Hatching the Plot: Iago's First Soliloquy (1.3.383ff.)
Almost all interpreters of Othello remark on Iago's superior intellectual equipment, but few then go on to describe the workings of his creativity. In this and a later mini-essay I contend that Iago's creativity consists in three things: his perceptive insights into human nature, his willingness to be flexible in attaining his end and his attempt to subordinate his emotions to his reason. Ultimately, however, it will be a slight miscalculation that brings down Iago, after he has destroyed Othello and Desdemona.
Insights into Human Nature
At the end of Act I, the reader knows that civic unrest will not happen in Venice. The action of the play will be transferred to Venetian Cyprus, where all the main characters will quickly move because of the Turkish threat to the island. Before that embarkation (in Act II), Iago has the last words alone on stage. Shakespeare uses the soliloquy to give insights into a person's character or inner motivation that may not be so evident in the rough and tumble of quick conversation.
In this soliloquy (1.3.383-404), Iago reviews the characters of the three people with whom he now has to deal: Roderigo, Othello and Cassio. He calls the first a "snipe," a bird which, as Professor Weller says, is "notorious for its flightiness and its tendency to run right into traps." Iago only spends time with Roderigo "for my sport and profit (1.3.386)." Iago easily can control his mind, planting suggestions as easily as Cassius planted letters in Brutus's home egging him on to join the conspiracy against Caesar (JC 1.3.316). Five times in a previous conversation with Roderigo, Iago urges him to "put money in your purse" and come along to Cyprus to try to win Desdemona, despite being married to Othello (1.3.339-340 et al.). Whenever Roderigo flags in zeal or believes that he will not get the object of his desire, Iago deftly convinces him to press on and, of course, to keep paying Iago to try to "win" Desdemona over to him.
After a brief reference to his hatred of the "Moor," whom Iago suspects has been doing "his office" "'twixt his sheets" with his wife Emilia, he then launches into his comments on Cassio. He observes that Cassio is a "proper (i.e., handsome) man (1.3.392)," that "hath a person and a smooth dispose/ To be suspected--fram'd to make women false (1.3.397-398)." That is, Cassio is a ladies man, a man whose bearing and manner makes him, in the lingo of the 21st century, a "chick magnet." Iago will devise a means by which this tendency of Cassio can be used to undermine him.
c) The Moor
Iago doesn't mention Othello's name. What is it about betrayal and the fruits of betrayal that makes the perpetrator, and the victims, unable to mention each others' names? After Othello finally realizes that Iago has victimized him, betrayed him, he can only call him "villain (5.2.235)." Perhaps people have been so dehumanized and shamed through the double-crossing encounter that even the mere mention of the name serves to remind the perpetrator and the victim of the other's humanity (which they cannot admit to themselves).
Iago states that Othello "holds me well (i.e., considers him highly--1.3.390)," which is to Iago's advantage as he spins out his design. He will drop suggestions to Othello that Cassio is being "too familiar" with Desdemona. Why will Othello believe him? "The Moor is of a free and open nature,/ That thinks men honest that but seem to be so (1.3.399-400)." Othello's vulnerability is that he tends to trust what people say to him. Since he imagines himself to be a straightforward person, he thinks that the entire world is made in his image. Thus, Iago can "trump" Othello on two grounds: he can rely on his own reputation for honesty (i.e., Othello holds him well) and he can play upon Othello's incapacity for seeing beneath the surface of a situation. He will try to devise "ocular" means (cf. 3.3.360) to convince Othello of his wife's unfaithfulness.
So, Iago has set quite a task before himself. His goal is twofold: "to get his (i.e., Cassio's) place and to plume up my will (1.3.393)." Just as he holds out hope for Roderigo to win Desdemona, so he still nurtures his own hope to replace Cassio by bringing about his downfall. Then he also wants to "plume up my will" (i.e., pamper my ego-- a plume is a feather or cluster of feathers worn as an ornament). This entire scheme will make him feel better, to make him feel like the creative guy he knows himself to be, to give him a feather in his cap.
But he also knows that his plan is devilish. "Hell and night/ Must bring this monstrous birth to the world's light (1.3.403-404)." Lest any reader or auditor become enamored of Iago's creativity and insight into character, Shakespeare has Iago himself as it were warn such a reader. 'Don't try this at home,' is the tone of Iago's final words. But, since critics have found Iago to be such an alluring creature, is the effect of the warning precisely the opposite?
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long