Iago's Mind II
Putting Hatred to Work (Act I)
The resentment welling up in Iago's breast as a result of his rejection for the position of Othello's lieutenant now begins to take shape. He knows that he has no remedy for Othello's misjudgment (1.1.35) but he can do three things to put his hatred into effect. First, he can disguise his intentions. Then, he can draw upon the capital he has accumulated in his name as "honest" Iago. Finally, he can begin a series of civil disturbances in Venice which, though not bringing the desired civil discord, warm him up for his really devious actions in Acts II and III. This and the next mini-essay explore these themes.
Iago's first decision is to continue to serve Othello but "I follow him to serve my turn on him (1.1.42)." In other words, Iago will now live and serve for his own benefit and not to feather the nest of Othello. In fact, "honest" knaves are those who are "duteous and knee-crooking," but discover through their back-breaking and ass-kissing labor that they were much like the "master's ass," and get nothing but "provender" for service and, when they are old, "cashiere'd (1.1.45-48)." There is no federal ERISA to protect them.
Thus, Iago makes a choice. He will throw his lot in with those who "trimm'd in forms and visages of duty,/ Keep yet their hearts attending on themselves (1.1.50-51)." By deceiving their masters they can "thrive" during their service and then, at the end, leave the boss high and dry. It is all a matter of appearance. If, indeed, Iago's actions ever match his heart, and thus give away his dissimulation, "I will wear my heart upon my sleeve/ For daws to peck at (1.1.64-65)." And then, portentiously alluding to the biblical God's self-description in Exodus as "I am who I am," Iago concludes in opposite fashion with "I am not what I am (1.1.65)." Deception will be his method.
One other instance in which Shakespeare uses this method to aid in nefarious plans is in Julius Caesar. The conspirators meet at Brutus's house with "half their faces buried in their cloaks" and "their hats..pluck'd about their ears (JC 2.1.73-74)." Instead of this manner of proceeding, Brutus exhorts them not to mask their "monstrous visages," but rather "Hide it [the conspiracy] in smiles and affability (JC 2.1.82)."
The biblical character Job also considered the same method after his great distress--to "change my expression, and smile (Job 9:27)"--but he knew it would do no good because his sworn enemy, God, could not be so easily deceived.
Drawing on the Capital of Honesty
Iago's method of duplicity will only work because before his rejection he was highly regarded by Othello and others. We never are introduced to instances where his previous loyal service was recognized or rewarded, but we must assume it is true or else the word used to describe Iago has no meaning. The word used throughout the play to describe him is "honest." Iago is "honest Iago," a trustworthy, faithful and loyal assistant. Of course, when this sobriquet is used by others in the play to describe Iago, the audience is supposed to wince, for their use of the term shows that they are also being duped. Yet, that term did not come from nowhere. Iago earned it before taking on his vesture of duplicity.
The character most frequently calling Iago "honest," is Othello himself. When Othello is talking to the Duke about entrusting his commission to Cyprus to someone, Othello says, "So please your Grace, my ancient;/ A man he is of honesty and trust (1.3.283-284)." A few lines later he sandwiches this term between other terms fraught with large meaning in the play, "My life upon her (Desdemona's) faith! Honest Iago, My Desdemona must I leave to thee (1.3.294-295)."
When setting up shop in Cyprus in Act II, Cassio tells Othello that Iago is in charge of guarding the city, and Othello responds, "Iago is most honest (2.3.6)." Even as late as the last scene of the play, before Othello's faith in Iago comes crashing down in his "World Trade Center" emotional collapse, Othello repeatedly calls Iago "honest (5.2.148,154)." If there is anything Iago hates, Othello opines, he "hates the slime/ that sticks on filthy deeds (5.2.149)." However, Iago has been hating Othello since Act I (1.3.386), but Othello is still in his dream world regarding Iago right up to the last few hundred lines of the play. He calls him not simply "honest" Iago, but "My friend, thy husband, honest, honest Iago (5.2.154)."
And it is not only Othello who comes to this conclusion about Iago. After Cassio has been discredited through his drunkenness on duty and fight with the previous Governor of Cyprus Montano, Iago comes along side him to comfort him and propose a scheme by which he might re-enter Othello's good graces [unbeknownst to Cassio, the scheme would lead to the undoing of Othello]. Cassio thanks him for the advice, to which Iago responds, "I protest, in the sincerity of love and honest kindness," to which Cassio responds a few lines below, "Good night, honest Iago (2.3.327-335)." Iago then withdraws and congratulates himself for the "free" and "honest" advice he gave to Cassio. Indeed, his advice has a chance of restoring Cassio, but his "honesty" will help bring down both Desdemona and Othello.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long