The pity of it, Iago, the poetry of it

That’s what Othello should have said, like the rest of us, by which I mean Shakespeare’s readers & audiences four-hundred-and-thirteen years later. What Othello said was ‘but yet the pity of it, Iago! O Iago, the pity of it, Iago!’

Othello, Act IV, Scene I. Othello is still impressed by Desdemona’s needlework – ‘so delicate with her needle’ – and moved by her singing – ‘will sing the savageness out of a bear’; he admires her ‘high and plenteous wit and invention’. He has previously called her ‘A fine woman! A fair woman! A sweet woman!’ Has proclaimed that ‘the world hath not a sweeter creature’, one ‘fit to lie by an emperor’s side’. And yet he now intends to ‘chop her into messes’ for cuckolding him. Sound familiar? The fact that Othello the Moor strangles Desdemona can be seen as a crime passionnel as well as an honour killing. Isn’t that very much like our twentieth century or the not unsimilar one that followed?

What is not 20th or 21st c. in that scene is precisely Othello’s regret: the pity of it, Iago. If Othello had had just a bit more of Hamlet’s equivocation, he might have killed himself instead of killing Desdemona. Let’s fantasize. What if Dreamworks had hired Shakespeare to make a film of the ‘American Beauty’ sort out of Othello? Wow, Desdemona in rose petals, Othello smoking marijuana. They’d have asked old Will to take a good look at Sam Mendes’ film, which would certainly have been to Will’s taste, I’m sure. ‘There’s enough there for ten plays,’ Will would have said.

And then they’d have asked him about the scene he liked best. ‘The plastic bag scene,’ Will would have said: ‘Give you the Swan theatre and the apron stage for that.’ Why? Ricky holds his camcorder in any direction on any subject and out comes the dance of the plastic bag; what’s so special about that? It’s the first half-metaphor Will has seen in a Hollywood film which is in effect a full metaphor – Will says. What’s a half-metaphor? ‘That’s what they’re calling an old trick of mine these days,’ Will says. ‘I’m sure you had to do Macbeth’s soliloquy about to-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow in your secondary, didn’t you? Remember what I wrote? All our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death. Now, how do tomorrows turn into yesterdays? By dying, they die. Death, dusty death – dust to dust returns. The funeral procession: do not all our days point the way to the inevitable end, are they not the mourners, the candle-bearers to our own mortality? I’m not here to give you an online correspondence course on half-metaphors – let me just remind you of what that Francis Thompson fellow phrased so surprisingly well some time back’ (actually a century & more). ‘Thompson wrote: “Turn but a stone, and start a wing!” Now, what do you start when you turn a stone? A bird? An angel? What you start is a half-metaphor.’

‘The true image, the poetic image, is like that,’ Will was being thoughtful now. ‘You have to start it, startle it, and it takes to wing. I don’t know how Sam Mendes did it, but he must have chanced upon that plastic bag blowing this way and that in the wind and the leaves following it around as if playing follow the leader. The rest is just asphalt and the brick wall, as bare as the apron stage. The dance of the plastic bag is the most beautiful thing he ever found, Ricky says. Also the most terrible, if he only knew, and as I have been finding out. That plastic bag represents all that is wrong with America, all that is wrong with your world, with your time. Your civilisation is drowning in it. It’s landing in the ocean where fish and dolphins and sharks mistake it for jellyfish and eat it and choke and die. And it’s an empty plastic bag. Four hundred and thirteen years later, you’ll find that plastic bag is all that has remained of American Beauty. The half-metaphor will have become a full metaphor by then.’

It was getting a bit heavy, so I had to ask something to change the topic. How did he manage to modernise his English? I asked W.S. He went into a huff: ‘I write Modern English.’ And then, after I’d soothed him: ‘From the books in the No Fear Shakespeare series, from somebody called SparkNotes,’ Will revealed. ‘You mean you read them the other way round?’ I quipped, trying to suppress a smile. ‘And what has been the proudest moment in your four hundred years as the greatest poet on earth?’ I asked. ‘It’s when the ELBS’ – that’s the English Language Book Society – ‘was selling my complete works in India – in one volume – for six rupees,’ Will declared. ‘I know,’ I said, ‘I bought one of those from the A. H. Wheeler stall at the Gonda railway station back in ’78.’

‘A. H. Wheeler? An Englishman?’ Will said.

‘It’s a hundred percent Indian company founded by a French author and an Indian businessman – a Bengali, by the way – back in 1877. They specialised in selling books at railway stations,’ I told Master W. Shakespeare, wondering what his reaction would be.

Will seemed pleased: ‘So you bought me from a merchant half a world away? At the back of beyond, as that Scott fellow would have put it? Boy, am I famous! To which happenstance do I owe this honour?’

‘They founded the East India Company, that’s your John Company, in 1600, when you were thirty-six years old. The rest is history, yours as much as ours,’ I said.