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This passage is a revelatory passage which comes very near to the beginning of the play Othello. Cassio has just been appointed by Othello as his lieutenant and it seems that Iago is irate that he was not chosen. It is in this extract that we first see Iago's outlook on life and it is the first time he is revealed to us as the villain of the play.
We also see the beginnings of Iago's plan, which he carries out throughout the play with disastrous consequences and indeed immediately after this extract we see the first enactment of this plan, when Iago tries to use Brabantio's beliefs about race and relationships to make him break up the relationship of his daughter Desdemona and Othello.
I shall be talking about Iago's outlook on life and the beginnings of his scheming as revealed by this passage.
The only two characters on stage through the whole extract are Iago and Roderigo and although they are in dialogue, it is more like a monologue from Iago as Iago has many long speeches, while Roderigo only seems to make short remarks in the pauses in Iago's speeches.
From this we can clearly see that Iago is the dominant character in this relationship and it also hints that Iago is the more intellectually capable, a view that can also be inferred from the content of Iago's speeches, as I will discuss later on.
Iago's first complaint in this passage is that there has been favouritism in Othello's choosing of his lieutenant, shown in 1.
1. 35 where Iago says 'Preferment goes by letter and affection'. Iago is angry that he has not been chosen and is here expounding his dislike of the system as he sees it and is complaining to both Roderigo and himself that there is no meritocracy involved. Whether Cassio's promotion was indeed undeserved or whether Iago actually believes in meritocracy we do not know.
Iago may only be supporting meritocracy because he has failed to receive the 'preferment' of the influential and promotion by these means. There is also a suggestion that Iago is slightly xenophobic as he laments that someone from Florence and not from Venice has achieved higher office than him. This suggestion is further backed up by Iago's use of the word 'thicklips' to describe Othello in 1. 1. 65. It is clear from this passage that Iago does not trust Othello's judgement, although it is not clear whether this distrust was prompted by Cassio's promotion or whether this merely added to a previously held conviction.
Iago also talks at length about the duty of servants and how in reality the outward image of service hides inner selfish desires of self preservation, whatever the master may think. This brings up two themes which are continued throughout the play; the question of image and reality, which I will talk about later, and the difference between public and private personas. Iago makes several references to the separation of these personas as in 1. 1. 1-2 'the native act' being the secretive, private persona and the 'complement extern' being what everyone else sees, picked up again in 1. 1. 63 by 'I will wear my heart upon my sleeve'.
It is during this exposition on the myth and reality of the loyalty of servants to their masters that Iago reveals his true position, both to the audience and to Roderigo: Iago says in 1. 1. 52-3 that all real servants are helping themselves behind their masters' backs, that servants 'Do... thrive by them[their masters], and... in[e] their coats,/Do themselves homage'. He continues that 'these fellows have some soul/And such a one do I profess myself', Iago admitting that he is only being loyal to Othello in order to help himself. This is shown again in 1. 1. 57, 'In following him I follow but myself'. Iago is suggesting here that it is only right and proper for people to feign loyalty and friendship in order to make personal gain, even going so far as to say that those who do so have 'soul'. This begs the question, is this Iago's version of morality?
It certainly seems that Iago has a huge belief in his abilities and in himself. If this is his morality, it is a twisted form of morality, certainly of the Christian morality which the audience would have been living their lives by. It is odd that Iago reveals so much in his conversation with Roderigo. Such revelation of the true nature of someone's character is mainly done in Shakespeare's plays in soliloquy, and in some ways because Roderigo speaks so little, it almost seems like soliloquy, but it remains that Roderigo is there.
This allows the audience to infer something more about the relationship between Iago and Roderigo: either they are great friends, such that when Iago admits to being dishonest and false in his dealings with Othello, Iago trusts Roderigo to keep it secret, or it is not that Iago trusts Roderigo but, as I alluded to earlier in my speech, Iago trusts Roderigo's stupidity. It is the second of these possibilities that is perhaps most likely and indeed is shown to be true in the rest of the play; Iago has confidence in his ability to control and use the less intelligent Roderigo.
In his oration about servants, Iago uses much animal imagery. For example, in 1. 1. 46-7, Iago compares a servants life to be one of an 'ass', living for 'nought but provender [animal feed]', and in 1. 1. 48, Iago alludes to whipping, something more associated with controlling animals than humans. Iago is certainly very fond of animal imagery, or indeed euphemism, as is shown again later in the play by his references to 'the beast with two backs', when referring to the copulation of Desdemona and Othello.
Iago is very much obsessed here with the fate and possibly plight of the subjected, the servant. Perhaps his lamentation about the general state of society and the unjustness of the hierarchical system is simply an expansion of his woe for his own failure to be promoted. As I referred to previously, a theme brought up here that is repeated throughout the rest of the play is the motif of appearance and reality and the deception of outer mien hiding the inner actuality.
Iago mentions this many times during this passage, firstly in his description of the what he considers true servants as I have discussed, but more specifically in 1. 1. 49 'visages of duty', in 1. 1. 51 'shows of service' and in 1. 1. 59 the word 'seeming'. The word 'seem' encapsulates this whole motif and it is important because when Iago is using it here, although he is talking about generality, he has admitted that he indeed fits and prides himself in that he is like the stereotype he has described.
Thus he is confessing that he is deceptive. If this acknowledgement does not make it apparent enough for the audience that Iago is the villain, then in 1. 1. 64 the audience receive their attestation that he represents evil when Iago says 'I am not what I am'. Out of context this does not seem that important, but when the origin of this phrase is shown to be the bible in Exodus when God says 'I am that I am', the real significance of this phrase becomes apparent.
This changing of God's word, this blasphemy in the religious society of the time in which the play was written would have told anybody that the man who uttered such sacrilege was evil. After such revelation from Iago about his character, we see the first enactment of his plan to destroy Othello. Iago orders Roderigo to rouse Brabantio, Desdemona's father and to tell him that his daughter is in love with Othello so that he may try and break up the relationship between Othello and Desdemona.
The short length of his phrases, the asyndeton between them and the way in which they are not in metre, for example 1. 1. 67, 'Rouse him, make after him, poison his delight', reveal to the audience that Iago has just come up with these ideas and that therefore they are most probably in response to Iago's anger about his lack of promotion. In 1. 1. 70-2, 'Though that his joy be joy/Yet throw such changes of vexation on't/As it may lose some colour', the contraction 'on't' has a double meaning, again highlighting Iago's recent speech on the two personas and the deception of seeming and being.
It means both Brabantio's joy and the relationship between Othello and Desdemona, Iago here hoping that casting doubt on the future of the first will do so to the second. Iago's reference to plague in 1. 1. 70, 'Plague him with flies' would have played upon two things in the mind of the audience at the time, firstly their agricultural knowledge about plagues on crops and secondly the biblical image of one of the plagues sent by God against the Egyptians.
In conclusion, although this passage comes very near the beginning of the play and so it is likely to reveal something of character to the audience, this excerpt is significant in its revelatory nature about Iago by Iago. You have spoken about how certain images in the extract use the memories of the audience of the time to take on extra significance, such as the reference to the bible and to the plague, but do you think that these subtleties of meaning are lost to the modern audience?
Yes, certainly because of the nature of our society today and its huge differences with that of Elizabethan times, some of the meaning will not be evident to a modern audience. Iago's proclamation in 1. 1. 64 of 'I am not what I am' is still very clear in its meaning to a modern audience and such a one would get from that line that Iago was deceitful and not to be trusted, but there would not be quite the same feeling of hatred towards him as there would have been from such a religious Elizabethan audience against such blasphemy.
Not only would almost all who saw a production of Othello nowadays not even realise the root of the phrase or comprehend that it is blasphemous, but even if they did they would probably not consider blasphemy as gravely as the Elizabethan audiences would have done. As to the reference to the plague, that would have lost less of the significance it would have had to an Elizabethan audience, because a modern audience would still recognise the plague and hold it in the same trepidation that the people of the time would have done, for we still have plagues of our own, just not so many in the agricultural sphere.
Nevertheless, although some subtleties of meaning have not stood the test of time, this does not mean that this extract or the play as a whole has lost its relevance, significance or meaning. What do you think is the significance of the phrase 'We cannot all be masters, nor all masters/Cannot be truly followed' within the extract and the play? That phrase is arguably the most important phrase from this extract. In one sentence it encapsulates the whole meaning of much of the rest of Iago's speech in this extract.
It not only reveals so much in the way of Iago's character, but also the character of society in the real world. Iago here is saying that we cannot all be powerful or in charge and that not all of those who are in charge should be or are followed truly. Whether this is because the powerful being is not fit to have such a position or whether it is merely the decision of the powerless not to follow those superior in rank for whatever reason, the fact remains that the hierarchical system within our society leads to such betrayals of duty.
The choice between these two has to be made with regard to individual cases, but whatever the reasons why, this situation occurs both in the play and in society as a whole. Indeed much of the play is about the tensions caused by the strict hierarchical system and the subversions of those not in power from those in power and as the basis for the play, this sentence is crucial within the context of the play.
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