29 December 2015

"He hath a daily beauty in his life that makes me ugly..."

It has become something of a ritual. During the summer, I try to go back to Shakespeare. Like everything you are introduced to in school, there is always the temptation to consign his works to the bad fire as an adult, unread and unseen. You recall the clunky BBC adaptations. The emotionally-empty and unrelatable Gielgud-style performances. The stilted readings as your fellow students stumbled over the verse. Schooling wrecks drama - and poetry, for that manner - for too many people.

We had one teacher who insisted on reading out the whole of Hamlet himself in the same flat, perfunctory tone. Every Act, every scene, every character. We empathised more, I think, with the Prince of Denmark's "to be or not to be" speech than might otherwise have been the case, as we watched the rain wash from the concrete, slowly staining the classroom windows white. But the fun, the spice, the messy humanity, the psychological and emotional dimensions -- too often they died upon the page.

I came to see things differently when I lived down south, and found myself cast in one of Shakespeare's trickiest comedic plays during an Oxford summer - Taming of the Shrew. I was Hortensio - a quivering, sexually inept monkfish of a man, who gets cracked over the noggin with a lute and ends up in a loveless marriage with a dragon lady, the elusive but brattish Bianca having slipped from his faltering, amorous grasp. Bloody type casting. The experience was enlightening and enjoyable in any number of respects, but performing the work freed it from the lifeless worthiness of the schooltext into something else. It became easier to read it on recognisably human terms rather than the epic, joyless, sexless high poetry it seemed like in school.  These aren't prim Victorian morality plays.

But even then, sitting in your garden, trying to conjure the plays into imaginative life can be work, hard work. Until I read Othello this summer. The play had remained high on the shelf, neglected, for years. Rarely, if ever, has the rendering of a character on the page struck my imagination more forcefully or more troublingly than Iago. When you read John Byrne's scripts, for example, it's the Glasgow patter on acid. A vivid distillation of character, mood and time, the scenes conjure themselves in your mind's eye. Othello - quite unexpectedly - had the same quality for me. Psychologically, it sang.

We have a soft spot for beguiling villains, whose schemes play out against a grand tapestry of ambition, statecraft and high politics. Richard of Gloucester. Darth Vader. Francis Urquhart. As a child, steeped in the Disney films of the 1990s, the scoundrels of the piece always seemed to me more charismatic than the heroes rendered in pastel shades. I'd take Maleficent and Scar over Prince Charming and Mufasa any day.

But there is something about the smallness of Iago's schemes, their pointlessness, their family scale -- which makes him both despicable and profoundly disturbing. The intimacy of the setting intensifies his hatefulness. And is this, perhaps, what sets Iago apart from Richard III? Our world is full of Iagos and their wreak their cruelties in small places, close to home. I suppose every family knows at least one person, who embodies his bleak and motiveless malice. 

Iago has a haunting line, explaining why he wants to visit ruin on the blameless Michael Cassio: "He hath a daily beauty in his life that makes me ugly." It is chilling and precise expression of an all too familiar bitterness - that small, vampiric sensibility which can't see happiness without leeching at it. Badness, and rottenness. In literature, the devil often has all the best tunes. But in reality, wickedness has no dark glamour. Evil is, classically, banal. And if loving is to will the good of the other, in Iago, we find its complete abnegation.

Othello is a late entry, and an unanticipated one, but by some stretch my most memorable book of 2015.

6 comments :

  1. Proundly true:
    'But there is something about the smallness of Iago's schemes, their pointlessness, their family scale -- which makes him both despicable and profoundly disturbing. The intimacy of the setting intensifies his hatefulness. And is this, perhaps, what sets Iago apart from Richard III. Our world is full of Iagos and their wreak their cruelties in small places, close to home. I suppose every family knows at least one person, who embodies his bleak and motiveless malice.'

    Iagos are not uncommon and their slow running malice eats into souls. And they are good at passing for normals. Two I especially remember were a Kirk elder and a CPGB stalwart, both widely repspected for many years, despite them doing a fair amount of evil in their lives.

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  2. Scottish Labour is a collective Iago.

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  3. I haven't read Othello for many years, but I always thought that the most important function of Iago is that he is the only character in the play with a sense of humour. You're surely meant to compare the play's clown scene - a scene so terrible that it's sometimes claimed that Shakespeare didn't write it - with Iago's perfect Frankie Boyle line about "the beast with two backs." When you realise that Iago is authoring most of this play, it's reasonable to wonder whether it is a tragedy or actually a comedy.

    Desdemona might be a more sympathetic character than Iago, but after her marriage to Othello, she's essentially off stage for the rest of the play. Othello's remaining dramatis personae is a collection of bores and half wits.

    I'd recommend that you move straight from Othello to Herman Melville's Benito Cereno. Here Iago is reimagined as a revolutionary hero.

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    1. I don't think Iago has a sense of humour, more a finely tuned wit. He sees the disconnects and rejoices in them, cultivates and tinkers with them, like a Gnostic demiurge.

      If Blake's God of this World has a face it is Iago's - 'I am not what I am'

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    2. Whether humour or wit, Iago's outlook contaminates the entire play. Perhaps if he was not there, then Othello, Cassio, Brabantio - the whole wretched pack of them - would strike us as jovial, magisterial figures. But once Iago has taken us into his confidence, Venetian civilisation is suddenly revealed to be monumentally boring. Of course it has to be smashed up - what else is an intelligent person to do?

      Iago's achievement is not to engineer the humiliation of Othello - this, he botches. It is instead to dehumanise Othello and the other members of the establishment. His perspective turns them into cardboard.

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    3. Hmm - I am afraid we are far apart on this one my dear Tychy. Perhaps Borges had it right, seeing Iago as the bard himself sticking his neb into his universe -

      http://thefloatinglibrary.com/2008/07/30/everything-and-nothing-edit/

      'Nobody was ever as many men as that man, who like the Egyptian Proteus managed to exhaust all the possible shapes of being. At times he slipped into some corner of his work a confession, certain that it would not be deciphered; Richard affirms that in his single person he plays many parts, and Iago says with strange words, “I am not what I am.” His passages on the fundamental identity of existing, dreaming, and acting are famous.'

      Have just looked back at Dr Johnson on Othello, wish his Preface had been longer -

      https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/j/johnson/samuel/preface/othello.html

      The canny old crypto-Jacobite knew all about how appearance could be tweaked, for good or evil

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