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Othello's Relationship with Iago

From Hamlet, an ideal prince, and other essays in Shakesperean interpretation: Hamlet; Merchant of Venice; Othello; King Lear by Alexander W. Crawford. Boston R.G. Badger, 1916.

The first scene of Othello presents a conversation between Roderigo, the disappointed suitor of Desdemona, and Iago, concerning incidents of which Othello is the chief agent. Othello and Desdemona have eloped, it seems, leaving Roderigo disappointed and distressed. He complains that Iago had not forewarned him in order that their marriage might have been prevented. But Iago, though in close touch with Othello, protests he did not "dream of such a matter," implying that it was as much a surprise to him as to any one. For some time lago had what he considered good reason for hating the Moor, though this latest episode enables him for the first time to see through the whole affair. Othello's attachment to Desdemona now explains why he was passed by and the new appointment of lieutenant to Othello was conferred upon Cassio. lago now suspects that the post was given to Cassio by reason of Desdemona's friendship for him, and because he was a go-between in the courtship of Othello and Desdemona. this lago now declares his hatred of the pair, and intimates his willingness to join Roderigo in an attempt to harass Othello, and if not too late, to prevent his marriage.

After his usual manner Shakespeare has made the opening conflict, that between Othello and lago, the chief conflict of the play. But this is a conflict between two men who had up to this time been the nearest and warmest friends, one a great general and the other his most trusted officer. There is plenty of evidence throughout the play that up to this time there had been the fullest confidence between the two, and both alike were looked upon as men of excellent ability and sterling character. Othello was known as a noble Moor and had attained the highest military position, and therefore must have had the fullest confidence of the state and the senate. Every one regarded lago also as an upright and noble-minded man, and he had earned for himself the epithet of "honest." But all at once the "honest" lago becomes the mortal enemy of the "noble" Moor. We must then account for this change, as upon this change all the development of the play depends. This is the play. Shakespeare has apparently been at pains to show us what lago's attitude toward the Moor was, as well as what it is, and the explanation of the change can be found only in the play itself. We must explain it either from the incidents of the play or from the words of the play, or from both.

The incidents that take place at the opening of the play, at the same time as the change in the attitude of lago, are two, the courtship and marriage of Othello and Desdemona, and the promotion of Cassio to the position of lieutenant under Othello. The words of Iago at the opening of the play show that he regards the latter as an offence to himself, and therefore makes it the ground of his hostility to Othello. He complains that Cassio has "had the election," and that,

"He (in good time) must his [Othello's] Lieutenant be,
And I (bless the mark) his Moorship's Ancient."
(I. i. 34-5.)
At a later time he comes to see some connection between the two incidents, and believes that Cassio got the appointment because of an old friendship with Desdemona, and probably because he carried messages between Othello and Desdemona during their courtship.

When Othello had occasion to appoint a lieutenant, "Three great ones of the city in personal suit" appealed to him on behalf of lago, only to find that he had already chosen Cassio. It appeared to be a matter of personal preference only, for he could give no reason for the choice of Cassio. This capricious choice lago at once took as a very great slight upon him, and rightly so. As one of "the usual lunacies," so-called, in the interpretation of the play, however, Professor Bradley says, "It has been held, for example, that Othello treated lago abominably in preferring Cassio to him." But the "lunacy" on this occasion is to be charged to Othello in utterly disregarding and flouting the principle of preferment that holds in military circles more rigorously than perhaps anywhere else. This is the basis of the complaint of lago, and arouses at once his suspicion and bitter resentment, and soon turns him into an abiding but very stealthy enemy.

If Othello can be capable of such gross violation of all military rules and practices, lago sees that he can no longer trust Othello, and that all confidence between them has virtually ceased to exist, and no longer can he hope for the intimate relationships of former days to continue. This rewarding of Cassio with a military position because of personal service to himself and Desdemona was a most dangerous thing for a general to do, and opened up all kinds of possibilities of trouble, not only with lago, but with the discipline of all his forces. Only the fortune that favors fools could save him from disaster. But it was fatal when one of the disposition of lago was involved, for it turned him at once into an enemy, not only to himself, but to all the others connected with the insult, to Desdemona and Cassio, linking all three in his plan of revenge.

Here, then, is an outstanding fact that too few critics have even observed, and none have adequately explained. At this point in the lives of Othello and lago a great change comes over their relations. It cannot be too much insisted upon that up to this time they had, been the warmest and closest friends, and that lago had been in fact the confidential officer of Othello. Now all at once, for some reason that has not been understood, lago has been turned into the bitter enemy of his old friend, Othello, and as if to mark the importance of this for the interpretation of the play, the dramatist has chosen this point in their relations for the opening scene. But in spite of all that has been observed about the importance of Shakespeare's opening scenes for the exposition of his dramatic art, little attention has been paid to this fact in respect to Othello. The task of the critic at present, then, is to discover the cause of this great change in the relationships of these two men, and from this to trace the further development of the play.

Ever since Coleridge it has been the common thing, though by no means universal, to attribute the whole trouble to the sudden and unmotived malignity of lago, or to forget the fact that it has been sudden and unlike anything heard of before on the part of lago, and to assume only the malignity. Later critics, however, have not been able to overlook the emergence of the malignity at this time, and have attempted to explain it from their own imaginations rather than from the words of the play. Professor Bradley may be taken as voicing the best that can be said by those who would lay all the blame of the tragedy upon lago, but who feel they must account in some manner for this sudden malignity. Not content with charging lago with the evil the play undoubtedly lays upon his shoulders, Professor Bradley suggests that lago has always been in reality a villain, and has worn his "honesty" only as a mask, which now he throws off, revealing suddenly the real villain that he is, his true nature. He has always been, says Professor Bradley, "a thoroughly bad, cold man, who is at last tempted to let loose the forces within him." But this is sufficiently answered for the present if we have succeeded in discovering a change of attitude on the part of Othello, due to his infatuation with Desdemona, and to the fact that he found Cassio very [helpful in that regard]. A complete criticism of the assigned motive of lago, and an attempt at the elaboration of his real state of mind must be left until after we have followed the conflict through the initial stages, when we shall be better able to judge the real merits of the case.

Sufficient reason has been found, however, for declining to admit that the drama is the story of the intrigue of lago, and as the name would intimate it is the play of Othello. There is also now justification for attempting to explain the play as in the main the tragedy of the Moor in his new home in Venice. In our attempt to find the explanation of the tragedy in the hero, as assigned by the dramatist, we seem forced to say that now at last, when a crisis comes upon him, the great Moorish general, transplanted from the wilds of his African or Spanish home into the cultured and refined life of Venice, finds himself unable to bear honorably all the great responsibilities of his high position and his new life. It may be that the dramatist, who was a man of peace and had little admiration for the Caesars and 'other great warriors, is here taking his opportunity to show how little of the higher virtues dwells in great military ability. But the fact that he makes Othello a Moor, and so designates him throughout the play, must also be accounted for.

Up to this time Othello had borne himself nobly in his adopted state, and had the full confidence of the people and the senate, and was universally acknowledged to be the first soldier of Venice. But at this point he fails. For once, and for the first time, he allows purely personal considerations to sway him from following the established order of preferment in the army, and does a great injustice to lago. With no reason that he dare give, he appoints a wholly inexperienced man in preference to a tried and proven soldier who had fought under his own eyes, "At Rhodes, at Cyprus, and on other grounds Christen'd and heathen." (I. i. 81-2.) This wholly unwarranted rightly grieved lago, who took it as a great slight, for he believed he was entitled to promotion. It also shook his confidence in Othello, and roused in him all his force of resentment and turned him into a bitter enemy of Othello.

Thus far in Shakespeare's play there is not so much as a hint of the motive assigned to lago in Cinthio's novel, the presumed source of the play. The dramatist has almost completely changed the point of view of the whole story, by inventing an entirely new, and perhaps loftier if not better, motive for his lago. On the other hand, he transformed the one he found in the story, and invented the character of Roderigo to bear that vulgar part. Then he invents a second motive for Iago, and makes him hate Othello also for his supposed relations with Emilia. By way of revenge for this offence, lago's first impulse is to try to corrupt Desdemona, and thus get even with Othello. But how little this was his intention is seen by the fact that he never seems to have seriously considered it. In place of this, however, he has an alternative that becomes his ruling motive, to put Othello into a jealousy of Cassio. This he thinks will serve to revenge himself on Othello for both offences at one blow:

And nothing can, or shall content my soul
Till I am even'd with him, wife, for wife.
Or failing so, yet that I put the Moor
At least into a jealousy so strong
That judgment cannot cure.
(II. i. 331-5.)
The two offences with which lago charges Othello are both matters of honor, and mark phases of Othello's inability to sustain the new and exalted life of his adopted country. He was quite equal to the task of maintaining his military, or semi-barbaric, relations to the state, and rose to the highest command in Venice. But in matters of personal honor he is not above reproach, and in his obtuseness offends lago in two ways. Some critics think it is because of such offences as that with Emilia that Othello is unable to maintain an undisturbed married relationship with his refined and delicate Venetian bride. But his guilt is left very doubtful by the play, and therefore this conclusion is unwarranted. It is sufficient to observe, however, that the clear-headed lago perceives this to be his most vulnerable point, and by enlisting the dupe Roderigo, attacks him where he is weakest.

lago's dominating personality quickly subjects Roderigo to his schemes, and makes him a willing agent in his revenge. The first thing they do is to rouse up Brabantio, and under his leadership institute a search for the eloping pair. Shakespeare has here greatly enlarged and dignified the meaning of his play by making Roderigo, and not lago, the disappointed suitor of Desdemona. lago is thus reserved for the more tragic passion, and Roderigo bears the baser motives, and at; the same time supplies the needed money, and helps to carry out the intrigues of the crafty ancient. Their joint appeal to Brabantio will be the best possible plan of attack on Othello, as it will show Othello in opposition to the law and to a senator of the state. lago wishes at first only to plague Othello with flies, but the sick fool, Roderigo, stupidly hopes still to become the accepted lover of Desdemona.

lago sees it is quite out of the question to enter upon a course of open hostility and revenge against his General, and the appearance of friendliness will better serve his purpose. His inferior position compels him to play the hypocrite, and appear to continue faithful to Othello. But this very position enables him the better to work out his purpose, which is not to destroy Othello, but only to disturb his relations with Desdemona, and to put him into an agony of jealousy. lago does not fully understand the fierce nature of Othello, and does not appear at first to foresee the terrible extremes to which his barbaric and ungovernable passion will drive him. He realizes that he must at no time be found in a position "Against the Moor" (I. i. 162), and therefore separates himself from Roderigo, and hastens to join himself to Othello, in order to appear on his side in the ensuing disturbance.

Continue to The Relationship Between Othello and Desdemona

How to cite this article:

Crawford, Alexander W. Hamlet, an ideal prince, and other essays in Shakesperean interpretation: Hamlet; Merchant of Venice; Othello; King Lear. Boston R.G. Badger, 1916. Shakespeare Online. 20 Aug. 2009. (date when you accessed the information) < >.


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