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This time the sun is Desdemona, Iago is coal and Othello is mankind, necessarily choosing fossil fuels. The morality play is made clear through imagery of sulphur (linked to Iago) and the "flaming minister" (I love that phrase!) linked to Desdemona, the sun.

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  1. 1. “Burn like the mines of sulphur”: Virtuous Desdemona vs. Iago, the Vice, in a secret sun vs. coal morality play in Othello Introduction: Othello is a Morality Play More than any other of Shakespeare’s plays, Othello has been traditionally recognized as deriving---- partially at least----from the older morality plays. Especially, Iago is recognized as deriving from the traditional “Vice” figure. Park Honan writes “Iago may be like a ‘Vice’ in a morality play” (Honan 313), while Kermode observes, “Over the ancient figure of the Vice----a familiar shape for abstract evil----Iago wears the garb of the modern devil” (Evans 1200). And in Shakespeare and the Popular Tradition in the Theater, Robert Weimann discusses more thoroughly how Iago participates---through “direct address to the audience”--- in the Vice tradition: There is more to be considered than the instruction or edification of the audience (in direct address to the audience); a theatrical effect similar to that produced by the unabashed challenge of the 1
  2. 2. devil, or the Vice in the moralities, seems to be present as well. Shakespeare’s greatest villains---notably Iago, Richard Gloucester, and Edmund ----are often characterized by this mode of direct selfexplanation. (Weimann 70) Stephen Greenblatt goes a little further along the same lines when he notes the vestigial presence of an “Everyman” in the character of Othello: Shakespeare grasped that the spectacle of human destiny was, in fact, vastly more compelling when it was attached not to generalized abstractions but to particular people, people realized with an unprecedented intensity of individuation: not Youth, but Prince Hal, not Everyman, but Othello. (Greenblatt 34) But the unspoken assumption of every critic has been thus far that beyond a rough and sketchy fashion, Shakespeare did not use---really use--- the morality play structure in his own more modern creations, including in Othello. In fact, as Greenblatt implies when he says, “Shakespeare had as much to free himself from the old morality plays as adapt them” (Greenblatt 34), critics steadily---even fervently--- believe that Shakespeare wanted to go beyond the old morality play structure, to graduate from an outmoded, simplistic and limiting 2
  3. 3. structure. Yes---he did obviously want his complex and sophisticated art to go beyond the old rough rural and folkish fashions in drama that dated back to medieval times. But, like an undertow, a strong unseen current but that gives ocean water its force, velocity and deeply different blue-gray hues, the old morality play structure is there in some of Shakespeare’s plays, and, moreover, it is intact and functioning beneath the surface. Critics of Othello therefore have never looked for a Virtue character, or an underlying complete and intact morality play structure. And this, I think, has been an oversight. Shakespeare based his ideas on Renaissance Hermeticism. My hypothesis is that Othello participates in the same anti-coal ideology that Romeo and Juliet, King Lear, and Macbeth express. It seems very likely that Shakespeare produced these tragedies as a series: Park Honan describes these tragedies as “a great sequence” (317). The underlying grounding for this anti-coal ideology may be Shakespeare’s own original applicaton of Renaissance Hermeticism, particularly the heliocentric notions of Giordano Bruno, to contemporary problems. Ancient Hermeticism, which provides the basis for Renaissance Hermeticism (through Renaissance translations of and commentaries on texts from antiquity ), is conceptually a slippery concept, but a few basic points should be noted. The scholar Florian Ebeling observes, 3
  4. 4. “a unique system of Hermeticism is not to be ascertained…instead, we have a broad literary field that displays commonalities on only a few points” (Ebeling 35). Ebeling goes on to clarify what these points are: One point is that the writings mostly make themselves out to be secret knowledge communicated to a disciple by his teacher: they induct the learner into knowledge regarding the true essence of the cosmos, man, and God. God, world, and man are connected to one another: they cannot be dealt within terms of separate theological, cosmological, or anthropological aspects. Another point is that on the whole, Hermeticism is not a form of Gnosis, for it mostly considers the world to be a thing of ordered beauty, and not a stronghold of evil.. Even where we find dualistic, pessimistic perspectives, the dualism is complementary, not antagonistic. Spirit and matter, God and world, belong together: they are different aspects of a single world. The third point is that man is an ontotheologically distinguished being. As a union of body and soul, he possesses a special dignity. His task is to praise God and to keep the world going. 4
  5. 5. His soul must therefore have primacy over his body; he must be a tool in order to fulfill his divine task. To the extent that man as body has a tendency toward evil, he is constantly endangered and must be ever aware of his divine origin and his spirituality. (Ebeling 35-36) One commentary from 1779 explains that “Hermetic wisdom deals, in particular, with nature and its works; it investigates the mysteries that lie hidden within it” (Anonymous quoted in Ebeling, 104). Ebeling clarifies the issue a bit more; religion was also concerned with nature so to understand nature was to understand God: Hermetic texts are often distinguished by an especially close connection between religiosity and natural philosophy. Only the faithful who were ethically and morally qualified could behold God and the essence of the world, and only they would be initiated into the mysteries of the divine. Knowledge of nature as creation also meant knowledge of God as creator. Natural philosophy actually made it possible to have knowledge of God and to lead a life that was pleasing to God. Knowledge of God, a life pleasing to God, and knowledge of nature are often interwoven. (Ebeling 81) Shakespeare’s interest in fossil fuels such as coal (or, rather, the emergent effects of using these fuels) is therefore part of the “knowledge of nature” that Ebeling refers to. 5
  6. 6. Why would he wish to hide it so thoroughly, under various strategies such as using ancient rulers, reworked old folk tales, romantic stories, monarchical successions and wars, witty and appealing heroines, lover’s quarrels, psychological conflicts and varied settings that had no presence of or mention of coal at all? This esoteric (and ultimately allegorical) aspect of his art is also part of the essence of Hermeticism: Those who wished to understand the Hermetic doctrines, so it was often stated, had to avoid all independent efforts to acquire the necessary understanding through their own intellect. Instead, they had to remain largely passive, ‘for it is impossible to discover this secret by means of one’s own nitpicking; rather we must go to school with the wise and learn from them so this mystery will be known.’(Anonymous, “De Lumine Naturae”, in Aureoli Philippi Theophrasti Bombasts von Hohenheim Paracelsi […] Opera (Strassburg, 1603) 2:682-686))…..Only by purification can the intellect be prepared for revelation, and the mind must allow itself to be led. … Enigma, symbol, and allegory were thus considered suitable means of making knowledge public but at the same time keeping it secret. This form of published secret ensured that the text would be understood by those whom God had granted the necessary gifts. (Ebeling 105-6) (my 6
  7. 7. emphasis) Shakespeare proved in his use of imagery, which was so specific and so particular, that he could isolate details and highlight them in novel ways to bring new perspectives. Perhaps, similarly, his own views on the Renaissance Hermeticism filtered through Giordano Bruno’s writings was similarly joined to the local and the specific. The Vice, “the mines of sulphur”, Iago and coal Stephen Greenblatt points to “the absence of any clear or logical pattern of artistic development “ (Greenblatt 297) in “Shakespeare’s whole career, and particularly about its first decade” (Greenblatt 297). But following the development of the ways in which Shakespeare arranged and articulated the secret anti-coal/pro-solar energy morality plays in his great tragedies does give a good chronological framework that also shows artistic progress. Obviously, Romeo and Juliet is the beginning of the series: it openly hints of a secret morality play and even specifies the hidden identity of Juliet, the sun. Shakespeare took steps in that play to clearly show what he was doing, steps he would never take again as the secret plays went much deeper underground. Park Honan sees Othello as next (after Romeo and Juliet) in the great series of 7
  8. 8. tragedies that include Macbeth and King Lear. About this (Honan doesn’t say why he puts Othello first among the major tragedies) I would definitely agree. Othello shows the artistic development that Greenblatt may be looking for, and it is precisely in the way the Vice, Virtue and Everyman roles are handled in the secret morality play that this development can be seen most easily. Iago, the Vice, particularly, dominates the action of the play. Robert Weimann’s analysis of the Vice character in the old morality plays is invaluable here, because in Othello, Shakespeare was rather closely following the orthodox conventions that dictated the format and dynamics of the old morality plays. Like the old Vice figure, Iago addresses the audience directly often, and the audience knows his true colors, while Othello and other characters in the play believe completely that he is “honest Iago”. Weimann, commenting on the dramatic representation of Herod (an expression of an older Vice figure) in the Wakefield mystery cycles, writes “the most intensely realistic versions of Herod achieved the most lively and direct audience contact” (Weimann 69). Weimann claims it is possible to see the direct address to the audience as either (or both) “a legacy of nonrepresentational ritual” or “a narrative mode of descriptive characterization” (Weimann, 70) and concludes, significantly, that “this form of self-consciousness by the villains and the tyrants is essentially anachronistic” 8
  9. 9. (Weimann, 70), pulling the emotional response and reaction of the audience out of the play’s setting (a Christian story) and projecting it onto the contemporary reality of the audience, oppressed plebeians who lived under the dictates and whims of local feudal lords and medieval clergy. Caricaturing and burlesquing the tyrannical behavior of overlords could accomplish a release of tension and also “expresses the legacy of the topsy-turvying mode of postritual inversion” (Weimann, 70) of the even older folk play. By Shakespeare’s time, the whims of local feudal lords and medieval clergy were no longer an issue for most residents of London. Shakespeare, aware of the larger scene, could identify more subtle forces at work, such as coal, whose use enabled and promoted urbanization and necessitated enclosing land for more efficient agriculture. Enclosing land in turn generated more urban dwellers who would find earning a living in a crowded city to be difficult, but easier than on land they were now forbidden to enter. The elite rulers were simply, like everyone else, at the mercy of the energetic cosmic “system” producing material changes that had to be dealt with by everyone in a kind of scramble. People often do not understand the energetic exigencies that underlie their immediate surroundings. Shakespeare proves that he understands that people cannot correctly interpret root causes of changes when Desdemona, referring to Othello, says: 9
  10. 10. Something….. Hath puddled his clear spirit; and in such cases, Men’s natures wrangle with inferior things, Though great ones are their object. (III. 140-145) “Puddled” here has a connotation of muddiness or dirtiness, perhaps obliquely referencing coal, while the “clear spirit” seems like a sky unpolluted by coal smoke. The artistic problem seems easily overcome. The Vice, instead of carrying a secret identity as a local feudal lord, will instead carry a secret identity as coal. Shakespeare could simply attach the imagery of coal onto the Vice, whom he named Iago, and in fact he does do this, very subtly, when Iago says: The Moor already changes with my poison Dangerous conceits are in their natures poisons, Which at the first are scarce found to distaste, But with a little act upon the blood Burn like the mines of sulphur. (III.ii.325-329) “Mines of sulphur” is a minimalistic, oblique reference to coal mining and coal burning (coal burning released lots of sulphur in Elizabethan London; there were no scrubbers in the chimneys to capture pollutants). Similarly, after Othello realizes his mistake in killing Desdemona, he roars, “Blow me about in winds! Roast me in sulphur!/ Wash me 10
  11. 11. in steep-down gulfs of liquid fire!/ O Desdemon! Dead, Desdemon! Dead!/O, O!” (V.ii.279-282). Othello, by accepting Iago’s version of events, by choosing Iago (as an Everyman would choose the temptation of the Vice figure) takes on, in imagery, the sulphurous, burning, quality that Iago also possesses. Othello becomes coal smoke (“Blow me about in winds”) and pieces of coal (“Roast me in fire”) and then ashes (“wash me in steep-down gulfs of liquid fire”), completing the trio of material forms in which people would encounter coal The “steep down gulfs of liquid fire” could either refer to some sort of chimney, perhaps a smelter or furnace, where large amounts of coal were burned or to coal mines, which had steep shafts and were dangerous and often experienced catastrophic explosions. Barbara Freese, in Coal: a Human History, describes coal mining in 17th century England: Dark, damp, cramped, and chilly, the mines had ceilings that could collapse on your head, air that could smother you, poison you, or explode in your face, and water that could rush in an drown you or trap you forever. Coal mining was one of the few occupations in which a person faced a very real risk of death by all four classical elements---earth, air, fire, and water. It was probably the most 11
  12. 12. dangerous profession of a dangerous time, vivid and literal proof of the depths to which a society would sink for fuel. One moralist of an earlier century concluded that the need to send people to work in such horrid places was itself evidence that God was punishing humanity for the original sin. (Freese 47) We can look at a few statistics on coal mining and industrial production in England to get an idea of how fast the growth in English industry was occurring during Shakespeare’s lifetime. For example, furnaces for iron production increased from 25 in number in 1550 to triple that by the end of the century (Weimann 164). “On the eve of the Civil War (1641), England was mining three times as much coal as the rest of Europe put together”. (Weimann 164) It seems on the surface so simple to merely change the secret identity of the Vice character. Instead of sending up the follies and cruelties of a medieval lord, a sophisticated playwright could target a more subtle cosmic mischief-maker, fossil fuels, through ingenious imagery that excised the word “coal” but captured its malevolent and dangerous aspects and some of its associated terminology. However, there is an interesting complication. On the one hand, the Vice character is an old one, close to the clown and Fool, from whom his role was derived: in this 12
  13. 13. sense, also the Vice character was dramaturgically closer (than other characters) to the sun, to rural festivals, to seasonal rituals, and to the audience. In later tragedies that use a hidden morality play structure, Shakespeare deleted the clownish, drunken, buffoonish, storming aspect of the Vice figure (which Iago still possesses) that most signaled their closeness to the sun, (by the word “sun” here I mean to the origins of drama, which were seasonal (i.e. sun-based) festivals.) In Act II, scene iii, Iago devises a ruse to make Cassio drunk and stir up trouble between him and Othello. Iago carouses and sings after calling, “Some wine ho!” (II.iii.67) and it is hard not to see vestigial elements of a prototypical earlier Vice character named “Myscheff” or “Misrule” or “Drunkenness” in his behavior. Iago also connects England to the art of drinking and carousing: “your Dane, your German, and your swag-bellied Hollander-----Drink ho!----are nothing to your English” (I.iii.77-80). By focusing on and praising England, “O sweet England!” (88) and then singing a song that includes the line “’Tis pride that pulls the country (England) down” (II.ii.95) Shakespeare singles out England as a country that Iago knows and likes.. Like the “moralist” (whose name is Reverend T. Gisborne) mentioned in the quote on coal mining above, Shakespeare indicates a moralizing purpose and takes a stand, but (unlike the Reverend T. Gisborne) Shakespeare hides the moral point of his work: 13
  14. 14. it can be seen, though, once we know that the Vice figure mentions England, that he is associated with “the mines of sulphur”, that he upsets the old rules. (To understand the underlying morality play is to see the moral message about coal.) England’s position as the world’s first industrial leader, as an agent of spreading cultural change (indirectly necessitated through changes in commercial culture) through its use of its huge coal resources, was the focal point. This is why Iago goes out of his way to associate himself with England, the leader of industrialization back in 1600. Shakespeare and the Reverend T. Gisborne, therefore, shared concerns about coal. Gisborne saw a Christian homily evident: coal mining was proof that God was punishing man for the original sin. Shakespeare was a bit more circumspect, and located the issue not within the common pieties of Christianity, but within the place where we as biological organisms meet (through our materiality) the cosmos’ gift of energy. Not an ancient myth, but Shakespeare’s own Sonnet 15 refers to the “influence” of the stars (stars here probably includes the sun, which Bruno was the first to posit was simply one star among many; or also the whole cosmos, including the sun) in causing the growth of “men as plants”: When I consider everything that grows 14
  15. 15. Holds in perfection but a little moment; That this huge stage presenteth nought but shows Whereon the stars in secret influence comment; When I perceive that men as plants increase, Cheer’d and check’d even by the self-same sky, Vaunt in their youthful sap, at height decrease, And wear their brave state out of memory…..(1-8) Critics have long tried---with some success, I might add---to put a name to the basic problem that Shakespeare puts his finger on so well and so secretly (in his plays, including Othello), and so specifically. In the 1974 Riverside Shakespeare, Frank Kermode writes: There is, finally, the figural aspect of Othello. Obscurely, it is no doubt, an enactment of the Fall. There are psychological analogues, so that we can momentarily see the play as a psychomachia, with Iago as the bestial parts of man, and Othello as the higher----as, in a high sense, Reputation. None of this is inconsistent with a sober plain view of the play as a representation of human reality; the truer that representation, the more it suggests conformity to ancient schemes and formulae explaining the human condition.(my 15
  16. 16. emphasis) (Evans 1202) Ancient schemes. Formulae explaining the human condition. These are the literary critic’s vague, but fundamentally correct, attempts to frame the cosmic terms under which we stay in our material bodies for the duration of our lives. The exact name of the “formula” or “ancient scheme” is the Second Law of Thermodynamics, (which states that the entropy of the universe is always increasing) sensed---though not named---- (through his observations of coal-sponsored industrialization) by Shakespeare, and later seen through a sort of mist or fog by critics who have never recognized Shakespeare’s antipathy of coal nor seen in it an organizing and totalizing force of inspiration for his art. Moreover, the Fall itself may be a profound myth that socially encodes the fundamental thermodynamic principle of the Entropy Law: the Fall does involve eating---the transformation of material into energy, therefore dissipation of this energy---- and Adam’s and Eve’s actions notably set into motion time and decay. Iago claims, “I am not what I am” (I.i.65) early in the play. In fact, he seems like a more typical Vice figure than anything else. (Perhaps also coal seemed like a typical fuel, like wood, that could be used for cooking and heating). Othello is completely fooled by Iago, and the audience believes that only it knows the whole truth about 16
  17. 17. Iago. But by concealing a secret identity as coal, Iago also depicts the hidden disruptive quality that coal possesses, to act slowly but surely and progressively to create real dependence, and this dependence leads to further structural distance, more and more permanent, from the sun-based economy, which would bring more disruption later, more extensive coal mining, more dependency, desperation, and so on. As Iago says, allegorizing this process (and referring to coal obliquely with the word “sulphur”): The Moor already changes with my poison: Dangerous conceits are in their natures poisons, Which at the first are scarce found to distaste, But with a little act upon the blood, Burn like the mines of sulphur“ (III.iii.325-9) The subtle joke is on the audience, who thinks it knows the whole truth. The Formal Vice Elements The formal ways that Shakespeare satisfies the conventions of the Vice role but changes these conventions by adapting them in the character of Iago is one of the most ----perhaps the most---interesting features of Othello. These old conventions had emerged organically from a long lineage of ritual, procession and drama, dating further back than Christianity. Their emergent and steady nature made them part of 17
  18. 18. folk culture. To examine Iago as a more modern and up-to-date version of an older pedigree, we should first look at a worthy older example. In his lengthy discussion of the old morality play Mankind, Weimann seeks to identify some conventions in that play which he links with older folk dramas. In particular, Weimann locates the role of the Vice as the strongest cluster of conventions with observable links to folk dramas, and provides a list of some of these conventions: 1) the traditional call for room and attention (the Vice characters call out to the audience asking for room to play and attention (“The traditional call for “room” rang out again and again, but not from the lips of all the actors: those who impersonated the virtuous and pious figures never indulged in this kind of audience address” (Weimann 103)); 2) music, dancing, calls for game and sport by the Vice; 3)direct address to the audience for money (“the Vice figures mingle with the audience collecting money” (Weimann 114) 4) an entrance speech of self-introduction (of the devil character), “which resembles the customary self-introduction of the amateur in the folk play” ‘Weimann 116) 5) the big head of the devil character “usually associated with Beelzebub in the folk ceremonies, which may hearken back to some more primitive masking” (Weimann 116)). To examine Iago’s lines is to see that all five of the conventions that Weimann 18
  19. 19. identifies were preserved, in an altered form, by Shakespeare as he wrote Iago’s lines. Iago appears in the opening scene to introduce himself. He speaks to Roderigo, not to the audience, and Roderigo becomes a mediating device, allowing Iago to explain his mind. We learn that Iago is dissatisfied with his position, that he is not what he is, and so forth. The call for room and attention is changed also since it is not addressed to the audience, but instead to Roderigo, again, and about Brabantio. “Call up her father/Rouse him, make after him, poison his delight/ Proclaim him in the streets, incense her kinsmen” (I.i.67-70). Iago calls for the attention of someone else, in other words, not the audience, but the effect is similar: he storms, rages, rampages around, issues threats and forces people to wake up and notice him. Shakespeare, in other words, could use the lessons he had learned from observing older folk dramas and harness their vitality and power in a more modern and less direct way. He doesn’t do this so obviously with Goneril and Regan or Lady Macbeth: Iago is a closer and more visible connection to the older Vice figures; hence I think we can see Shakespeare developing his art here.. The Vice’s collection of money (in a perverted form as it occurs voiced through Iago) is also addressed to Roderigo (Roderigo, without personality, as a mediating device---a stand-in for the audience----is also used again) rather than directly to the 19
  20. 20. audience, which would have been inappropriate in a large city theater: a more complex art required a more complex approach. “Put money in thy purse”, “fill thy purse with money” and “make all the money thou canst”, Iago hysterically exhorts Roderigo again and again in Act I, scene iii. The old and direct folksy elements as they occurred in rural folk dramas (what could be more natural than actors requesting a few coins in return for their professional services?) could be twisted and cast in a harsh new urban light: here is the new business man, cold, industrial-minded, professional, and capitalistic: “go make money”. This type of person is a new social phenomenon, generated through the emergent action of coal upon the economy. Yet another interesting phenomenon related to the Vice tradition occurs in Iago’s “go make money” exhortations. Weimann finds in the traditional Vice’s speech patterns many occasions of “impertinent jingling” (Weimann 147) and “popular wordplay” that survived as “submerged late ritual echoes of the punning, rhyming, singing, and dancing Vice”. (Weimann 147). Here is the complete speech with the “go make money” exhortations in Act I scene iii. Note the playful variety of grammar and syntax of only the exhortations and how the exhortations punctuate and accentuate the otherwise sober advice, and become almost nonsense banter, a form of evil music: It is merely a lust of the blood and a permission of the will. Come, be a 20
  21. 21. man! Drown thyself? Drown cats and blind puppies! I have profess’d me thy friend, and I confess me knit to thy deserving with cables of perdurable toughness. I could never better stead thee than now. Put money in thy purse; follow thou the wars; defeat thy favor with an usurp’d beard. I say put money in thy purse. It cannot be long that Desdemona should continue her love to the Moor---put money in thy purse---nor he his to her. It was a violent commencement in her, and thou shalt see an answerable sequestration---put but money in thy purse. These Moors are changeable in their wills----fill thy purse with money. The food that to him now is luscious as locusts, shall be to him shortly as acerb as the coloquintida. She must change for youth; when she is sated with his body, she will find the error of her choice. She must have change, she must; therefore put money in thy purse. If thou wilt needs damn thyself, do it a more delicate way than drowning. Make all the money thou canst. If sanctimony and a frail vow betwixt an erring barbarian and a super-subtle Venetian be not too hard for my wits and all the tribe of hell, though shalt enjoy her; therefore make money. A pox of drowning thyself, it is clean out of the way. Seek thou 21
  22. 22. rather to be hang’d in compassing thy joy than to be drown’d and go without her. Roderigo: Wilt thou be fast to my hopes, if I depend on the issue? Iago: Thou art sure of me---go make money. I have told thee often, and I retell thee again and again, I hate the Moor. My cause is hearted; thine hath no less reason. Let us be conjunctive in out revenge against him. If thjou canst cuckold him, thou dost thyself a pleasure, me a sport. There are many events in the womb of time which will be delivered. Traverse, go, provide thy money. We will have more of this to-morrow. Adieu. Roderigo: Where shall we meet i’ the morning? Iago: At my lodgings. Roderigo: I’ll be with thee betimes. Iago: Go to, farewell. Do you hear, Roderigo? Roderigo: What say you? Iago: No more of drowning, do you hear? Roderigo: I am chang’d. Iago: Go to, farewell. Put money enough in your purse. Roderigo: I’ll sell all my land. (I.iii. 334-381) (my emphasis) 22
  23. 23. The songs Iago sings later in Act II also contain jingling and nonsense patter: “And let me the canakin clink, clink/ And let me the canakin clink” (II.iii. 69-70). Shakespeare was working within an old tradition, and observing its conventions while updating them for a new context. Weimann well sums up the change that occurred in the nonsense jingling of the Vice to more “highly functional and integrated forms of worldplay” (Weimann 148) in Shakespeare: “The provocative figure of “folysshness”, no longer quite as free to argue at cross-purposes with his victim as he was in Mankind, became subordinate to a more exacting representational mode of scene and language.” (Weimann 148) The big head of the devil character in Mankind may “hearken back to some more primitive masking” (Weimann 116). To find the “big head” in the role of a sophisticated Vice like Iago, we will have to look very hard-----yet it is there, in all its awful and shocking power! Connecting the earlier Fool with the later Vice, Weimann notes the “ancient fool’s headdress or mask” (Weimann 36), and writes about the emergent changes in the folk fool role as some of the fool’s attributes and qualities were absorbed by the Vice or devil roles: The general development of the English folk fool can be considered in similar terms if he is seen as having relinquished much of his 23
  24. 24. pagan character and surrendered “to the transformation in meaning and values to which Christianity subjected the figures of an inimical cult.” (Meschke) Such a view of his origins would account for the folk fool’s connection with various hybrid figures like Father Christmas or Beelzebub; the possessed man becomes the clown, the pagan deity becomes the Christian devil. In the folk play Beelzebub may recall features of an old, club-bearing deity (Gomme); and here, as in the mystery cycles, the devil retains the stigma of a pagan past: the goat’s horns, the ass’s ears, the cloven hoof…..Such elements of a Dionysian satyr, at times even a spirit of “joyous freedom and unrestrained delight” (Summers) live on, however mutilated, in the diabolic attributes of the fool and perhaps even in the foolish attributes of the devil. (Weimann 32) Iago can therefore be regarded, with his carousing, singing, merry-making, sportive wordplay, and desire to overthrow the established order (a kind of misrule or topsy-turvydom) as a direct descendent of the ancient fool. Of course, in the sober, new, Puritanically-influenced and complex times of 1600, Shakespeare could not very well let his modern creation Iago romp merrily around the stage in an ass’s head or cloven hoofs. But Shakespeare does extend his 24
  25. 25. hand to allow Iago to fully participate in the fool-Vice heritage, and also to maintain a kind of consistency in his thorough, even scholarly, conception of the provenance of the Vice role as it is conceived through Iago: there are three occasions of the word “ass” in Othello and all of them are voiced by Iago. It is well worthwhile to inspect these three occasions of the word “ass” being voiced in Othello. The first one is as follows: ……You shall mark Many a duteous and knee-crooking knave That (doting on his own obsequious bondage) Wears out his time, much like his master’s ass For nought but provender, and when he’s old, cashier’d. (I.i. 44-48) The second one occurs a bit later in Act I: The Moor is of a free and open nature That thinks men honest that but seem to be so And will as tenderly be led by th’ nose As asses are” (I.iii. 399-402). The final one occurs in Act II: Make the Moor thank me, love me, and reward me, For making him egregiously an ass, And practicing upon his peace and quiet 25
  26. 26. Even to madness. ‘Tis here; but yet confused, Knavery’s plain face is never seen till us’d. (II. i. 308-312) The first two instances of “ass” refer to animals, while the third one has the meaning of “duped fool”. The second instance is also transitional one, somewhere between the first and second because, although it refers to an animal, it also refers figuratively to Othello, who will be duped. Iago uses the important word “ass” three times to gradually transform Othello into a duped fool, bringing him over to the side of the Vice and the fool and foreshadowing the action of the larger play. Also the word “ass” is a magical emblem, in shimmering contact with the rich heritage of ass’s ears and masks of past ritual and festival: as voiced by Iago it truly takes on a terrible power. Iago does not wear the ass’s head; what he does is more complex. He gives the word “ass” its full contextual due and borrows its deeply-rooted historical associations to flesh out his own connection to the past. This he does even while retaining his contrasting modern persona. “Ass” here, a totemic word in this play, traverses through contexts and dimensions to delineate a plot outline and position characters: it foreshadows Othello’s future as a duped fool while subtly referencing the Vice’s complex past. Iago therefore participates in the Fool-Vice heritage in some rather specific and self-conscious ways. There is just one more interesting detail---his speech in Act I, scene iii, that starts “Virtue? A fig!”--- that throws more light on his character. Weimann writes that “the origins of 26
  27. 27. the folk fool in the folk play must be sought in that native tradition of mimetic ritual that is of central importance to all popular dramatic or semi-dramatic activities. It is this background that explains the relationship between the fool’s motley and the pagan traditions of vegetation magic…” (Weimann 31) (my emphasis). Iago’s speech delves much into gardens and plants: Our bodies are our gardens, to the which our wills are gardeners; so that if we will plant nettles or sow lettuce, set hyssop and weed up tine, supply it with one gender of herbs or distract it with many….(I.iii.319-323) Although he is allegorically “coal”, as a dramaturgical representative of the broad class of Vice-Fool characters, he is bound to satisfy certain conventions such as displaying the emblems of his “native land” (not England but folk culture and more primitive dramatic forms): these emblems include vegetation magic, clowning and drunkenness, dramatic closeness to the audience and so forth. In another fascinating example of the vegetation imagery in Iago’s speech, I would also like to include his advice addressed to Roderigo: “Though other things grow fair against the sun/Yet fruits that blossom first will first be ripe” (II.iii.376-7): here is again the example of the inherent contradiction in Iago: as coal, he is arrayed “against the sun” (he is a coal-Vice character opposing the sun-Virtue Desdemona character), yet he speaks using vegetation imagery. Shakespeare must have been very much aware of this contradiction and he sought to capitalize on it, even while it contains pitfalls. 27
  28. 28. From one standpoint, the contradiction does not exist: Iago is “coal” in the secret play., but as the “Vice” he must (or Shakespeare felt he should) conform to basic conventions. Honan notes that “Iago is always closer to us than Othello” (Honan 316), and by this Honan shows sensitivity to dramatic function. If we can see Iago as a sophisticated new and experimental form of an older Fool and Vice character, we can also recognize Iago as part of a new and updated morality play. Close to the sun---in form and trappings and behavior, but, symbolic of coal (which in Shakespeare’s secret plays means opposed to the sun)---in his allegorical context, Iago is a fascinating mixture of old and new, a transitional character, a contradiction in terms (on one level), and halfway between the older Vice figures that Shakespeare came up with, including his own earlier creation Mercutio, and a later more complex one like Lady Macbeth. Shakespeare would dispense with many of the vestigial Vice conventions, obviously too redolent of the sun, in later tragedies. In fact, if we look back at Romeo and Juliet, written earlier, the Vice figures (a composite mixture of Rosaline, who is never seen (but who stands for coal with her black hair, the words “smoke” and “fume” surround Romeo’s discussion of her), and Mercutio, who quotes tales from old folk culture (Queen Mab), sings, dances, puns, drinks, engages in sportive wordplay and wears a mask some of the time)) it is clear that Shakespeare had trouble reconciling the traditional “closeness of the sun” (in terms of seasonal festivals) of the Vice 28
  29. 29. figure with Shakespeare’s own idiosyncratic symbolic connection of this figure to coal, which was, after all in his system of meaning arrayed against the sun . Thus in Romeo and Juliet, the Ur-text for Shakespeare’s secret morality plays, the Vice figures are split---a kind of schizophrenic solution. (Indeed, Rosaline, the coal figure, is excised from the play, as the word “coal” was to be excised from later tragedies that were, actually, about coal.) It was hard for Shakespeare to conceive of a Vice figure who was not close to the sun at first; Rosaline is a presence manqué precisely because of this. As a Vice, Mercutio is close to the sun, but he does not bear the weight of a coal connection in imagery. Iago represents a first attempt to synthesize the two halves that Rosaline and Mercutio represent. But the results are mixed---Iago’s jollity while singing may be sincere; or perhaps he only feigns it. Either way, he is not a convincing clown. He is too cold---so the problem is that the audience cannot be sure how to take his cheerful carousing. Can he lose himself in song? Can he actually be hilarious, or is he deviously plotting even while drunk? Is he actually drunk or is this an act, too? Later Shakespeare eliminated singing and clowning from the Vice figures and let the Fools take on these duties. Othello, the Everyman—“Is he not jelious?” The new and growing industrial economy that made Iago’s line “Go make money” seem like a normal and natural human desire (it would have not seemed normal and natural ---or 29
  30. 30. even possible---in a feudal system) generated a new kind of mentality to go with the economic competition that was part of the growth of middle-class prosperity and urbanization. Competition, so natural for humans anyway (in feudal times it was expressed in wars, jousts and so on), could find a new focus, or a new outlet, in business and commerce. This fierce commercial competition and striving gets an allegorical expression in Othello’s jealousy. The lines which most clearly----even, perhaps, heavy-handedly---- show Othello’s allegorical function as an Everyman in a secret sun-coal morality play ----plus the connection to the new more competitive economy---are these in Act III: Desdemona: Believe me, I had rather lost my purse Full of crusades; and but my noble Moor Is true of mind, and made of no such baseness As jelious creatures are, it were enough To put him to ill thinking. Emilia: Is he not jelious? Desdemona: Who, he? I think the sun where he was born Drew all such humors from him. (III.iv.25-30) Desdemona’s lines can be obscurely regarded as referring to the area of Africa where the Moors came from: sunnier than the rainy English climate. However, once the sun-coal morality play is recognized, then the meaning becomes quite clear: mankind originated in a 30
  31. 31. sun-based economy, a type of social arrangement where communal, local, and folk-based patterns would prevail as well. Just as the Everyman in the morality plays would meet allegorical Vices and Virtues who would try to persuade him to choose their respective sides, Othello contains the same basic framework----two opposing sides attempting to persuade the title character to agree with their claims. Iago goes at the temptation much more subtly than the traditional Vices did. He comments as if he is thinking aloud, “Hah? I like not that” (III.iii. 34) (implying that something improper has taken place between Desdemona and Cassio) which he clearly intends Othello to overhear. Then, when Othello asks, “What dost thou say?” (III.iii.35), Iago cleverly feigns a sincere person trying unsuccessfully to hide his altruistic concerns: “Nothing, my lord; or if---I know not what” (III.iii.36). The Vice no longer cavorts about beckoning Everyman to come with him and steal some silver or forget his prayers; now the temptation is much more subtle and psychologically complex. Yet, the dynamic is the same as in a morality play---- the audience easily recognizes the perfidy and falseness of the villain; the hero is totally unable to do so. This huge gap between the audience and the hero is closed (not completely, though) in subsequent tragedies. Later, in Macbeth and King Lear, the Vice figures are family members of the hero (Lady Macbeth and Goneril and Regan), making the temptation more difficult to 31
  32. 32. discern: family loyalty and love cloak and complicate the Vice-Everyman relationships and further disguise and bury the sun-coal morality play at the center. The later Vices are also women, whereas traditional Vice roles were always played by men. In later plays, the hero’s choice to follow the Vices’ suggestions later becomes a smoother more natural and organic action, less of a multi-part, mechanical, orchestrated ordeal as it seems to be in Othello. That is why critics point to Iago as a Vice, but not to Lady Macbeth or Goneril and Regan as Vices, although that is basically what they are in the coal-sun morality plays. In Macbeth and King Lear, Shakespeare subtly channels the power and structurally forceful simplicity of the old moralities, but he brings characterization and plot development up to such sophisticated levels that the morality play at the center becomes virtually impossible to detect. Desdemona’s pleading for the “Virtue” side is also a more complex version of the traditional Virtue’s appeals. Desdemona asks for clemency for Cassio: since Cassio has gotten into trouble through the wiles of Iago and then Iago has suggested to him that he ask Desdemona to intervene on his behalf, it is hard at first to see Desdemona as a self-standing Virtue with her own independent claims to goodness or justice. Yet her appeals for clemency for Cassio are the more complex manifestation of the same basic mechanism as older Virtue’s claims: because the audience knows that Cassio was ‘framed’ (through the engineered drunken revels of Iago), the audience also knows that Cassio’s claims for clemency are 32
  33. 33. completely just. It is only Everyman who fails to understand the whole picture in the old morality plays; it is only Othello who has doubts and cannot allay them. The audience of the old morality plays, and the audience of Othello, is always perfectly aware of the true polarities that undergird the competing claims of the Vice and Virtue figures. Later King Lear and Macbeth hardly get much chance to speak much to the sun figure (Virtue) characters (Cordelia and Duncan) and hear them out. The pleas by the Virtue characters to the Everyman figures become minimal and abstract; the audience’s awareness of the Virtue characters’ absolute status (as sun figures) becomes weakened and blended with other concerns in response to a process of skillful camouflage that was intentional on the playwright’s part. The morality play structure is there if you know, Hermetically, what to look for (the imagery tells the story) otherwise it is hard to see. Shakespeare thus uses the important word “sulphur”. Othello says “roast me in sulphur” (V.ii.289) only at the climax of the play, when Othello feels the full weight of his error—then can the playwright briefly and clearly point the finger at coal (although the connection is a little oblique for us today since we hardly ever smell coal fires, which used to release huge quantities of sulphur). However, Othello does use an allusion to sulphur when he responds to Desdemona’s remark that she would like to reconcile Cassio and Othello: Othello responds, “Fire and brimstone” (IV.i.232), as a kind of rude epithet. (Brimstone can mean sulphur or it can also mean the fires of hell). 33
  34. 34. He already has become poisoned by Iago’s “mines of sulphur”, in other words. Everyman is well on his way to choosing the Vice. Desdemona----the Virtue----the “flaming minister” I would like to escape out of Shakespeare for a moment to another work, to the Index of Robert Weimann’s book, Shakespeare and the Popular Tradition in the Theater. The book is wonderful as a whole, but is there not something odd about the fact that the entry for the word “Vice” has over forty pages cited where one may read up on this manifestly fascinating character------while the entry for the word “Virtue”---the other important character in the morality interludes!-- is simply nonexistent! Let us leave that idea for a moment while we jump over to Park Honan’s Shakespeare: A Life, a sensitive, excellent biography which also contains knowledgeable commentary and criticism. “Desdemona is warmly humanized…but she remains opaque. One knows her less well than Gertrude, or Lady Macbeth, Goneril and Regan, or even Cleopatra” (Honan 316). Returning to Romeo and Juliet again for a moment, let’s examine how Juliet, a Virtue (sun figure) character, differs from Desdemona. When Shakespeare wrote Juliet’s lines, he made no effort to have her partake in the (Christian) conventions of the Virtue role. The sun-coal morality play is a bare framework; she is therefore a deracinated Virtue: yet she need not do much except play herself, a shining, beautiful, attractive, presence. The secret play is 34
  35. 35. sequestered within and defined by the four scenes where Romeo and Juliet interact (without any other characters to interfere). With Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare wisely and completely neglected, except in a formal sense, the pietical conventions of the old morality interludes. But jump, now, back to Desdemona. Poor Desdemona! Why is she “opaque”? Why does Park Honan spend half a page describing Juliet (her “high style”, her “sexual ardor”, the “intensity of her love” (Honan 212)), but not Desdemona? Why does Iago have many more lines than Desdemona, though Juliet has more lines than Mercutio? Desdemona seems almost to be a Virtue character at a disadvantage. And moreover, why could not Weimann provide even one reference for the Virtue character, Desdemona’s precursor, in his index? With Othello, Shakespeare decided to take a different tactic than with Romeo and Juliet. He decided to respect and honor some of the more formal, homiletic, and pietical aspects of the morality interludes. The Virtue and Vice characters each are given due time to persuade the Hero to agree with them. Iago, as we have seen, is developed with some strict formal parameters in mind, not an organic and pure Vice figure like Mercutio, but a strange (not entirely successful) synthesis of the old and new: political commentary on coal’s negative effects (Shakespeare’s indirect moralizing) coupled with drunken and riotous carousing. Maybe Shakespeare simply tried too hard to be faithful to the conventions. But in the end, sadly and unfairly, it is Desdemona, and not Iago, who pays the heaviest price in terms of 35
  36. 36. believable characterization! Since she is the Virtue, that seems to be a shame. But perhaps, in the old moralities, the Virtue characters were never as appealing and as sparkling as the Vice characters. (We can guess, therefore, just how much of a unique creation---an amazing achievement---is the fascinating character of Juliet; she outshines everyone even though she is the Virtue!) Poor Desdemona! I say this not just because she is murdered, “smothered” on stage, horrifically, after a deranged Othello spends many lines accusing her unjustly. The fact that she raises her voice after being smothered to tell Emilia, (who has asked, “who hath done this deed?”,) “Nobody; I myself. Commend me to my kind lord. O, farewell!” (V.ii.124-5), also must make anyone feel queasy: isn’t Shakespeare following the convention of the Virtue (Is he trying to depict Mercy? Or is it Charity?) here just a little bit too closely, to the point where the character becomes a caricature, or perhaps even a ghost? Poor Desdemona! While Juliet gets a magnificent soliloquy to proclaim in strong tones, “Gallop apace, you fiery-footed steeds/Towards Phoebus’ lodging…” (II.iii.1-2), Desdemona’s connection to the sun is most memorably announced by the insane ramblings of her mate on his way to end her life: Put out the light, and then put out the light: If I quench thee, thou flaming minister, 36
  37. 37. I can again thy former light restore, Should I repent me; but once put out thy light….(V.ii.7-10) While the term “flaming minister” is indeed memorable, vivid, and (in some way) redolent of the sun, it is also a little bit overripe and abstract. Desdemona suffers from being half way between Juliet and the later and more sophisticated sun figures (Duncan, Cordelia), who more abstractly partake in the older Virtue conventions. We have to remember that in order to get to Cordelia and Duncan, Shakespeare had to go through Desdemona. Juliet was a unique and first achievement: she was “ladybirds and lambs”, the sparkling poetry and the “glove” upon Romeo’s hand: she was the nature of Stratford-on-Avon combined with the literary power of ancient myths about the sun, and she was a unique invention and an apotheosis. But, as a sun figure, she could not be replicated. Shakespeare created Desdemona by going back and relocating the Virtue within the tradition of the morality play, not an easy process, and maybe a thankless one, since the Vice was always the star of the show and always had been. Desdemona therefore seems to be a permanent victim: we have to remember that the Virtue character always pled her case but lost anyway, or where was the drama? In Macbeth and King Lear, Shakespeare (very!) wisely has the sun figures die off stage. Did he therefore realize how melodrama undercut the essential sharpness and clarity of his scientific message? Jealousy is one thing---insanity and derangement are quite different. 37
  38. 38. Macbeth kills Duncan because of ambition. Lear chooses Regan and Goneril because of their elegant and complex language. There can be a unity in the motivation (an allegorical commentary on the action of coal upon the economy) of the Everyman character and in his action to reject the sun economy. But in Othello, this unity becomes clouded by the switch from jealousy to rampant nuttiness (e.g.: Desdemona won’t “betray more men” (V.ii.6)): but of course, Othello wouldn’t kill his own wife if he weren’t rampantly nutty, and so on. Poor Desdemona, indeed.) Some details remain to be briefly elucidated: Desdemona is often associated with “heaven”. The obvious idea is that she is morally excellent, of course, but hidden is the idea that she is a sun figure. This play also uses the words “Virtue” and “Vice” over and over again, almost too repetitively and self-consciously. The Egyptian Handkerchief The main source for the basic plot of Othello is Giraldi Cinthio’s Hecatommithi (III.7). Critics have noted some of the basic differences between Shakespeare’s play and the Giraldi work. One point is peculiar and there have been many critics who have speculated on this point: why is Desdemona’s handkerchief “wrought in Moorish wise most subtly” (Muir 132) in Giraldi’s work, but this same handkerchief has an Egyptian origin in Othello?: Othello: That handkerchief 38
  39. 39. Did an Egyptian to my mother give; She was a charmer, and could almost read The thoughts of people. She told her, while she kept it, ‘Twould make her amiable, and subdue my father Entirely to her love; but if she lost it, Or made a gift of it, my father’s eye Should hold her loathed, and his spirits should hunt After new fancies. (III.iv.55-63) ……..there’s magic in the web of it. A sibyl, that had numb’red in the world The sun to course two hundred compasses, In her prophetic fury sew’d the work.. (III.iv.69-72) If Shakespeare labored over Othello to establish the connections with the play to the world of morality plays, then he also wanted to show (in allegory) how his philosophical ideas had a provenance in Egyptian Hermeticism. The handkerchief becomes then a kind of original secret, a magic talisman that symbolizes Hermetic knowledge. Without the clear view that Juliet, Desdemona, Cordelia, Duncan etc. are sun figures who partly absorb and partake in meaning from the (scientific and mystical) heliocentrism of Giordano Bruno, one of the exponents of Renaissance Hermeticism, one would not have any idea that the handkerchief 39
  40. 40. actually refers back to Hermes Trismegistus. However, with a clear picture of the secret morality plays, we can get a fuller view of the handkerchief. Embedded in the history of the handkerchief are the elements of Hermeticism that were important to Bruno and were obviously also important to Shakespeare. These are mainly 1) the emphasis on the sun and 2) the presence of magic. First, let’s look at the handkerchief-sun connection. Othello relates that: “a Sibil/That had numb’red in the world/The sun to course two hundred compasses/In her prophetic fury sew’d the work.” What, exactly, is a Sybil? It is a pagan prophetess. One appears also in Marsilio Ficino’s foreword of his translation of the Corpus Hermeticum (1463): At the time of Moses’ birth, there lived in Atlas, the astrologer, who was the brother of the physicist Prometheus and, on the mother’s side, the grandfather of the elder Mercury, whose grandson was Mercury Trismegistus. Augustine wrote this concerning him, while Cicero and Lactantius were of the opinion that this Mercury was the fifth, and that it was the fifth Mercury who was called Theut by the Egyptians and Trismegistus by the Greeks. He supposedly killed Argus, ruled over the Egyptians, and gave them laws and letters. But he made the forms of the characters in the shapes of plants and living 40
  41. 41. beings……He is called Trismegistus, that is thrice great, because he was the greatest philosopher, the greatest priest, and the greatest king…..Mercury wrote a great number of books about knowledge of the divine, in which (by immortal God!) secret mysteries and astonishing oracles were revealed. He often spoke not just as a philosopher, but as a prophet…Augustine thus wonders whether he brought forth much from his knowledge of the stars or through the revelation of demons. But Lactantius does not hesitate to count him among the Sibyls and prophets. (Ficino, translated by Eckhard Kessler (on the Internet at VI.2003s09.htm.) Ebeling 62) (my emphasis) Shakespeare is very careful to connect the sun with the handkerchief-sewing Sybil in Othello’s speech. The originator of the handerchief, the sybil, is directly connected to the sun. What else do we know about the handkerchief? It seems that it has the magical power to maintain love and a sort of spiritual connection between Othello’s father and mother. Its loss would promote division and distrust----not just between Othello’s father and mother, but (the audience can pick it up easily) visiting the next generation, between Othello and Desdemona. In other 41
  42. 42. words, the vital (energetic, economic) connection between the sun (the sun figure Desdemona) and Everyman (Othello) would be sundered by the loss of the Heremetic wisdom, the powerful knowledge of the cosmos that the Hermeticist Bruno (for Shakespeare) especially represented. The magical element of the handkerchief goes also to Giordano Bruno’s scientific idea that connections, though invisible or unapparent, between disparate elements could be understood as part of a larger unified whole and that these connections could be used as a sort of magic. In Act V, something interesting happens: Othello changes his story about the handkerchief a tiny bit: he tells Gratiano, “It was a handkerchief, an antique token/My father gave my mother” (V.ii.216-7) Why does he change the story? Is he disoriented by the end of the play. Did Shakespeare not note the discrepancy? The most likely explanation is that Othello’s mistake symbolizes that the all-important Hermetic knowledge of nature and the magical connections unifying the cosmos has been terribly and irretrievably lost. We can even here read a bit of the feminist idea that the feminine (the “mother”, the sun, the natural figure, Desdemona) has been a little bit erased as the masculine (the “father”, coal, Iago, patriarchy) has overpowered Othello and forced him to rewrite history with the male now as the primary voice of authority: He has lost the handkerchief. The sibil, another female figure, is also gone from his story. Conclusion 42
  43. 43. Othello is clearly a transitional work which seeks to position Shakespeare’s ideas among some scholarly and historic cultural, artistic, and philosophical outposts. Beyond that, it has some very excellent poetry, some ravishing images; it is always itself, I could say, slightly altering Iago’s lines. But it does suffer in comparison to Romeo and Juliet (which is not so labored, heavy handed and analytical) and in comparison to Macbeth and King Lear , where Shakespeare freed himself from the oppressive feeling (very pervasive in Othello) that he had to position his work heavy-handedly in dramatic history. References Ebeling, Florian. 2007. The Secret History of Hermes Trismegistus: Hermeticism from Ancient to Modern Times. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. Evans, G. Blakemore, ed. 1974. The Riverside Shakespeare. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. Freese, Barbara. 2003. Coal: A Human History. London: Penguin Books. Greenblatt, Stephen. 2004. Will in the World: How Shakespeare became Shakespeare. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company. Honan, Park. 1999. Shakespeare: A Life. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Weimann, Robert. 1978. Shakespeare and the Popular Tradition in the Theater. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins Press. Reprinted 1987. 43