A fig for your loyalty

Iago. Meanness, villainy, devilry…spite. His villainy inflamed by changing motives, Iago plays his spitefulness for sport.

Othello · William Shakespeare · 1603
Norton, 2008 · 82 pages, hardcover

William Shakespeare based Othello on a work by the Italian writer Cinthio. In the original Iago seeks retribution for his wife’s disloyalty, and it becomes a drama driven by vengeance. In Shakespeare’s version this motive is diluted: the affair between Iago’s wife, Emilia, and Othello is only a supposition (Iago admits to as much and Emilia makes light of the rumor). It’s no more than barracks banter and is hardly alluded to in the play.

Iago’s evilness is more terrifying and Othello a more difficult work for this revision. Othello isn’t a drama about jealousy or vengeance anymore; it’s a drama about manipulation and the fortitude of  rumors and lies.Iago pours pitch into the ears of the Moor, makes bald promises to his grunt Roderigo and crafts a pawn out of mild-mannered Cassio. Iago is a ventriloquist, playing the better men as puppets on a string, and we see how manipulation makes a cuckold of men’s trust.

The success of Iago’s spite depends on two gambles: the lust that Roderigo feels for Othello’s wife, Desdemona, and the depth of Othello’s trust in his (Iago’s) honesty.

Roderigo (a fool, gullible, easily manipulated) does Iago’s dirty work without reimbursement, led on by promises of money and a tryst with Desdemona that never do materialize.

And Othello. The noble Moor Othello, whose military competence the officials of Venice esteem; Othello, who asks how honor could possibly outlast honesty; Othello, whose confidence in Desdemona’s heart led him to allow her professions of love before the Duke’s full council be his salvation when her father demanded annulment of their marriage – this same Othello believes Iago’s words, that very Iago whom on many occasions – eight lines in the play – Othello specifically names an honest man and lauds for his generosity with the truth.

But Iago doesn’t desire Desdemona for himself. He doesn’t even desire the lieutenancy anymore, not after Cassio is deposed. His former motives fade into a source more perfidious because unfounded: petty spite, a cruelty more fearsome because how to stop it when it has no discernible engine?

If thou canst cuckold him, thou dost thyself a pleasure, me a sport.

Like Eden’s serpent, Iago derives his pleasure from manufacturing the downfall of a couple newly wed and given every grace that can be mortally perceived. Othello and Desdemona are the crowning jewels of Venice and then of Cyprus, irreproachable in their modesty, nobility and romance. How we’d love to see them fall!

Iago’s particular brand of nastiness has made Othello an enduring work, but the structure of the play is also worth a mention. Othello is a tragedy. Its fifth act must necessarily be a blood bath, and it is, but with a caveat: Shakespeare sates our appetite for retribution, and the inversion of power between 1.1 and 5.2 is satisfying in its irony because it’s Cassio who triumphs.

Act 1, scene 1 opens with Iago butt hurt over Othello’s choice of Cassio, “That never set a squadron in the field/Nor the division of a battle knows,” for his lieutenant instead of the tried-and-true Iago. Iago then hints at his desire to depose Cassio.

But it’s take-it-as-it-comes Cassio, the everyman of generally good qualities and little vices, who, by play’s end, gains in standing and power above even the lieutenancy when he is granted the governorship of Cyprus. His first decree is to determine Iago’s fate.

And this rarity of Shakespearean tragedy to reveal such optimism during that always bloody fifth act is what makes Othello transcend others of his tragic oeuvre as a more encompassing and more hopeful drama. No comedy then, but not a tragedy of Macbeth caliber either.

Othello · William Shakespeare · 1603
Norton, 2008 · 82 pages, hardcover

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