At first sight there isn’t much to connect Stephen King with Shakespeare – maybe even at second sight. But I was watching the BBC Othello yesterday when one of those ‘ermmm’ thoughts struck: Iago and Mr. Gaunt.
Mr. Gaunt, from King’s ‘Needful Things’, is unashamedly and unequivocally, a devil: ‘The Gaunt-thing hissed and shook its claws at them,” (pg 780 in my paperback version). He appears, however, a friendly, helpful, elderly man to almost all – delusion and reality.
Iago? Is he a devil or is he a man? Is he a human gone bad or a personification of evil? That’s one debate that’s not going to go away – but the unanswerability of the questions is key to the play – and as I keep trying to persuade people, Shakespeare’s greatness is in the questions he raises and not in any answers he doesn’t provide.
This is also the weakness of King – we get an answer - an ending (sort of happy) and a tag – it’s all starting again, which is so formulaic it is almost a sign of compulsive writing disorder. Evil is defeatable, the American dream is fightable for, small communities just need the right man to protect them, or else . . . blah, blah, blah.
Both Iago and Mr Gaunt work by constructing a false trail – trails that could, at first sight, seem simple jests – tricks and practical jokes which rely on the witless participation of others: King gives us Brian Rusk, Shakespeare, Rodrigo. Both use the weaknesses of their agents, but there is a difference in their victims.
Othello, Desdemona, innocents in black and white, do nothing to further their own destruction in the way Mr. Gaunt’s customers do – they do not, of their own free will, enter the shop. Iago is not playing with people’s bodies so much as with their souls: Whether he knows it is not at issue – he appears motivated by greed, jealousy and spite; he seeks Othello’s mental torture and physical destruction, not his soul’s damnation – but that is what Iago (almost?) achieves.
Gaunt is single-minded in his exploitation of a weakness in a culture – the pursuit of happiness at the expense of life and liberty. There is no chance of resisting because you have already made the choice – you are already damned and Gaunt simple takes you all the way. This dreadful inevitability is a criticism of American materialism and its pernicious effect on everyone from young children to religious leaders, from the town drunk to the town councillor. (Is this sounding as much like ‘sixties hippy’ to you as it is to me?)
At the heart of Shakespeare’s play is the impossibility of giving up free choice – no matter how many times you watch it, you think ‘ don’t believe him’, ‘don’t drink that extra cup’, ‘don’t . . .’: At no point is there an inevitability. Iago, right to the end, doesn’t think there is – in the final act he says he has either succeeded, or he hasn’t.
It seems to me that this is what makes Othello a tragedy – the possibility of an alternative.
It also seems to me to be the thing that makes Mr King’s book a Horror – the simple chain of cause and effect is inescapable.
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[This dreadful inevitability is a criticism of American materialism and its pernicious effect on everyone from young children to religious leaders, from the town drunk to the town councillor. (Is this sounding as much like ‘sixties hippy’ to you as it is to me?) ]
--Not big on cultural relativism?...neither am I. Too many times the discussion about similarity is initiated in an attempt to prove the initiator's point--and usually by the time he/she does, the value of the comparison has been bastardized by self-serving interest.The truth tends to suffer in these instances, as does the importance of making the comparison in the first place--wherein the true value of the exercise lies.
But there IS this curious little propensity History has of repeating itself...over and over again. And when it comes to human nature, there really is nothing new under the sun; 'twas ever thus. Shakespeare had this uncanny knack--he could get to the core of a human being, show us the depths of their baseness, and at the same time, elicit our patient acceptance (to the point of amusement at the horror) of this Toad. Why? I believe it's because in showing ALL the facets of this character as well, he's giving them a reason to exist and a reason we should accept their existence through our own commonality with them--Iago's opening speeches (indeed the play's as well) taken together are a convincing summation to the jury of History as to why people like him exist! Does he have a choice? Does Othello? Fate certainly plays its part--but how much is Fate responsible for Othello's choice (weakness) to let the green eyd Monster totally possess him? Is he good otherwise? Yet look at that of which he is capable!
Shakespeare has proven himself over and over to be a Philosopher who is able to see himself in the mirror his characters hold up to him, yet look through the mirror as well; all the while sitting on the fence trying to decide which way is best to go. Truly Human.
[– and as I keep trying to persuade people, Shakespeare’s greatness is in the questions he raises and not in any answers he doesn’t provide.]
ABSOLUTELY! -- because if that's point #1 for you, you understand the importance of keeping Shaksper alive; and you have my vote for the Office of The Presidency.
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