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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, now living in "Portlandia"!

Saturday, March 19, 2016

P.S. re Iago as Othello's Clown

In followup to my immediately preceding post about Iago disguising himself as the Clown in Othello, without Shakespeare explicitly telling the audience that this is the case, I have just had the following conversation in the Shaksper group:

Alan Dessen wrote: “For a very different (and learned) take on the clown in Othello see Lawrence J. Ross, “Shakespeare’s “Dull Clown” and Symbolic Music, Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 17, No. 2 (Spring, 1966), pp. 107-128.”

Yes, I read Ross’s article, and I would qualify what you wrote as follows---everything Ross wrote about the metaphorical significance of music in that first scene with the Clown in Othello takes on added significance if the Clown is actually Iago. Then, it’s as if Iago is a self-appointed chorus vulgarly yet insightfully and ironically having his own private joke, riffing on the conversation that Othello and Iago had shortly before about music. Read again what Watts (who cites Ross’s article) said on this point through the lens of my argument:

“Othello embraces Desdemona and kisses her saying: “And this, and this, the greatest discords be That e’er our hearts shall make!” While to one side, Iago comments “Oh, you are well tuned now! But I’ll set down the pegs that make this music, As honest as I am. (II.i) The rationalist Iago, who defeated Cassio by causing discord, cannot tolerate this demonstration of harmonious passion. He vows to ‘untune’ the music and thereby dispel the illusion that passion can be as ordered, meaningful, and cohesive as reason. Only a few scenes after this episode, the Clown enters and banishes music from the stage…”

 Whereas, if the Clown is just Othello’s servant, this becomes an artifice, a small jarring bit of unreality that detracts from the authenticity of the fictional world of the play.

Larry Weiss wrote:   “Arnie Perlstein offers an ingenious argument that we are meant to understand the Clown in “Othello” to be Iago in disguise.  I see one problem with that hypothesis which I hope he will ponder and address”

 Gladly, Larry, I really enjoyed your generous and well reasoned reply!

 Larry also wrote: “As Arnie observes, it has been suggested—persuasively in my opinion—that Iago was played by Robert Armin, the company’s “clown” in c. 1609.  It is also more than plausible that Shakespeare wrote the apparently trivial role of “Clown” to provide Armin with a traditional part for him, at least to satisfy the audience’s expectations.  If we assume that Armin doubled as Iago and Clown, what are we to believe the Jacobean audience understood by it?  They were well used to doubling and undoubtedly accepted the doubling player as two different characters.  Why would they believe that, in this instance, the doubling player was in fact one character who counterfeited another?  If they did, would they also believe that Lear’s Fool was Cordelia in disguise (probably also Armin doubling the parts)?”

Well, I am not sure, but even if such an interpretation was only accessible to a small elite who were intellectually prepared to be edified by the margent of Shakespeare’s ingenuity, that would hardly be the only aspect of Shakespeare’s genius which was not meant to be “caviare to the general”, right?

Larry also wrote: “In all other plays in which disguise is a plot feature, the audience is told unequivocally that, for example, Fidelio is really Innogen.  It would have been very easy for Shakespeare to give Iago a line or two to make clear that he is elaborating his deception to, in fact, be what he is not.  After all, Iago, like Richard III, is not averse to sharing his schemes with the audience.”

An excellent observation, but with all due respect, you beg the most important question –what if Shakespeare’s goal was precisely to simulate real life by NOT giving Iago that extra line or two – in real life, when we encounter other people, we do not have an omniscient author perched on our shoulder whispering “the truth” in our ear –instead, being human in a complex social world is a never ending challenge to ascertain the truth about others—and for that matter, about ourselves! And that entire experience would be denied to the reader/viewer if the answer were simply presented to us on a platter.

As I suggested in my first post, this sort of authorial trick is not malicious, it is didactic—it shows us how to interpret life, it does not tell us—and that is a much more effective, Socratic sort of teaching. As Elizabeth Bennet observes to her sister Jane near the end of Pride & Prejudice, in a speech that does not make it into the film adaptations, because its strangely Buddhist message does not seem to fit the romantic moment: “We all love to instruct, though we can teach only what is not worth knowing “

I say that Shakespeare,  and then Jane Austen two centuries later, both understood how to “teach” what was (and still is) worth knowing.

Larry finally also wrote: “All this being said, I agree with Arnie that his interpretation adds something.  I would have no objection to a director making the point explicit, saying by having Iago don a cap and bells or pick up a bauble in the sight of the audience before the first entrance of the Clown and then perhaps discard them as the Clown exits.  But this would be a directorial decision, which we would not have to accept as authorial.”

I only disagree with this otherwise excellent suggestion that the more powerful way of making this point would be for Iago’s disguise as the Clown be maintained intact for the audience until the Clown exits at the end of 3.4—whereupon, instead of entirely leaving the stage, we would see him at the extreme side of the stage, behind some sort of wall so as to be out of sight from Desdemona and Emilia, shed his disguise as the Clown, to reveal himself as Iago, and then for him to enter again right away as Iago! I believe this would be a wonderful, even electrifying moment, from a dramatic point of view, and it would allow for the message to get through to the audience, which would have just experienced the same sort of duping as Iago inflicts on everyone else in the play, but where we are rescued from our duped status before the play continues. I.e., we feel what it is like to be deceived, and so we can no longer rest assured that we would not be gulled by Iago if we were there. It takes us all down a peg.

 Again, Larry, thanks very much for exactly the sort of reply I hoped to receive, one that challenges me, and thereby assists me to extend my argument.

 Before I close, I wish to add one quick p.s. to my argument, which I dug up after posting yesterday. I was thinking about how Iago, as the Clown, seems to be Othello’s servant, and that made me wonder whether Shakespeare might have hinted at Iago as the Clown in other passages in the play. Well, talk about stumbling upon a rich lode of literary ore, check these passages out:

Why, there's no remedy; 'tis THE CURSE OF SERVICE,
Preferment goes by letter and affection,
And not by old gradation, where each second
Stood heir to the first. Now, sir, be judge yourself,
Whether I in any just term am affined
To love the Moor.
RODERIGO  I would not follow him then.
O, sir, content you;
We cannot all be masters, nor all masters
Cannot be truly follow'd. You shall mark
Many a duteous and knee-crooking knave,
That, doting on his own obsequious bondage,
Wears out his time, much like his master's ass,
For nought but provender, and when he's old, cashier'd:
Whip me such honest knaves. Others there are
Who, trimm'd in forms and visages of duty,
Keep yet their hearts attending on themselves,
Do well thrive by them and when they have lined their coats
Do themselves homage: these fellows have some soul;

 There you have Iago, in his own words, telling Roderigo (and the audience) that he is going to “throw a show of service” in Act 3, when he dons the disguise of a servant, in order to line his own coat! What a sharp, sharp irony it is to have Iago, who is in reality the master of all the other characters in the play, in terms of his ability to effortlessly manipulate them all like puppets on a string, accomplish part of his “master plan” (ha ha) via playing a servant!
 And then, much later in the play, when Iago has brought Othello to a foaming frenzy, Iago revisits the notion of himself as Othello’s servant when he utters the following during the perverse, impromptu “marriage ceremony” for himself and Othello that he spontaneously improvises:

IAGO Do not rise yet.
Witness, you ever-burning lights above,
You elements that clip us round about,
Witness that here IAGO DOTH GIVE UP
The execution of his wit, hands, heart,
And to obey shall be in me remorse,
What bloody business ever.

 Surely this wordplay on “service” in these two scenes, separated by several acts, is not accidental, or unconscious, on Shakespeare’s part. It is Shakespeare’s way of pinging our imagination subliminally, planting the seed of the idea of Iago not only as Othello’s servant in the concrete sense of his acting as ancient to a general, or in the metaphorical sense of his acting as Othello’s solicitous advisor, but in the sense of his taking on the role of Othello’s literal servant in the person of the “Clown”!


In SHAKSPER, Julia Griffin wrote:
“If the Clown really has to be someone else, why not Roderigo?  He has nothing to do in Cyprus except hang about paying Iago and getting into fights for him - and he seems to have travelled from Venice in the Iago-Desdemona-Emilia ship, without raising anyone’s interest.  Indeed, if she ever noticed him, Emilia seems to have forgotten him by Act V (“Cassio, my lord, hath kill’d a young Venetian/ Call’d Roderigo”).  Perhaps he went in Clown guise, in an usurped beard? If he is Roderigo, the Clown’s unfunniness and general tiresomeness would make perfect sense ...”

Julia, I’m really glad you embraced the possibility I’ve suggested, of a Shakespearean character in disguise (undisclosed to the reader/audience), and gave it real consideration. And, as you say, it’s certainly the case not only that the Clown is unfunny and tiresome like Roderigo, but also that Iago gives Roderigo several tasks to perform during the course of his plotting---so why couldn’t Iago have given Roderigo one more task, that Shakespeare does not permit us to observe?  Plus, Roderigo dressed up as the Clown would feel disinhibited and licensed to safely, verbally vent his sexual frustration at the former object of his desires (Desdemona) and the man who wooed her on Othello’s behalf (Cassio). All of this does make Roderigo a plausible suspect.

However, I still think Iago is a far better choice, for the following reasons:

ONE: As I’ve already detailed at length in my original posts, several other Shakespeare scholars have observed that the Clown eerily echoes Iago in numerous ways, including but not limited to his obscene punning about beasts and music, and the suggestion that each of these two roles was played by Robert Armin. None of those points fits Roderigo, nor has any scholar I’ve read (and I believe I’ve now read pretty much everything ever written about Othello’s Clown) ever suggested that Roderigo resembles the Clown.

TWO: As I also previously argued on my own account, the Clown’s apparently random interactions with Cassio and then Desdemona, upon examination, are not random at all. They perform the function of delaying Cassio’s and Desdemona’s movements at two crucial points, keeping them from speaking to each other and perhaps discovering Iago’s plot. That thereby enables Iago’s daring, improvised stage management to succeed. And it makes much more sense that Iago does this, rather than that he cons Roderigo into doing this, because things are moving REALLY fast at those two junctures, so there’s no time (or reason) for Iago to enlist Roderigo’s help. Iago has to turn on a dime and improvise, and he does.

THREE: When Roderigo and Iago have their final tete a tete in 4.3, not a word is said by either to indicate that Roderigo had just fulfilled Iago’s directions by acting as the Clown--not once, by the way, but twice. Iago would have stroked Roderigo’s ego, commending his acting ability, using that to further pump Roderigo up for his final task. But not a peep in that vein—that silence is deafening in this case.

FOUR: You raised a very interesting point about Emilia not seeming to be aware of Roderigo in Act 5. But there is a very good explanation, which actually fits with my claim. Here’s the passage when Emilia is told about Roderigo’s death:

EMILIA  'Las, what's the matter? what's the matter, husband?
EMILIA  Alas, good gentleman! alas, good Cassio!

It is clear from the above that Emilia has had no prior contact with Roderigo, nor does she know of Iago’s relationship with Roderigo. He’s nobody to her, so his name means nothing to her. Indeed, that’s precisely why Iago employs Roderigo at various points in the narrative as his secret agent---although we in the audience know all about their relationship, no one else does. That’s why, I suggest, Shakespeare seems to go out of his way to subtly alert us of this, by having Emilia ignore Iago’s report of Roderigo’s death, and focus instead only on Cassio’s being seriously injured.

FIVE: Above all, it simply fits perfectly with the Satanic Iago’s character to “assume an unpleasing shape” for him to assume a disguise. We get no sign that Roderigo could be Satanic in this way.

But after I sent the above message, I realized that I missed the point of her partial quotation of Iago's instructions to Roderigo prior to the voyage to Cyprus, which, in full, were:

"defeat thy favour with an usurped beard"

This somewhat cryptic line has generally been understood, by both scholars and directors alike, as Iago's advice to Roderigo to literally wear a beard to disguise himself while in Cyprus. And that interpretation would (obviously) lend support to Julia’s suggestion that the CLOWN is Roderigo in disguise as well, presumably also acting at Iago’s direction.

And I also revisited my reasons for seeing the CLOWN as Iago in disguise, and I’d like to add a few further comments in support of my interpretation:

If the CLOWN was Roderigo in disguise, then how to account for the fact that, tiresome and obnoxious as the CLOWN is, he is also very quick on his feet; and even if he doesn’t make us laugh, as we have come to expect from Shakespeare’s fools, he is clearly an intelligent, verbally facile person?  How do we reconcile that with the dullness of mind, in particular his gullibility, that we see in Roderigo in the rest of the play? We’d have to think of Roderigo as a very different character than generally understood, if he is suddenly improvising that sort of acid wit for two short scenes, but otherwise gives no sign of this wit. Whereas the CLOWN as Iago in disguise fits perfectly with the universal understanding of Iago’s Satanic character.

Second, as I briefly outlined earlier, take a close look at the following three words that the CLOWN uses, and then check to see who is the character in the play most closely associated with those words:
honest, music, and lie. These are all words that Iago uses memorably, but Roderigo not at all.

For all of these reasons, I now present a modified version of my interpretation:
I believe that Shakespeare meant for a close reader of the play (which would include, by the way, a director of the play deciding how the CLOWN should be played) to first wonder whether the CLOWN was Iago or Roderigo in disguise, and then to analyze the pros and cons of Roderigo and Iago as the CLOWN, before deciding, on balance, that it must be Iago.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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