Today was all about acts 2. Here are a few thoughts on each play:
Today was all about the fall of Cassio. Of course, Cassio is just a small cog in the diabolical machinations of Iago, although Iago certainly does take some pleasure in bringing him down. The thing is, Cassio is pretty much the perfect gentleman. Every comment he makes is measured and weighed against the rules of propriety. He always monitors himself to make sure that he’s creating the right impression and, most importantly, maintaining his good reputation. Reputation is huge in this play, and Cassio represents the point of view that reputation is a man’s most important asset. In fact, after he falls to Iago’s plot he tells the consoling Iago that he would rather be dead than to lose his good name.
The thing I find most interesting about Cassio at this point is that it seems more than plausible, as Iago points out, that Cassio actually is in love with Desdemona and that, ignoring for now Cassio’s supposedly perfect honor, Othello probably does have some reason to be jealous. Just think about Othello’s position: He’s not exactly the most eligible candidate for Desdemona’s hand. Despite the fact that he’s totally respected and trusted by politicians and military leaders, he is also a black man living in a totally racist, white society. All through the play we can find examples of tension between Othello, performing well and receiving accolades, and the leaders of Venice, who praise him to his face and insult his race when he turns his back. Shakespeare lets this racial tension run as an undercurrent to everything else, but it’s an undercurrent to which we modern readers are extremely sensitive.
Anyway, Cassio. Loses his reputation and falls into despair. He’s total Iago-bait at that point and is more than willing to be persuaded that Desdemona is his only hope. Poor guy. Whatever–I think I join most of the class in celebrating the fall of this hoity-toity yes-man.
Act 2 of Hamlet has a lot of mysterious stuff in it. For one thing, we get our first glimpse of “crazy Hamlet,” and thus our first chance to try to figure out whether or not he really is crazy. In our class discussions we pretty much agreed that at this point Hamlet is just putting on a show. His comments to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern about knowing a “hawk from a handsaw,” and only being crazy when the wind blows in certain directions but not in others are pretty clear indications that he’s pretending. And then there’s also the incident that Ophelia talks to Polonius about, where Hamlet looks into her eyes searchingly, trying to send some sort of a message without speaking (since the walls of Elsinore have ears). If you think about the letter Polonius takes from Ophelia to show to the king, with its strong entreaty to “doubt not that I love you,” you can see there, too, Hamlet is sending a message to someone he cares about that he is not what he seems.
Also in Act 2, we meet the players and get a long speech about the death of Priam, the king of Troy. I don’t know a lot about this story, other than that Priam’s wife, Hecuba, strikes Hamlet as a very noble woman, since she grieves so poetically, unlike his own “o’erhastily” married mother. It’s also some damn fine poetry, and I’m glad it’s in there.
Anyway, that was our day. If you missed it, read and enjoy act 2 of Hamlet or Othello. There’s a link to the complete works of Shakespeare over to the right in the blogroll.