The Terrifying Reasonlessness of Living
Keith Hamilton Cobb
Shakespeare scholars are all of a piece in one thing, it seems. Whatever their individual objectives, their tendency is to write it all out. They seem to write mostly in conversation with one another, each often in response to something some other scholar has written before them, that one having responded to yet another. Scholarship tends to speak to itself of itself. It follows then that the only recently allowed to the table African American scholars will write to the vast body of scholarship devoid of their presence that has been written before them. But they will also write beyond it. They will point to and parse things, in texts and in treatises on texts, that no white scholar has seen or, more important, ever felt compelled to see. Or perhaps that’s just what I do… I am looking for myself in what any of them say. And in that search I will find that a scholar will have sometimes raised a matter, or pointed at an issue, that an actor such as I in creating a role or a director in constructing a production can usefully consider, but the path to it is seldom simple and can often seem to obfuscate as much as it makes clear almost by design. It is nearly as though one needs to become a scholar in order to converse in the language of scholars. I am an actor, and most often the disquisitions of the scholars have little to do with the actual playing of the play in the here and now, that which is my only concern. Theirs is a calling like any other (See Making it Playable), and their objectives, well, I wonder about lives that are purpose-driven versus those that are purpose-searching and if we humans can ever actually distinguish one from the other. In the labors of the scholars, the purposes to me are never wholly clear. But to quibble, for instance, about the usage of a word in 16-aught-whatever, and then to dissert upon how the usage of that word at some particularly significant point in the play impacts the argument of the work entire does not support the living text and its contemporary rendering. I’m sure that’s insultingly reductive. I appreciate scholarship. My point here is only that I have a calling as well. I will not make Othello, the character or the play, playable by indulging the granular analysis of whether “great of heart,” as Cassio utters of the Moor, implies greatness of heart as any contemporary American would understand it, or emotional incapacity as it might have meant to some 16thcentury physician. I am great of heart. And I am looking to recognize characters that share my humanity. The scholars share it, irrespective of whether they are always particularly helpful or not.
In evolving my vision of this play towards what I hope is something that is in fact playable, I have returned repeatedly to consider the perspectives that the scholar Harold Bloom puts forth in his book, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. I will tend to pick on him endlessly, but in my defense, he has taken great pains to set himself up as the poster child for white American Shakespearean proprietorship… There is good in his perspectives, and yet I find them most notable for the lengths to which they go to champion the perfection of the play as it seems to ever exist in the white, Euro-centric mind. I continue to consider the writings of African American and other non-white scholars as well for the opposite reason entirely. They offer perspectives through lenses that would most often most naturally be closer to my own by virtue of our shared ethnicity, or at least our shared non-whiteness. And they, at the heart of the matter, are the only ones who consider me within the context of the exploration of Shakespeare’s works at all because it is part in parcel with the process of considering themselves. If Shakespeare scholarship is an echo chamber, theirs is at least a contrapuntal and ever louder echo.
As regards Harold Bloom, I think it was the title of his book as much as anything that moved me to consider his perspective; and he stands in here for peremptory white Western Shakespeare scholarship that seems to so overwhelmingly dictate perspective regarding these texts. Bloom seems to harbor a passion for Shakespeare, Iago, and Othello in that order. I don’t like any of them quite so much. Shakespeare as a body of work is to me, on balance, sublime and utterly uninteresting in about equal measure. Iago, one remarkable manifestation of that work, is an ingenious creation that has induced the morbid fascination of countless generations. I am struck by the design but don’t see a person, or if I do, it is a person that exists because others literally do not. His character shines because others are incomplete. Of them all, I find Othello particularly loathsome. He is also far more design than he is the human likeness of anyone I might actually know. But, ironically, as an actor and as a manifestation of my African American experience, I am compelled to care for him the most. Of course, caring for him in a vacuum will not get me to a transcendent production of the play. That is too often what is done with Iago. Iago indulged in a vacuum is the show at the expense of the humanity of everyone else in it, and it never works (though, this is a question of what telling of the tale an audience wants to see). I must care for all of the characters in the play. I must find empathy and deep understanding of their respective human conditions. Towards doing so, I can start with my own human condition and with what I perceive as at least some part of Harold Bloom’s…
In the title of Bloom’s book, he seems to place Shakespeare in the position of God as creator of man. And indeed, in the forward matter he writes:
The more one reads and ponders the plays of Shakespeare, the more one realizes that the accurate stance toward them is one of awe…Bardolatry, the worship of Shakespeare, ought to be even more a secular religion than it already is. The plays remain the outward limit of human achievement: aesthetically, cognitively, in certain ways morally, even spiritually. They abide beyond the end of the mind’s reach, we cannot catch up to them. Shakespeare will go on explaining us, in part because he invented us, which is the central argument of this book…
He speaks about the worship of Shakespeare in the same way that he later describes Iago’s worship of war and the war god, Othello… In so doing, he is drawing parallels in human nature where he would like to perceive them. I am too perhaps, but more than that, I am an actor looking for an effective way to work towards truth, not to worship.
For all of Bloom’s unimpeachable erudition, I take issue with anyone telling me what my “accurate” stance toward anything should be. But, as his is just another example of the white ownership and cavalier dictation of perspective on absolutely every aspect of American existence, I am not at all surprised by his view and, in fact, have learned to look upon it with a level of tolerance that it has never deserved. Upon what does he base his finding that the plays represent the “outward limit of human achievement?” Has he assessed it all, throughout all time, across every human culture? The arrogance is mind-numbing if one stops to contemplate it. But again, given what we know about white privilege and the necessity of the human being to navigate the journey through the unquantifiable and absurd, terrifying reasonlessness of living (See Making it Playable), it is hardly surprising. Bloom, like Iago and Othello, like every human being, identifies his being by purpose, Bloom’s apparently to offer down educated opinions culled from a lifetime of study in an edified literary upper realm—one, I should add, that is wholly biased toward whiteness in perspective and thus must also be ever limited of scope. He speaks of both Iago and Othello as reacting to having the rug of purpose snatched from beneath them and the respective chaos that ensues. What would he be if he could not define himself via his profession? Shakespeare did not “invent” us. At best he invented elaborate archetypes to represent us at our most human level. But his inventions are archetypes nonetheless and must be infused with actual humanity, flavored by the culture and personal perspective of every new reader or performer, in order to give them true dimensionality. Depth of character is never something that the Poet’s language alone will offer, not anymore, not since the 1600’s. The scholar’s inference serves us no better. It is only an educated opinion. Actors have those too, and insofar as they are born of the experience of living they tend to be far less didactic. Rather than making actors fit the characters, we must allow actors to make their characters fit. But even then, if characters in a play are not drawn with dimension enough for actors to find within that dimensionality the legitimate motivations for their actions, then the story remains as hollow as the characters in it. It remains an empty archetype with little if any meaning, save that, of course, which agenda would lard upon it.
In his chapter on Othello, Bloom posits that Iago’s inexplicably adept understanding of Othello’s psyche enables him to outpace the general in thought and action:
…The further suggestion is that Iago, understanding Othello, fomented the drunken altercation in order to distract his general from consummation, for otherwise Iago’s manipulations would have been without consequence. That credits Iago with extraordinary insight into Othello, but no one should be surprised at such an evaluation. We can wonder why Shakespeare did not make all this clearer, except that we need to remember his contemporary audience was far superior to us in comprehending through the ear. They knew how to listen; most of us do not, in our overvisual culture…
What Bloom is suggesting is that the Elizabethan audience and, for some reason, he as well could hear and thus understand Shakespeare’s textual intentions particularly acutely, thus positioning him to explain to all the rest of us why Iago should be credited with “extraordinary insights into Othello.” And why exactly? What this boils down to is “Because Shakespeare said so” covered in the scholar’s own pedantic pontificating. While he is correct, I suspect, that the Early Modern audiences that sat to hear Othello were superior in comprehending through the ear, he neglects to mention that they sat to hear a language removed from 21stcentury English by countless word usages, grammatical constructions, and colloquialisms. A 21stcentury American audience couldn’t “hear” Shakespeare spoken as clearly as an Elizabethan audience could no matter how much it wanted to. More important still is the fact that these same ancient audiences were prepared to accept Shakespeare’s archetypes as being as human as they needed to be for their tales to be told on the Elizabethan stage. The playwright had no need to make all this clearer because his poetry was sublime, irrespective of whether he filled in the holes in the plausibility of his stories, or shored up the flaws in the construction of his characters. I don’t suggest that he didn’t try to. He might have. My suspicion is that, like all artists, he was chronically dissatisfied, though he had already outstripped the talents of his contemporaries by lightyears. Rather, what I suggest is that it is we who have infused the Poet’s archetypes with depth, dimensionality, intention, and apprehension beyond anything that ever rested on the page. Our various inferences have changed from one ideological age to the next, but one’s right to infer with impunity has always been a matter of cultural positioning. Harold Bloom was culturally positioned as a white male English scholar in the western tradition to tell me, Othello is a great soul hopelessly outclassed in intellect and drive by Iago. But I, 21stcentury American Black I, think that the play’s entire premise rests upon a number of devices intended for the Elizabethan stage and its audience, not one of which it is incumbent upon me to accept, particularly when any actual human authenticity of being is at stake. I see Othello succumbing to Iago’s machinations, not because it is remotely plausible that he would, but because the play says that he does. I don’t buy it and that is my right. The alternative right, of course, is Bloom’s to whole-heartedly buy and champion all of this; he illustrates it repetitively in his chapter on Othello, assuming the prerogative of inferring extravagant psyches for the characters, particularly Iago, which in turn support layers of motivation and justification supposedly based upon what the Poet has left us, but wholly subjective and four hundred years after the fact. The interesting thing is that I find myself agreeing with much that he posits. But then, Bloom rides his overly-educated inferences into the land of the esoteric where only the similarly schooled might understand him. He’s off on his mission of purpose and my eyes glaze over because none of it has anything to do with mine, the telling, or playing, of a plausible story.
So I seek to take no shine off this particular titan of letters. I know him like I know me. For I and Othello are titans too, and though not possessed of a scholar’s tools we have no less formidable ones of our own. We might consider Iago a titan as well. Bloom would certainly like us to, and for the moment I’ll indulge it. In finding my way to envisioning a satisfactory playing of this play, I am assisted by much that Bloom suggests. He is, in fact, by leaps and bounds, my intellectual better, tossing about his layered arguments with astounding facility and summoning references that reflect a life of study far surpassing my undergraduate English education. His take on Othello is rife with potentially playable truths, but it takes a player to prove or disprove them. Bloom, the scholar, like the Iago he so loves, is, for all his humanity, all intellect. I, like the Othello to whom he gives far less love than he does to Iago, am “great of heart,” in fact all heart, soul, and being. I strive for truth on its feet as I know it, with other but no lesser facility than Bloom’s. I, like Othello, though he does it far too little in the play, cry out “Why — Why is this?” Irrespective of the possibility of Bloom’s intellectual advantage, were he Iago and I Othello, he would not find me anywhere near as easy a mark as Shakespeare facilitates for his immortal villain.
Bloom tells me: Great gifts of intellect and art alone could not bring Iago to his heroic villainy, he has a negative grace beyond cognition and perceptiveness. I say to Bloom, perhaps he is simply a soldier; perhaps a great and exceptionally clever one, but for all that a man who has defined his being by war and service to a warrior king. And perhaps the collapse of his ontological view is so profound that it has, just like Othello’s, triggered a slide into irrationality. Perhaps the only difference between the two men is that in one awaits a sleeping sociopath, and in the other a raw, far less mechanized rage. Both sociopathy and rage resided in these characters before they came to the stage or even forth from Shakespeare’s pen. “A negative grace?” What does that even mean? If your Shakespeare is “inventing humans,” then you must leave off attributing to them all manner of inhuman characteristics.
He tells me: Who before Iago, in literature or in life, perfected the arts of disinformation, disorientation, and derangement? The question is rhetorical, but the answer nonetheless is: a great many actual flesh and blood human beings throughout the ages that we never will know. Sociopaths abound. And, should we ever see one, he will be a thing more terrible and fascinating to behold than this most remarkable of stage villains because he will be effecting his will opposite some unfortunate who was not tailor-made by a playwright to assure the sociopathic predator’s success.
And he says: We cannot arrive at a just estimate of Othello if we undervalue Iago, who would be formidable enough to undo most of us if he emerged out of his play into our lives. And I say, do you see how far Shakespeare and Bloom have both distorted truth in order to make that seem so? Iago could indeed undo any of us if we were all written like Othello. But we are not. And if Othello had been written as human as any of us, Iago would not have gotten the better of him either. We, unlike any of Shakespeare’s “inventions,” are human indeed. And yes, as the present political climate would attest, we live in a culture where hucksters can win based solely on the hyper-stupidity or flagrant and blinding self-interest of the people around them. So, in theory, Bloom may be correct. Still, Iago is a villain who pulls the myth of a man’s wife’s infidelity out of thin air, and the man crashes and burns without ever having stopped to pointedly examine from where the accuser’s implication arose. The only way to make that work is to assume that there is a great deal more on the page than there actually is. It is only the idolater’s elaborate, unsturdy structure of inference that he’s built around Iago that allows the character to thrive at the expense of the truths of several others. I think Bloom might spare me some of his arousal at the playwritten villain’s devices while I search earnestly for the characteristics that make him human. Literary conjecture is not playable.
To that end, I am returned to where I started. What are we, each of us, after? In this play of Shakespeare’s I grant we have to infer much. It is deeply flawed, and without ample inference the playing will fall flat. We sense a mightiness of need and intention in these characters that can collide and be catastrophically consequential so as to create stage drama the like of which is seldom experienced—but to realize it we can no longer rely solely on what the playwright has them say. Perhaps a reader can. It may serve criticism to prove the worth of some obtuse, and most likely corrupt, section of text, or to deify one character at the expense of another in an analytical exercise. But for a group of actors attempting to find the horrible truth of being, anything that does not serve the forward-moving narrative of several bewildered souls striving to navigate the absurd, terrifying reasonlessness of living is rendered immediately irrelevant. If we begin with a bunch of beasts, equal in humanity, but disparate of talent and tools, all striving for relevance—striving just as Harold Bloom has done and I do—we will come sooner to something that a wider American audience will more readily recognize as themselves.