Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Tuesday, September 27, 2016

SHAKESPEARE: Othello Act V (Knowing Good & Evil)

This play can be read as a long meditation on the nature of evil.  If we try reading it that way then what message is Shakespeare trying to give us?  One message is this.  We can understand evil.  We may not like it but at least we know what it is.  Our reading of Genesis (GB1) took up this theme in the Garden of Eden.  The Lord God said to Adam “Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.”  The serpent said just the opposite to Eve: “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.”  Adam and Eve already knew what good is.  Their world had already been proclaimed good by God.  They don’t know what evil is but they can find out, if they really want to know.  The decision is theirs but here’s the catch.  It’s an irrevocable decision.  Once they know what evil is they can never un-know it.  Othello reflects this kind of destructive knowledge in Act III when he says “I had been happy… So I had nothing known.  O! now, for ever farewell the tranquil mind; farewell content!”  Othello was speaking of jealousy and jealousy is just one of the many faces of evil.  At its core evil is the enemy of tranquility and contentment.  This is a kind of death of the spirit.  Evil resurfaces in Genesis directly following the story of Adam and Eve’s decision to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  Their eldest son Cain is jealous of Abel’s relationship with the Lord God.  So “Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him.”  The same sort of evil jealousy seems to be behind Iago’s vendetta against Cassio.  Iago wants to destroy Cassio the same way Cain wanted to destroy Abel.  Why?  What had Abel and Cassio done to deserve such hatred?  Nothing.  They were basically good men and evil is the enemy of the good.  In Act V Iago expresses why he wants to destroy Cassio: “if Cassio do remain, he hath a daily beauty in his life that makes me ugly.”  Cain felt the same way about Abel.  Seeing beauty and excellence in others can be motivation to change and try to live better lives ourselves.  This is what good is.  On the other hand beauty and excellence can make us feel ugly by comparison.  Then we may plot to tear down others and either destroy them or try bringing them down to our level.  This is what evil is.  Knowing evil on an intellectual level makes us better equipped to fight against it. 

Another view of evil is that it is beyond human comprehension.  We can see its effects but we can never fathom the depths where evil originates.  In this play the effects of evil are strewn all over the stage.  Evil (in the form of Iago) is the root cause of disorder and chaos:  Othello murders his wife.  Cassio gets drunk and almost loses his military career.  Roderigo loses most of his wealth and almost loses his life trying to satisfy his lust for Desdemona.  Desdemona is murdered by her husband.  Emilia is an unwitting accomplice to that murder by agreeing to commit simple theft.  Evil (in the form of Iago) caused all this.  How does Iago try to explain his actions?  Othello asks the perennial question when people are confronted with an evil they cannot understand: why me? “Why hath he thus ensnar’d my soul and body?”  Think of Job (GB4).  He wanted answers to the same question.  Iago gives the perennial answer, the same answer evil always seems to give.  “Demand me nothing: what you know, you know.” 

A third view is this.  We can know evil and yet not resist it through the intellect.  Iago was plenty smart but smart didn’t help him resist evil.  Faust was the smartest guy in town but still made a deal with the devil. (Faust GB5).  Kurtz (Heart of Darkness GB1) was a product of the best education Western civilization had to offer and he still followed evil to its bitter end.  In this view the intellect may merely become more fertile ground where evil can flourish. 


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