Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Monday, September 05, 2016

SHAKESPEARE: Othello Act II (Happiness, Alcohol & Reputation)

Act I of Othello showed us how jealousy is one of the most common motivations of human behavior.  It’s one of those subconscious motivators because it affects our actions in ways we’re not even aware of.  Freud talks about this in Civilization and Its Discontents (GB1).  Shakespeare is a master dramatist but he’s also a master psychologist and a philosopher too.  Act II shows three more common motivators which drive human behavior: happiness, alcohol, and reputation.     

Aristotle says we all want many things out of life but “happiness is something final and self-sufficient and the end of our actions.” (On Happiness, GB1)  Happiness is the main goal and everything else we do is just a means to try to get and hold onto the state of being happy.  In Act II Othello has achieved this state.  He tells Desdemona that fate has blessed him: “If (I) were now to die, ‘twere now to be most happy, for I fear my soul hath her content so absolute that not another comfort like to this succeeds in unknown fate.”  Othello’s right.  If he had died at that moment he would have died a happy man.  But it was not to be.  “Unknown fate” would begin to intervene that very night in the form of a devious plan by Iago to dismantle Othello’s happiness.  Aristotle warned that happiness must be measured in terms of a complete life because “one swallow does not make a spring, nor does one sunny day; similarly, one day or a short time does not make a man blessed and happy…”  Othello’s bright joy quickly turns into dark despair.

Cassio’s happiness is also short and sweet, though for a different reason than Othello’s.  Cassio is not undone by the virtue of love but by the vice of alcohol.  Iago comes to him after the Venetian victory and says “come, lieutenant, I have a stoup of wine…”  Cassio knows he can’t handle his liquor and replies, “Not to-night, good Iago; I have very poor and unhappy brains for drinking: I could well wish courtesy would invent some other custom of entertainment.”  As Othello’s second in command Cassio needs to keep a clear mind.  Liquor both clouds the mind and impairs the ability to act rationally.  A good example in Great Books is Dostoevsky’s Underground Man. (Notes from the Underground, GB3)  At a social outing he drinks too much, gets angry at his companions, and starts brooding, “Now is the time to throw a bottle at them, I thought, picked up the bottle and… poured myself out another glass.”  Cassio also gets angry but instead of having another glass he gets into an altercation that was pre-planned by Iago.  This results in him being relieved of his command and publicly shamed with loss of his reputation. 

Once he’s sobered up a bit Cassio is mortified by what he’s done.  He cries to Iago “O! I have lost my reputation.  I have lost the immortal part of myself, and what remains is bestial.  My reputation, Iago, my reputation!”  For Cassio reputation is everything.  Iago tries to comfort him (falsely) by claiming that “reputation is an idle and most false imposition; oft got without merit, and lost without deserving.”  The old Roman general Marc Antony seems to agree with Iago.  In Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra (GB3) the soldiers observe that “this dotage of our general’s o’erflows the measure… and is become the bellows and the fan to cool a gypsy’s lust.”  The “gypsy” is Cleopatra and Antony has ignored his official duties to carouse with her in Egypt.  But unlike Cassio, Antony doesn’t care what people think. “Let Rome and the Tiber melt, and the wide arch of the empire fall!  Here is my space.  Kingdoms are clay.”  These are two vastly different interpretations of reputation.  One side says personal reputation is everything and without it we’re no better than beasts.  The other side says personal reputation means nothing.  Shakespeare’s genius is using language to make both sides sound reasonable.  The philosopher takes sides.  The dramatist’s job is to show the many sides of what it means to be human.      


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