The Wisdom of Iago.
by Ezekiel Fry
In a society where everyone is in a constant state of upheaval as to how to view their surroundings it seems we often decide this by centering ourselves not by what we are for, but rather by what we are against. In this sense, it seems important to remember that the question of good and evil is nothing new. Moral uprightness, the idea that there is some underlying universal code, or Truth, that if we were to all follow would lead us to harmonious perfection, is based on a desire to see the world as one of clearly defined contrasts. In essence, it is the attempt to see only the black, and only the white, with a red line of rage placed in the middle to differentiate me from you. In my estimation this type of thinking leads not to oneness, but instead merely solidifies the red line even further. There are no absolutes in this life. With perhaps the exception of birth and death there is nothing in our existence as humans that we may confidently say is certain, and even these experiences of creation and demise are open to interpretation. The question is, how do we deal with one another, and how do we begin to understand not our separateness but our intrinsic unity? It is through, as the philosopher Odo Marquard points out, a celebration of the motley nature of human experience that we may gain some insight into this quandary.
William Shakespeare, some four hundred years ago, wrote, through the character of Hamlet, a basis for this discussion. In response to Guildenstern and Rosencrantz’s denial of Hamlet’s assessment of Denmark (as a prison), Hamlet responds, “Why, then ‘tis none to you, for there is nothing either/ good or bad but thinking makes it so. To me it is a prison” (2.2.244-45). These lines are lost on the dense interlocutors, but they resound out of the play into our current state of affairs in the United States with eerie truth. From Hamlet’s perspective, we create our world of abstractions (the world of personal feeling, judgment, ideology) out of the tangible, or concrete realities of the world. Denmark exists, that is the certainty here, but what it may represent is clearly open to interpretation. The lens of the self takes Denmark and makes it stand for something else. The concrete texture of Denmark does not change, but the vision behind it becomes a mutable reality—something human. As Hamlet so accurately describes, we take a certainty and place our own secret world behind it never altering the thing itself, but forever shifting the ways in which we view it. It is this fundamental individuating process that gives rise to the desire to see things only as we ourselves view them, and to push aside the contrary, or the new.
Another of Shakespeare’s great figures, not that of the tragic hero, but the villain incarnate, may also give us an insight into this process of defining ourselves against the opposition. Othello’s Iago, in his pragmatic attempt to dissuade Roderigo from drowning himself, throws aside the shackles of virtue stating, “Virtue? A fig! ‘Tis in ourselves that we are thus or thus” (1.3.316). Iago’s motivations are assuredly not humanistic in this statement, but nevertheless the statement rings true. Building upon the concept of good and evil in perception put forth by Hamlet, Iago determines that what may be viewed as an evil for one may be viewed as a blessing by others. The definition arises from within. It is not “virtue” that dictates the nature of perception, but the private world of the self. The reality of Roderigo does not change, but the perception of its contents has shifted. The red line of differentiation, of universal opposition has become blurred.
Turning back now to our current moment in time in the United States, as the oppositional forces of “rightness” press against one another in perhaps the most vigorous manner since the mid-19th century, both Hamlet and Iago may hold a key to our own happiness, our motley unity. We are all living in the same reality, but it is within ourselves that we construct our conceptualization of “good” and “evil”, or “right” and “wrong.” There are no universal views, only a beautiful collection of varied experiences, and the sooner we realize this to be a basic truth the sooner we will cease to attempt to destroy one another within the red line of absolutes.
Marquard, Odo. In Defense of the Accidental. Oxford University Press, 1991.
Shakespeare, William. William Shakespeare: The Complete Works. Oxford University Press, 1988.