Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

SHAKESPEARE: Othello Act III (Lessons in Language)

In Act II Iago tells Cassio that “reputation is an idle and most false imposition; oft got without merit, and lost without deserving: you have lost no reputation at all, unless you repute yourself such a loser.”  In Act III Iago tells Othello that a “good name in man and woman, dear my lord, is the immediate jewel of their souls: who steals my purse steals trash; ‘tis something, nothing; ‘twas mine, ‘tis his, and has been slave to thousands; but he that filches from me my good name robs me of that which not enriches him, and makes me poor indeed.”  When he’s talking to Cassio reputation means nothing; with Othello reputation becomes one of life’s most important possessions.  Well, which is it?  In Act I Iago admits to Roderigo “I am not what I am.”  In Act III when he’s with Othello he says “Men should be what they seem.”  Well, which is it?

Who is Iago, really?  What makes him tick?  It’s possible in his own mind and in his own way Iago sees himself as pursuing justice.  How can this be?  Here we might turn back to Plato’s Apology (GB1) for guidance.  In that selection Socrates defends the pursuit of eternal Truth against the Sophists.  Socrates believed there were eternal truths that don’t change in the ebb and flow of human affairs.  What’s good stays good in all times and in all places.  The Sophists, on the other hand, believed very much along the lines of Rousseau’s thinking in his Social Contract (GB1).  According to Rousseau and the Sophists “conventions” (human laws, institutions, and customs) are all man-made.  Therefore Man is the measure of all things.  All conventions were designed to make life better for human beings.  When they no longer serve this purpose they can, and should, be changed.  It all sounds very logical but also, according to Socrates, is very wrong.  For Socrates Man is not the measure of all things.  We shouldn’t try to shape reality according to our own transient needs.  Instead we should try to shape our lives according to an order established by Nature.  This is the only reality we’ll ever find.  How does Iago fit into all this?  In his own mind Iago thought he had been passed over for honors that rightfully belonged to him.  This was not due to some divine intervention.  If that were the case then Iago would have to be reconciled to his fate, much as Job was reconciled to his fate in the Book of Job (GB4).  The Lord spoke to Job directly out of a whirlwind but God apparently never crosses Iago’s mind.  God is mostly absent in Othello and there is no divine justice in this play; there are only frail human beings striving for power and struggling to survive the intrigues and deceptions of the world.  Iago did what he had to do and just used the means available to him to achieve his goal.        

That kind of interpretation is being too kind to Iago.  He knows exactly what he’s doing and he also knows it is evil.  That’s why he deliberately cloaks his actions and deceives everyone around him.  He knows how to use words to get what he wants.  In Act II Iago says “good wine is a good familiar creature if it be well used.”  The same can be said for language.  According to Darwin (GB1) language unveils our human sympathies and reinforces basic communal instincts, but only if it be well used.  Iago uses language to tear down, not to build up.  In Dante’s Inferno (GB5) the deepest levels of Hell are reserved for those who deliberately deceive and destroy family, friends, or country.  Dante was a poet and knew how words can be used to break down the bonds that hold civilization together.  For Dante, men like Iago won’t be accepted into Paradise, or even Purgatory, in the next world and pose a real danger to society in this one.  He’s the kind of guy Freud warned us about in Civilization and Its Discontents (GB1).  Shakespeare knew how to use words well.  He also had sympathy for basic human decency and showed it to us in drama, in a way no philosophical or theological language could ever express.


Post a Comment

<< Home