In William Shakespeare's play Othello, what are some meanings of Iago's statement, "Touch me not so near. / I had rather have this tounge cut from my mouth / Than it should do offense to Michael Cassio. / Yet I persuade my self to speak the truth" (2.3.235-239)?
In Act 2 of William Shakespeare’s play Othello, Iago is asked by Othello to explain who began a fight that has disrupted the peace on the island of Cyprus. The fight has just taken place between Roderigo (Iago’s stooge) and a drunken Michael Cassio (Iago’s unwitting rival). Not only had Iago urged Cassio to drink (knowing that he could not hold his liquor), but he had also encouraged Rogeridgo to pick a fight with Othello’s drunk lieutenant. In the course of the fight, Montano, a Cypriot who had tried to intervene to make peace, had been wounded by Cassio.
When Othello demands that Iago tell him truthfully who began the fight, Iago pretends that he is reluctant to say anything negative about Cassio (whom he intensely but secretly hates):
“Touch me not so near. / I had rather have this tongue cut from my mouth / Than it should do offense to Michael Cassio. / Yet I persuade myself to speak the truth.” (2.3.235-239)
This statement, like so many others that Iago utters in the course of the play, is supremely ironic and deceitful. He pretends to love Cassio, but in fact he detests him. He pretends to resist speaking against Cassio, when speaking against Cassio is what he achingly longs to do. He pretends that he must speak because he is committed to honesty, when in fact he is the least sincere, least trustworthy, least honest character not only in this play but in much of English literature.
One of the strange pleasures of reading or watching Othello is the pleasure of being appalled by the sheer, daring hypocrisy of Iago. In this respect he is much like King Richard III in Shakespeare’s play of that title. He is so totally self-confident, so extraordinarily cunning, so brazenly deceitful, that one’s jaw drops in astonishment – partly because he is also so exceptionally successful in carrying off his plans (until near the very end of the play).
Something extra: An especially interesting book about Iago is Stanley Edgar Hyman’s Iago: Some Approaches to the Illusion of His Motivation. This is one of the best texts ever written that outlines and practices a “pluralist” approach to literary criticism. Taking his cue from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s famous remark about Iago’s “motiveless malignity,” Hyman explores a variety of different approaches to explaining just why Iago is so evil. Hyman’s book favors no particular approach but shows how all of them, taken together, help to illuminate the sheer richness and complexity of the play. A key word in Hyman’s title is “Illusion.” Iago, after all, is not a real person, and so, strictly, he has no “motivation(s).” Shakespeare, however, demonstrates his talent as an artist by creating a character so complex, so baffling, that he has puzzled and fascinated readers and theater-goers from the moment he first appeared on stage.