What Are You Thinking?

Now that I’ve finished reading Othello on my own, I’m open to opinions and suggestions from secondary sources (and your commentary) to expand and/or contradict what I’ve written here.  I understand it’s a bit foolish to publicly flail your way through the greatest works in Western literature…but then, hey, the whole idea is that we all have to do this for ourselves at some point.  We can’t let teams of experts tell us what to think and believe about everything.

That said, I dove headfirst into a book by Mr. Colin McGinn called “Shakespeare’s Philosophy: Discovering the Meaning Behind the Plays.”  if curious, you can read more about that HERE.

What had me most curious was how a professor of philosophy would approach the text, rather than the usual literary historian or critic.  To say that I was thunderstruck would be an understatement.  My conceptual hinges were blown away by his suggestion that the play centers itself upon the conundrum of epistemology – the study of how we know what we know (and if it can be known at all).

I’d certainly seen elements of this for myself.  But it was the way Mr. McGinn honed in on this as his cornerstone proposition…that Shakespeare was acutely aware of the impassible bridge separating interior states of consciousness from one another.  Or, to put it another way, I may know what I’m thinking, but how can I ever be sure about you?

Once grasped, the implications take on a life of their own.  I found my face contorted in that Macaulay Culkin OMG Home Alone expression while scrawling yes Yes YES in the margins as if I were Molly Bloom.

This central thesis, and the companion notion that Shakespeare constructed the whole play around its core idea, makes perfect sense from the text as far as I’m concerned.  No, it can never (nor should it)  explain every nuance or flatten out its complexity or hidden layers of meaning.  But it does provide a firm grasp on what’s happening both at the meta-level as well as buried deep within the subterranean subtext of the individual characters.

It’s a point that recurs again and again and again in Othello: what do people know, how do they know it, and how can they be manipulated by somebody who is willing to not play by the rules?

We all operate to some extent in a state of darkness.  I don’t know what you’re thinking and you can’t be certain of me, even if I swear I’m telling the truth.  This is Desdemona’s problem as she attempts to convince Othello that she has remained faithful.  This is Othello’s problem as he weighs his intuitive trust in his wife with the psuedo-evidence that Iago has fabricated.  We can go down the list of characters – and even background events – and describe how appearances not matching up to reality underlies the troubles that climax in tragedy.  But that’s better left in the hands of Mr. McGinn.

For my own evidence, I turn to a striking dialogue between Othello and Iago, a pivotal moment that sways Othello from predominant faith in Desdemona to the tipping point of jealous madness.  In the span of hardly a page, Shakespeare keeps driving home the single word think.

OTHELLO: What dost thou think?

IAGO: Think, my lord?

OTHELLO: “Think, my lord?” Alas thou echo’st me

As if there were some monster in thy thought 

Too hideous to be shown…

IAGO: My lord, you know I love you.

OTHELLO: I think thou dost…

IAGO: For Michael Cassio

I dare be sworn, I think, that he is honest.

OTHELLO: I think so too.

IAGO: People should be what they seem,

Or those that be not, would they might seem none!

OTHELLO: Certain, men should be what they seem.

IAGO: Why then, I say Cassio is an honest man.

And therein lies the problem: Iago is lying!!!  Othello “thinks” he’s telling the truth.

Desdemona tells the truth…and Othello “thinks” that she is lying.

Here is the real tragedy in Othello.  And it’s woven into human nature and the human predicament itself.

This isn’t Othello’s story – or Iago’s or Desdemona’s for that matter.  It’s yours and mine and ours.  We deal with it every moment of every single day, even if our misunderstandings don’t necessarily lead to murder.

And yet it happens.

How many times do we turn on the television only to hear that same frightening news report from the shocked neighbors who swear that they had no idea a serial killer lived on the same street/ next door/around the corner?

Who is telling the truth and who is lying?  Whom do you trust?  What proof do you have?  What proof do you want or need?

Do you really know your husband or wife?  Your children?  Your best friend?  What secrets are they keeping?  What secrets do you keep from them?

That’s epistemology in a nutshell, folks.  And it’s why Othello is truly a creepshow – as well as a work of staggering genius –  that a horror master such as Stephen King might wish he’d dreamed up.

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2 Responses to “What Are You Thinking?”

  1. It’s 2am, and I am reading this in my living room, pumping my fist and shouting “YES! THIS!”. My roommate (and neighbors) must think I’m a loon.
    Honestly, this reflects my own thoughts as I’ve read (and written about) Othello. It’s the reason I’ve been wiping tears from my eyes all week.
    Can I tell you how many times I’ve jumped to one conclusion or another, only to be proven wrong to an embarrassing extent later on?
    How many times I’ve created some crisis, only to realize that the problems existed only in my mind?
    I am both Desdemona and Othello, to a heart-wrenching degree.
    Shakespeare has taken the mirror and turned it around on us. Something tells me this won’t be the last time.

    • It’s the key that unlocks much of the play for me. Not that there’s a skeleton key to Shakespeare, but for Othello, the certainty of information and trust definitely seems to be on his mind.

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