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Thoughts on “Othello” by William Shakespeare: Iago as the Serpent

It was a while since I last read this play. If I’m going to be honest (a theme that is prevalent in Othello), I never found this play to be as great as the other tragedies with which it is ranked. I always found it difficult to empathize with Othello as a tragic character. He forms his opinions and takes action based upon hearsay and circumstantial evidence (at best). But that said, of all the times I have read this play and seen it performed, I got the most out of this reading.

I took a lot of notes while reading, and considered some of the obvious things to write about: interracial marriage, black and white as they relate to good and evil, truth and honesty, envy and jealousy. But I decided I would focus on something different, specifically, the connection between Iago and the serpent in the Garden of Eden myth.

Near the end of the play, Othello sees Desdemona as the symbol of Eve, who he believes to be the downfall of man.

It is the cause, it is the cause, my soul.
Let me not name it to you, you chaste stars.
It is the cause. Yet I’ll not shed her blood,
Nor scar that whiter skin of hers than snow,
And smooth as monumental alabaster.
Yet she must die, else she’ll betray more men.

(Act V, scene ii)

What Othello fails to realize is that lies and deception are the root cause of the proverbial fall of man from grace, and lies and deception are embodied in Iago. It is later in the scene, after Desdemona’s death, that Iago’s wife Emily exposes Iago’s lies.

You told a lie, an odious, damnèd lie!
Upon my soul, a lie, a wicked lie!

(Act V, scene ii)

Toward the conclusion of the play, the final connection between Iago and the serpent in Eden is solidified.

LODOVICO

Where is that viper? Bring the villain forth.

OTHELLO

I look down towards his feet; but that’s a fable.—
If that thou be’st a devil, I cannot kill thee.

(Act V, scene ii)

Othello is looking down to see Iago’s feet, since in the biblical story, God punishes the serpent by removing its legs and making it slither on the ground.

And the Lord God said unto the serpent, Because thou hast done this, thou art cursed above all cattle, and above every beast of the field; upon thy belly shalt thou go, and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life.

(Genesis 3:14)

While this is still not in my list of top Shakespeare plays, I have gained a new level of appreciation for it. If anyone knows of a good film version, let me know. The performances I have seen have been weak. Possibly watching a solid production would sway my opinion on this play.

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Mythological Cycles in “Library of Souls” by Ransom Riggs

LibraryOfSouls

If you follow my blog, you probably know how I feel about trilogies. They are not my favorite and I am frequently annoyed by stories that start out great and then seem to drag on in an attempt to fill three volumes. Thankfully, this book is one of the exceptions. In fact, this is as great if not better than the first book in the Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children trilogy. Not only is it very well written and illustrated with “found” vintage photographs that add to the overall surreal weirdness of the book, but the text is rich in symbolism and mythology. I was so engrossed in this book that I found it difficult to put down.

I want to focus my post on the allusions to mythology that permeate this book. For those of you who have not read this yet, fear not, I will not include any spoilers, and hopefully this will help you enjoy the richness of this novel.

On the whole, this book is a classic example of the hero’s journey. We have all the motifs that make up the hero myth, and early in the book we are clued in to the fact that we are going along on the epic adventure.

The present seemed suddenly strange to me, so trivial and distracted. I felt like one of those mythical heroes who fights his way back from the underworld only to realize that the world above is every bit as damned as the one below.

(p. 47)

There is a beautiful scene where three of the peculiars encounter Sharon, the boatman. He is a spectral figure and clearly a representation of Charon, the mythical boatman who ferries souls across the river Styx.

“STOP!” came a booming voice from inside the boat.

Emma squealed, Addison yelped, and I nearly leapt out of my skin. A man who’d been sitting in the boat—how had we not seen him until now?!—rose slowly to his feet, straightening himself inch by inch until he towered over us. He was seven feet tall, at least, his massive frame draped in a cloak and his face hidden beneath a dark hood.

“I’m—I’m so sorry!” Emma stammered. “It’s—we thought the boat was—“

“Many have tried to steal from Sharon!” the man thundered. “Now their skulls make homes for sea creatures!”

“I swear we weren’t trying to—“

“We’ll just be going,” squeaked Addison, backing away, “so sorry to bother you, milord.”

“SILENCE!” the boatman roared, stepping onto the creaking dock with one enormous stride. “Anyone who comes for my boat must PAY THE PRICE!”

(pp. 50 – 51)

A common theme among myths is the classic battle waged by the gods, the proverbial “clash of the titans.”

“… There dawned a dark time, in which the power-mad waged epic battles against one another for control of Abaton and the Library of Souls. Many lives were lost. The land was scorched. Famine and pestilence reigned while peculiars with power beyond imagination murdered one another with floods and lightning bolts. This is where normals got their tales of gods fighting for supremacy of the sky. Their Clash of the Titans was our battle for the Library of Souls.”

(p. 194)

I had read in a book by Umberto Eco how legendary and mythological lands occupy a unique place. We cannot say for sure that they never existed, but through the retelling of the stories, they become places that also exist in our collective consciousness, a place that is the source of our imagination and creativity.

“We may never know for certain if Abaton is a real place,” Bentham said, his lips spreading into a sphinx’s smile. “That’s what makes it a legend. But like rumors of buried treasure, the legendariness of the story has not stopped people, over the centuries, from searching for it. It is said that Perplexus Anomalous  himself committed years to the hunt for the lost loop of Abaton—which is how he began to discover so many of the loops that appear in his famous maps.”

(p. 195)

But in the end, what makes a story a myth is that it is more than just a story. It is a story that contains universal truths that convey what it is to be divine, sentient beings living in this realm of existence. The myth expresses parts of us that cannot be told other than through the rich symbols and metaphors that comprise the myth.

Just a story. It had become one of the defining truths of my life that, no matter how I tried to keep them flattened, two-dimensional, jailed in paper and ink, there would always be stories that refused to stay bound in books. It was never just a story. I would know: a story had swallowed my whole life.

(p. 371)

I confess that I felt sad when I finished this book. I felt really invested in the story and connected with the characters. I didn’t want it to end. But isn’t that the thing with stories like this? They never really end. They just cycle around again, waiting in our collective consciousness for the next great writer to resurrect the mythical beings that have inspired us since time immemorial.

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“Hollow City” by Ransom Riggs: Myth and the Subconscious

HollowCity

Hollow City is the second book in Ransom Riggs’ “Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children” series (see my review of the first book: Symbolism in “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” by Ransom Riggs). This novel picks up where the first on left off and follows the adventures of the peculiar children as they race through World War II London in an attempt to save their ymbryne, Miss Peregrine (an ymbryne is a person who can shape-shift into a bird and has the ability to create and maintain time loops). They are hunted by wights and hollows. Wights are amoral beings who seek to exploit peculiars to gain their strengths, while hollows are Lovecraftian creatures who feed on peculiars.

As with the first book, this novel’s greatest strength is the inclusion of abundant photographs. These photos drive the story and augment the mental imagery that the writing evokes. They are all black-and-white photos and could easily be included in a surrealist art exhibit. While I appreciate vivid colors in art and photography, there is something eerily evocative about black-and-white pictures. Maybe it’s the shadowy texture or the dreamlike quality. It’s also very likely that they tap into memories of watching old black-and-white sci-fi and horror films on Saturday mornings as a kid. Regardless, the illustrations in this book work really well for me and I think the story would suffer if it did not have the pictures.

There are two other topics that are explored in this book which I found interesting: myth and the subconscious. They are both subjects that fascinate me and are incorporated into the story in a creative and engaging manner.

“Do you realize what this means?” Millard squealed. He was splashing around, turning in circles, out of breathe with excitement. “It means there’s secret knowledge embedded in the Tales!”

(p. 64)

Great art and literature often seeks to express things that cannot be conveyed through traditional communication, hence the use of symbols and metaphor to express the ineffable. The use of symbolism is also a way to mask ideas that may be dangerous to either the writer or the reader. Hence, our literary history is filled with works that contain knowledge which is not visible on the surface, but requires decoding on the part of the reader. In fact, as one of the characters in the book points out, there are some things that can only be expressed through myth and symbolism.

“Yes,” said Addison. “Some truths are expressed best in the form of myth.”

(p. 98)

The book also explores the subconscious in some creative ways. One part that stood out for me is when Jacob was having a dream, which in and of itself draws on the symbolism associated with Jacob’s dream in the Bible, where he ascends to Heaven and wrestles with God. In this story, Jacob also wrestles in his dream, but with his personal fears. What I found most intriguing, though, was that while Jacob is dreaming, he is talking in his sleep. His words are incomprehensible to his friends, because the language of dreams is all symbol and taps directly into the subconscious. There is no way to adequately express in words the realm of dreams.

I bolted upright, suddenly awake, my mouth dry as paper. Emma was next to me, hands on my shoulders. “Jacob! Thank God—you gave us a scare!”

“I did?”

“You were having a nightmare,” said Millard. He was seated across from us, looking like an empty suit of clothes starched into position. “Talking in your sleep, too.”

“I was?”

Emma dabbed the sweat from my forehead with one of the first-class napkins. (Real cloth!) “You were,” she said. “But it sounded like gobbledygook. I couldn’t understand a word.”

(p. 189)

A shift into the subconscious, or any altered state of consciousness, is often symbolized by a descent into a dark place. In this book, the characters descend into a crypt using a ladder, which again ties in to the biblical myth of Jacob. This entry into a dark and subterranean space represents a shift to the shadowy realm of one’s consciousness.

The ladder descended into a tunnel. The tunnel dead-ended to one side, and in the other direction disappeared into blackness. The air was cold and suffused with a strange odor, like clothes left to rot in a flooded basement. The rough stone walls beaded and dripped with moisture of mysterious origin.

(p. 240)

Overall, I liked this book a lot. It was exciting, fun, and it also contains “secret knowledge” that one can discover if one reads carefully. I look forward to the third book. Hopefully I won’t have to wait too long.

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