Sometimes cross-cultural notions existing across Eurasia can further us in our understanding of Shakespeare. Let's take the case of Schein vs. Sein (appearance vs. reality) in German and the corresponding omote (literally, "obverse") vs. ura (literally, "reverse") in Japanese, for instance. Schein/omote refers to the image of the self that the public gets to see, the façade, the face one shows to the world, how one wants to be regarded and remembered; while Sein/ura is the true self, including secrets, flaws, bad habits, the dark side... that only friends, relatives, and significant others get to know (aside from the self). Both dichotomies refer, long story short, to the public image as opposed to the private image of a person. For the Japanese still to our days, and early modern Westerners as well, a lot of time is spent on differentiating these two aspects of life.
(PS. "omote/ura" can literally mean "obverse/reverse", "heads/tails" [of a coin], "Earth side/dark side" [of the Moon] but this is about their metaphorical meaning.
As an Asperger and obsessive whose closet of flaws is always shut and who looks like a plain vanilla muggle right off the bat (no muteness or echolalia, no sunglasses or seeing-eye dogs, no wheelchair...) I am concerned, unusually for a Continental Western European of the present day, about this Schein/Sein or omote/ura dichotomy. Few know about my pet peeves (things like my convictions that the week should always begin on Monday and the decimal metric system is the right one, for instance), compulsive rituals to exorcise my obsessions, phobias... So I have created a second, virtual omote/Schein which I use to rant and rave at aspects of the Anglo worldview I dislike when I am not squeeing over things I completely adore. Yes, that third self of mine is Miss Dermark the blogmistress.
Now this dichotomy is one of the vertebral axes of Othello, as expected of a play dealing with identity and the loss thereof. The story has every character but Iago (we'll return to Iago soon, since his true self is the puzzle to end all Shakespearean puzzles) is wearing a cracked mask and what we witness is their Sein, their ura, seeping through that fissure out into the light as the mask shatters. We humans are all wearing such cracked masks and are extremely concerned, Europeans or Asians, even in our days, abou their possible shattering.
-- Yes, indeed, and Othello always provokes a lot of interesting commentary.--
--Things go wrong, though, on the night of the celebration of the dispersal of the Turkish fleet. Cassio gets drunk. Iago, acting through the agency of Roderigo, manages to embroil Cassio in a fight. As a result of which, he's cashiered. He loses his position. Othello, who appears to be in the middle of consummating his marriage, is brought from his bed and has to break up the fight. "Why, how now, ho!" he says, "From whence ariseth this? Are we turn'd Turks, and to ourselves do that which heaven hath forbid the Ottomites?" Are we turned Turks?--
--The brilliantly sophisticated thing about the play, a sophistication, perhaps, akin to that of this work of art, is that nothing is quite as you expected.
You can look at this dish one way and the flowers appear to be in the shape of a heart, Look at them another way, and they don't. It repays endless attention. That's what a great work of art always does. So too with Othello. Look at it one way and it looks as though the threat is of the Turk, but look at it another way, and you see that the threat comes from within. In the end, what brings about the tragedy Othello's downfall, his barbarism, is not some outside force, some other culture, some alien, but Iago, the (ostensibly) super-sophisticated.--
It's no surprise that "ura" itself in Japanese is the lexis, the verbal root, of "uragiru", to betray. Or of "urabanashi", gossip/inside story; or "uragane", what we call bribing or "dirty/black money." To be ironic is "ura no iu". The reverse side in Japanese has the same connotations as the left in the West, while the obverse, like the right in our culture, is laden with prestige. Consider "omote datsu", to become public; "omote-muki", public or formal; "omote wo tateru", putting up a front; "omote wo tsukurou", keeping up appearances; "omote wo haru," keeping up a façade; and "omote kanban", figurehead.
We'll refer also a lot to two concepts in particular. One of them is "ura wo kaku", to counterplot/outwit. (Kaku means angle or corner) And the other is "ura-omote", which can read either to mean "inside out" or "two-faced person." A title which can actually apply to Iago as well. Is he trolling the whole Cypriot officer class? Or is he scheming for revenge? Or is he gay and his motivation is unrequited love? Or something completely different altogether? That's the Rubik's Cube of this tragedy. Being obviously a cube, or hexahedron, the puzzle created by Rubik Ernõ (in Eastern name order; in Western order, given name first, it would be Ernõ Rubik) has got no proper obverse and reverse: something has to be two-sided for these concepts to apply.
Basically, everyone in Othello but Iago is a playing card, a hidden playing card in poker or maybe in a tarot spread. While Iago himself is a Rubik's Cube with a lot of different facets --six facets, one per every other character-- and a riddle so difficult to crack that oodles of problem-solvers have each and every one given their own version.
Right now, RIGHT NOW, I am thinking about the Korsvägen station in Gothenburg one afternoon, while waiting for the tram to come. A young man who looked neither too Scandinavian nor too Mediterranean was solving and unsolving a Rubik's Cube on the station by my side, the whole puzzle of many riddles or riddle of many puzzles constantly at his fingertips, no matter how convoluted.
But most of us lack the skill that both puzzle cube solvers and psychopaths, AKA Iagos, have a reason to impress us with. I, the foreign girl from the provinces, meant to return home when autumn came, was the Hamilton to his Burr, but also the Cassio to his Iago in a certain sense. Maybe what I know about classical literature and epic fantasy and anime was beyond his reach. That geek side of me is, in another sense, my ura, my reverse side, only known to family and fellow geek friends; it caused my ostracism as an awkward secondary and high school girl. Right now I am wearing a Ravenclaw scarf as I type these lines. That's a real heart-on-sleeve gesture of flipping identity, or omote-ura, that Iago will not dare for fears that carrion crows should peck his heart out. Every single Othello character but Iago gets their own omote-ura moment --after all, the pitch black core of a Rubik's Cube, unlike its six colourful faces, is meant never to be seen--. And all of them come more or less as identity crises. It's more like being laughed at by others for wearing a Ravenclaw scarf, be it for the sake of being a Potterhead or for being not a Gryff or Slyth. Iago never wears his heart upon his sleeves, but he tears up the chest of everyone else to expose their hearts, their obverse selves. And for that he cleverly employs malicious gossip or urabanashi --a photo of me with that Ravenclaw scarf on taken by one of the highschool vipers if she had recognized me this evening, and shared among her posse of friends on WhatsApp or a social network group, would do exactly the same harm as that strawberry handkerchief and the drunken brawl that came before it.
Arrigo Boito sums up the many faces of Iago in his characterisation notes for the Verdian opera:
He must be handsome and appear genial and open and falsely bonhomous; everyone believes him to be honest except his wife who knows him well. If he did not possess great charm and an appearance of honesty he could not be the consummate deceiver that he is.
One of his talents is the faculty he possessses of changing his personality according to the person to whom he happens to be speaking, so as to deceive them or to bend them to his will.
Easy and genial with Cassio; ironic with Roderigo; apparently good-humoured, respectful and humbly devoted towards Othello; brutal and threatening with Emilia; obsequious to Desdemona. Such are the basic qualities, the appearance and the various facets of this man.Just stop and consider how everyone's Sein comes to light, their masks shatter, and their hearts are displayed in the light of day, throbbing, bloody, when their respective ribcages are metaphorically torn up!
The friendzoned and brokenhearted suitor who just won't give up is lured to pay his fortune, in so-called uragane or Judas money, in exchange for what he believes is self-confidence, staying equally awkward and equally desperate at heart, which makes him doubt the schemer at the end of the day.
The dashing, charming lieutenant gets persuaded to drink on duty and starts a brawl under the influence, which causes his fall from grace. He therefore doubts he can be reinstated if he tries on his own at the startover of his career. And, in involving his lady friend, it all snowballs into the end of his career and those he loves... said friend and his commanding officer role model, in spite of the fact that said CO has finally forgiven his initial offense. All of this for a drink more before the changing of the guard!
The happily married kind-hearted young lady tries to bridge the gap between her husband and her friend, only to realise that she is accused by the former of having an affair with the latter, suffering marital abuse and ultimately dying young and violently at the hands of her own spouse, while honestly defending the truth and her own purity and sincerity.
The lieutenant's fiancée, whom he basically friendzones out of fear of commitment, snaps out of the suspicion that he's found his equal in a girl of his own standing. Fortunately, she doesn't take it as far as the general does, being used to his ways and her heart staying intact.
The young lady's husband, a confident general of fortune madly in love with her and with another raison d'être than warfare since he met her, snaps even more dreadfully out of the suspicion that she's found her equal in a man of her own standing. It leads his wartime trauma to resurface when his heart breaks, turning him into an insane Untermensch or beast that relishes abuse and even kills his former beloved "for love" and for her to break no more hearts... and who subsequently commits ritual suicide upon realising the truth and coming to grips with the shock of reality.
The schemer's own wife is used to putting up a brave face, to dissociate her own omote and ura, due to her spouse's mistreatment... but her lady's suffering, mirroring her own in a younger and more innocent victim that is far more fragile, makes her convictions waver. It takes losing Desdemona for good to make her turn the corner, that "kaku" mentioned above, on the schemer by tearing out a few squares of Iago's Cube, as I once did as a preteen kid to my own Rubik just because I was curious and in the dissecting phase of my life: whether live large bugs and frogs, and lizards... speaking dolls, stuffed animals, or simple devices like a Rubik's Cube, I was always curious to see what it was like inside. And, to be earnest, the core of the Cube looked and still looks pretty anti-aesthetic to me.
If Pink Floyd had named their CD Earth Side of the Moon, it wouldn't have the same ring to it --and neither would it fit the iconic prism-rainbow sleeve that we all know and adore. In my sci-fi uchronia retelling of the Satomi Hakkenden (a story in whose original Japanese hypotext Kakutaro or Daikaku --one of the eight chosen ones-- is, like Othello, tricked by mistake into doubting his young wife's faithfulness), the Nazis do not settle exactly on the Earth side of the Moon either. The dark side is the one that fascinates us.
Back to the "kaku", the corner. It's the hinge, the turning point, where it's NEITHER obverse NOR reverse. The German has no third liminal stage between Schein and Sein, while the Japanese has omote-kaku-ura. A playing card or a coin has a kaku in the form of the edge, while a spherical object like the Moon ostensibly lacks a kaku --unless in its half phase, when it shows fifty-fifty equal proportions of dark and Earth side. But still it's an illusion. As illusive --illusory and elusive-- as Iago's true catalyst.