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

In Allan Bloom’s essay 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). In this essay, Bloom pledges to examine whether or not Shakespeare’s awareness of the current 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 to 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 enforced politically. 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.  

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