Iago's Mind III
Honest Iago and Civic Unrest
I argued in the previous mini-essay that Iago's reputation as "honest"--faithful and trustworthy--was gained through his previous faithful service to Othello, whose "eyes had seen the proof/ At Rhodes, at Cyprus, and on other grounds/ Christen'd and heathen (1.1.28-30)." Othello formed the notion in his mind that Iago was faithful to him, and would not be dissuaded from that belief until incontrovertible proof was provided to the contrary by Emilia in the last scene of the play (5.2), after Othello had already strangled Desdemona. Why then did Othello pass over Iago for the promotion to lieutenant and choose Michael Cassio in his place? The play provides no answer, even if there is a tantalizing suggestion in 1.1, discussed in a later essay.
Back to Iago's Honesty
Othello is not the only one who calls Iago "honest." We saw that Cassio does so in 2.3.335. Also, when Iago has made arrangements for Desdemona to hear his suit for reinstatement as lieutenant Cassio in gratitude says, "I never knew a Florentine [Cassio is from Florence] more kind and honest (3.1.40)."
Iago himself also plays on his own honesty, but the reader should realize now that when he refers to himself that way, he is doing so under the principle of dissimulation: "I am not what I am (1.1.65)." Thus, in the closing lines of Act II, the term appears five times, three of them in Iago's soliloquoy (2.3.336-362). Proud of himself for giving Cassio advice on how to gain reinstatement, Iago asks, "And what's he then that says I play the villain,/ When this advice is free I give, and honest (2.3.336-337)?" That is, it is "faithful" advice in that it proposes a legitimate means, from the perspective of an objective viewer, of how Cassio should try to become reinstated--go to Desdemona for help, since she controls Othello's mind. Yet, because this advice will be the means for Othello to suspect his wife of sexual relations with Cassio, it is devilish advice indeed or, in Iago's words, "Divinity of hell (3.3.350)."
In fact, Cassio is the "honest fool (3.3.353)" because he thinks that pursuing this kind of method will lead to his reinstatement. In this regard Cassio is like those "honest knaves" who are "duteous and knee-crooking" but who, when all is said and done, find themselves "cashier'd (1.1.45-50)." Iago has nothing but contempt for these men--he wants to "whip me such honest knaves (1.1.49)." The veneer of honesty is necessary for Iago to pull off his tricks, but to make the principle of honesty one's mode of operation is to be a fool and to be open to exploitation. A second question, also unresolved here, is why Othello kept relying on Iago's "honesty" even when it began to lead him to a terrible intellectual tangle and, eventually, to the murder of his wife? What is it in Iago and Desdemona that led Othello to credit the former's account over the latter's? In response to the popular American proverb, "honesty is the best policy," Iago would have vigorously assented--if what you mean by honest is the appearance of honesty.
After deciding that dissimulation is his method, and while drawing on his capital of honesty, Iago then tries to create civic anarchy in Venice. He will not be successful at it, and so he takes his anarchic show to Cyprus beginning in Act II and will thrive much more there. He tries three things in Act I to destabilize the society.
First, he suggests to Roderigo that he wake Brabantio, Desdemona's father, in the middle of the night to announce her elopement with Othello. The language Shakespeare uses, however, is anything but gentle. Roderigo is to call "with like timorous [terrifying] accent and dire yell/ As when, by night and negligence, the fire/ Is spied in populous cities (1.1.75-77)." In other words, rouse the household with the same urgency and terror as a fire alarm in a medieval city where wooden houses are tightly packed and lean against each other. Surely Iago wants to start a civic conflagration.
While Brabantio is rousing his family to action, Iago slips away for his second provocative act. He meets up with Othello and tries to goad him on to violence. Using incendiary language and probably prodding Othello in the ribs [following Professor Weller's suggestion--"Nine or ten times/ I had though t' have yerk'd him here under the ribs"--1.2.4-5], Iago tries to destabilize Othello's mind. Yet, this too is unsuccessful, as Othello responds with words that defuse the situation: "Let him [Brabantio] do his spite (1.2.17)."
Third, when Brabantio's hastily assembled militia confronts Othello outside of the Sagittary Inn with the words, "Down with him, thief (1.2.57)," Iago quickly says to Roderigo, with whom he had engineered the entire scene, "You, Roderigo! come, sir, I am for you (1.2.58)." In other words, Iago wants to give the impression of fighting with Roderigo in hopes of stirring up a further violent confrontation. But Othello also defuses this with a one sentence authoritative response, "Keep up your bright swords, for the dew will rust them (1.2.59)."
When these attempts at provoking civic discord fail, Iago will be thrown back on his intellectual creativity as he weaves a complex but ultimately successful plot to bring down Othello.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long