Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Saturday, April 14, 2012

SHAKESPEARE: Othello Act 2

Shakespeare has his own way of dealing with questions about human nature. He doesn’t present people as philosophical problems. He shows human nature in terms of flesh-and-blood folks just trying to make their way through life as best they can. These aren’t abstract cardboard characters that Shakespeare moves around on the stage; he uses them to meditate on what it means to be human. How do people act? How do they react? What turns them on? What makes them tick? Othello is one long meditation on these questions. It’s tempting to think of Othello as a good man, but not a wise one; and to think of Iago as a wise man, but not a good one. That might be a simple solution, but it’s too simple for Shakespeare. Is Othello really good? Is Iago really wise? Shakespeare’s characters are rarely simple good-or-evil/wise-or-stupid people. They have their strengths and weaknesses; they have their ups and downs; they have their good days and their bad days. This play opens with Othello on his way up. He’s just married a beautiful woman and the Venetian Senate is calling on him to take command and stop the Turkish fleet. It seems as if “the Moor” has been fully accepted into the aristocratic social circles of Venice. So we catch Othello in a happy mood on one of his good days. Iago, on the other hand, has recently been passed over for a key promotion and this greatly agitates him. He probably won’t be climbing any higher on the military or the social ladder. So we catch Iago in a foul mood on one of his bad days. But moods come and go. In the long run Othello still tends to be a good man and Iago still tends to be a bad one. Othello’s goodness is acknowledged even by Iago, a man who hates him: The Moor…is of a constant, loving, noble, nature; And I dare think he’ll prove to Desdemona a most dear husband. But Othello somehow lacks the wisdom to build a foundation on which to support his own good nature. For example, he passes over Iago for a promotion and then turns around and trusts him completely with his wife and possessions. Was this wise? He marries Desdemona without her father’s blessing; without her father even knowing about it. Was this wise? No, it will come back to haunt him. And he’s a little too quick to demote Cassio without first giving him the benefit of a thorough investigation. Worst of all, Othello fails to live up to the advice of Socrates: know thyself. Othello doesn’t know himself. More specifically, he doesn’t know his own weaknesses. And this will turn out to be his undoing. Iago is a master of undoing people by exploiting their weaknesses, and even the strengths. Iago knows that Othello is of a constant, loving, noble, nature; And I dare think he’ll prove to Desdemona a most dear husband. So this will be the weapon that Iago will use against him. Iago knows that Desdemona’s goodness and fidelity to Othello is her greatest virtue: So will I turn her virtue into pitch, and out of her own goodness make the net that shall enmesh them all. Goodness is the weapon Iago will use against Desdemona. Iago’s knows that Roderigo’s weakness is lust. So he’ll use that weapon against Roderigo. How does Iago manage to accomplish all this? In Roderigo’s case Iago promises a plan so Roderigo can sleep with Desdemona: But, sir, be you ruled by me… When this doesn’t quickly happen Iago gives “wise” words of counsel to Roderigo: How poor they that have not patience! What wound did ever heal but by degrees… Patience is indeed a virtue. But Iago twists virtue to serve his own needs. And virtues in the service of a bad man turn into vices. The same holds true for Cassio. Unlike Othello, Cassio does know himself. His weakness is alcohol and he freely admits it: I have very poor and unhappy brains for drinking: I could well wish courtesy would invent some other custom of entertainment. In short, Cassio can’t hold his booze. Iago uses this weakness as a weapon against him: good wine is a good familiar creature if it be well used; exclaim no more against it. The key phrase here is “if it be well used.” Iago doesn’t care about using things well; he only cares about Iago. Shakespeare’s meditation on human nature is this: beware of people like Iago.


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