Thursday, August 5, 2010

Law of Transitives and...Othello?

Sometimes something I see or hear will remind me of Shakespeare so I'll sporadically break up the novels I'm reading by picking up some of his works and looking at a certain scene or line I like.  So just as sporadically I figured I'd share those moments here. You're welcome. I'll consider this my Shakespeare Break.  This time the break was triggered by the production of Othello put on in the Boston Commons by the Commonwealth Shakespeare Company.  Free Shakespeare and Parish Cafe sandwiches: a great way to spend a summer night.

Seeing Othello again made me think about how Iago manipulates Othello to bring him down.  I should start out saying I'm skeptical of the idea of the tragic flaw, that Othello is brought down only because he is too trusting.  This makes both Iago and Othello seem like weak characters.  This is not my own conclusion but comes from Shakespeare Is Hard, But So Is Life: A Radical Guide to Shakespearean Tragedy by Fintan O'Toole.   I won't get too much into this book, as I'm sure that will be a later post, but just to say that O'Toole claims that the idea of the tragic flaw removes the concept of free will; the characters are destined to behave the way they do. Looking at Othello as having a tragic flaw robs Iago of his twisted powers of persuasion. 

So what does Othello have to do with transitive relation or law of transitives?  For those who don't remember, the transitive relation states essentially if A = B and B = C then A = C.  I also included a link to the Wikipedia page, which can give you more information should you be curious and which I had to check to make sure I was somewhat getting this right.  For the point I'll be making you only need to know the info in the example above.  So I'll ask again (because I assume your memory is as good as mine and if more than 10 seconds have passed you forgot what we were talking about)  what does this algebraic rule have to do with Shakespeare?  Iago uses this basic formula to plant and nurture those seeds of distrust in Othello.

     Ha, I like not that. 

     What dost thou say?

     Nothing, my lord; or if--I know not what.

     Was not that Cassio parted from my wife?

     Cassio, my lord? No, sure, I cannot think it
     That he would steal away so guiltylike,
     Seeing you coming.

     I do believe 'twas he.

     How now, my lord?
     I have been talking with a suitor here,
     A man that languishes in your displeasure.

     Who is't you mean?

      Why, your lieutenant, Cassio.

Iago knew that was Cassio talking to Desdemona; he had advised Cassio to have Desdemona plead on his behalf and hopefully make it back into Othello's good graces.  Yet Iago plants the seed here.  He points out a man "[stealing] away so guiltylike" from Desdemona and when Othello asks if that was Cassio, Iago says it couldn't be.  Cassio is a fine, up-standing man and a good man wouldn't sneak away from another man's wife like that.  But when the two men make it to Desdemona she tells them that was Cassio.  So we've set up the following equation

Cassio = Good Man
Good Man = Wouldn't "steal away so guiltylike"
Cassio = Wouldn't "steal away so guiltylike"

It may seem setting this up will not meet Iago's end as the very first equation is Cassio is a good man.  But to truly be the conniving character he is, Iago must work within the rules that have been set up.  Othello believes Cassio to be a good man, so the first thing Iago must do is destroy this first assumption.  He sets up the drunken fight and then he sets up the rules above, knowing full well the logic is going to fall apart.  When Desdemona tells them that it was Cassio she was just speaking with, we have a break down in the logic.  The last rule no longer applies as we now know it was Cassio that slunk off.  Iago has set Othello up to use the logic above, so with this new information Othello comes to the following conclusion:

Cassio = Did "steal away so guiltylike"
Good Man = Wouldn't "steal away so guiltylike"
Cassio = Not a Good Man

Had Iago just told Othello he shouldn't trust Cassio Othello would just have to believe Iago for the story to work and if we believe he is simply "too trusting" and also not-so-bright this would work.  It wouldn't necessarily be all that interesting to read about such dull characters but it would get the job done.  Instead Iago leads Othello in such a way that Othello, to the best of his knowledge, came to his own conclusion about Cassio.  If anything Othello sees Iago defending Cassio, saying of course he wouldn't be sneaking away like that!  Iago is seen as much more powerful, much more cunning and thus much more frightening than if Othello simply believes whatever he says because of some tragic flaw.  The point now is that Othello is intelligent but even he could be lead astray by the snake Iago, which means the reader could also be lead astray, no matter how smart they may think they are.

Shakespeare, William.  Othello.  The New Folger Library; New York.  1993.


  1. Very perceptive! Thanks for this.

  2. Very interesting! I've been wondering which Shakespeare play I should read next and people keep recommending this one. It looks very good.

  3. Brenna - Thanks!

    Shannon - Othello is one of my favorites and it's a very simple in that there are no great nations battling each other, no supernatural beings, and no sub-plots. It's a straight story of jealousy, trust and manipulation in a domestic setting. If you want to see a movie version I love the Oliver Parker's 1995 version starring Laurence Fishburne and Kenneth Branagh. Branagh's Iago is, in my mind anyway, the best Iago.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.