Throughout life, people strive to do the sensible thing at the appropriate time. During this process a lot of second-guessing and “should’ve – would’ve – could’ve” occurs. Amidst the struggle for rational acts, impetuosity inevitably looms, usually bringing about a setback or the downfall of a person. While impetuosity may result in good, wonderful acts, most often – because of the absence of thought in carrying out the action – it does generate blunders. Three different categories arise from this endeavor: 1) the person who rationalizes too much and is infected by impetuous acts, 2) the person in which impetuosity occludes rationalizing, and 3) a molding of the first two, the person who is capable of rational spontaneity but sporadically falls to impetuosity. Notice that the three groups refer specifically to people regarding action; a person who does not act cannot show a measure of impetuosity. Shakespeare displays this categorical feature of human nature throughout his plays – more specifically in the characters of Hamlet, Romeo, and Iago.
The over-rationalizer is a person who cannot make a decision without studying all of the angles in detail. When he purchases a car, he mulls it over for an extended period. He researches the safety features, checks Consumer Reports, and looks at the Bluebook value. He knows what options he must have and the purpose for the vehicle, whether a family car or efficient transportation to and from work. He even determines the best method of payment for the vehicle. After he has sufficiently proven to himself the correct course of action and, of course, has selected the proper dealership, he makes the purchase. In filling out the paperwork, the sales associate asks the buyer if he wants to buy the extended warranty – BAM! He has not planned for this question, and cannot rationalize spontaneously. He makes an impetuous decision only to second-guess it repeatedly. Minor reckless decisions may weigh on his mind, but major ones can greatly affect his sanity, as he always questions why he never planned for that viewpoint.
Shakespeare creates the embodiment of the over-rationalizer in Hamlet. Hamlet exhibits his first bit of rationalizing in his soliloquy 1.2.129-159, attempting to reason through his widowed mother’s marriage to his uncle. Hamlet concludes his discourse with the judicious decision that he “must hold [his] tongue” (Ham. 1.2.159). This early morsel of sensible thought lays the groundwork for Hamlet’s characterization throughout the play. Upon hearing of his father’s ghost in 1.2, Hamlet asks nine questions of Horatio, Marcellus and Barnardo in discerning if the spirit was his father’s ghost. However, when Hamlet sees the ghost himself, he impetuously follows the ghost against the requests of his friends in 1.4. Hotheadedness in 1.5 furthermore leads Hamlet to swear revenge upon his father’s murderer based upon the account of the ghost. This begins the “infection” of impetuosity that brings about Hamlet’s demise. In his soliloquy in 2.2.550-605, Hamlet logically decides that since he cannot bring himself verbally to accuse Claudius of murder, he will have the players act out the murder scene in order to illicit a response from Claudius proving his guilt. In addition, Hamlet begins second-guessing his haste decision to swear to a ghost who might be the work of the devil (Ham. 2.2.598-603). This weighs on Hamlet because he now grapples with making sense of his choice to honor the ghost’s request as well as coming up with a rational exacting of revenge.
In the midst of Hamlet’s care in planning everything out, he commits a major act of impetuosity in killing Polonius in 3.4. Although Hamlet thinks the hidden Polonius is Claudius, he executes “a rash and bloody deed” (Ham. 3.4.27). When he tries to balance out this reckless deed by telling Gertrude the account of Claudius’s murder of King Hamlet and that Gertrude is guilty by association, he portrays himself as a ranting lunatic. His impetuous act has clouded his judicial attempt at conveying the truth.
Hamlet knows his own character well, declaring, “I am not splenitive [and] rash, / Yet have I in me something dangerous” (Ham. 5.1.261-262). Even so, his hasty actions snowball into an odd show of rational spontaneity. Hamlet’s impetuosity brings about the events that lead to his demise, but Hamlet arrives on his own terms. Rational spontaneity allows his demise, but not his downfall. Hamlet retains dignity at his end through his rational act of slaying Claudius then preventing Horatio’s death (Ham. 5.2). In Hamlet’s case, impetuosity enabled Hamlet to rationalize less, but begin to think more spontaneously.
The second category finds a person who is so overwrought with impulsiveness that level-headedness is scant. Following the previous scenario of purchasing a car, take notice of the difference in this impetuous man’s approach. First, he has no plans of purchasing an automobile. He sees a vehicle either on the street or in passing the dealer’s lot. He immediately desires that vehicle. He goes into the dealership, tells them he wants the vehicle. He lets them fill out the paperwork, including the payment plan, in any fashion – as long as he ends up with the car. It is not until later that he realizes that he purchased an “as is” Corvette with multiple problems (insurance costs, engine trouble that may come with “as is” vehicles, extra attention from police, etc.). In addition, he faces the dilemma of transporting his children in a two-seater. The issues with the car swell until Impetuous man cannot hold onto his dream any longer, and must frantically rid himself of the car at a loss.
Shakespeare paints Romeo as the quintessential impetuous man. Romeo’s first appearance proves him an intelligent person, lobbing a barrage of oxymorons:
Why then, O brawling love! O loving hate!
O any thing, of nothing first [create]!
O heavy lightness, serious vanity,
Misshapen chaos of well [-seeming] forms,
Feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire, sick health,
Still-waking sleep, that is not what it is!
This love feel I, that feel no love in this. (Rom. 1.1.176-182)
Forrest Gump’s proclamation, “Stupid is as stupid does,” alludes to the misconception that a stupid act reveals a stupid person, which is not always the case (Forrest). One must acknowledge Romeo’s intellect in order to recognize that his actions stem from impetuosity rather than stupidity. Romeo’s recklessness transpires when he first sees Juliet and instantaneously declares his love for her (Rom. 1.5.52). This carelessness continues through the rest of the scene in Romeo’s successful attempt to proffer a kiss from his newfound love only to learn afterward that she is a Capulet.
A rational thinker would stop here, but Romeo persists in his rashness by slipping off through the Capulet orchard to Juliet’s balcony in hopes of again seeing his forbidden love (Rom. 2.2). Persistent impetuosity shows in Romeo’s profession of love to Juliet and his acceptance of her marriage proposal in the same scene. In 2.3, Friar Laurence unsuccessfully tries to reason with Romeo, pointing out the possible mishaps that may arise. However, the rational advice only elicits Romeo’s “stand on sudden haste” (Rom. 2.3.93). Impetuosity has so occluded rationalizing that Romeo ignores the Friar’s wisdom.
Romeo’s strain for level-headedness in 3.1 in avoiding conflict with Tybalt is precluded by Mercutio’s death. As a result, Romeo maintains hotheaded ways by exacting revenge upon Tybalt. From this point on Romeo can no longer rationalize. In 3.3 when he discovers that he has been banished, at the thought of not seeing Juliet again, he throws himself to the ground in a childish temper-tantrum – a total occlusion of rationalization. When the nurse arrives in 3.3, Romeo displays impulsiveness by trying to kill himself. Romeo falls so deeply into impetuosity that the judicious Friar cannot compensate with his wisdom. The Friar’s rational spontaneity shows in his plot to help Juliet escape to Romeo, but is foiled when Romeo does not think to seek out the Friar when he learns of Juliet’s apparent death. Romeo has sought Friar Laurence’s advice in all other matters up to this point, so in not seeking the Friar’s counsel, Romeo’s impetuosity magnifies. Romeo’s impetuous tragic flaw sanctions the deaths of Paris, Romeo, and Juliet in 5.3. Shakespeare’s use of dramatic irony leads the audience to see the wealth of “should’ve, could’ve, would’ve” scenarios that may have prevented the tragic ending.
The third category depicts a person who is capable of rational spontaneity. This man is the most balanced in his actions. The auto purchase development in this case is a molding of the previous two scenarios. Rational spontaneous man can think on his feet. He may have been considering the purchase of a new car, but has not narrowed a selection down until seeing one on the lot. If the salesperson tries to throw him a curveball, his quick wit carries him through the situation. He is able to formulate an effective plan on impulse, and exits the site with what he wants and needs. Because of the spontaneity involved, if rational spontaneous man falters, one has difficulty determining if the cause is a result of a strategy gone awry or is a product of impetuosity.
Shakespeare designs rational spontaneity in Friar Laurence, but manufactures the entire being of Iago with the characteristic. In fact, Iago is so quick-witted that it is challenging to determine how much he has planned versus pure impulse. Iago’s ultimate goal of Othello’s demise leads to the orchestration of several improvised side schemes as stepping-stones. The genius of Iago is that most of his actions are the enacting of other characters to complete his ruses – making Iago the “Great Director.”
In his quest to seek revenge upon Othello, Iago opens the play by manipulating Roderigo to “call up her [Desdemona’s] father [Brabantio]” to tell him that Desdemona eloped with Othello (Oth. 1.167). He then instigates Brabantio to rise up against Othello – his intention being to draw negative attention to the Moor. The logical web work of Iago begins. In an obvious act of rational spontaneity amidst the drawing of swords, Iago declares, “You, Roderigo! Come, sir, I am for you” (Oth. 1.2.58). This minor act simultaneously demonstrates his loyalty to Othello and his assurance to Roderigo that harm will not come to him or Roderigo.
Iago discloses his plans to the audience in his soliloquies at 1.3.392-403, 2.1.286-312, 2.3.48-61, 2.3.357-362, 2.3.382-388, and 3.3.321-322. He conducts these ploys with a combination of precision and spontaneity needed to keep them on track. He carries out the schemes in the first two acts by utilizing rational spontaneity in a playful manner. In 2.1 concerning the creation of the illusion of love between Cassio and Desdemona, Iago first makes a few good-natured digs at Emilia, and then aims his teasing at Desdemona, all the while projecting Cassio as Desdemona’s savior from his mischievousness (91-178). Later, in 2.3 Iago enacts the beginning of Cassio’s infatuation with Desdemona (12-29). With the intention of getting Cassio drunk enough to fight Roderigo, Iago spontaneously becomes the life of the party by singing tavern songs (Oth. 2.3.62-119). In the same scene, Iago thinks to convince Montano that Cassio is an alcoholic (Oth. 2.3.121-144). After the brawl between drunken Cassio and Montano, Iago becomes, in 2.3.220-246, the benevolent Benvolio and steps up to give the honest account of events “as he saw them.” This speech results in Othello discharging Cassio from duty. Iago immediately takes advantage of Cassio’s dismissal by convincing Cassio to plead to Desdemona for assistance in getting reinstated – once again working towards the illusion of a Cassio-Desdemona relationship (Oth. 2.3.313-325). Iago’s last playful act commences in 3.3 as he lays the groundwork of doubt and jealousy in Othello, making him believe Cassio is making a move on Desdemona. In this case, Iago subtly prompts Othello to play devil’s advocate and in doing so creates suspicion about Desdemona’s faithfulness.
Later in 3.3 Iago’s impulses to complete his plots turn villainous. When Othello’s jealousy bursts into a rage, Iago provokes him further by asking, “Would you, the [supervisor], grossly gape on? / Behold her topp’d?” (Oth. 3.3.395-396). He continues the pressure by recounting a supposed instance of Cassio sleep-talking of loving Desdemona, hiding their love, and cursing fate for giving Desdemona to Othello (Oth. 3.3.419-426). All of this, coupled with the insinuation that Desdemona gave Cassio the handkerchief that Othello gave her, results in Othello ordering the death of Cassio (Oth. 3.3.472-473). Iago does not give up here, but instead rational spontaneity continues as he uses reverse psychology on Othello when he says, “Let her live” (Oth. 3.3.475). Othello takes the bait and vows to kill Desdemona as well.
In 4.1 Iago combines tactics in a wickedly playful discourse with Cassio. While his logical plan is to have Othello overhear Cassio speaking of his love for Desdemona and her love for Othello’s fallen lieutenant, Iago uses spontaneous wit to tease Cassio about Bianca’s love for Cassio without either of them announcing her name aloud. Iago finally exhibits his greatest enactment in commanding Othello to “Do it not with poison; strangle her in her bed, / even the bed she hath contaminated” (Oth. 4.1.207-208).
The fifth act presents the challenge in identifying whether Iago’s actions are rational spontaneity or impetuosity. The cause of this ambiguity is that Iago’s schemes are starting to unravel and overlap. It becomes more difficult for him to keep the minor ruses separated so each player involved remains ignorant of the players of the other ploys. In 5.1 Iago’s setup of Roderigo killing Cassio backfires as Roderigo is wounded instead. Iago quick-wittedly stabs Cassio and kills Roderigo to cover the misdeed. Iago even thinks to bind Cassio’s wounded leg, and leaves the impression that Iago is a hero. By doing so Iago averts disaster and retains his original agenda. In his last rational act Iago, hoping Emilia will witness Othello murdering Desdemona, sends Emilia “to tell my lord and lady what hath happ’d” (Oth. 5.1.127). In 5.2 Iago comes undone as Emilia tries to accuse him, and he, no longer capable of rational thought, impetuously pulls his sword on her. When Emilia does implicate Iago, he impulsively murders her and runs out. Iago is emblazoned with the title of impetuosity, even if for a brief moment, as Lodovico asks, “Where is this rash and most unfortunate man?” (Oth. 5.2.283). The lasting question is whether Iago’s demise occurred because of his judiciously planned schemes going awry or because of a moment of impetuosity. The evidence points to a weak moment of impetuosity. With Iago’s intellect and rational spontaneous abilities, he may have found a way to manipulate his way out of the situation without killing Emilia. His “should’ve – would’ve – could’ve” may have gone back to the point of sending someone else to witness Othello’s murder of Desdemona.
Within each category, Shakespeare portrays a character who meets his demise, yet he reveals each player in a different manner that elicits set audience feelings about each one. Because Hamlet, the over-rationalizer, learns to act more spontaneously, he becomes a hero that audience members idolize. Impetuous man, Romeo, evokes pity as the audience thinks of the several “should’ve – would’ve – could’ve” scenarios that may have saved the young romantic’s life. In Iago, master of rational spontaneity, Shakespeare induces awe, respect, and hatred simultaneously because of his wit and ability to hold all of his ruses together for so long, and in Iago’s downfall he creates a sense of satisfaction that justice has been served. When the audience leaves the theatre or places the text back on the shelf, Shakespeare has created a reality in the characters by effecting feelings about, and for, the individuals portrayed.
Forrest Gump. Dir. Robert Zemeckis. Perf. Tom Hanks, Robin Wright, Gary Sinise, Mykelti Williamson, and Sally Field. 1994. Videocassette. Paramount Pictures. 1995.
Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. The Riverside Shakespeare, Second Edition. Ed. G. Blakemore Evans and J. J. M. Tobin. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1997. 1189-1234.
---. The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice. The Riverside Shakespeare, Second Edition. Ed. G. Blakemore Evans and J. J. M. Tobin. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1997. 1251-1288.
---. The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet. The Riverside Shakespeare, Second Edition. Ed. G. Blakemore Evans and J. J. M. Tobin. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1997. 1104-1139.