The Sleep of Reason

I’m going there.  I have no choice.  The matter will come up eventually so we may as well get to it now.

In rereading the tavern scene from Act II in which Iago manages to get Cassio drunk in order to stir up trouble, what struck me most was how Cassio curses the wine as a “devil” that transformed him into a beast.

O though invisible spirit of wine, if thou hast no name to be known by, let us call thee devil!

(…) Oh, that men should put an enemy in their mouths to steal away their brains!  That we should, with joy, pleasance, revel and applause, transform ourselves into beasts!

(…) To be now a sensible man, by and by a fool, and presently a beast!  Oh, strange!  Every inordinate cup is unblessed and the ingredient is a devil.

We get the point.  Cassio is upset because he has allowed himself to let his guard down, to enjoy a little wine, get a little drunk, and to make a big ass out of himself – which leads directly to his demotion by Othello.  The critical issue here is that Cassio blames his suffering on the loss of his reasoning faculty, that the impairment of his judgment has led directly to a loss of reputation.

Iago, speaking to Roderigo later in the same act says:

Thou know’st we work by wit and not by witchcraft.

So how different is the reasoning faculty of Cassio from Iago’s?  Why is Cassio a moral being while Iago is not?  What quality separates them – and how is Iago able to exploit Cassio to his own advantage?  Is that a matter of misplaced trust, of bad judgment?  How can Iago be so precise, so exacting in his villainy and yet so in charge over himself?

His plans, like that of any great villain, make cold, cruel, logical sense.  What then is the human capacity that separates us from being beasts?

To further complicate the issue, Iago relishes a sadistic, twisted moral inversion when he contemplates how he will undo Cassio and Desdemona by their own virtue and goodness.  My blood turns to ice when he says:

(Of Cassio)

How am I a villain 

To counsel Cassio to this parallel course,

Directly to his good.  Divinity of hell!

When devils will the blackest sins put on

They do suggest at first with heavenly shows

As I do now…

(And of Desdemona)

And by how much she strives to do him good

She shall undo her credit with the Moor.

So will I turn her virtue into pitch

And out of her own goodness make the net

That shall enmesh them all.

Othello gets into trouble by allowing jealousy to overcome his faith and intuition.  Iago unleashes his lechery out of revenge.  Cassio is unbalanced by drink and a misplaced trust in friendship.  Emilia (who catches herself) in her husband.  And poor Desdemona behaves with reverence and regard for everyone else’s welfare but her own.  Each of these is “reasonable” in their own way…and yet for each, reason is not enough.

What might Desdemona do differently to change her fate?  Or Cassio?  Or Othello?  Or Emilia?  Or Iago?  What is their downfall, their Achilles heel, their fatal flaw?  Is there a single moral thread here that runs through them all?

I would argue that there isn’t; that Shakespeare confounds our simple attempts at explanations.  Just as, when Iago entertains Desdemona by witty wordplay, he pronounces that even the most perfect of women will end up suckling nitwits and cutting coupons, we all have our virtues and our undoings.  Each of us is subject to a host of individual vices.

Is logic enough? Not for Cassio.

Is virtuousness enough? Not for Desdemona.

Is heroism enough? Not for Othello.

Is loyalty enough? Not for Emilia.

Is civic duty enough? Being a good parent? Not for Brabantio.

The Age of Reason posited a notion that man’s rational faculties could lift him from out of a primitive state of darkness.  Through laws, by education, with conversation and debate, men and women could raise themselves from a bestial mode into one of sound judgment, equitable treatment, civic fairness, and societal goodness.

But is Iago not a rational creature?  And if so, what chances do we mortals then have?  To what higher sense of self or divinity can one turn to improve the lot of everyone?  Religion?  Government?  To our elitist minds and thinkers?

Why can’t Iago stop himself?  What prevents the other characters from seeing through his charade, to stop trusting him at face value?  What defenses do we have to prevent ourselves from being taken advantage of in this same way?

I told you I didn’t want to go there.

But these are questions that needed to be asked, not just now but over the course of the entire year.  Especially when we arrive at Romeo & Juliet – and address the nature of true love.



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