Othello and BM

This topic contains 6 replies, has 2 voices, and was last updated by  efscerbo 2 years, 9 months ago.

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  • 27 Aug 2014 at 3:36 pm #5782


    [I changed the title of this thread because my later posts are not specifically about Iago and the Coldforger but rather things in general connecting Othello and BM.]

    In Act II Scene I of Othello, Iago tries to convince Roderigo that Desdemona is in love with Michael Cassio and that Cassio is merely feigning decency but will sleep with her at the first chance he gets. Iago says of such a man as Cassio:

    “[A] slipper and subtle knave, a finder out of occasions, that has an eye, can stamp and counterfeit advantages, though true advantage never present itself”.

    (slipper = slippery, subtle = crafty/cunning, knave = rogue, occasions = opportunities, stamp = [see below], advantages = opportunities)

    Thus I paraphrase: “A slippery and crafty rogue, a person on the lookout for (sexual) opportunities, who has an eye (for such opportunities or for women), can falsely make his own opportunities, even if such opportunities would not naturally arise.”

    Note in particular that “stamp” seems to be here a weak synonym for “counterfeit”, i.e., “make”. The only definition of “stamp” as a verb in the OED that involves a sense of making and naturally accompanies counterfeiting is the following (cf. OED stamp, v., III.4.a.): “to make (a coin) by means of a die and the impact of a hammer”. (I have simplified the OED definition ever so slightly.) Also, in Cymbeline, during Posthumus Leonatus’s monologue, he says:

    “We are all bastards,
    And that most venerable man, which I
    Did call my father, was I know not where
    When I was stamp’d. Some coiner with his tools
    Made me a counterfeit”,

    which seems to affirm the above meaning of “stamp” in Iago’s speech.

    (Note that “to stamp” could also potentially mean “to authenticate”, so that “to stamp and counterfeit” would mean “to falsely make and pass off as true”. But then one would expect “to counterfeit and stamp”. Furthermore, “to authenticate” is tacit in “to counterfeit”, for why counterfeit something without wishing to pass it off as true? Indeed I think the above is the best reading of “stamp”.)

    The point is that slipper, subtle Iago, very possibly a source for the judge, refers to manipulating events for one’s own designs in coldforger terms. In my post on the ending of BM, http://www.cormacmccarthy.com/topic/the-end-of-bm-a-reading/, I speculate that “the judge is in control of just about every event in the novel.” Perhaps we should view the kid’s dream in precisely these terms: The coldforger represents the kid’s realization that the judge is able to deliver “monstrous birth[s]” from “the womb of time”. He does indeed control, or at least manipulate, all earthly, physical events.

    • This topic was modified 3 years, 4 months ago by  efscerbo.
    • This topic was modified 3 years, 4 months ago by  efscerbo.
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    19 Sep 2014 at 1:28 pm #5879


    Another potential Iago connection: In Act 3 Scene 3, during one of the most masterful exchanges in the play, Iago, ever aspine, pretends to be withholding information from Othello regarding a tryst between Desdemona and Michael Cassio. Othello finally commands him to tell him all he knows, saying

    “I know thou’rt full of love and honesty
    And weigh’st thy words before thou giv’st them breath,
    Therefore these stops of thine fright me the more.
    For such things in a false disloyal knave
    Are tricks of custom, but in a man that’s just
    They’re close delations, working from the heart,
    That passion cannot rule.”

    (stops = pauses/hesitations, of custom = customary (i.e., of a knave), close = secret, delation = “An accusing or bringing a charge against, esp. on the part of an informer; informing against; accusation, denouncement, criminal information” (OED, delation, n., 3))

    The idea of such “stops” being customary of a “false disloyal knave” reminds me of the judge’s harnessmaker parable: “Here the judge paused… His narration was much in the manner of a recital. He had not lost the thread of his tale. He smiled at the listeners about.” (149-150)

    Also, just like the judge, Iago always talks over the heads of his listeners. His grammar could easily be called “serpentine”. See the following speech he makes to Othello: (This is not the only such speech, but it’s a particularly good example.) Othello has been resisting Iago’s intimations regarding Desdemona cheating on him. But finally he admits that sometimes people behave in ways that are not in accordance with their natures. And Iago jumps on this, saying:

    “Ay, there’s the point: as, to be bold with you,
    Not to affect many proposed matches
    Of her own clime, complexion and degree,
    Whereto we see, in all things, nature tends –
    Foh! one may smell in such a will most rank,
    Foul disproportion, thoughts unnatural.
    But pardon me, I do not in position
    Distinctly speak of her, though I may fear
    Her will, recoiling to her better judgment,
    May fall to match you with her country forms,
    And happily repent”,

    which translates roughly as

    “That’s exactly what I’m saying. For a woman to not go for any suitors from her home country, men who look like her and have similar social status as her [NB: Desdemona is young, white, from Venice, and of the nobility, whereas Othello is old, black, (possibly) from Mauritania, and a soldier] – That’s what’s unnatural! But pardon me, I’m not talking about your wife specifically here. I’m just saying it’s possible she may one day come to her senses, compare you to her countrymen [of whom Cassio is one], and leave you for one of them.”

    I’m pretty certain Othello’s head would be spinning after hearing a speech like that. (Also, I’m pretty sure no one has ever said “Your wife’s a whore and she’s going to leave you” in so many words and with the other party having so little idea that’s what was said.) Othello doesn’t even respond to it. He just says

    “Farewell, farewell.
    If more thou dost perceive, let me know more”.

    • This reply was modified 3 years, 4 months ago by  efscerbo.
    27 Sep 2014 at 12:01 pm #5919


    Found one more item in Othello that resonates in BM: In Act V Scene I, Iago has convinced Roderigo to kill Michael Cassio. And Roderigo is very nervous, and Iago tells him

    “[F]ear nothing, I’ll be at thy elbow.”

    It turns out that “The devil is at [one’s] elbow” predates Shakespeare and that Bard Billy is having Iago use this known phrase. But I wouldn’t be terribly surprised if McCarthy, choosing to have the hermit use this expression, intended some resonance with this scene.

    29 Sep 2014 at 3:21 pm #5933


    Hey all,

    I just came across something potentially important/interesting, depending on how much stock you put in it.

    I’ve been on a Shakespeare kick lately. Have been going through Othello with a fine-toothed comb and loving it. I’m now reading some commentary on it: Harold Goddard’s The Meaning of Shakespeare. Now, by all accounts, Goddard’s is a famous, influential, respected commentary on the works of Shakespeare. It was published in 1951, shortly after WWII and well before McCarthy started writing. It is not at all unreasonable that he may have come across this. If so, the following passage, which I will quote at length, is very striking (This is excerpted from Section V of Goddard’s essay on Othello.):

    “The deliberate placing of the highest intellectual gifts and achievements at the service of the lowest human instincts is a phenomenon with which the twentieth century is acquainted on a scale never previously attained…

    “It is no recent discovery that brain as well as brawn is essential to the efficient fighter… The ideological warfare that precedes and precipitates the physical conflict…; the conscription, in a dozen spheres, of the nation’s brains; the organization of what is revealingly known as the intelligence service; but most of all the practical absorption of science into the military effort: these things, apart from the knowledge and skill required for the actual fighting, permit us to define modern war, once it is begun, as an unreserved dedication of the human intellect to death and destruction.

    “But that is exactly what Iago is – an unreserved dedication of intellect to death and destruction. To the extent that this is true, Iago is an incarnation of the spirit of modern war. [emphasis mine]

    “… Nobody wants war. No individual does, that is, or very few. But that great Composite Personality which is the nation is driven into it nevertheless against the wishes of the thousands of individuals who make it up. It is within that Personality, not generally within the individual, that the union of intellect with animal instincts takes place, the prostitution especially of man’s supreme intellectual achievement, modern science, to the most destructive of his ancestral practices… The uniqueness of Iago, like the uniqueness of modern war, does not lie in the spirit of destruction. That has always been common enough. It lies in the genius he dedicates to destructive ends. Modern war would not recognize itself in the portraits of Shakespeare’s classical and feudal fighters… But let it look in the glass and it will behold Iago. In him Shakespeare reveals, with the clarity of nightmare, that unrestrained intellect, instead of being the opposite of force, and an antidote for it, as much of the modern world thinks, is force functioning on another plane. [boldface mine, italics Goddard’s] It is the immoral equivalent of war, and as certain to lead to it in due season as Iago’s machinations were to lead to death.”

    Now, obviously, we cannot know at this point if McCarthy read this. But it is not unreasonable. And the similarity is so striking. Compare also Ben Telfair’s conversation with Maven (The Stonemason 38-39):

    B: You cant separate wisdom from the common experience and the common experience is just what the worker has in great plenty.
    M: Then why arent more workers wise?
    B: I guess for the same reason that more college professors arent wise. Thinking’s rare among all classes. But a laborer who thinks, well, his thought seems more likely to be tempered with humanity. He’s more inclined to tolerance. He knows that what is valuable in life is life.
    M: And the professor?
    B: I think he’s more apt to just be dangerous. Marx never worked a day in his life.
    M: Sounds a little neat to me.
    B: I dont have a theory about it. I think most people feel that books are dangerous and they’re probably right.

    Finally, consider the running theme that McCarthy’s most horrid villains are hyperintellectual. I cannot but see meaning in this.

    29 Sep 2014 at 8:27 pm #5934

    Richard L.

    Mighty good. I think I first read of the Iago connection in Bloom’s review, but nothing so detailed as above.

    I like it all.

    01 Oct 2014 at 2:27 pm #5951


    Hi Richard,

    Thanks for the vote of confidence. I too first heard of the Iago connection via Bloom. But he didn’t explain why he thought so. Decided it was time to check it out for myself. Turns out there’s some interesting parallels there.

    Thanks again,

    16 Apr 2015 at 8:31 pm #6938


    Here’s a great passage from Auden’s “The Dyer’s Hand” talking about Iago, in a similar way to Goddard above:

    “Iago’s treatment of Othello conforms to Bacon’s definition of scientific enquiry as putting Nature to the Question. If a member of the audience were to interrupt the play and ask him: “What are you doing?” could not Iago answer with a boyish giggle, “Nothing. I’m only trying to find out what Othello is really like”? And we must admit that his experiment is highly successful. By the end of the play he does know the scientific truth about the object to which he has reduced Othello. That is what makes his parting shot, “What you know, you know,” so terrifying for, by then, Othello has become a thing, incapable of knowing anything.

    And why shouldn’t Iago do this? After all, he has certainly acquired knowledge. What makes it impossible for us to condemn him self-righteously is that, in our culture, we have all accepted the notion that the right to know is absolute and unlimited. The gossip column is one side of the medal; the cobalt bomb the other. We are quite prepared to admit that, while food and sex are good in themselves, an uncontrolled pursuit of either is not, but it is difficult for us to believe that intellectual curiosity is a desire like any other, and to realize that correct knowledge and truth are not identical. To apply a categorical imperative to knowing, so that, instead of asking, “What can I know?” we ask, “What, at this moment, am I meant to know?” – to entertain the possibility that the only knowledge which can be true for us is the knowledge we can live up to – that seems to all of us crazy and almost immoral. But, in that case, who are we to say to Iago – “No, you mustn’t.””

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