Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Saturday, April 07, 2012

SHAKESPEARE: Othello Act 1

At first glance there doesn’t seem to be much of a connection between Darwin’s theory of evolution and Shakespeare. What do they have in common? Well, for starters they both ponder the question "what sort of creature is man"? And not surprisingly they give different answers. In previous readings we’ve had a wide range of opinions on what human beings are like. Freud tells us bluntly that Men are not gentle creatures…they are, on the contrary, creatures whose instincts include extreme aggressiveness. Rousseau has a little better view of people and says we can always improve: There is no wicked man who could not be made good for something. The Bible puts man on a higher level than either Freud or Rousseau: God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness… That’s a pretty broad range of opinion concerning the nature of man. And this is where Darwin and Shakespeare come into play. Darwin was a master of biology; Shakespeare was a master of drama. Darwin looks at the natural world as it is. Then he tries to piece together what it means to be a human being in the form of fossil records. Then he develops a scientific theory to tell us what he found out. Shakespeare looks at the world as it is too. And he too ponders what it means to be a human being. But instead of developing a scientific theory Shakespeare tells a story. Here’s where Othello intersects with Darwin’s theory of survival: can a good man compete and survive in a society full of devious men? Othello is a good man, an excellent military commander, and he’s also strong and courageous. Othello would seem to be a perfect candidate for survival under Darwin’s theory. But Iago is also strong and courageous. And he’s a good military commander too. The difference is this: Othello is open and honest, Iago is devious. Iago is not, to use Freud’s phrase a “gentle creature.” Othello and Iago are both fighters. But they use different methods. Here’s the question for Darwin’s theory of survival: if it comes to a showdown which one is more likely to survive? And make no mistake, Iago wants a showdown. He cannot rest easy as long as Othello is alive. It soon becomes clear that either Othello or Iago has to go. Venice is not big enough for both of them. The whole world isn’t big enough for both of them. Iago practically hisses his hatred: I do hate him as I do hate hell-pains. In the jungle Iago could just conk Othello on the head or run him through with a spear. But in Venice he would then be charged with murder and executed. Death defeats the primary goal of survival. So Iago has to somehow plot and scheme Othello’s downfall without becoming implicated himself. Surviving in a corrupt society requires different skills than surviving out in the wilderness. Recall Darwin’s theory that natural selection is the tendency in individuals and species for variations that are favorable for survival to be preserved in the struggle for existence, and for injurious variations to be eliminated. Of course Darwin was mostly looking at physical traits that lead to survival of a whole species; in Othello Shakespeare explores the struggle for survival between individual men. But Shakespeare’s exploration of human nature is as complex as piecing together fossils. How does human nature work itself out in society? That’s Shakespeare’s problem. We must remember Darwin also argued that traits such as sociability and cooperation would be powerful tools for survival of the species. So we turn back to the original question whether good people can survive in a corrupt society? Here’s the problem as Shakespeare defines it: Othello is good but he’s not street-smart; Iago is street-smart but he’s not good. This is a prescription for tragedy. It’s also a good example of how drama, if done right, is just as difficult as studying paleontology. Shakespeare uses drama to bring us right to the edge of philosophy. Can Othello be good if he isn’t wise? Can Iago be wise if he isn’t good? What does it mean to be wise? Why should we be good? Our survival may very well depend on how we answer those questions. Despite their differences concerning human nature Shakespeare and Darwin do agree on this much: survival isn’t easy.


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