Iago's Intoxication at his Ingenuity
Self-Fascination in 2.3.336-388
One characteristic that holds true of Iago throughout the play is that he takes great delight in himself and considers himself superior to others. He dismisses (and despises) others curtly: Othello is not to be taken seriously "with his weak function (i.e., he is not too smart--2.3.348);" Cassio is a mere "honest fool" (2.3.353) whom Iago has entrapped in his net; Roderigo is "this poor trash of Venice" whom Iago can easily manipulate; his own wife Emilia even "chides with thinking" (i.e., criticizes him without even speaking a word--2.1.107)." Only Desdemona seems to impress Iago; she is "fram'd as fruitful/ As the free elements (2.3.341-342)," but he will do something to "undo her credit with the Moor" by turning her "virtue into pitch (2.3.359-360)." Iago looks at everyone as a piece of an elaborate puzzle he is constructing to regain his own position and to "plume up my will (1.3.393)." At the end of 2.3 he reflects on his efforts so far.
The passage begins with an expression of Iago's seeming "who me?" innocence. He has just given Cassio good advice for restoring himself to Othello's favor. 'Approach the wife, Desdemona, with your tale. She, the "general's wife," is now the "general (2.3.314)," and she will make happen anything she wants.' It is actually sound counsel, even though Iago will turn it to diabolical ends (by suggesting to Othello that the reason Desdemona sues for Cassio's reinstatement is that she loves him). And so Iago begins his sololiquy with a statement of innocent delight: "And what's he then that says I play the villain,/ When this advice is free I give, and honest,/ Probal to thinking, and indeed the course/ To win the Moor again (2.3.226-229)?" In other words, 'How can anyone think I am anything else than wonderful, since an objective observer would commend my advice as useful, measured, helpful?' Not only does Iago delight in his ability to manipulate people, but he knows he is so very, very smart.
He is even smart enough to know that he is toying with himself when he puts on the show of innocence. In fact he knows he is anything other than an innocent person. After posturing about his innocence once more ("How am I then a villain....?--2.3.348), he as it were becomes disgusted with himself and blurts out, "Divinity of hell (2.3.350)!" In other words, this is precisely the way that Satan argues. To think this way is the "theology of hell." Then he ruminates on how what he does is a perfect expression of Satan's mode of action:
"When devils will the blackest sins put on,/ They do suggest at first with heavenly shows,/ As I do now (2.3.351-352)."
In saying this, Iago (and Shakespeare) is alluding to St. Paul's statement, "And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light (2 Cor 11:14)." Though Paul is concerned that "as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning," they might also be deceived (2 Cor 11:3), Iago is delighted with this prospect. He will take the innocent goodness of Desdemona and from it construct a net that "shall enmesh them all (2.3.362)."
Freud has taught us that often our deepest anxieties or fears come out through what he called "obsessive acts," Freudian slips or conversational interjections that seemingly are about something else but are really reflective of an individual's own worries. So, in this soliloquy Iago refers to another theological concept, the meaning of baptism, to try to tell us something about Othello but really ends up telling us about himself. Iago says that Cassio's suit to Desdemona is the most effective way of reinstating himself because she can easily persuade Othello. But note the language Iago uses: "And then for her/ To win the Moor, were't to renounce his baptism,/ All seals and symbols of redeemed sin,/ His soul is so enfetter'd to her love,/ That she may make, unmake, do what she list (2.3.342-346)." Iago is saying that Othello is so captive to her desires that he would give up his faith if she required it. Might Iago be unconsciously talking about himself, and the "cost" of his "devilish" designs?
The Plot Thickens
In his first soliloquy (1.3.383ff.), Iago only implicated three people in his still inchoate plot: Cassio, Othello and Desdemona. Now five people are brought in. There is Roderigo, whom he must humor and use at the same time; Cassio, whom he counsels to approach Desdemona; Othello the one of weak mind; Desdemona the faithful and fruitful one who must fall through her goodness and, finally Emilia (2.3.383), whom he will use to get to Desdemona in order to honor Cassio's request. His ingenuity is truly astounding as he manipulates the other actors like a chess grandmaster the pieces on the board. But, on the other hand, he is also like the juggler who just wants to keep one more plate spinning to amaze himself and the audience. It just might be that one more plate, one more person, gives Iago the thrill of the truly intellectually adventurous man; on the other hand, it may also lead to the collapse of the entire scheme.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long