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TOPIC: The Romantic Iago

The Romantic Iago 10 years 3 months ago #110

  • William Shakespeare
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OF Shakespeare's characters," writes Professor Bradley, "Falstaff, Hamlet, Iago, and Cleopatra (I name them in the order of their births) are probably the most wonderful. Of these, again, Hamlet and Iago, whose births come nearest together, are perhaps the most subtle. And if Iago had been a person as attractive as Hamlet, as many thousands of pages might have been written about him, containing as much criticism good and bad."

Now heaven forfend that the mountainous cairn of commentary erected over the bones of him who so infelicitously remarked, "The rest is silence," be ever duplicated. But I am constrained to take up the cudgels against this general imputation of the unattractiveness of Iago and vindicate his place in the sun, beneath the beams of that romantic luminary which so irradiates all his great compeers: Honest Jack, the Prince of Denmark, and the Serpent of Old Nile. We are prone to turn our scandalized backs upon Iago and flatter ourselves, as our ancestors have been doing since the days of Samuel Johnson, that the rogue shall never beguile us; and thus we miss the many evidences that Iago was to Shakespeare intensely, even romantically, attractive.

"Evil has nowhere else been portrayed with such mastery as in the character of Iago," Professor Bradley further remarks; and he goes on to declare: "It is only in Goethe's Mephistopheles that a fit companion for Iago can be found. Here there is something of the same deadly coldness, the same gaiety in destruction."

The gaiety in destruction we may admit -- more easily in Shakespeare's character perhaps than in Goethe's; but the deadly Mephistophelian coldness of Iago requires establishment. The difficulty is that what the critics see -- this chilly, almost passionless, egoism -- is so remarkably at variance with what Iago's companions in the play see in him. The qualities they all recognize are blunt honesty, rough imperturbable good nature, extraordinary cordiality and trustworthiness, hiding under the thinnest mask of cynicism, as in real life they so often do.

Shakespeare is at particular pains to emphasize the unanimity and positiveness of this impression. At the beginning of the third act, by way of preliminary to the great "temptation scene," he favors us with a regular symposium on Iago's character. The witnesses are most varied in experience, attitude of mind, and intimacy of acquaintance. Their evidence is overwhelmingly unanimous and consistent. Says Cassio, the foppish Florentine: "I never knew a Florentine more kind and honest." Says Emilia, Iago's plain-spoken wife: "I warrant it [Cassio's misfortune] grieves my husband as if the case were his." Says Desdemona: "O, that's an honest fellow!" Says Othello: "This fellow's of exceeding honesty"; and much more to the same effect.

The words are fully born out in action. In their trust of Iago all Iago's acquaintances are united. Roderigo lets him have his purse as if the strings were his; Cassio accepts his counsel unhesitatingly; Othello, searching his brain, finds the idea of Iago's insincerity simply unbelievable; Emilia, when finally confronted with irrefragable proof of his duplicity, is thundersmitten, but still incredulous. She turns in deepest indignation to Iago:

Disprove this villain [Othello] if thou be'st a man:
He says thou told'st him that his wife was false:
I know thou did'st not, thou'rt not such a villain:
Speak, for my heart is full.

It is Iago to whom Othello as a matter of course entrusts the safety of his bride on the voyage to Cyprus; it is he from whom Desdemona seeks such amelioration of distress as can be found during her anxiety lest Othello's ship has foundered; and it is Iago -- not Gratiano, her uncle, or Lodovico -- for whom she sends in her very darkest moment. "Prithee, to-night," she bids Emilia,

Lay on my bed my wedding sheets: remember;
And call thy husband hither.
It is Iago of whom she asks her most difficult question, "Am I that name, Iago?" and to whom she turns for assistance:

. . . O good Iago,
What shall I do to win my lord again?
Good friend, go to him.

Does Shakespeare then wish us to understand that this chilly egoist, this monster of "deadly coldness," has impressed a diametrically false conception of his nature upon his entire circle of acquaintance -- upon the observant and unobservant, upon men and women, upon the most intimate and the most casual associates alike? If so, the less Shakespeare he. Since the principle was so forcibly promulgated by Coleridge, it has been accepted as an axiom of criticism that Shakespeare never makes the claptrap device of surprise a main element in his plays. He does not much avail himself of its meretricious interest in the development of his plots; far less does he in the more essential matter of character. Lincoln's adage that you cannot fool all the people all the time is no more fully verified in life than in the plays of Shakespeare.

THIS honesty and innate kindliness of Iago, which all the characters in the play vouch for through practically the whole course of the action, can be no melodramatic villain's mask. A man of deadly coldness and natural selfishness does not thus impress his fellows. Shakespeare's plays, indeed, do present us with figures possessing something of the Mephistophelian coldness of heart predicated of Iago. Cassius in Julius Caesar has suggestions of it; Don John in Much Ado has a great deal more. Now what is the general opinion of these characters? Do we find the lean and hungry Cassius a common favorite? Do we find Don John universally trusted and appealed to as a man of exceeding honesty? Can we imagine Portia carrying her troubles to Cassius, or Hero selecting Don John for confidant, as Desdemona selects Iago?

It is evident, I think, that Shakespeare imagined Iago a man of warm sympathetic qualities, begetting confidence of his acquaintances as instinctively and universally as Don John's coldness begot distrust. Can we find in Shakespeare another character possessed of mental qualities like Iago's and exerting a similar influence upon his companions? There is one such, I think.

The adjective inevitably applied to Iago is "honest"; it is the regular epithet also of Falstaff. The coupling of Falstaff and Iago may seem bizarre, and their relation is indeed a kind of Jekyll-Hyde affair; but that Shakespeare saw a likeness seems capable of proof, and each throws welcome light upon the character of the other. We need not dwell long upon their more social aspects, since exigencies of plot, which multiplied scenes of jovial merrymaking almost to the point of fatty degeneration in the Falstaff plays, reduced to the minimum the treatment of the corresponding side of Iago. Yet it is clear that Iago, like Sir John, has heard the chimes at midnight and been merry twice and once. Only a seasonal habitué of the taverns could talk as he talks in the scene of the arrival at Cyprus and in the brawl scene, or sing as he sings:

And let me the canakin clink, clink;
And let me the canakin clink:
A soldier's a man;
Oh, man's life but a span;
Why, then, let a soldier drink.

In Iago's intellectual attitude we find reminiscences of Falstaff's way of thinking, just as we find reminiscences of Brutus in Hamlet. Falstaff's famous words on honor are virtually paraphrased in Iago's definition of reputation. "O, I have lost my reputation!" cries the disgraced Cassio. "I have lost the immortal part of myself!" "As I am an honest man," answers Iago, "I thought you had received some bodily wound; there is more sense in that than in reputation. Reputation is an idle and most false imposition, oft got without merit and lost without deserving: you have lost no reputation at all, unless you repute yourself a loser."

One of Falstaff's most charming propensities is shared by Iago, and by no other character in Shakespeare. It is the trick of mischievously teasing the complaining victim, drawing him on from irritation to positive anger for sheer pride of intellectual superiority; allowing half-derisive confessions of abuse to accumulate till the victim is ready to strike, and then by a dexterous turn of phrase leaping clear away and leaving the dazed antagonist more firmly in his power than before. A good example is the passage in the second part of Henry IV, where Falstaff is caught slandering Prince Hal and Poins:

FALSTAFF: Didst thou hear me?

PRINCE: Yea, and you knew me, as you did when you ran away by Gadshill: you knew I was at your back, and spoke it on purpose to try my patience.

FALSTAFF: No, no, no; not so; I did not think thou wast within hearing.

PRINCE: I shall drive you then to confess the wilful abuse; and then I know how to handle you.

FALSTAFF: No abuse, Hal, on mine honor; no abuse.

PRINCE: Not to dispraise me, and call me pantler and breadchipper and I know not what?

FALSTAFF: No abuse, Hal.

POINS: No abuse?

FALSTAFF: No abuse, Ned, in the world; honest Ned, none. I disprais'd him before the wicked, that the wicked might not fall in love with him.

Compare Iago, when the long-suffering Roderigo at last turns upon him:

RODERIGO: I do not find that thou deal'st justly with me.

IAGO: What in the contrary?

RODERIGO: Every day thou daff'st me with some device, Iago . . . . I will indeed no longer endure it, nor am I yet persuaded to put up in peace what already I have foolishly suffered.

IAGO: Will you hear me, Roderigo?

RODERIGO: Faith, I have heard too much, and your words and performances are no kin together.

IAGO: You charge me most unjustly.

RODERIGO: With nought but truth . . . .

IAGO: Well; go to, very well.

RODERIGO: Very well; go to! I cannot go to, man; nor 'tis not very well: nay, I think it is scurvy, and begin to find myself fopped in it.

IAGO: Very well.

RODERIGO: I tell you 'tis not very well. I will make myself known to Desdemona: if she will return me my jewels, I will give over my suit and repent my unlawful solicitation; if not, assure yourself I will seek satisfaction of you.

IAGO: You have said now.

RODERIGO: Ay, and said nothing but what I protest intendment of doing.

IAGO: Why, now I see there's mettle in thee, and even from this instant do build on thee a better opinion than ever before.

FALSTAFF and Iago are indeed Shakespeare's two great studies in materialism. Mentally and morally, they are counterparts. That they affect us so differently is due to the difference between the comic and tragic environment. Still more it is due to difference in age. Falstaff, with his load of years and flesh, is a static force. Taking his ease at his inn, he uses his caustic materialistic creed and his mastery of moral paradox but as a shield to turn aside the attacks of a more spiritual society. Iago has looked upon the world for only four times seven years. His philosophy is dynamic. It drives him to assume the offensive, to take up arms against what he thinks the stupidity of a too little self-loving world. The flame, which in Falstaff only warms and brightens, sears in Iago; but it is much the same kind of flame and it attracts the same kind of moths. One may even imagine with a mischievous glee the warping and charring of green wit which would have resulted if Prince Hal and Poins had fluttered about Falstaff when he too was twenty-eight and "not an eagle's talon in the waist."

Iago is no more a born devil than Falstaff. He too might have gone merrily on drinking and singing, consuming the substance of two generations of Roderigos, till he too waxed fat and inert and unequivocally comic. His diabolism is an accident, thrust upon him early in the play, when in seeking to convince Roderigo of his hate for Othello he convinces himself likewise, and suddenly finds himself over head and ears in the depths of his own egoism, vaguely conscious that he is being used for the devil's purposes but incapable either of shaping the direction or checking the progress of his drift. There is, indeed, something suggestive of demoniacal possession in the way Iago yields during the first two acts to influences which he recognizes as diabolical but cannot at all understand. He whispers:

I have't. It is engender'd. Hell and Night
Must bring this monstrous birth to the world's light;
And again:

. . . 'Tis here, but yet confus'd:
Knavery's plain face is never seen till us'd.

What he should say is not "I have't," but "It has me." Shakespeare is peculiarly careful to exclude the possibility of anything like cold calculation or preconception of purpose.

Iago's ruin results from two by-products of his Falstaffian materialism. In the first place, the materialistic theory of life corrodes the imagination. In Iago's case, as in Falstaff's, it cuts its victim off from his future and ultimately severs his bond of sympathy with his fellows. It leaves him only the sorry garden patch of present personal sensation. There, indeed, the will can fitfully play the gardener, as Iago boasts, "plant nettles, or sow lettuce, set hyssup and weed up thyme, supply it with one gender of herbs, or distract it with many"; but it cannot range with large discourse or labor serenely toward a future harvest.

A natural corollary is that the materialist makes large and ever larger demands upon the present. Like the clown in Marlowe's Faustus, when he buys his shoulder of mutton so dear, he "had need have it well roasted and good sauce to it." Ennui grows constantly more unendurable and more unavoidable. Falstaff's life is a series of desperate escapes from boredom; it is for this that he joins the Gadshill party, that he volunteers for the wars. It is for this that he so carefully husbands Shallow: "I will devise matter enough out of this Shallow to keep Prince Harry in continual laughter the wearing out of six fashions." And Falstaff thinks with rueful envy of the capacity of romantic youth for sensation: "O, it is much that a lie with a slight oath and a jest with a sad brow will do with a fellow that never had the ache in his shoulders!"

It is for this that Iago so carefully secures Roderigo and his well-filled purse to spice his life in Cyprus. To avoid tedium is the great purpose of his existence, and truly his efforts are heroic. The brawl scene, with all its sinister potentialities, is for him a triumphant campaign against the blues. When at the close of the second act he looks up into the coming dawn and review the doings of the night, he is simply grateful for the anodyne he has ministered to himself. "By the mass," he exclaims, "'tis morning. Pleasure and action make the hours seem short." Be the future what it may, five hours have been saved from dullness!

Of course, Iago clings to a plot which offers such relief. Or course, his narcotized sensibilities prevent him from understanding the exquisite poignancy of others' feelings. Jealousy, we gather, is for him a welcome, though nearly exhausted, source of distraction, offering him the alleviation a man with a toothache may get when he bites his finger. How should he know Othello? And so he allows his dread of inactivity, his incorrigible craving for sensation, to drive him on through the temptation scene and all its, to him, fantastic consequences. His plot succeeds so well because he really has no plot. He dances from one mischievous suggestion to another with the agility and unsearchable purposefulness of a sleepwalker.

For Shakespeare, and the Elizabethans, less touchy than we about the particular ideals he shatters, I think Iago was distinctly attractive. Never, probably, was he more delightful to his companions that while his wild scheme spins through his irresponsible brain. Never, doubtless, did he more impress them with his "honesty," his lively, capable, warmhearted geniality. HIs spirit is fired with "pleasure and action," and he is almost lightheaded. His case is just the converse of Hamlet's. In one play we have the problem of the exhilirated materialist, in the other the problem of the soured idealist...

SHAKESPEARE is a great believer in the school of experience, and his tragedies commonly teach the lessons of that school. Lear is a notable instance; Iago is another. His crusted materialism fails to stand the test of actual practice to which he puts it. Pitted against the idealism of those whom Iago thinks fools, it is first pierced and then broken. When he makes his speech about reputation in the second act, he is no doubt quite honest; the contrary feeling of Cassio awakes his genuine surprise and irritation. But Cassio's is evidently a real feeling and one that challenges consideration. The next morning he paraphrases the idealistic conception.

Good name in man, and woman, dear my lord,
Is the immediate jewel of their souls.
He employs the sentiment, of course, for his own purposes, and perhaps with inward derision, but the day before, he would hardly have believed it could exist in reasonable men. To express the idea at all throws upoen a window of the soul. Another window is opened when his wife unwittingly presents him with his moral photograph:

I will be hang'd, if some eternal villain,
Some busy and insinuating rogue,
Some cogging, cozening slave, to get some office,
Have not devis'd this slander; I'll be hang'd else.
Suddenly he sees himself in the new spiritual light which things are taking on, and he recoils incredulous:

Fie, there is no such man; it is impossible.
Last scene of all, we hear Iago in his final soliloquy, hedged about by the desperate perils which his own moral obtuseness has drawn upon him. Only by homicide of the wildest sort can he hope to escape, but he reasons, with a weary detachment, of his chances, and he offers as a chief inducement to the reckless game the new motive of shame.

... If Cassio do remain,
He hath a daily beauty in his life
That makes me ugly.

Even the "counter-caster," Cassio, whose one admirable trait is his selfless hero worship of Othello, now seems clothed in a beauty of character which makes the materialist hate himself and drives him to desperate courses. How impossible such an attitude would be to the scournful Iago of the first acts! We have thus a measure of the moral awakening of Iago. His very crimes lead him to a purer sense of the values of life. As elsewhere -- in Lear, Macbeth, Hamlet, Julius Caesar -- the poet's doctrine is that false principles, if left free play, will undo themselves and work their own refutation.

We need a spectroscope for Shakespeare. Our perception of Iago is blurred by the glow of sympathy we feel for Othello and for Desdemona. But in so far as we can eliminate these two luminous figures from our view, we can see the outlines of what I fancy was the poet's original idea, the tragedy of Iago, the tragedy of the honest, charming soldier, who swallowed the devil's bait of self-indulgence, grew blind to ideal beauty, and in his blindness overthrew more than his enemies.

... What is a man,
If his chief good and market of his time
Be but to sleep and feed? A beast, no more.

Iago illustrates Hamlet's words. So, less luridly, does Falstaff, and the parallel may explain the poet's alleged harshness in the rejection of Falstaff by his king. But Falstaff's creator, as he brought Iago to a realization of Cassio's "daily beauty," gave Sir John also at his death a glimpse of the ideal: "A' babbled of green fields."


This document was originally published in The Yale Review, Volume VII. Tucker Brooke. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1918.
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The Romantic Iago 9 years 3 months ago #1311

  • Matthew Barbot
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Fascinating analysis. I'll have to read it once more before I can speak further, but one thing stood out to me as being worth rebuttal, only because I do not immediately agree with it:

"Shakespeare never makes the claptrap device of surprise a main element in his plays."

True, he does not. This statement, however, is only applicable if it is only revealed in the last scene that Iago is false. On the contrary, the other characters' characterization of Iago as honest is consistently, from the very beginning of the play, set against his private soliloquis and dealings with Roederigo in which he reveals himself to be dishonest and two faced. What more proof do you need of his duplicitousness than his bald admissions of that very quality in himself? More than once he tells Othello he is his friend only to, in an aside, examine the nature of his hatred of the Moor. More than once he tells a character one thing, only to later monologue on how the lie he told will serve his end.
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The Romantic Iago 9 years 3 months ago #1318

  • 11ext
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The claim is made in the above that Emilia is simply a pawn in Iago's plan and completely taken by Iago's manipulative nature. However, it is the opinion of some observers that, in fact, Emilia is acting as would be expected of a woman at the time. Emilia felt duty bound to her husband.
Disprove this villain [Othello] if thou be'st a man:
He says thou told'st him that his wife was false:
I know thou did'st not, thou'rt not such a villain:
Speak, for my heart is full.
Furthermore, it is suggested that this would have angered the audience. However, this scenario would have sat comfortably with an Shakespearian audience, where it was common social practice to remain loyal to one's husband. Emilia's actions reside within this stereotype which was a readily accepted concept with both men and women.
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