Iago's Mind I
The Genesis of Hatred
Iago is the one Shakespeare character whom critics love to hate. Ever since Coleridge denounced Iago's "motiveless malignity" (though Coleridge uses the word "motiveless" in a way slightly different than we do), scholars have piled on the negative epithets, straining dictionary and imagination alike to capture the depth of his evil. Prominent Shakespeare scholar Harold Goddard called Iago always a man at war, "a moral pyromaniac," while Harold Bloom refers to Iago as an "ontotheolgian" of evil, whose description informed John Milton as he limned the nature of Satan in Paradise Lost within two generations of Shakespeare's death. All agree that Iago, along with Hamlet, Rosalind and Falstaff, is one of Shakepeare's most engaging characters and, with the possible exception of Richard III, his most despicable villain.
Such a chorus of distinguished voices almost tends to discourage a person from asking what constitutes Iago's mind or what human traits common to all he took and developed/perverted in the way he did. Indeed, from our post-modern perspective of 2004, such a unanimous chorus on Iago makes me want to consider the critics rather than the criticized before find something actually positive in Iago, but I will confine myself to trying to understand his character. In this mini-essay I will explore the origins of Iago's resentment. Subsequent essays will tackle other features of his mind.
Not Getting the Promotion
While we could point to three factors that may have triggered his hatred of Othello (note the use of the words "abhor," "hate," and "despise" in the first 8 lines of the play), the one that Iago immediately identifies in 1.1 is his being rejected, in favor of Michael Cassio, for the position of Othello's lieutenant, or second-in-command.* He will have to be content with being Othello's "ancient," his standard-bearer (1.1.33).
*The second is Iago's suspicion, which he voices in his soliquoy at the end of Act I, that Othello "has done my office" "'twixt my sheets (1.3.387-388)," even though there is no evidence of any kind that Othello takes any interest sexually in Iago's wife Emilia. Cassio, by contrast, whom Iago also suspects of intimate dealings with his wife, has at least done more to raise that fear when he kisses Emilia on the lips in front of Iago in 2.1.99-100. The third is Iago's possible embarrassment and chagrin at the news of Desdemona's and Othello's elopement, when he had taken money from the dupe Roderigo with the promise that he would deliver Desdemona to his amorous designs.
Failing to get promotions is a fact of life for 21st century people. To have that trigger not simply resentment but also such a torrent of vituperation that it enmeshes several people and the government of Venetian Cyprus seems an inexplicable overreaction. Or is it? Consider the following. (1) Iago, though only 28, had served Othello faithfully and well "At Rhodes, at Cyprus, and on other ground/ Christen'd and heathen (1.1.29-30)," while the man selected for the job, Cassio, was an accountant, a bean-counter, a person whose only acquaintance with war was in reading stories about declarations of war by toga-clad Roman consuls. (2) In addition, Cassio was a foreigner, a Florentine, and Iago may have suspected that the "foreigner" Othello, a black Moor, might have chosen him for this "discriminatory" purpose. (3) Iago knew own his worth, and knew that the job was appropriate for him. His line, "by the faith of man, I know my price, I am worth no worse a place (1.1.10-11)," is not a wild conjecture unsupported by evidence. As we meet Iago throughout the play, we see he is very intelligent, adroit in planning, able to outsmart people and motivate them for his ends and capable of maintaining an air of calm and professionalism that would lend credibility and prestige to any military venture.
To make things worse, Iago had decided to "play the game" in order try to get his promotion. Even though he belived in the system of "old gradation, where each second stood heir to th' first (1.1.37-38--in other words, seniority), he decided to follow the modern fashion by sending representatives to cajole Othello into giving him the position. Alas, it didn't work, and this rejection may have added a dimension to his sense of personal humiliation. He didn't want to play the new game of "preferment" by "letter and affection," but he did so because that was the way the game was played, and he lost in that game. What could he do now? Nothing. In a few words, "there's no remedy (1.1.35)." Or, in words that are familiar to us, Iago's position as standard-bearer is a "dead-end" job.
Reacting to Rejection
With no remedy for his condition, with a job that is beneath him, with a superior that he knows and will eventually demonstrate has vices incompatible with military leadership, with a system that has shown that its values are inverted, what can he do? Strike back at the system and people who have failed you. He had been "honest" Iago--recognized as loyal and trustworthy and reliable previously. Now that epithet rings hollow for him, and he will exploit others' perception of him as honest to win their trust and bring about their downfall. If the system has judged him so badly on the point where he is most convinced of his rightness, the system has no reason to be respected or regarded at all. Therefore, use whatever skills you have, whatever gifts in your repertoire, to wreak havoc on that system. Specifically, if they don't think you are smart enough for the job, show them through your smartness (and their downfall) that they aren't half as intelligent as you.
It is for this reason that when we meet Iago at the beginning of the play, his hatred is stressed. Note, however, it is not a hatred for the system or for the Moor, who has promoted Cassio in his stead. Iago's discussion in the opening lines is about his failure to procure Desdemona for Roderigo. His use of "abhor" or "despise" is in reference to himself (1.1.6,8), but the strength of these words before we even get to know the "lay of the land" in the play indicates that hatred is now on Iago's mind.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long