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

Friday, April 8, 2016

The baddest Iago of Pride & Prejudice ain’t Wickham, it’s the guy who (says he) abhors disguise of any kind!

I’ve been quiet in Austen discussions of late, as I’ve been taking a short break from my Austen obsession, and delving deeply into Shakespeare, especially Othello ---- in particular sussing out all the nuances of my discovery that Shakespeare played a clever game with his readers/audience by not telling us that the acerbic Clown who appears only in Act 3, Scenes 1 and 4, is actually Iago in disguise. Here is the link to my latest post in that regard, but I have another two or three coming, before I’m done mining that rich vein of ore:

As I’ve often noted, Jane Austen was speaking for herself when she wrote the following dialog for Henry Crawford:
“Shakespeare one gets acquainted with without knowing how. It is a part of an Englishman's constitution. His thoughts and beauties are so spread abroad that one touches them everywhere; one is intimate with him by instinct. No man of any brain can open at a good part of one of his plays without falling into the flow of his meaning immediately."
She was only disingenuous in that fishy bit about “without knowing how” --- she knew exactly how she got so intimately acquainted with Shakespeare – it was (paraphrasing another Austenian reader) by something more substantial, in the improvement of her mind by extensive reading…of the entire Shakespearean canon!

And so, I’m not surprised that my exploration of Iago in disguise as the Clown in Othello has now led me from Shakespeare right back to Jane Austen. I happened upon an unexpected wormhole between the two, while reading the following exchange between Iago and Desdemona early in Othello, which occurs while they stand on the dock in Cyprus, and Desdemona worriedly watches for Othello’s ship to arrive. Iago, obnoxious misogynist that he is, segues from Cassio’s courtly kiss of Emilia’s lips, to Emilia’s big mouth, whence ensues some extended witty repartee between Iago and Desdemona on the theme of the ideal woman:

Sir, would [Emilia] give you so much of her lips
As of her tongue she oft bestows on me,
You'll have enough.
DESDEMONA  Alas, she has no speech.
In faith, too much;
I find it still, when I have list to sleep:
Marry, before your ladyship, I grant,
She puts her tongue a little in her heart,
And chides with thinking.
EMILIA  You have little cause to say so.
DESDEMONA  O, fie upon thee, slanderer!
EMILIA  You shall not write my praise.
IAGO   No, let me not.
DESDEMONA  Come on assay. There's one gone to the harbour?
IAGO  Ay, madam.
I am not merry; but I do beguile
The thing I am, by seeming otherwise.
Come, how wouldst thou praise me?
I am about it; but indeed my invention
Comes from my pate as birdlime does from frize;
It plucks out brains and all: but my Muse labours,
And thus she is deliver'd.
If she be fair and wise, fairness and wit,
The one's for use, the other useth it.
DESDEMONA  Well praised! How if she be black and witty?
DESDEMONA  Worse and worse.
EMILIA  How if fair and foolish?
DESDEMONA  These are old fond paradoxes to make fools laugh i' the alehouse. What miserable praise hast thou for her that's foul and foolish?
DESDEMONA  To do what?
IAGO  To suckle fools and chronicle small beer.
DESDEMONA O most lame and impotent conclusion! Do not learn of him, Emilia, though he be thy husband. How say you, Cassio? is he not a most profane and liberal counsellor?

I’d been focused on this passage, because of the witty poem that Iago recites at the end of it, which reminded me very much of the witty risqué fooling that Feste the Clown entertains Olivia with in Twelfth Night. Seeing Iago assume the role of a truth-telling clown in this scene of course fits perfectly with my seeing him as assuming the physical disguise of an actual Clown in 3.1 and 3.4.

But then, in my mind’s ear, I heard yet another echo behind that Shakespearean one, from a different witty repartee—in the Netherfield salon, and only three chapters after another, even more famous dialog about the attributes of “an accomplished woman”:

“Miss Bingley made no answer, and soon afterwards she got up and walked about the room. Her figure was elegant, and she walked well; but Darcy, at whom it was all aimed, was still inflexibly studious. In the desperation of her feelings, she resolved on one effort more, and, turning to Elizabeth, said: "Miss Eliza Bennet, let me persuade you to follow my example, and take a turn about the room. I assure you it is very refreshing after sitting so long in one attitude."
Elizabeth was surprised, but agreed to it immediately. Miss Bingley succeeded no less in the real object of her civility; Mr. Darcy looked up. He was as much awake to the novelty of attention in that quarter as Elizabeth herself could be, and unconsciously closed his book. He was directly invited to join their party, but he declined it, observing that he could imagine but two motives for their choosing to walk up and down the room together, with either of which motives his joining them would interfere. "What could he mean? She was dying to know what could be his meaning?"—and asked Elizabeth whether she could at all understand him?
"Not at all," was her answer; "but depend upon it, he means to be severe on us, and our surest way of disappointing him will be to ask nothing about it."
Miss Bingley, however, was incapable of disappointing Mr. Darcy in anything, and persevered therefore in requiring an explanation of his two motives.
"I have not the smallest objection to explaining them," said he, as soon as she allowed him to speak. "You either choose this method of passing the evening because you are in each other's confidence, and have secret affairs to discuss, or because you are conscious that your figures appear to the greatest advantage in walking; if the first, I would be completely in your way, and if the second, I can admire you much better as I sit by the fire."
"Oh! shocking!" cried Miss Bingley. "I never heard anything so abominable. How shall we punish him for such a speech?"
"Nothing so easy, if you have but the inclination," said Elizabeth. "We can all plague and punish one another. Tease him—laugh at him. Intimate as you are, you must know how it is to be done." “

Specifically, I realized that Miss Bingley’s responding to Darcy’s display of naughty wit, by playfully asking Eliza how to punish him, must have been directly inspired by Desdemona’s responding to Iago’s display of naughty wit, by playfully advising both Emilia and Cassio not to listen to Iago.

And that, in turn, led me to a more disturbing parallel.  Eliza, like Desdemona, has a lively and playful wit, and takes pleasure from sparring with Darcy, and giving him as every bit as good as she gets from him in that department---just as Desdemona derives obvious pleasure (and also temporary relief from her anxiety about Othello’s safe return from war with the Turks) from sparring with Iago.

But we in the audience who already know how Othello ends feel a shiver when they watch Desdemona match wits with Iago, because we know that she is playing with (hell) fire, she has no idea that her husband’s “honest friend” is neither honest nor friend, and is already in that scene busy at work destroying her marriage to Othello. And at least part of Iago’s motivation perhaps arises from wishing to teach Desdemona a terrible lesson, for the “crime” of having overridden his complaint about his own wife Emilia’s big mouth, and showing him that she herself was not afraid to speak her own mind to a man. Iago, bitter angry man that he is, is not about to allow Othello or Desdemona to find happiness in a “marriage of true minds” [as I‘ve also posted of late, the famous Sonnet 116 is nothing less than Shakespeare’s code book for describing the marital storms that Iago, Prospero-like, sets loose on the frail ship of Othello’s marriage], a happiness that Iago and Emilia have not found with each other.

And that same disturbing dynamic of a man destroying the spirit and resistance of a lively young woman is at play in the shadow story of Pride & Prejudice which I’ve been writing about the past decade. I.e., as in Othello, we ought to similarly feel a shiver when we read Eliza match wits with Darcy, because we also know that she is playing with (hell) fire---she has no idea that Darcy, the proud, handsome aristocrat whom she feels a strange attraction to, is also not the honest abhorrer of disguise of any kind he claims to be. She, like Iago, has no foresight as to what he will do after she thwarts his desires. Which is to carefully stage manage a completely false experience for her during her trip north with the Gardiners, with a carefully doctored portrait of Darcy’s character at the center of this deception.

So, while most Janeites would immediately aver that the smooth-tongued deceiverWickham was the Iago of P&P, I’m suggesting that the baddest Iago of the shadow story of Pride & Prejudice is none other than Mr. Darcy!

Before I close, I want to present you with one last Austenesque echo of the above-quoted scene in Othello which I also heard as I was writing this post, an echo suggesting that Jane Austen was very interested in Iago over 16 years before she published P&P. It is in the following passage in Jane Austen’ Letter 7 dated 9/18/1796, which she wrote to sister Cassandra when Jane was the same age as Eliza Bennet --- not one-and-twenty years:

“This morning has been spent in doubt and deliberation, in forming plans and removing difficulties, for it ushered in the day with an event which I had not intended should take place so soon by a week. Frank has received his appointment on board the " Captain John Gore," commanded by the "Triton," and will therefore be obliged to be in town on Wednesday; and though I have every disposition in the world to accompany him on that day, I cannot go on the uncertainty of the Pearsons being at home, as I should not have a place to go to in case they were from home. ..If I have no answer at all on Tuesday, I must suppose Mary is not at home, and must wait till I do hear, as, after having invited her to go to Steventon with me, it will not quite do to go home and say no more about it. My father will be so good as to fetch home his prodigal daughter from town, I hope, unless he wishes me to walk the hospitals, enter at the Temple, or mount guard at St. James'. It will hardly be in Frank's power to take me home—nay, it certainly will not. I shall write again as soon as I get to Greenwich.
What dreadful hot weather we have I It keeps one in a continual state of inelegance. If Miss Pearson should return with me, pray be careful not to expect too much beauty. I will not pretend to say that on a first view she quite answered the opinion I had formed of her. My mother, I am sure, will be disappointed if she does not take great care. From what I remember of her picture, it is no great resemblance. I am very glad that the idea of returning with Frank occurred to me; for as to Henry's coming into Kent again, the time of its taking place is so very uncertain that I should be waiting for dead men's shoes. I had once determined to go with Frank to-morrow and take my chance, &c., but they dissuaded me from so rash a step, as I really think on consideration it would have been; for if the Pearsons were not at home, I should inevitably fall a sacrifice to the arts of some fat woman who would make me drunk with small beer….”

The main topic of Letter 7 is the young adult Jane Austen’s uncertain plans about accompanying beloved brother Frank on a road trip from Rowling in Kent to London, whence he will shortly thereafter head out to sea to assume his next naval appointment.  Frank is leaving a week earlier than expected, and that creates a problem for Jane, who clearly has no desire to stay one minute longer in Kent with brother Edward and his unfriendly wife, after Frank leaves. In the end, Jane bows to family pressure and reluctantly agrees to stay on at Rowling, but her parting shot is classic Austen absurdist irony, as she mocks the “risks” she would have run had she gone to London with Frank:
“for if the Pearsons were not at home, I should inevitably fall a sacrifice to the arts of some fat woman who would make me drunk with small beer….”

So, you ask, where’s the echo in Letter 7 to Iago and Desdemona’s battle of wits on the dock in Cyprus in Othello?

Of course, it’s in the punch line of Iago’s little poem about the qualities of a good woman”

She that could think and ne'er disclose her mind,
See suitors following and not look behind,
She was a wight, if ever such wight were,--
DESDEMONA  To do what?
IAGO  To suckle fools and chronicle SMALL BEER.

Jane was not only remembering Iago’s ironic summary of the destiny of the ideal woman when she wrote “fall a sacrifice to the arts of some fat woman who would make me drunk with SMALL BEER”, she was also recalling Iago’s arts successfully practiced on Cassio, whom, later in Act 2, Iago made very drunk on potent beer, with horrific ultimate consequences not only for Cassio, but for Othello and Desdemona as well.

So, even at the age of not quite one-and-twenty, Jane Austen was already a Shakespeare savant, with a particular awareness of the subtleties of Shakespeare’s most intelligent (and dangerous) villain, Iago. And, now that I think about it, Jane Austen actually wrote a character very very similar to Iago at pretty much the same time as she wrote Letter 7 in 1796. Of course, I am referring to Lady Susan, who wraps other people around her fingers exactly the same way Iago does!

Which is why the echo of Iago in Mr. Darcy in January 1813, after Jane had another 16 years to understand Iago even better…..did not bode well for Elizabeth!

Cheers, ARNIE

@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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