Earp: What makes a man like Ringo, doc? What makes him do the things he does?
Doc: A man like Ringo has got a great big hole, right in the middle of him. He can never kill enough, or steal enough, or inflict enough pain to ever fill it.
Earp: What does he need?
Earp: For what?
Doc: Bein' born.
Ringo is an old-school bad guy. He's one of those nihilistic villains that moralistic types (read: most of us, whether we admit it or not) like to dream up as a foil for heroism. The movie makes him a sort of Old West Antichrist who thunders through the landscape, leaving murder and mayhem in his wake. Westerns, in case you aren't a fan, have a lot of apocalyptic imagery. The Four Horsemen theme is almost a cliche--hence the Eastwood classic, Pale Rider.
Westerns are quintessentially American in their insistence that good and evil are easily distinguishable. In Tombstone, the bad guys conveniently wear blood-red sashes, which gives them a sinister yet fashionable flair amid all the dust, dirt and moral ambiguity. Because, you know, guns don't kill people-- people kill people. People with black hats, or red sashes, or maybe hoodies.
We are a simple people, we Americans. Ever since John Winthrop declared our nation to be a City on a Hill, a shining beacon of virtue the rest of the world can only aspire to emulate, we've had a hard time with moral gray areas. The City on a Hill, like that high note in the Star Spangled Banner, is often just out of reach--if only we could get rid of the witches, the communists, the liberals, the right-wingers, the feminists, the tea-partiers...well, if we could just get rid of them, we would be awesome. And if we can't, we can at least imagine someone who might do it for us. A lone hero, armed with moral certainty and a six-shooter, will set things right.
But we don't even need this guy, really. What we need are villains. Really nasty, apocalyptically rotten bad guys. Facing off against these guys, anyone can be Clint Eastwood, or John Wayne. Because all heroes really need are unrepentant nemeses, people who deserve the nasty, violent ending the movie or story has planned for them. Otherwise our pleasure in movie violence would be kind of wrong, wouldn't it? Twisted and voyeuristic. We can enjoy seeing someone get his head blown off if he's a really rotten person, because we get to feel morally righteous and enjoy the blood and gore. Let's face it, moral relativism and ambiguity put a real damper on our primitive notions of justice, not to mention our cinematic bloodlust. We need--morally, culturally, and aesthetically--our bad guys to be irredeemably evil. And the best kind of evil is the kind that has absolutely no motive, really, except the psychic and sometimes erotic pleasure of causing others pain.
According to Doc Holliday, Ringo wants "revenge for being born." Hard to get your head around that--unless you're, like, a sociopathic killer. Or a charismatic, villainous leader a la Charles Manson, Hitler, or, in the fictional realm, Iago. As far as we know, neither Manson nor Hitler actually killed anyone with their own hands. They just inspired and goaded others to do it for them. These guys, of course, are more dangerous than your average run-of-the-mill Norman Bates, because they can influence others--often many others--to do their evil bidding. So why do they do it? Because it's a rush, I guess, having that much power over people. And because like Ringo and Iago, they had a big hole somewhere in the middle of them. About where we like to think The Soul resides. I know, that sounds like psychopop babble. But what else do we have? Moral philosophers haven't done much better than that, despite centuries of trying the explain the Nature of Evil.
This is what Iago means, I think, when he says "I am not what I am." There's a hole where my essence should be. Or maybe, "I am a theatrical construct, a creature of no substance." In a previous post, written way back when I was blogging Richard III, I called this kind of moral emptiness "ontological evil," by which I meant the kind of evil that recognizes itself as such, and revels in its awesome wickedness. You can check out that post here, if you are so inclined. Ontologically evil villains are usually in the comic book mode, like Lex Luthor or The Joker. At the time, I took the typically liberal/humanist position that ontological evil was itself an ideological fantasy, i.e., something invented to sway public opinion, often in evil or immoral directions. Thus, for Hitler, Jews were ontologically evil. He saw himself as the hero in a Manichean melodrama, sort of. He didn't realize that history would have quite another take on the business of genocide.
You can see how the Internet has, among other things, fed the soul-sucking fires of ressentiment. There are lots of people out there seeking revenge for being born. People who, like Iago, "are not what they are"--i.e, people who are no more than the aggregate of the wrongs they imagine have been done to them. These people are very active on the Internet. Because the Internet is a place--or rather an ontological limbo--that rewards people for being "not what they are." It's pure theater, in all the ways the Puritans feared back in Will's day. It allows enraged victims to anonymously slam anyone and everyone deemed responsible for his/her victimization. It is the vehicle of passion and rage in what is essentially a passionless era.
Hmm. Topic for another time, perhaps. Now, back to our man Iago. Othello has been re-assigned to Cyprus, remember, before even consummating his marriage, and has given his wife into the "conveyance" of his good bud, "Honest Iago." I'll have more to say about "conveyances" and "honesty" later. For now, we're left with Iago and Roderigo, the latter contemplating suicide in the face of Desdemona's marriage. Iago gives him a pep talk:
Oh, villainous! I ha' looked upon the world for four times seven years, and since I could distinguish between a benefit and an injury I never found man that knew how to love himself. Ere I would say I would drown myself for love of a guinea-hen, I would change my humanity with a baboon.
There's a lot in this passage. First, we find out that Iago is only twenty-eight years old! That was older then than it is now, but really, he seems like a bitter old guy from our modern perspective. But maybe that's because of our inherent bias toward youth. It's certainly possible for people to be rotten at any age. Iago claims that he, alone among men, knows how to "love himself." He doesn't mean "love thyself" in the new-agey sense of accepting yourself, faults and all. He means "look out for your own interests." Value yourself above all others. Make yourself--your needs and desires--the center of your moral universe.
We're all pretty good at this now--mostly because we've confused, or perhaps synthesized, these two ideas of self-love. Self-acceptance slides pretty easily into self-justification, unless you've got armed guards at the gates of your psyche. And if you do have those, you've probably got other problems.
Like Richard III and, to a certain extent, Lear's Edmund, Iago is a modern guy. He believes in the Self, in getting ahead by your wits rather than your connections. He's socially on the borderlines, hobnobbing with the upper classes, but resenting them because he won't ever belong. He hates Cassio for being a foppish aristocrat, hates Othello for what he sees as pandering to the upper classes. He doesn't hold with old-fashioned notions of "virtue" or moral behavior. He is, at least on the surface, a rationalist, seeing love as a mere offshoot of lust. To Iago, power is the engine that drives the machine of the world, and will--not honor, or love, or virtue--is its fuel:
Virtue? A fig! 'Tis in ourselves that we are thus or thus. Our bodies are our gardens, to the which our wills are gardeners; so that if we plant nettles or sow lettuce, set hyssop and weed up thyme, supply it with one gender of herbs or distract it with many, either to have it sterile with idleness or manured with industry, why, the power and corrigible authority of this lies in our wills.
And where does virtue come from? From breeding. From honoring the right order of things, i.e., the Old Ideas of nobility, honor, and social hierarchy. Iago himself proves this in the play--without a virtuous, noble foundation, will runs amok and destroys the world. In Hamlet's terms, life becomes an unweeded garden, full of poisonous undergrowth that chokes the life out of anything good, or nurturing, or beautiful.
Oh, and you gotta love the phrase "manured with industry." It echoes into the future with depressing, but obviously unintended, environmental implications....
Well, this post was several months in the writing. Time to be done with it, and move on. As Iago says, "there are many events in the womb of time, which will be delivered." Hopefully there are a few more blog posts, as well.