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Why would John Milton, a supposedly devout Christian writing at a time that to be otherwise risked not just outrage but in fact the bonfire, make of Satan such a spirited and, in fact, sympathetic character? C.S. Lewis had this answer in his own preface to the poem:

To make a character worse than oneself it is only necessary to release imaginatively from control some of the bad passions which, in real life, are always straining at the leash; the Satan, the Iago, the Becky Sharp, within each of us, is always there and only too ready, the moment the leash is slipped, to come out and have in our books that holiday we try to deny them in our lives.

which only convinces me that Lewis was not a careful reader of Shakespeare.

Following the lead of Harold Bloom in his book Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human I decided to read Othello along with Paradise Lost to appreciate just how much Milton’s Satan owed to Shakespeare’s Iago.

It’s not even close.

Iago is far more articulate, cunning, intelligent – far more evil, in fact, than Satan. In addition, Iago faces a more formidable foe in Othello than Satan faces in the vanilla pudding Eve. Eve’s single substantive contribution to the poem is to commit the slasher movie blunder – after hearing of a demon on the loose in the garden, she convinces the equally milquetoast Adam that they should split up for the day. Good move, Eve!

I’ll have more to say about Satan and Paradise Lost in another entry, but here I want to focus on the exquisitely painful play by Shakespeare.

Othello is Iago’s play, and the character of Iago gives lie to the Lewis quote I began with. To imagine that Iago is simply any one of us with our conscience cut away is to fundamentally misunderstand Iago’s evil genius. In the way Iago twists Othello’s mind, at first gently urging Othello away from jealousy, next exploiting Othello’s own feelings of other-ness, and finally preying upon Othello’s confused notion of proof, (and this synopsis – in fact any synopsis – is a wholly inadequate recounting of Iago’s genius). Iago displays an understanding of human nature that is astonishing in its revelation.

I’m interested in the question, “would I (or anyone else but Othello) have been trapped by Iago as Othello was?” Then I realize it’s the wrong question. Iago’s genius lay not in his particular actions, but in the way he reads his victims, first the ridiculous Roderigo, then the hapless Cassio, and on to the proud Moor. Even Desdemona herself Iago understands will champion Cassio to Othello in just the right way to heat Othello’s growing suspicions. If the characters had been different, so would have Iago. What poison, I wonder, might Iago have poured into my ear?

Lawrence Fishburne as Othello and Kenneth Branaugh as Iago

Laurence Fishburne as Othello and Kenneth Branagh as Iago

The only characters Iago doesn’t understand are his own wife Emilia and, ultimately, himself. It is his failure to appreciate Emilia’s sense of justice and loyalty that leads to Iago’s final undoing, but more interesting, I think, is Iago’s failure to understand his own motivation for evil. Iago’s utter clarity of understanding regarding others’ consciousness combined with this self-blindness are perhaps the most interesting parts of his character.

Was Shakespeare merely letting himself be evil through Iago? No. Iago is not Hamlet. His lack of self-knowledge, combined with his utter clarity regarding the minds of others, make Iago something frighteningly unique. C.S. Lewis is wrong.

Before leaving this play, I want to mention its relation not to Paradise Lost, but to the book I finished just prior to opening Othello, Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles. There are striking similarities regarding the attitudes toward women that the two works explore. Tess, as I wrote earlier, was condemned by an immoral society. Desdemona, too, was judged and found guilty of that which only an immoral society could find criminal. But while Hardy shone quite a negative light on Tess’s tormentor husband Angel, Shakespeare shows Othello as villainous only because he is wrong.

What if Desdemona had been guilty of adultery? Shakespeare’s audience would, presumably, not in that case have seen so much tragedy in her murder. What about us? Would we be prepared. if not to exonerate Desdemona entirely, at least to spare her life?

Even Othello admits that adultery, if not discovered, is essentially a victimless crime:

What sense had I of her stol’n hours of lust?
I saw’t not, thought it not, it harm’d not me:
I slept the next night well, was free and merry;
I found not Cassio’s kisses on her lips:
He that is robb’d, not wanting what is stol’n,
Let him not know’t, and he’s not robb’d at all.

In our modern enlightened world, while adultery may hurt you in divorce proceedings, it won’t land you jail time, much less execution. And yet it’s Desdemona’s very innocence of the deed that makes her death such a tragedy. Isn’t it? Would we be nearly so horrified had Othello killed a guilty wife?

Irene Jacob's Desdemona with Iago

Irene Jacob’s Desdemona with Iago

Here I think we run into the very thing that makes Shakespeare both dated and timely. We find antiquated ideas in Shakespeare all the time, such as the gender-based double standards in Measure for Measure and the fear of “the other” in The Merchant of Venice. Yet somehow Shakespeare remains relevant, because we recognize his characters as human, very much like us.

We can’t escape human nature. Yet to act on the impulses of our nature – impulses for sex, for power, for revenge – results in chaos, as we see again and again in Shakespeare’s best works.

It remains true today. Our rules have changed, but the fundamental question remains. How do we reconcile a society of individuals with a biology and a psychology that pushes us to sometimes view fellow humans as means to an end? We still don’t have an answer. I suspect we never will. And that’s why Shakespeare still matters.

We’re better now.

Yes, we’re far from perfect.

And in some parts of the world we’re even worse.

But the progress we’ve made since the Enlightenment is remarkable.

In my effort to broaden myself beyond just science and Shakespeare, I read Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles, a book that drives home for me just how far we’ve come, how far we still have to go, and how writers like Hardy, in fits and starts, and maybe despite what they think they’re doing, help us get there.

Briefly, Tess Durbeyfield is a young peasant girl in late 19th century England. Her parents are poor, as are her prospects. Through some convoluted storytelling Tess finds herself involved with one Alec d’Urberville, who proceeds to harrass, bully, and finally rape our heroine.

OK, there’s some controversy, purposely engendered by Hardy, about whether Tess was truly raped. Hardy’s Victorian prose is so fastidiously non-sexual that you’re never quite sure what happened between Tess and her assailant – only that Tess got away from Alec as quickly as she could afterwards, and that their time together resulted in a pregnancy.

Tess never communicates her news to Alec, and soon after the baby is born he dies. Yet that isn’t close to the most tragic event of the book.

All the later tragedy spews forth from one Angel Clare, a non-believing son of a minister. Angel falls in love with Tess and, despite her protestations that she’s not good enough for him, essentially browbeats her into finally marrying him. Then, on their wedding night (after Angel divulges his own checkered sexual past) in a fit of conscience Tess reveals all. Angel is repulsed, declaring that Tess isn’t who he thought she was, and immediately runs off to Brazil. Really.

The rest of the story doesn’t bear repeating, though I have to say the final chapters surprised me as much as if our protagonists had been abducted by space aliens and whisked across the Milky Way (that’s not what happens, but almost as crazy).


Here’s Tess, with that pathetic excuse for an athiest Angel behind her. And yes, that’s Stonehenge. You have to read to find out. (Actually that’s Gemma Arterton in the BBC miniseries. Another gift of the Enlightment – the BBC!

Here’s my point. Tess of the d’Urbervilles is a book about an immoral society. I’m not talking about a society that allows rape. In fact, for my argument it doesn’t even matter if Tess was actually raped or not (by the way, she was. So stop arguing).

No, I’m talking about a society that condemns Tess for losing her virginity and giving birth to a baby out of wedlock. Of course, many people through history, and sadly even some today, remain confused about what morality is. They think morality is all about controlling behavior based on some ancient book or set of norms. That’s not morality. As Steven Pinker points out in The Better Angels of Our Nature:

The universality of reason is a momentous realization, because it defines a place for morality. If I appeal to you to do something that affects me . . . I have to state my case in a way that would force me to treat you in kind. I can’t act as if my interests are special because I’m me and you’re not.

Morality, then, is not a set of arbitrary regulations dictated by a vengeful deity and written down in a book; nor is it the custom of a particular culture or tribe. It is a consequence of the interchangeability of perspectives . . .

If all this sounds banal and obvious, then you are a child of the Enlightenment and have absorbed its humanist philosophy. As a matter of historical fact, there is nothing banal or obvious about it.

TBAoON, pp 230-231

Through the skill of the storyteller, we can all see ourselves as Tess. We can see how we can be thrust by circumstances into unhappy situations, how we can struggle with conflicting pressures, emotions, loyalties, and desires. We can develop empathy. And we can, via this empathy and via our own ability to reason, see that a society that punishes young women so harshly and so unfairly is by its very nature immoral.

Well, any lunkhead can see that. (Though, as Pinker points out, plenty of lunkheads in the past didn’t see it. And as my links above show, plenty of lunkheads who are not children of the Enlightenment still don’t see it today.)

What I find more interesting are the contradictions we see in Hardy’s book – contradictions that bring us closer to the question I’m most interested in – how did we get better?

First, let’s consider Angel Clare. It’s saying something that most readers of Tess of the d’Urbervilles hate Angel, mild-mannered and (mostly) peaceful suitor of Tess, at least as much as they hate the rapist Alec. Angel, the child of a preacher and his devout and devoted wife, is probably about as close to an atheist as Hardy could get away with writing in late 19th century Victorian England. While it’s never clear that Angel’s lack of belief is the cause of his immoral treatment of Tess, Hardy makes the point that Angel’s parents, because of their faith-based willingness to forgive sinners, would have advocated for Tess if only they’d known the truth.

I don’t know much about Hardy’s views on religion, though his references to pagan and natural spirituality throughout Tess are suggestive. But I think here Hardy is falling back on old fear and superstition. As religion gradually fell out of favor (a fall that continues to this day), many feared the consequences. I think Hardy is writing Angel’s character as a cautionary tale – without our religious mercy, we are in danger of becoming cold to the messiness of real life. Angel’s lack of belief doesn’t free him – rather, it traps him in a worldview devoid of forgiveness.

(Not that Tess needed forgiven; she was raped! Also, even if she wasn’t, Angel, you just admitted his own infidelity, you hypocrite – so get over yourself! OK, rant over.)

This is hogwash. One of the primary tenets of Enlightenment humanism is that people are fallible. No knowledge is absolute, and therefore no person’s actions are perfect. We all need to forgive one another because we’re all capable of error (again, not that Tess made an error!) If Angel didn’t absorb this lesson, it’s in spite of Enlightenment values, not because of them.

Second, consider the world Tess inhabited. It’s pretty clear that Hardy has strong views about the “old” ways and the “new” ones. Reading about Tess’s experience as a humble milkmaid on a simple dairy farm, one hears the word “bucolic” echoing around as if a thesaurus threw up all over the page. It’s ideal. It’s simple. It’s non-mechanistic. It’s human.

On the other hand, when Tess is forced by Angel’s rejection to take work on a mechanized farm, the images Hardy paints are straight from Hell – fiery furnaces, dangerous, dehumanizing, and exhausting tasks that seem never to end, a heartless supervisor who cares only for profits.

Well, fine. While I suspect that pre-industrial farm life was hardly a walk in the park (the word bucolic always makes me think of catching horrible diseases from animal poop, so maybe I’m biased), there’s no doubt that modernization pressed many workers into harsh and dangerous employment. But what else did it bring?

Pinker again:

One technology that did show a precocious increase in productivity before the Industrial Revolution was book production.

-TBAoON, page 219

Pinker then goes on to describe how increased availability of books, due to mechanical and industrial methods of production, let to greater literacy, which in turn led to greater demand for books, which led to more and more reading. And what were we reading? Novels! Novels that put us in the minds of people different from us. Aristocrats read about the lives of the peasants they’d never known. Whites read about the experiences of black slaves. And men found out what it might be like to be a teenage girl in a society that would shame her for being raped and condemn her for bearing the child of her rapist.

Hardy seems to be saying that our modern world, dehumanizing and merciless, is making us less and less moral. I say he’s got it exactly backwards. We were always immoral – judgmental, short on empathy, more interested in codes and obedience than in rights and freedom. It was the values of the Enlightenment, and the advances in wealth and prosperity that it brought, that allowed us our first tentative escapes from the immoral world of our ancestors. No, that world is not perfect. Yes, modernization can feel dehumanizing. But we can make that better. We can reason with our bosses, and with the government, that better working conditions make for more efficient workers. We can argue that, because you = me, we all deserve safe factories, safe food, better health care, universal education, and free public libraries full of books that expand our reason and our empathy. We are getting better, and it’s because of the Enlightenment and the values it engendered, not in spite of them.

I also say that Tess of the d’Urbervilles would have been better with some space aliens.

Next I’ll be reading Shakespeare’s Othello, another tale about the complications of female purity. That will lead me on to a re-visiting of Milton’s Paradise Lost, a poem I faked my way through some 30 years ago. This time, for real.

My first book, called The Turtle and the Universe, was published by Prometheus Books in July 2008. You can read about it by clicking on the link above.
My second book, Atoms and Eve, is available as an e-book at Barnes and Noble. Click the link above. You can download the free nook e-reader by clicking the link below.
August 2015
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A blog by Stephen Whitt

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