Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

SHAKESPEARE: Othello Act 3

Great literature has a way of echoing down through the ages.  Times change but great literary themes have an enduring quality that appeals to every generation.  The story of the serpent in the Garden of Eden is one of those universal stories; and Shakespeare’s Iago is a human echo of the serpent, the original Evil One.  Remember in the Garden how the serpent tempted Eve?  Here’s the full exchange between the serpent and Eve: Now the serpent was more subtil than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made. And he said unto the woman, Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden? And the woman said unto the serpent, We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden: But of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die. And the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die: For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.  This is masterful manipulation of Eve’s good qualities.  Notice how the serpent asks a simple innocent question and Eve answers truthfully and honestly.  The serpent doesn’t respond with outright lies because then Eve would be on her guard.  Instead, the serpent resorts to half-truths.  He says Ye shall not surely die and it’s true that Adam and Eve didn’t die immediately.  But they did die.  Next the serpent tells her that your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil and this was also true.  But it wasn’t the whole truth.  The serpent failed to mention that knowing evil would permanently destroy her peace of mind.  This is the way Iago works too.  Take this conversation about Cassio, for example.  Cassio has a firm bond of friendship in Othello’s heart.  Iago tells Othello that Men should be what they seem, Or those that be not, would they might seem none!  This statement in itself is true.  Men should be what they seem; dishonest men should look dishonest.  The implication is that Cassio is a dishonest man.  The bigger truth that Iago fails to mention is that he himself (Iago) is the most dishonest man in the country.  Why is this important?  Because Iago not only wants Othello to think Cassio’s a dishonest man, he also wants Othello to think Cassio is sleeping with his wife.  So Iago moves on to a deeper level of Othello’s heart: Desdemona is the love of his life.   Iago points out She did deceive her father, marrying you…  He never comes right out and says “so she may deceive you too.”  Iago merely plants the seed, Othello takes the bait and his imagination starts running wild.  Soon Othello is convinced that Desdemona has been unfaithful to him: What sense had I in her stol'n hours of lust?/ I saw ’t not, thought it not, it harmed not me. / I slept the next night well, fed well, was free and merry. / I found not Cassio’s kisses on her lips. / He that is robbed, not wanting what is stol'n, / Let him not know’t, and he’s not robbed at all.  Here’s where Othello ties in with the Garden of Eden story.  Once you’ve tasted the fruit, there’s no going back.  Adam and Eve can’t un-know what they know after they’ve eaten the fruit.  They can never again go back to the Garden.  They know too much.  And so it is with Othello.  His peace of mind has been destroyed.  Once Iago holds out the apple of jealousy Othello takes a bite and there’s no going back.  Before then Othello had slept well, fed well, was free and merry.  No more.  He lost his peace of mind just as surely as Adam and Eve lost the Garden of Eden.  The question becomes: was it worth it?  Would Adam and Eve have been better off staying in the Garden or going out into the real world?  Would Othello be better off not thinking about Desdemona being faithful or unfaithful?  In short, are there some things we’re better off not thinking about?  Is having that knowledge worth losing our peace of mind?  These are hard questions.  Some people say: I want to know the truth, the whole truth.  I’m prepared to live with the consequences.  Other people say: I have a good life the way it is.  I sleep well, I eat well, I’m happy.  Let sleeping dogs lie.  Adam and Eve had to deal with the serpent in the Garden; now we deal with the serpent’s echo-men like Iago. 


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