Let There Be Light!


The Devil is in the details.

I mentioned that I’m spending an extra week with Othello in order to reread the play from the beginning.  Throughout the first reading, certain passages struck me as important without my knowing exactly why.  Others rang bells of thunderous musicality, despite my inability to make complete sense out of them.  The play is just too damn good to rush through.

I’m only on Act 1 so far, but already something has caught my attention that I missed the first time.  I may have mentioned my theory that Shakespeare self-consciously employs a Moor in the role of hero in order to play cat-and-mouse with audience expectation regarding light and darkness.  Already in the first few scenes I see this, rather than merely later on, after Othello enters.

The story begins at night, in darkness, introducing the theme of ignorance as a form of Jungian shadow that mischief (or the Devil) can easily prey upon.  Roderigo is unaware both that Desdemona, the lady of his unrequited affections, has married, and that Iago, whom he trusts with his money, is frittering away or embezzling funds.  When Iago presents the “truth,” he’s able to shape it to suit his own ends.

Iago’s lies (or half-truths) are abetted by false trust, or, as Cassio later laments, “reputation, reputation, reputation.”  Without that, Iago’s schemes would never get off the ground.  He’s a grifter, exploiting blind spots where people willingly fill in what they want to see.  Iago’s craftiness lies in his ability to nudge these tendencies along

Doubt, greed, lust, envy – those are but a few of the raw materials that Iago works with – not his own, though there is that as well which will bite him in the end.  But in his victims.  Roderigo’s thwarted desire for Desdemona has created within him a vulnerability that cunning Iago leverages to his own advantage.  In fact, Roderigo is such an emotional puppydog that Iago manages to manipulate him in all sorts of fiendish ways.

Roderigo has put emotion above fact, ego above reality, perception above truth – and thus he lives in a form of self-induced darkness.  No wonder then that he is on the streets, hanging out with Iago instead of being in bed asleep like upstanding city folks such as Brabantio.  This is the hour when good men and women ought to be indoors awaiting the light of new day to dawn.

Roderigo is awake and yet asleep, a sheep who misplaces his trust in a false shepherd.  “Truth” is more about perception than facts when people believe what they wish.  Credibility comes down to reputation – and what the listener chooses to hear.

Again to this point, Roderigo and Iago awaken Brabantio to the news that his daughter, Desdemona, has stolen away (under cloak of darkness) to lie with Othello.  Had she been a good daughter, she would be inside along with the rest of Brabantio’s household.  But instead, off she has fled, defying her father’s will and convention to be with the man she loves.

The striking line, the telling line, the line that literally leaps off the page and smacks me in the face comes after the warnings have hit home and Brabantio rouses his house to find out if the scandal is indeed true.

The setup begins:

Brabantio: Strike on the tinder, ho!

Give me a taper, call up all my people!

This accident is not unlike my dream,

Belief of it oppresses me already.

Light, I say, light!

And now here comes the key:

Iago (to Roderigo): It’s time for me to say goodbye to you.

Forget his excuses.  His exit follows hard on Brabantio’s cry for the light!

The light, the light, the light.

Ignorance festers in darkness.  It cannot withstand the light.  This Devil operates in shadow, where he is most at home.  Once the light is struck, Iago must make haste and withdraw.  He may be a vampire, for the light of truth will pierce his lies and expose him.

If Roderigo, Cassio and Iago knew the truth, they each would have rooted Iago out and ended his scheming long before it ended in tragedy. Because the darkness persists, whether by naiveté, willfulness, or a preference for illusions, humans will continue to be suckers for the hucksters, con artists, thieves and murderers who are more than happy to take ruthless advantage.

Let there be light!

UPDATE: the concluding lines of the first act only convince me further.

IAGO: Hell and night
Must bring this monstrous birth to the world’s light.


2 Responses to “Let There Be Light!”

  1. This is just wonderful. I, too, noticed the way Shakespeare set up the contrast between darkness and light. I hadn’t given much thought to the intentionality of Iago’s departure at that precise moment–I took it at face value, figuring that he just needed to leave because his obligation was with Othello. If the play has taught me anything, it is the importance of digging deeper, below the surface. “Let there be light”, indeed!

    • You’ll notice too that Iago specifically states that his monstrous plan is born of darkness into the light. He’s constantly keeping to the shadows. Shakespeare keeps this constant throughout. His genius becomes more staggering the closer you read.

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