Reading Harold Bloom’s ‘Iago: The Strategies of Evil’ in the midst of 2020
Having known captivity, he had fought his way free…Shakespeare
Harold Bloom’s Shakespeare’s Personalities series (long essays in book form focussed on one particular character of a play) often receive negative comments from reviewers (I won’t call it ‘criticism’ in this company, since these comments are not so elevated…) along the lines of: “All he’s doing is writing about what’s happening and quoting the play #whatevs.” And, yes: maybe so. But it’s not ‘all’ he is doing. I see these books functioning as a kind of fireside chat with the last great literary critic of the West about some of the inventions of the greatest writer in the Western tradition. Even when you read the Shakespeare passages, it’s like you are hearing the man recite them in his sandy voice, maybe sipping Merlot inbetween.
Othello asserts that he is an African prince…Bloom
Reading this when I was reading this, about an older black man’s love and engagement with a younger white woman (and them being torn apart by a schemer for reasons it’s almost impossible to understand) while Black Lives Matter newscasts and videos and op-eds and photo-ops and symbolic gestures and killings-in-the-street and mouths mouthing so constantly bombarding me on every media source available and imagined … it contextualised the reading and, in particular, the flavour of Bloom’s sub-title: The Strategies of Evil. This old black culture and this young white one, this New World under that Old One. And how it could be undone … what strategies could undo it?
When devils will the blackest sins put on,
They do suggest at first with heavenly shows,
As I do now.Shakespeare
There is bad, and there is evil. Roderigo is bad. He wants Desdamerica for himself, and he’s prepared to act against what he understands to be right and moral; he is prepared to steal and lie and kill, but all to a purpose: a purpose he understands to be more important than that of being good, and his purpose remains the same and is understandable to us, even if we might loathe him for it. This is of a different order to Iago. But how do their strategies differ? Since Roderigo is bad only in his part, he is still part of a genuine moral universe, so his capacity to act and plan creatively is limited purely to a simple finite goal. He cannot invest fully. He even becomes chiefly an accomplice in his own efforts; he must be led and fed. Iago has no such bounds, and while he offers up motivations now and then for what he’s doing, it’s easy to think he’s just playing with us. His heavenly shows are just as convincing as his blackest sins. He can be believed-in, unlike Roderigo, who we can see right through.
Utter my thoughts? Why, say they are vile and false…Shakespeare
Evil demands something more than just a goal that goes against a moral code. It demands destruction and denigration, so it revels most wildly in making the best and most beautful things fall in the most spectacular and ugly ways. And the more they shine out as something grand and unusual, the better; for destroying and denigrating such a thing is all the more grand. Othello and Desdamerica’s relationship is strikingly unusual and grand. There is something new and novel about it, powerful and also beautiful. So how to bring it undone?
First, you must gain trust, like a masthead news service has gained trust. Lay down some narrative bedrock. Ridicule any attacks upon it as conspiracy theories, made by wearers of tin foil hats … the whole nine yards. Admit your unworthiness. A Roderigo has no time for this, no stomach either. Evil has to be patient. As Bloom points out, Iago is Othello’s Ancient; a man he is convinced would rather die than see his master’s standard fall.
Think of the ancient as a doctor of the mind who seeks not to cure but to afflict.Harold Bloom
The purpose of Iago’s reportage to his primary audience is constant affliction, in gathering intensity. Never let up on the pressure: report innuendos, doubt yourself (let your audience come to your defence) and keep on doubting even as you leave out everything that does not concern your project (remember to ridicule in equal turns); give poisons as medicines, but start with such a lesser dose that none can see the difference. And, slowly build upon it. The Old World can become easily jealous of the New World, all the Beauty it has built about it. Its monuments, on the page, in the ear, on the ground. Secure all insecurities, no matter how insignificant, and bend them to your will.
Haply, for I am black And have not those soft parts of conversation
That chamberers have…Shakespeare
But in the end you will need to manufacture some kind of smoking-gun, as the clever people call it. Some kind of tactile device, a concrete object … perhaps a hankerchief, perhaps a YouTube video, and you must report on this in such a way that it can only be seen in such a way. And even if your own wife might come out against you and say, at one point, nay, this was not what … well, then, she must be ended, cancelled, dispatched with all due speed. For any accomplice to the hankerchief is the only way in which your evil can really be undone, or at least the most simple and least bloody way.
Dangerous conceits are in their natures poisons,
Which at the first are scarce found to distaste,
But with a little act upon the blood
Burn like the mines of sulphur.Shakespeare
Where can we place Cassio? Well, he loves Othello and he loves Desdamerica too, both in wholesome ways; but he is more easily a Desdamerican too, and he is white and good, just like her. He is the other side of Roderigo, also Desdamerican, but bent the other way. We can at best hope to be like Cassio, to realise our failures and work on them, to learn from the manipulations around us.
Iago—dramatist, director, and critic—instructs Othello that that is not the way to think about her.Harold Bloom
Bloom likens Iago to a director or a stage manager of his own play, how he instructs the cast with consumate control, and his soliloquies are like he’s confiding in us, his co-conspirators. After all, we’re sitting there in the dark, passive, doing nothing, while the horror of this evil is played out. We are structurally complicit, then. He only spirals out of control, both suddenly and swiftly, through the reliance on the concrete object: the hankerchief. Did he even need this thing? Perhaps not… But evil is not content to always live in shadows. It must sometimes dare to live in light.
Othello: She turned to folly, and she was a whore.Shakespeare
Thus, Iago weaponises Blackness against Desdamerica, against everything that is noble and good in Othello, and he only realises it too late. He is flung backward through the strategies of evil, without the tools to deal with them; even beyond the kind of Männerbund code he has lived with all his life on the battlefield. It was not only not useful to him, but used against him with consumate ease.
Iago remains the most dangerous of all villains, because his infernal intelligence throws us into despair.Harold Bloom
And, of course, neither Shakespeare nor Bloom offer us any easy answers. Those that you most trust are those that can most work evil upon you? But those that we most trust are also those that can work the most good in league with us, beyond that which we can do ourselves, alone. This is hardly a simple morality play. At least we might be aware of the strategies of evil among us, and work to not be contribute to them … even if we think it for the Good.