On Allan Bloom’s “Cosmopolitan Man and the Political Community”

In Allan Bloom’s compilation entitled Shakespeare’s Politics (1964), the third essay, “Cosmopolitan Man and the Political Community,” begins with an acknowledgement of “the world today” and its widespread common humanism which is born out of a pessimistic view of nuclear annihilation (and, today, we might also add growing concerns about environmental catastrophe). And in this essay, Bloom pledges to examine whether or not Shakespeare’s awareness of this trend toward common humanism, even in his own day, is ultimately pessimistic or optimistic.

In Part I, Bloom cites the Earl of Shaftesbury who characterizes the marriage of Othello and Desdemona as a “mismatch” and a “monstrous union” which occurred between a “charlatan” and his bride’s “unhealthy imagination” (36). Accordingly, the marriage is doomed because it is based on little more than an infatuation for the novelty of foreigners –a behavior which is to be avoided and condemned. Bloom, channeling Shaftesbury, suggests that only a sick taste at home and a flawed moral education could have led Desdemona to pursue such an obsession with exoticism. However, Bloom continues in his essay to disagree with this interpretation of Othello and Desdemona.

Othello’s jealousy is particularly striking feature of the play, especially when considering the shocking lack of evidence he requires in demonstrating Desdemona’s infidelity. Bloom suggests that Shakespeare uses elements which are already present within his tragic characters to demonstrate the tragedy. For example, in the case of Macbeth and Hamlet: Macbeth’s already established pride and ambition leads him to eventually kill Duncan and claim the tyrant’s throne (i.e. Macbeth’s crimes emerge from his greatness of soul); or Hamlet’s assumed responsibility for the deaths of all his loved ones and his failure to do justice. To consider these characters otherwise is to either accuse them of being criminals or else pity them. Bloom says, “As it is, we see them as examples of human greatness; they move in areas of experience from which ordinary mortals are cut off. But this very superiority in human quality seems to lead to crime and disaster. It is this combination that constitutes the unique quality of tragedy” (38). And furthermore: “Tragedy is founded on the notion that, in the decisive respect, human beings are free and responsible, that their fates are the consequences of their choices. All that is a result of external force or chance is dehumanizing in the tragic view” (38). Therefore, in true Aristotelian fashion (and to avoid the pitfalls of psychoanalytical interpretations of the play), Bloom endeavors to examine the characters and the action of the play with an eye toward the “political setting.”

In Part II, Bloom begins by looking closely at the marriage between Othello and Desdemona –a union based on lust, profit, and the purest admiration for virtue. The characters’ beliefs about this love are what animates and moves the whole tragedy. Bloom rather controversially claims that Iago is merely a villain who awakens already existing dilemmas –“Iago only precipitates something that was already there” (39). He is like a mirror for those around him, exposing their masks and revealing their deepest fears and desires.

At any rate, Bloom traces the tastes of the people in Venice, such as the foolhardiness of Roderigo and the portrayal of Othello’s marriage to Desdemona as something abhorrent, at least for the commonsensical civic virtue of Brabantio, Desdemona’s father, who sees only the best in himself within his daughter, and is rejecting of things foreign and strange. Bloom notes that while Elizabethan England was not enmeshed in the troubled history of racial prejudice as in present-day America, there was a widespread view that the world was large, tastes and habits varied greatly, things were less uniform, and there was still a sense that barbarism lay just beyond one’s borders. In this respect, Othello is intended to shock audiences for being exotic and foreign, both for his race as well as being a Moor, however he is also a hero who is noble and superior. The marriage between Othello and Desdemona is indeed true, albeit based on mutual admiration –Desdemona admires Othello for his deeds and suffering, which are only declared by him in speeches (his fanciful tales are the true source of his reputation in the play), while Othello admits he loves Desdemona because she pities him. This is the basis of their marriage.

In Part III, Bloom notes that, despite appearing to be entirely confident and self-sufficient, Othello may not be exactly so. First, he lays out an argument about the political community as it exists in all places. The political community is a kind of accidental family which requires delineation of the domestic from the foreign in defense of its ancestral customs (a universal cosmopolitanism poses a threat to the political community, according to Bloom). He claims that no man can ever truly choose his city and furthermore that Shakespeare is skeptical of cosmopolitanism. Othello believes himself to be universally valued and valuable everywhere he goes, there are no city walls to contain the boundaries of his citizenship. “Is it really possible to transcend the city on the level of the life of action lived in it and become universal? Can a man who has no ‘natural’ home be a statesman?” (47).     

Bloom reminds us that Othello is, after all, a lowly mercenary –one who sells his craft to the highest bidder in a confused brand of citizenship. His allegiances are questionable, yet he chooses to join a Christian community. Why? His universality is manifestly accepted by a Christian community for whom the local –that is, the political in the ancient sense– is less important. Bloom likens Othello to a knight errant who is a certain kind of a Christian. For Othello, “The faith provides a cosmopolitanism which is not limited by the accident of birth, the peculiarity of education, or the difference in social position” (48). Yet despite all of his questionable talk of his military conquests, his Christianity coupled with a unwavering belief in his righteous deservedness comes crashing down the moment Iago awakens in him doubt in Desdemona, it exposes that Othello is entirely dependent upon her for acceptance within Venice.

In Part IV, Bloom explores love –“Love, according to the classical analysis, means imperfection, need. The motion of one being toward another, the recognition of something admirable in another, implies the lack of something in the one admiring” (51). This idea is most memorably argued in Plato’s Symposium –the lover and his beloved. The lover admits a dependence and inferiority to his beloved, thus love is a kind of admission of imperfection, even though the lover desires to be reciprocated in order to fully possess the beloved and maintain his self-esteem. This is the dilemma in which Othello finds himself –he loves Desdemona, and is unwittingly dependent upon the belief in her reciprocity. However, when he is made to require proof of her love, his house of cards comes tumbling down. Note that requiring a proof of something, is to begin from a place of anxiety or insecurity. It is to already admit the possibility of fallibility.  

Iago destroys Othello’s nobility by awakening in him the possibility that acts can be performative and untrue, which then engenders a deep sense of jealousy. It is the wrath of a husband deceived. In some ways, he mirrors a sense of divine jealousy, perhaps akin to the jealousy of the God of the Old Testament –both claim a kind of omniscient status as in Othello “Shakespeare analyzes the sophistry of the heart of a man who attempts to be thus divine” (53). Othello enters Venice as a universal stranger, insisting on respect and honor, and yet jealousy emerges within himself which reveals a flaw or at least a kind of doubt. However, jealousy is very much a natural human sensation –even the ancient gods as found among the Greeks and Romans as well as in the Hebrew Bible are all deeply envious beings. In continuing the parallel, Othello serves as judge over people throughout the play, however the tragedy when he begins judging Desdemona not for her actions, but rather for her intentions. He no longer maintains an open or honest disposition.

Here, Bloom suggests that Othello enters Venice as a Turk, rife with ancient virtue and trusting in the possibility of his own universalism, however, Iago awakens doubt, and Othello rapidly becomes more fully Christian, seeking to purge Desdemona of her sinfulness and cutting off impurity at the root, thus mercifully redeeming the world. “On the basis of the new justice of love, a cruelty and passion that never before existed comes into being” (57).

In Part V, Bloom shows that Othello attempted to become a universal hero –a hero, soldier, and stateman who believes he can be liberated from a particular time and place while still maintaining his heroism. However, Shakespeare seems to suggest this possibility is a lie. “Such careers are by their nature bound to the fortunes of cities of men, all of which have special needs and traditions. Those who follow these paths seek glory as their reward, and glory is dependent on a public. The hero is perforce attached to the place whence his glory comes, and he must believe somehow in the special importance and excellence of that place. This represents a denial of the universal standpoint; it is part of the necessary narrowing of the statesman’s horizon” 57). His ultimate tragedy is twofold –he murders his wife under a dedication to divine or perhaps even holy justice, however, in the end he finds this to merely be a deceptive act of grave injustice. He then attempts to end his own life as a classical hero once again.

In Part VI, Bloom turns to Desdemona and her uniquely undeserving tragedy despite being a devoted wife. But is there something appropriate about fate? Bloom notes that she looked beyond the shores of Venice in shunning the “wealthy curled darlings” of the city. In this, she found the strange tales Othello to be enticing. She is independent and indifferent to the popular opinion of those around, despite being a cloistered, superstitious, shy girl. However, she becomes a prisoner to the opinion about Othello after falling in love with him. There are three instances of her deceptive behavior in the play –she deceives her father about her secret marriage to Othello, she lies to Othello about her lost handkerchief, and in death she lies and claims it was not Othello who killed her. She is not entirely perfect and has often been compared to the likes of Miranda and Cordelia. However, unlike Cordelia, Desdemona lacks a love of the truth, and unlike Miranda, she has no Prospero to guide her imagination onto the right path –”her untutored understanding spawns monsters” (62). While she leads a noble life, it is contra law and reason.

Lastly in Part VII, Bloom considers the “devil” Iago –a character who actually serves liberate characters in the discovery of the truth. He is an easy character for us to condemn, especially when acknowledging our modern partisanship in favor of love and lovers, however Iago merely serves a “mirror or an agent that causes the unseen to become visible” (63). He is “honest Iago,” the greatest truth-teller in the play, and he realizes that true tyranny is imposed upon the minds of people, rather than politically enforced. He distinguishes between the being and seeming nature of things. He is a materialist who is often speaking about vulgar things like money (“purse”). Iago actually reveals the strange paradox that the freedom to pursue the truth requires deception –and love holds no grand significance for him. He is untethered to convention –and Bloom claims he is an atheist. Othello gives us a choice between a mean life based on clear perception of reality or a noble life based on falsehood which ends in tragedy. In the end, Iago is also deceived by his wife Emilia who dies for nothing other than the truth. She represents a third option by expressing such a deep passion for the truth rather than the open and loving nature of Othello on the one hand, and also the clear-sighted deceptiveness of Iago –and Emilia’s self-sacrifice is both noble and freed from deception.    


Bloom, Allan. Shakespeare’s Politics. University of Chicago Press. 1964.  I must say I was pleasantly surprised to find many of my own reflections unwittingly also present in Allan Bloom’s essay on Othello, albeit far better articulated by Mr. Bloom.  

Thoughts on the Clown in Shakespeare’s Othello

One of the more elusive characters in Othello is the Clown, a minor figure who appears briefly in Act III scenes i and iv. Unlike most of Shakespeare’s other plays, excluding the Fool in King Lear, the Clown in Othello remains nameless. Who is this strange and surprising figure? As it turns out, the Clown plays a key role in the play –he appears moments after a group of musicians plays a “brief” song of “good morrow” (a traditional aubade to wake a bride and groom after their wedding night). The Clown arrives on the stage near a distraught Cassio who has just recently been dismissed from his position as lieutenant under Othello. Seeking to find his way back into the good graces of “the Moor,” the Clown is asked to notify Cassio when Emilia stirs in the morning so that he may request a private audience with her lady, Desdemona.

The Clown is akin to a servant-jester in the house of Othello. As a result, he appears confident, perhaps in a nasty or sneering fashion. He chides the troupe of street musicians for sounding disharmonious (and also of perhaps suffering from venereal disease). He seems to have been sent by Othello “the general” to dismiss the cacophonous musicians and end their noisy performance. However, the Clown is quickly offered a gold piece in exchange for notifying the “stirring” Emilia that Cassio wishes to speak with him. He accepts the coin from Cassio –in some ways it is a parallel act which mirrors Iago taking money from the gullible Roderigo.

The tragic momentum of the play is interrupted again by the Clown in Act III, scene iv wherein this time he speaks with Desdemona about Cassio (notably, he never speaks with Iago). In the same way that Cassio once reportedly payed an intermediary role between Othello and Desdemona, the Clown serves as the intermediary between Cassio and Desdemona. The Clown has a brief and humorous, albeit frustrating exchange with Desdemona who beckons that he speak with Cassio. Once again, the Clown is the link between Cassio and Desdemona.    

The Clown speaks in winking double entendres, he enters just when Cassio needs him most, and he exits just as Iago enters. Either wittingly or unwittingly, the Clown fits into Iago’s dark plot. This has led to speculation that perhaps the Clown is best played by the same actor who plays Iago. And, indeed, perhaps the Clown is Iago –he embodies Iago’s snide attitude with a darkly playful outlook, whereas Iago is purely sinister and nihilistic. In this respect, the Clown is akin to the Porter in Macbeth –a ribald disrupter who still serves as an important figure in the play, even if he has occasionally been omitted from performances of the play, and his presence serves to hail an important moment in the play. Shakespeare uses comedic characters in his tragedies to strike a light-hearted tone at critical junctures –comedy briefly disrupts tragedy.


For this reading I used the essential Arden 3rd Edition of Shakespeare’s Othello.

Star Trek TAS: Season 1, Episode Eleven “The Terratin Incident”

Stardate: 5577.3 (2269)
Original Air Date: November 17, 1973
Writer: Paul Schneider
Director: Hal Sutherland       

“We’ve got twenty-nine minutes before we’re too small to operate ship controls!”

Rating: 2 out of 5.

The Enterprise approaches the burnt out remains of the supernova Arachna, with the goal of surveying and measuring its radiation and volume expansion. As Uhura informs Starbase 23 that the Enterprise has arrived at the gas cloud and is beginning mapping activities, a strange radio transmission (an intersat code which has been out of use for centuries) and it comes from the satellite Cepheus, a place which does not have any documented life forms. Kirk decides to investigate the situation.  

As they approach Cepheus, there is a sudden “spiroid radiation” event that damages the dilithium crystals as the entire crew begins physically shrinking. Soon, the crew will be too small to operate ship’s controls. Sulu falls from his station and breaks his leg. With time running out and panic running high, Kirk beams down to the planet to find a tiny city. And much to his surprise, the use of the transporter has allowed his body to return to its normal form.

They meet the small leader of this Lilliputian city: Mendant of the Terratins. Mendant explains that the Terratins are descendants of a long-lost earth colony which was once called “Terra Ten.” And they have now shrunk to the size of Lilliputians due to the planet’s plethora of Spiroid epsilon waves. The Enterprise takes as many dilithium crystals as it can, before rescuing the city of the Terratins. The Enterprise plans to transport them to Verdanis, a beautiful planet with a fertile well-watered plain, which is located 10 days distance away.


My Thoughts on “The Terratin Incident”

“The Terratin Incident” has a few interesting ideas –a rapidly shrinking crew and an abandoned Federation outpost on a remote planet—however this is also a bit of a dreary episode. “The Terratin Incident” is one of a couple episodes of TAS in which the transporter is used to successfully reconfigure characters following a crisis –“The Lorelei Signal” is the other one that comes to mind. Anyway, as a reader of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, I just didn’t find much of substance here.


Writer

Paul Schneider (1923-2008) was the writer of TOS classics “Balance of Terror” and “The Squire of Gothos.” The idea for this story came from a one-paragraph idea Gene Roddenberry created based on Gulliver’s Travels.


Star Trek Trivia:

  • The Enterprise crew have been technically shrunk two other times in TOS: “Catspaw” and “Requiem for Methuselah.”
  • Aside from voicing his usual crewmen for the Animated Series, James Doohan also voiced Mendant of the Terratins.
  • In addition to Uhura, Nichelle Nichols also briefly voiced another Starfleet officer named Briel.  
  • Director Hal Sutherland (1929-2014) directed all episodes of the first season of TAS. He gained early career recognition working on large Disney animation movies before switching to Filmation where he worked on TAS, as well as Flash Gordon, Batman, and Superman animated shows. Notably, pink is a recurring color in TAS. This is because Sutherland was colorblind and thought he was actually selecting the color grey.

Click here to return to my survey of the Star Trek series.

Star Trek TAS: Season 1, Episode Ten “Mudd’s Passion”

Stardate: 4978.5 (2269)
Original Air Date: November 10, 1973
Writer: Stephen Kandel
Director: Hal Sutherland       

“A few moments in love, paid for with several hours of hatred.
Your potion is scarcely a bargain, Harry.”

Rating: 2 out of 5.

The Enterprise is on a mission to the Arcadian star system in an effort to locate an “old friend” who turns out to be none other than Harry Mudd (reprised by Roger C. Carmel). The mining planet is named “Motherlode.” There they find Harcourt Fenton “Harry” Mudd selling a love potion to a band of metal miners by using a deceptive illusion –namely a Rigelian hypnoid. Kirk says notes that they left Mudd on the robot planet permanently (i.e the events from “I, Mudd”), however Mudd says he stole a spaceship and found haven on Ilyra VI which he sold for enough credits to get to Sirius IX and then he acquired a love potion which he has been using to swindle various groups of people.

At any rate, they arrest Mudd where he is left for medical testing with Nurse Chapel. While alone with her, he attempts to lure her with the love potion which can be used on Spock. The potion evokes friendship among men, but love between men and women. At first, Nurse Chapel claims that she will simply conduct a laboratory analysis of the potion, however she is quickly convinced of winning over Spock’s heart in a moment of weakness. And in time, Spock falls head over heels for her (regularly referring to Nurse Chapel as his “darling”).  

Meanwhile, the Enterprise arrives at a craggy Class-M planet and Mudd steals Nurse Chapel’s ID badge in order to create a faux ID badge of himself in its place. He then attempts to escape in the shuttlecraft bay with Nurse Chapel as the potion begins to take effect on Spock. Next, the crew realizes that Mudd’s “love crystals” were released through the air vents causing havoc. The crew all begin acting strangely, and then a pair of rock monsters suddenly appear on the craggy planet surface. Kirk and a landing party arrive, they escape the rock monsters before being beamed back aboard the Enterprise with Nurse Chapel and Mudd, as well. The potion’s effects wear off as Scotty remarks, “I’ve got a hangover to shame all previous hangovers, but I didn’t touch a drop of scotch.” Spock reassures Mudd that he will surely receive rehabilitation therapy, and Mudd whimsically states, “I just hate to leave you all, all my loved ones.”  


My Thoughts on “Mudd’s Planet”

Harry Mudd is always good for a few chuckles and this animated sequel episode is no exception. However, the themes of this episode –namely the sexual undertones and the wanton criminality of Harry Mudd—strike me as inappropriate for a children’s Saturday morning cartoon. And also, it was a bit disappointing to see how easily Nurse Chapel fell into Harry Mudd’s love potion scheme, and also chock this episode up to another situation in which the Enterprise’s security protocols are apparently a complete joke as Harry Mudd easily steals Nurse Chapel’s ID Badge and recreates it as his own.    


Writer

Writer Stephen Kandel (1927-Present) wrote for a number of popular television shows like MacGyver and Wonder Woman. As of the time of this writing Mr. Kandel is still alive. He wrote two episodes for TOS and two episodes for The Animated Series –three of which concern the character Harcourt Fenton “Harry” Mudd.


Star Trek Trivia:

  • Roger C. Carmel is one of three actors who reprised their roles from TOS in TAS aside from the main cast –the other two being Mark Lenard (who played Spock’s father, Sarek) and Stanley Adams (Cyrano Jones).
  • The original title for a third Harry Mudd episode in TOS was “Deep Mudd.”
  • Harry Mudd recalls a prior incident on Omega Cygni in which he turned a handsome profit selling the natives their oceans. And on Ophiucus VI he conned two miners out off a year’s supply of dilithium crystals for fake Federation vouchers.
  • This episode was one of three mutually exclusive sequels to Harry Mudd’s two TOS episodes. The others were: J.A. Lawrence’s novella “The Business, as Usual, During Altercations,” published in Mudd’s Angels in 1978; and Jerry Oltion’s 1997 novel Mudd in Your Eye.
  • Director Hal Sutherland (1929-2014) directed all episodes of the first season of TAS. He gained early career recognition working on large Disney animation movies before switching to Filmation where he worked on TAS, as well as Flash Gordon, Batman, and Superman animated shows. Notably, pink is a recurring color in TAS. This is because Sutherland was colorblind and thought he was actually selecting the color grey.

Click here to return to my survey of the Star Trek series.