When I was a young man and knew little of the theater, I saw a production of Shakespeare’s Othello. I don’t remember it being a great production as a whole, but the actor who played Iago gave a startling performance, so much so that at the end of the play, in the scene where Iago’s wife Emilia reveals his guilt and he rushes across the stage to stab her, the whole audience gasped.
A. C. Bradley, in Shakespearean Tragedy, says that of all Shakespeare’s plays Othello is ‘the most painfully exciting and the most terrible.’ In it we watch Iago, with little or no reason except to ‘plumb up [his] will,’ destroy the lives of five people who counted on him to be their ally and friend.
When Shakespeare created Iago, he imagined a character that had never been seen in literature: a brilliant and sophisticated devil. And since that time poets, playwrights, novelists, and eventually film and television producers have been trying to outdo each other in creating the most intelligent and gifted villain. These days the general public seems to have an enormous appetite for characters with this rare combination of evil and intelligence. But in life it is different. Most of the men and women who are a source of suffering, injury, and destruction—this is a general definition of evil—are anything but brilliant. They usually act out of ignorance or to feed vices, like greed, over which they have no control. They are, in a word, mechanically evil.
Perhaps it is better to say that they are simply ‘mechanical.’ According to what Ouspensky tells us, to say that someone is ‘mechanically evil’ is like saying that someone is ‘wickedly evil.’
Instead of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ the system uses the words ‘conscious’ and ‘mechanical.’ This is quite sufficient for all practical purposes. ~ P. D. Ouspensky
But he was speaking to students of the fourth way, in other words, people who had an aim to live a conscious life and to cease being mechanical. In inner work thoughts, emotions, and desires that helps us awaken are ‘good’ and ‘I’s’ that encourage weakness, buffering, and mechanical behavior are ‘bad.’ At a glance this view seems selfish because it makes what is good and bad about what is good and bad for us, but in the system understanding good and evil is not about creating or following a code of ethics; it is about reaching a level of being where conscience is permanently active, or, at least, active when we need it to be.
Consciousness can be defined as the capacity to connect together all the knowledge we have about a particular subject; that is, seeing all we know about whatever we happen to be giving our attention to in the moment. Conscience is the capacity to feel everything we have ever felt about a situation or a person. Conscience, unlike morality, is objective.
One conscience can never contradict another conscience. One morality can always very easily contradict and completely deny another. There is no general morality. What is moral in China is immoral in Europe and what is moral in Europe is immoral in China. ~ Gurdjieff
The picture Gurdjieff paints of the morality of ‘sleeping people’ is one of conflicting taboos and conflicting ideas of good. It is a picture of people who are hopelessly locked in a battle to either discredit or kill those who disagree with them. It is a world where no one can agree on what is good.
One may say that evil does not exist for subjective man at all, that there exist only different conceptions of good. Nobody ever does anything deliberately in the interests of evil, for the sake of evil. Everybody acts in the interests of good, as he understands it. But everybody understands it in a different way. Consequently men drown, slay, and kill one another in the interests of good. ~ Gurdjieff
Shakespeare says it succinctly in Hamlet.
There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so. ~ Shakespeare
If an objective moral code could be expounded—this is impossible for the simple reason that emotional interactions are generally too complex to be bound by an intellectual system—it wouldn’t matter because it would require will to follow such a code. This is not to say that mankind would be better off without religious morality; a man who tries to follow the Ten Commandments, for example, can learn a great deal about himself in the process. He can learn, for instance, that he is many ‘I’s,’ and that there are parts of him that don’t care about morality. In the process of trying to follow a moral code, a man may see the many contradictions of his being.
Usually these contradictions are buffered because most men don’t possess the strength of mind to accept that they are flawed and contradictory.
A man cannot live in this state [of conscience]; he must either destroy contradictions or destroy conscience. He cannot destroy conscience, but he can put it to sleep, that is, he can separate by impenetrable barrier one feeling of self from another, never see them together, never feel their incompatibility, the absurdity of one existing alongside another. ~ Gurdjieff
The fourth way is sometimes criticized for having no morality, but it has no moral element exactly because it is a system of knowledge that attempts to be objective. The work of self-remembering and the transformation of negative emotions is a work that over time unifies our being so that conscience can function without the need to buffer. And when conscience functions, we know what is right and wrong without having to refer to a code.
This does not mean that students of the fourth way don’t deceive themselves and believe that they know what is right and wrong when they don’t. It is just as easy to believe that you are acting out of conscience when you are not as it is to believe that you possess consciousness when you do not. It is part of our work to uncover the lies that we tell ourselves. Inner work is a process and it takes time, and, especially at the beginning, there can be many mistakes. But self-observation and continued self-remembering do eventually lead to the awakening of conscience.
I think part of our fascination with characters like Iago stems from the mistaken idea that to be able to commit crimes against others (or against humanity as a whole) without feeling guilt and without getting caught is a kind of freedom. Doing what you want without consequences may seem like freedom from the outside, but the inner experience of a man who is a source of suffering and injury to others is not one of feeling free. A sociopath may be clever, perhaps even brilliant like Iago, but his commitment to his own narcissism isolates him and bars him from basic human experiences like joy and love. You cannot selectively buffer emotions. If you buffer guilt and shame, then you buffer the part of yourself, the emotional center, that is capable of feeling love and joy.
Feelings of contentment and happiness, as well as real freedom, are not based on being able to act in an unrestricted way, but on the experience of higher worlds; that is, essence and higher centers. Essentially freedom means to be free from the vices and impulses that keep us in lower or mechanical parts of our being.
The idea of a gifted criminal (or a detective) with a brilliant mind but with a non-existent or an immature emotional center is an extremely unlikely possibility in reality. This is so because a large part of crime and detection is not based on figuring out complex plots, but on being able to read people and to understand their motivations. And the mind is simply incapable of this.
Iago would seem to fall into the category of a criminal with a brilliant mind—and he does in his own way—but he has something more, something he speaks about throughout the play. He has will.
Tis in ourselves that we are thus or thus. Our bodies are our gardens to which our wills are gardeners. ~ Act 1, Scene 2
It is merely a lust of the blood and a permission of the will. Come, be a man. ~ Act 1, Scene 3
I think that what Shakespeare was exploring with his characterization of Iago was something more than a criminal with a brilliant mind. He was showing us a man who developed will, but not consciousness. Put simply Iago could do, but he lacked understanding. His plot is really rather simple: convince Othello that Cassio has seduced Desdemona and thereby wreak havoc on the lives of the two people, Othello and Cassio, who he feels have slighted him. It is not his plot that is brilliant; it is the execution of his plot that is masterful. And I think that anybody who takes the time to read the text understands that Iago does not foresee the end. He starts with the idea to take Cassio’s job and to make Othello suffer, but I don’t think he sets out to find a way to kill Othello and Desdemona.
Bradley remarks that Iago was also very lucky.
The skill of Iago was extraordinary, but so was his good fortune. Again and again a chance word from Desdemona, a chance meeting of Othello and Cassio, a question which starts to our lips and which anyone but Othello would have asked, would have destroyed Iago’s plot and ended his life. In their stead, Desdemona drops her handkerchief at the moment most favourable to him, Cassio blunders into the presence of Othello only to find him in a swoon, Bianca arrives precisely when she is wanted to complete Othello’s deception and incense his anger into fury. ~ A. C. Bradley
And the plot does hang on Iago getting his hands on Desdemona’s handkerchief. That she would drop at the right moment and that Emilia would be there to pick it up is incredibly fortunate for him. But I’m guessing that in Shakespeare’s mind this was simply one opportunity and that Iago would have found another way to continue if Desdemona had held onto her handkerchief. What we see over and over again is that Iago is an opportunist. He uses his will and his single-mindedness to seize any opportunity to achieve his aim. Unlike the rest of the characters in the play Iago is unified. There are no contradictions in his character. He has no remorse because he has lost the ability to feel and to sympathize with others. And he always believes that his intellect is superior to the people around him. Once he sets his plan into motion, he has no real second thoughts about continuing despite the suffering and injury and destruction his actions bring about. Even after he is caught he is unrepentant and refuses to justify his actions. His last words are:
Demand me nothing: what you know, you know:
From this time forth I never will speak a word.
~ Act 5, Scene 2
Iago’s ‘genius’ lies in his ability to prey on the weaknesses of others. He uses Roderigo’s infatuations with Desdemona and Cassio’s remorse and Othello’s passionate nature for his own purposes, but he doesn’t understand why they feel the way they do and what they gain from their feelings. He despises emotion, but his downfall is brought about by his lack of understanding of his own wife. Because he has no loyalty and no love for anyone, he doesn’t foresee that Emilia’s love for Desdemona would lead her to reveal their secret about the handkerchief.
Macbeth is the tragedy of Macbeth because at the beginning of the play he still has possibilities, he still has a conscience. Othello is not the tragedy of Iago, even though he has more lines than Othello (Iago has nearly 1100 lines and Othello has 887) because at the beginning of the play he is already without possibilities; his being is crystallized. He is caught and probably tortured and hung, but his fall is not ‘tragic’ because he has nowhere to fall. His character is revealed, not changed by the events of the play.
Part of the reason Othello is ‘painful’ to watch is that it is essentially told from the point of view of Iago. Not only does Iago have more lines than Othello, but he also has four soliloquies to Othello’s one. In other words, Shakespeare, in writing Othello seems more interested in revealing the character of his villain than he does in revealing the character of his hero.
Othello’s downfall is tragic not only because he was a great man, but also because he was essentially a good man. Othello is certainly one of Shakespeare’s most emotionally-charged characters. He represents, if you will, the possibilities and vulnerabilities of the emotional center as a means of perception. His tragedy is that he has a passionate nature, which leads him to trust people and to act without much reflection. He says of himself that he is one:
Not easily jealous, but, being wrought, perplexed in the extreme. ~ Act 5, Scene 2
And this is what Iago says of him:
The Moor is of a free and open nature,
That thinks men honest that but seem to be so.
~ Act 2, Scene 3
Gurdjieff speaks about the existence of a man like Iago when he describes the possibility of the crystallization of a man’s being on a wrong foundation.
Crystallization is possible on any foundation. Take for example a brigand, a really good, genuine brigand. I knew such brigands in the Caucasus. He will stand with a rifle behind a stone by the roadside for eight hours without stirring. Could you do this? All the time, mind you, a struggle is going on in him. He is thirsty and hot, and flies are biting him; but he stands still. Such people can become immortal. But what is the good of it? A man of this kind becomes an ‘immortal thing.’ ~ Gurdjieff
Strength (or will) and unity—Iago possesses both—are two aspects of consciousness, but without perception or depth of understanding, they combine to create an ‘immortal thing.’ Think about it this way: what good is Iago’s strength when he fails to see his own limitations and doesn’t understand or connect to the people around him?
If we can imagine a back story for Iago, I think it would have to contain a great deal of suffering and denial. But when he suffered, he thought of nothing but his own intellectual superiority, so that after a time his being crystallized in this one part of his personality. His strength is based on his capacity to never question his actions, but this is also his weakness. He puts himself in danger at every turn because he believes that he will be able to talk his way out of any predicament by the sheer force of his superior intellect. And it works, for a while.
When it is cleansed of negative emotions, the emotional center connects to higher centers. But in order for this transformation to occur, great strength and will are required. But just as it is possible to have will without understanding, it is also possible to have understanding with no will. In other words it is possible for a man to understand everything, but be unable to do anything. This type of imbalance was explored by Shakespeare in the character of Hamlet, the play that was written before Othello.
The world is crowded with public figures who are incomplete. A man can understand a great deal about how the world works, about how to help others, and about how to solve the many problems that face us, but at the same time have no will or motivation to act on what he sees. And another man may have great ambition and strength of will but have no understanding, so that his actions create only confusion and suffering.
The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity. W. B. Yeats
Wrong crystallization most frequently occurs in cases of madness or where untransformed suffering is used to strengthen features in personality. Still it needs to be understood that crystallization, even wrong crystallization, cannot happen without a great deal of friction or inner struggle.
In the fourth way the primary tool for creating a balance between strength and understanding is self-remembering. Self-remembering always contains an element of will, or effort. But because it is essentially a method of seeing, it always steers us toward a greater understanding of ourselves and of our connection to other people. Right crystallization can be thought about in this way: if, when you suffer, you are able to create a state of self-consciousness, instead of a reaction from personality, then, after a long time, that state will become permanent.