Friday, March 4, 2011

Darkness, Darkness

Othello is a journey to the underworld. At least that's how I've always thought of it. A one-way ticket to the unconscious--the other side of our cheery, open-minded, and rational selves. Because we all know that behind those Martha Stewart centerpieces and Hallmark ornaments there's a dark passageway to moral anarchy. Iago knows it too. He's our ugliest self. The self that thinks the racist, misogynist, elitist, narcissistic, anti-everything-but-me thought before we can censor it. We don't like to admit he exists, but he mumbles in the background when we're feeling vulnerable, or petty, or angry. And if we're really weak, we listen to him.

Yeah, I've read some Freud. He gets a bad rap these days, but he really transformed the way we think. Before Freud, demonic possession was the only way to explain human craziness--our insatiable need to affirm our existence by destroying our own kind.  I kill, therefore I am.

What other species does that?

Freud was wrong about a lot of stuff, but he was right about this. There is a part of the human psyche that talks when we want it to shut up. He called it the id, but earlier people called it the Devil. Usually our fear of the law, or sense of morality (okay, those are close to the same thing) keeps that crazy, world-destroying voice under wraps. But sometimes we listen. Sometimes we even do the bad stuff it tells us to do. In Star Wars terms (remember, I have a 10-year-old son), we've crossed over to the Dark Side. We've Executed Order 66, and turned out the lights of reason. The good, rational clones in our head have become killer storm troopers, and all hell breaks loose.

Okay, if you don't have a 10-year-old son, you won't get that. I guess what I mean is that there's a tiny Iago in most of us. If we feed him, he'll grow up into a big, world-eating Iago and do awful stuff.  Interestingly, there's a lot of intestinal/digestive imagery in Othello, most of it associated with Iago. Laxatives, enemas, vomiting--he uses all these images to remind the audience that human beings aren't really, as Hamlet put it, "the paragon of animals."  We're just animals. Brutes who devour, and regurgitate, and defecate. To Iago, we're rams and ewes and goats and monkeys--beasts who are ruled by appetites, not reason. I always associate Iago with that famous Hieronymus Bosch painting--you know, the one where Hell is a kind of gastrointestinal nightmare:

Iago isn't just anti-rational. He's anti-humanist in the broadest sense. Anti-Renaissance, anti-Enlightenment avant la lettre. What he wants, really, is to turn out the lights. If you've read the whole play, you'll remember Othello's words, just before he smothers his wife in the marriage bed:

Put out the light, and then put out the light.

Let there be darkness. Welcome to Hell.

But as usual, I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's go back to the beginning, back to Venice. Where it's already dark. Yep, the play begins in the middle of the night. In case you don't get the dark/light thing,Will kind of hammers you over the head with it. It's dark, probably after midnight, and everyone is asleep. Except Iago and Roderigo, who are crouching under Brabantio's window, gossiping.  "Tush, never tell me" hisses Roderigo.  Iago has just told him the news--Othello and Desdemona have secretly married.  "No, you're kidding, really?" It's an interesting way to begin the play--with Iago and Roderigo whispering in the dark, like two teenagers out after curfew. They seem silly here, mere pranksters. Ready to TP Brabantio's house, or something.

In fact, the whole plot of Othello would work pretty well in a high school setting--a good girl whose reputation is ruined, an insecure star athlete, a jealous, racist teammate...oh, wait! They made that movie! It's called...wait for it...O.  I haven't seen it, but it stars Julia Stiles, who was also in that Taming of the Shrew redaction called 10 Things I Hate About You.  I wrote a little about that movie way back when this blog was in its infancy...anyway, I guess Julia made a brief career out of those Shakespeare-goes-to-high-school films. I'm waiting for the Macbeth one, where the editor of the school newspaper and his geeky girlfriend murder the student council president, egged on by three goth girls who hate everyone. It'll have a suitably banal title, like Go for It, or something. Julia Stiles is too old to play the geek girl, but probably one of those Disney robot starlets could do the job just fine.

Okay, back to our dimly-lit story. Iago and Roderigo are hiding, planning to scare the crap out of Brabantio by waking him up in the middle of the night with bad news.  Namely, that his pretty white daughter has run off with a sooty-skinned Moor. Roderigo, remember, is Desdemona's spurned suitor.

So what do we find out in these opening lines? Iago hates Othello because the Moor passed him over for promotion, preferring the somewhat foppish pencil-pusher, Cassio, who

...never set a squadron in the field,
nor the division of a battle knows
More than a spinster--unless the bookish theoric,
Wherein the togaed consuls can propose 
As masterly as he. Mere prattle without practice
Is all his soldiership; but he, sir, had th'election...

Cassio is all hat and no cattle, a political man who's never led troops into battle. He's a man of words, not deeds--prattle without practice. Funny accusation coming from Iago, who's the master of dangerous prattle. Who never does anything himself, but rather talks others to their doom.  As an excuse for everything that follows, it's pretty weak. Cassio himself, after all, isn't really the object of Iago's virulent hatred--Othello and Desdemona are. But Iago's nothing if not a brilliant stage director, and that's what we see here. He gives Roderigo very explicit instructions as to what to say, and what tone of voice to use when he awakens Brabantio from sleep:

Call up her father,
Rouse him, make after him, poison his delight,
Proclaim him in the streets; incense her kinsmen,
And, though he in a fertile climate dwell, 
Plague him with flies. Though that his joy be joy,
Yet throw such chances of vexation on't
As it may lose some colour.
....
Do, with like timorous accent and dire yell,
As when, by night and negligence, the fire
Is spied in populous cities.

Wake him up, then harangue him. Spread the word to all his relatives, so that his pleasant world is filled with misery. Although he's got a good life, inject some poison into it. And make sure you scare the hell out of him, so that he thinks his house is on fire or something.

These are pretty obvious stage directions. Use a loud voice with a fearful tremor in it. Use the darkness, and his half-asleep state, to your advantage. Make this private matter into a public one, so that the news of his daughter's miscegenation spreads like wildfire. Significantly, Iago himself remains anonymous throughout the scene. "It is not meet nor wholesome to my place/to be producted." It doesn't suit my purposes to reveal myself. He wants to remain whisper in the darkness, a disembodied, goading voice in the back of the mind. He wants, most of all, to drive people mad.

The devil, indeed.

Iago, like Richard III, is staging a drama, and he's the only one who knows how it's going to end. Like a good director, he hides behind the scenes, whispering prompts from the wings. But make no mistake--this is his play, and his story. Everyone else is still in the dark, waiting for instructions.

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