Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Friday, May 04, 2012

SHAKESPEARE: Othello Act 5

As the curtain closes on Othello we’re left with unresolved issues still hanging.  That’s not because Shakespeare is a hack writer who doesn’t know how to successfully wrap up his plays with all the loose ends tied neatly together.  He could do that if he wanted to.  But then he really would be a hack writer.  Life rarely ties all its loose ends together like a Christmas present waiting for us underneath a tree.  We may believe that all questions have answers and all problems have solutions.  They do not.  In this play Iago destroys innocent people.  Why?  His answer: Demand me nothing. What you know, you know. / From this time forth I never will speak word.   This is not the answer we want to hear but it’s the only answer we’re going to get from Iago.  What we know, we know.  No more, no less.  We’re left to struggle on our own with the ancient question of evil and its twin sister: Why do bad things happen to good people?  No one has ever fully explained why innocent people suffer.  They don’t deserve their fate but nevertheless they’re usually done in by one of two things: either by circumstance or by sheer evil.  “Circumstance” is when forces beyond human control take charge.  No one plotted against Oedipus, for example.  It was prophesied that he would kill his father and marry his mother.  That’s exactly what happened.  There was nothing Oedipus could do to prevent it.  There was nothing anyone could do to prevent it.  It was going to happen, period.  This is what the ancient Greeks called Fate.  Innocent people may suffer from a tornado or a car wreck or if they just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Fate (or circumstance) is simply against them.  There’s nothing we can do.  Evil, on the other hand, is the direct result of human interaction.  Then innocent people suffer at the hands of other people.  Iago is one of those other people.  He’s just plain evil.  (Another character like him is Claggert in Melville’s Billy Budd.)   Why do they take pleasure persecuting or destroying good and innocent people?  All Iago will tell us is What you know, you know.  He may not even know himself.  Of course there are some cases where innocent people destroy other innocent people.  Take Othello.  He honestly doesn’t know what he’s doing.  He loves Desdemona but believes he must kill her.  Does this make sense?  Not to us.  But it makes sense to Othello.  Iago makes Othello believe (unjustly) that Desdemona deserves to die.  In his own mind Othello is merely administering justice.  It’s a stern justice to be sure but Othello firmly BELIEVES that he’s doing the right thing.  This is in stark contrast to Iago who KNOWS he’s doing wrong.  So here’s a good test case: take two people.  Imagine they both commit the same crime.  Defendant A committed the crime but thought he was doing the right thing at the time.  Defendant B also committed the same crime but knew he was doing wrong.  Here’s the question: should they both receive the same punishment?   They both committed the same crime; it seems fair that they receive the same punishment.  But consider the case of Iago and Othello.  They both committed murder.  Given the context is it fair they both be punished in the same way?  We have two concepts going on here.  One is fairness; the other is justice.  Ok, so what is justice?  Here’s a start: some people believe the law should apply equally and fairly to everyone.  It should be the same whether you’re rich or poor, black or white, man or woman.  This makes sense and seems fair.  But other people might say: look, every situation is different.  Do you honestly think Iago and Othello both deserve the same punishment?   Justice should be tailored to fit the individual case.  It’s not a one-size-fits-all solution.  That view seems reasonable too.  Some questions have no good answer.  But here we’ve found more than one answer; they just don’t agree.  We seem to be stuck somewhere between fairness and justice.  Now what?  Shakespeare knows life doesn’t come neatly packaged with easy answers.  So if you want a good play, read Shakespeare.  If you want to talk about justice and injustice, go read philosophy.  Up next: David Hume, philosopher.   


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