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.