One of the first Shakespeare plays I truly fell in love with was King Lear. There’s something incredible about that play, about the sheer scope of it. I first read it when I was maybe twelve or thirteen, and I felt that somehow, this one text contained within it the entirety of the human experience. In the living I’ve done since, I’ve found that miniature me was right one the nose. Lear means different things at different points in life. When I was younger, I was enthralled by the madness of Lear, driven out alone into the storm. But when I moved out of my parents’ house, I reread Lear and saw within it a deep reflection on the relationship between parent and child. The first time someone I loved died, I once again read Lear and found within it a desperate plea for meaning in life.
The one thing that has never changed about my relationship to King Lear is my overwhelming fascination with the character Edmund. For those of you not familiar with his story, the Cliff’s Notes version is as follows: Edmund is the illegitimate son of the Earl of Gloucester. He has always resented his father and his elder (legitimate) brother Edgar, because the society they belong to ostracizes him simply because of the circumstances of his birth. Long story short, he manipulates his father into disowning Edgar, usurps his brother’s property rights, arranges to have his father’s eyes plucked out,* throws England into civil war, and steals another man’s wife while he’s at it.
In other words, he is a total badass.
I know, I know, we’re supposed to hate him. But there is something so incredibly powerful about Edmund, and he sucks me in every time. He’s a tour de force, and is without question one of Shakesepeare’s cleverest, most deceitful characters. I would argue that he’s one of Shakespeare’s most successful characters overall, although that’s certainly a matter for debate. But love him or hate him, you have to feel something about Edmund. He will accept no less.
As I read more of Shakespeare, I came across another character–equally prevaricating, equally charismatic, equally destructive–who tends to outshine Edmund in popular memory. That character is Iago from Othello, the bitter civil servant who manipulates Othello into killing his wife (and then himself) simply because he didn’t get a promotion at work. He’s a chilling figure, but once again, a powerful one, and he sums up all the fear and loathing we feel towards him with one simple remark: “I am not what I am”.
These two figures are so, so captivating to me. I’m afraid of them, yes, and God knows I condemn their actions, but I can’t get them out of my head. I can never get away from them.
In some ways, there’s something almost inhuman about being as dishonest as they are. Both Edmund and Iago exist in a world where their true desires, their true motivations, are hidden, and while everyone around them strives for truth, clarity, and a degree of authenticity in their lives, these two are driving us perpetually deeper into the shadows. Their goal is to hide, to obfuscate–both themselves and everything around them–and this feels alien to us as the audience because it’s the exact opposite of what we’ve always been told we should want to do.
But I’ll be damned if there isn’t something sexy about the secrecy and duplicity from which these two characters are carved. There’s something appealing about strangering ourselves, about hiding our true natures so well that even we don’t know who we anymore. Every time I go to Starbucks and they ask me for my name, I give a pseudonym, and I get a little rush of adrenaline from living behind a mask–even one as small and inconsequential as that. For that matter, I write this blog under a fake name, and while that’s mostly because of concerns of privacy on the internet (I don’t know how thrilled my current and future employers would be to find out I’m a Tarot junkie), there’s also a part of me that just loves to believe I can be disingenuous.
The appeal of the estranged self is, of course, a toxic one. Edmund’s actions cause a massive war that kills pretty much everyone he knows (including himself). Iago’s fate is not much better. Each of these figures represents the dark side of humanity, and we are meant to understand that the world of shadow and illusion is ultimately best avoided.
But that doesn’t make it less attractive at first glance. That doesn’t keep us from standing at the mouth of the dragon’s cave and peering in, wondering what would happen if we took just one tiny step into the dark.
Where does Tarot come into this conversation (as it inevitably does on this blog)? To me, there’s one card above all others that represents Iago’s “I am not what I am”, and that card is the Moon. I’ve written before about my thoughts on the Moon, but it’s important for me to reiterate here that I do not have a good relationship with this card. I don’t trust it.
The reason for my general skittishness around Key 18 is that the Moon, to me, is about deception, deceit, and the Shakespearean sense of being-and-not-being.** I know a lot of other readers look at this card and see emotion or intuition, and that’s perfectly valid, but it is not how I learned to relate to the Moon at all. I always saw the Moon as an Iagoan figure–powerful, to be sure, and darkly appealing, but never to be trusted. And when I see the Moon in a reading, alarm bells start to sound in my head, because something is not what it seems.
*Well, this one is debatable. Other characters are more directly responsible on this count.
**Actually, Plato also has some interesting reflections on this concept in his theory of the Forms. The Forms, he says, exist, whereas falsehoods and dreams do not exist, but everything in the sensory world is trapped in this paradoxical state of being-and-not-being. He calls it “becoming”.