A Pornographic View of Love
If Desdemona loved Othello because she saw his visage in his mind and was attracted to him, unaffected by the prejudices rampant in Venice against Moors, and if Othello loved Desdemona because she loved him for the dangers he passed, Iago seems to love no one--even though he is fascinated with his own intellectual ingenuity. When he talks about love and intimate relations, however, his sole concern seems to be with sexual function and prowess. But if, as I concluded, both Desdemona's and Othello's understanding of love find great resonance in our culture today, does Iago's? Surely it does, too.
Listening to Emilia
No one knows a pornographer's attitude to sex better than his wife. After all, intimacy is hard to fake, especially in the long run. We get a window into Emilia's view of Iago later in the play, when she is speaking of men to Desdemona. She says,
''Tis not a year or two shows us a man:/ They are all but stomachs, and we are all but food;/ They eat us hungerly, and when they are full/ They belch us (3.3.102-106)."
And so she has settled down to a lifetime with someone who no doubt has shaped her perspective on this issue. She is the product of Iago's belch.
Listening to Iago
From the beginning of the play, Iago plays the sex and race cards. Othello is a "black ram" that is "tupping" the "white ewe" Desdemona (1.1.88-89). The offspring of their union will be a bunch of animals, including "Barbary [African] horses" and "coursers" and "gennets (1.1.111-113)." Sexual relations between Othello and Desdemona are conceived by Iago as "the beast with two backs (1.1.116-117)." Later, Cassio and Iago engage in conversation about Desdemona and for every chaste comment Cassio makes about her, Iago adds a sexual one (2.3.18-30). For example, Cassio will say, "She's a most exquisite lady," to which Iago will respond, "And I'll warrant her, full of game (2.3.18-19)." Granted, Iago is trying to egg Cassio on so that he can have "evidence" against him when he puts his "case" before Othello, but his responses are over the top. Female beauty is just the prologue, the introduction, the come-on for bumping and grinding.
Iago's Pornographic Philosophy
But Iago has a sort of "philosophy" behind what I have called his pornographic view of sex, and he explains it to Roderigo, the gull who pays him money to try to turn Desdemona's affections from Othello to him. Roderigo, like many a lover in Shakespeare, desires to "incontinently drown myself (1.3.305)" because he can make no headway in his quest for Desdemona's love. Iago is quick in response with another animal analogy, "Ere I would say I/ would drown myself for the love of a guinea hen,/ I would change my humanity with a baboon (1.3.314-316)." In other words, to become despondent and contemplate suicide over a woman is simply an incomprehensible thing.
When Roderigo doesn't give up, Iago patiently explains his philosophy of sex. "Our bodies are our gardens, to the/ which our wills are gardeners," he says (1.3.320-321). If our will plants nettles or lettuce, it is in the power of our wills to do so. As it is, the "beam" [balance] of our lives counterbalances the scale of reason and the scale of sensuality or else we would just be overcome with our sensuality, leading "to most prepost'rous conclusions (1.3.329)." But the reason and will can cool the "carnal stings" and "unbitted lusts." Love, actually, is nothing but a "sect or scion" [a branch or cutting] of one of the garden plants. More specifically, love is "merely a lust of the blood and a per-/ mission of the will (1.3.334-335)."
The implication of Iago's philosophy is clear. Love is easily controlled. It is a branch shooting up in the garden that can be pruned or cultivated at will. Love really is nothing other than lust yielded to, and the will controls them both. This is such a neat and tidy philosophy, and it almost works for the one who maintains it. But there is one problem that will stalk Iago. He cannot control his feelings of jealousy and suspicions that another man might be doing his "office" "twixt" his sheets (1.3.387)." Intimate relationships might just be all the product of lust, but something in Iago's makeup cannot quite handle the thought that another man's "shoot" or "branch" is growing in his garden.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long