Shakespeare’s Othello – written some six centuries ago – remains relevant today. I realized that a few months ago when I learned, my great grandfather, William Day Simonds, a prominent Unitarian minister in Madison and later in Oakland, California had published a book called “Sermons from Shakespeare,” in 1898.
I was surprised to learn during Google search on family genealogy that the book is still available in reprints, so I bought it. What I got in return mail was a photographic reproduction of the original, which was fine.
I checked out his sermon entitled “Faultless Desdemona,” based on the play Othello and realized that the play offers great lessons for today’s mixed up world.
Pastor Simonds calls “Othello” one of the Bard’s greatest dramas and also says it is perhaps the most deeply religious of Shakespeare’s plays. He wrote that it portrays the “fundamental principal in New Testament teaching … [of] the presence among men of a persistent and malignant evil, a power cursing humanity, a Father of lies deceiving the world, a dread, destroying spirit of darkness.”
Iago, in the play, is truly one of Shakespeare’s most evil villains, as you’ll find out as we trace Iago’s behavior.
The play is set in motion when Othello, a heroic black general in the service of Venice, appoints Cassio and not Iago as his chief lieutenant. Iago, who thought he should have the appointment, is enraged and sets about to plot Othello’s downfall by falsely implicating Othello’s wife, Desdemona, and Cassio in a love affair.
Iago is the conniver, the manipulator, the deceitful one who makes all this tragedy happen. As Pastor Simonds writes, “we are to watch the Evil One as he snares his prey. . . daring, gifted, dangerous Iago has made evil his God. He will play with men to their hurt . . .”
Iago indeed an evil genius. He feeds each person’s particular needs with lies that are cleverly fashioned to get that person to do what he wants them to do. First, succeeds in getting Roderigo, a wealthy businessman who has his eyes on romancing the lovely Desdemona, to fuel the hurt felt by Desdemona’s father over his daughter’s marriage to the Moor. She married Othello without first telling her father, and he was deeply hurt. Othello is told: “Look to her, Moor, if thou hast eyes to see. She has deceived her father and may thee.” Thus, the seeds are planted in Othello’s mind that his young wife may eventually be unfaithful.
The ultimate lie comes when Desdemona accidentally drops a handkerchief. (The piece of cloth was the first gift given her by Othello.) It was found by Emilia, Iago’s wife who has been serving as Desdemona’s maid. Emilia gives the hanky to Iago, who then plants it into Cassio’s apartment.
Iago had already misled Othello to believe that Desdemona was having the affair with Cassio. It was an outright lie, since Cassio was involved with another woman and had no desires for Desdemona. Iago also setup a phony conversation within earshot of Othello that indicated the affair was real. These slender “proofs” confirm what Othello has been all too inclined to believe—that, as an older black man, he is no longer attractive to his young white Venetian wife. Overcome with jealousy, Othello kills Desdemona. When he learns from Emilia, too late, that his wife is blameless, he asks to be remembered as one who “loved not wisely but too well” and kills himself.
Iago’s duplicities eventually lead to the deaths, not only of Othello and Desdemona, but also to the love-struck Roderigo and to his own wife, Emilia, who he kills after she exposed his duplicity. In the end, Iago profits little: his scheme exposed, he’s arrested, tortured and humiliated – perhaps the most damning punishment he could face.
Listen to how Pastor Simonds describes Iago’s treachery: “He proceeds to the lowest tricks of fraud and most foul lying, weaving around Desdemona a chain of circumstantial evidence. Facts are made to fit falsehoods and give Othello’s maddened brain the last sad evidence of guilt. It all apparently goes the devil’s way.”
And my great grandfather concludes his sermon “Friends, evil is about us and within us. An Iago may try at any hour the mettle of our spirits. To be above temptation’s subtle power virtue must be the sole lord.”
So, I ask you: “Who is Your Iago?”
Evil – in the personification of Shakespeare’s Iago – enters our lives in one of two ways; either through internal weaknesses within ourselves or through external forces that corrupt our thinking, our aptitudes and our actions.
Let’s spend a short time on the internal aspects of evil. We all face temptations; most often we struggle through them without succumbing. There are times, however, we give in. Like, for instance, when I walk past the tray of chocolates on our dining room table and thus fall victim to the sin of gluttony.
Many of us find the need – rarely, I hope – to “white lie,” and if it’s a harmless one meant to spare someone else’s feelings, that’s fine. But if it’s said to protect your reputation or to hide an embarrassment, you’re committing a sin of vanity. Much of this is, of course, harmless; yet, it’s just plain dishonest . . . and believe me, it’ll eventually catch up with you.
Greed, sexual exploitation, selfishness and outright lying are all examples of internal weaknesses in the traditional Christian theology. Pastor Simonds says bluntly, “The Christianity of Christ is a battle – not a dream. It is the armed conflict of virtue and vice.”
I was struck by a note the mass murderer wrote before firing on persons in November this year at the Walmart in Chesapeake Virginia. “Sorry everyone but I did not plan this I promise things just fell in place like I was led by Satan.”
What? Was he trying to say that Satan pulled the trigger? I’ve always been troubled by Christians who like to blame their sins upon the Devil or Satan; when I have done something morally wrong, frankly, I did it. Blame me.
Now how about the external forces that often lead to our corruption, that lead us to accept falsities and untruths, and, most seriously, lead us to act upon those so-called false facts.
As we have noted in Shakespeare’s play, Iago has truly mastered the art of deception. He has cleverly used the exaggerations, selective omissions of fact and just plain lies to achieve his evil ends. He has fed into each person’s fetishes, beliefs and fears to plant seeds so that they will eventually perform the deeds he wishes to see done. Make no mistake about it, he is a genius in this craft . . . an evil genius if you will.
Shakespeare’s play offers warnings for the present day that we must be wary of those who would play into our emotions convincing us to take actions we might otherwise never think of doing.
Take patriotism, for example? If a teacher or a college professor wishes to discuss slavery or the continuing scourge of racism, isn’t that instructor sometimes accused of being anti-American by certain folks? Our children need a balanced education – an education based on reality and not myth. That principle is being overrun by the current assault on our schools that any discussions into our historical examples of shame is somehow unpatriotic.
One of the classic examples of an untruth that has persisted now for forty years is Ronald Reagan’s portrayal of the vodka-drinking welfare queen – as he called her — who drove to the Chicago welfare agency in a Cadillac to collect her benefits. It never happened! Yet, the image has continued to poison the minds of millions of Americans who resent having to pay taxes for free-loaders.
More recently, you’ll recall a certain presidential candidate opening his campaign stating “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best . . . They’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime, they’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”
Both of these statements help to feed the fiction that providing decent public welfare benefits is wasteful and corrupt. Such deceptions interfere with making sound public policy.
Of course, the ultimate deception these days is the myth that President Biden stole the 2020 election. Some 30% of Americans profess to believe that myth . . . as do some 65% of registered Republicans. A vague video of two election workers placing a suitcase under a table has grown into evidence of a massive fraud that should have been cause to overturn the results in Georgia. This terrible myth has thrown many Americans to distrust the electoral system, probably bringing many to avoid voting.
A lie repeated often enough becomes the truth in the minds of so many persons.
How do you fight against such deceptions. Telling the truth ALWAYS is the best policy.
As Pastor Simonds concludes: “Truth is ever of God, in the Bible, in literature, in science. . . . Othello was written in the upper air, where no shadow of unreality fell upon the page. Its moral teaching, therefore, is truth and its moral purpose is clear. Shakespeare here exposes the treachery of evil, and let’s men into the devil’s secret.”
Thus beware of deceivers. Iago is very much alive today. Ken Germanson, Nov. 28, 2022