of which is populated by equally deluded idealists and staunch believers in the sacrosanct inviolability of romantic love, the value and durability of reputation, etc. He has not—like the ‘transcendent’ being we hypothetically proposed earlier—succeeded in reconciling these opposites within himself. Only by harmonizing or reconciling them is it possible to neutralize the dynamic force naturally generated by the polarized pairs of opposites—a force that is most commonly experienced as fear and desire, which are but two sides of the same coin. Thus, upon close and honest examination, we find that the cynical-critical Iago is no less the captive of his desires and fears than are his idealistic, ‘gullible’ victims. His actual motives may be murky or not evident, but he certainly acts with drive and passion.

Two things that are on trial in this play—and which are being subjected to the fiercest and most stringent acid test—are ‘reputation’ and ‘romantic love.’ I think it is fair to say that by the play’s end, neither of these survive the ordeal, but are exposed for the deceptive, ultimately disappointing, and flawed pursuits that they, at bottom, are.

Othello’s personal power and security depend, as it turns out, almost entirely upon the maintenance of his reputation as a capable general. He has no protective birthright in Venice.[2] He possesses no great wealth. His valiant reputation and his skills as a general have won him a measure of authority and importance within the Venetian state. But he is essentially a foreigner and a mercenary—and even with his marriage to Desdemona, these facts cannot be fundamentally altered, so far as public perception is concerned. Cassio’s abrupt loss of his reputation (and his office as Othello’s lieutenant)—through ‘possession’ by drunkenness, a ‘devil,’ as he calls it—prefigures Othello’s ‘possession’ by an intoxicating jealousy and his rapid loss of status and position as a consequence of his unwarranted violence against Desdemona.

Desdemona’s ‘unconditional’ surrender to Othello’s will and authority constitutes the other side of the riddle of their joint demise. It is precisely because she submits so ‘selflessly’ to Othello—refusing to question or to prudently protect herself from this possessed husband of hers after he has become physically and verbally abusive to her—that she winds up a victim of his ‘honorable’ wrath. In behaving in this way, she is, at one level, enacting the flawed formula of the romantic love myth. This myth requires nothing less than the psychic-erotic merger (or mutual identification) of the lovers. The beloved is one’s ‘other half.’ This, in a nutshell, was Desdemona’s undoing—and this was her contribution to the tragic finale. She had ‘boundary issues’—in the sense that none existed for her.

But, as was noted, Othello’s violent action against his innocent (but equally possessed—if by a different fantasy) wife was consciously motivated by his wounded honor. He realized—all too abruptly and overwhelmingly—that without honor and a commanding reputation, he would be reduced to nothing. His equally real—and equally overwhelming—need for Desdemona’s love (or belief in the reality and faithfulness of her love) left him vulnerable and exposed to Iago’s manipulative lies. Othello was thus doubly—and, as it turns out, mortally—wounded by the collapse, in his mind, both of his honor and of the love that he had come to rely on from Desdemona. ‘Chaos is come again’ and he, the helpless agent of this chaos, felt compelled to take her down with him into the abyss that opened up before (or within) him.

[1] H. C. Goddard anticipates this approach in likening Iago’s thinking to Cold War strategizing.

[2] There was an energetic, prolonged attempt by his enemies and detractors to place Barack Obama in this frame—and by our current president (2/1/18).


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