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The Humiliation of Iago

(Shakespearean Criticism)

Karl F. Zender, University of Calfornia at Davis

What does Iago want and why does he do what he does? These questions, endlessly fascinating, often discussed, stand no greater chance of being definitively answered today than they did two hundred years ago, when Coleridge spoke of the motive-hunting of a motiveless malignity. In the final analysis, Iago, like all of us, does what he does because he is what he is: "Demand me nothing; what you know, you know" (V.ii.303).1 Yet if Iago's motives must ultimately remain inscrutable, particular strands of his behavior may yet be explored and understood. Looking closely at how Iago interacts with individual characters, what he wants from each of them, what he wants to do to each of them, how his desires change as the play advances, can illumine much, even if not all, of his mystery.

Among these interactions, the one with Desdemona is second only to the one with Othello in complexity and interest. Beginning with nearly entire inattention to Desdemona in his first soliloquy, moving next to desire to be "even'd with [Othello,] wife for wife" (II.i.299)—that is, to sleep with Desdemona as he imagines Othello has slept with Emilia—Iago moves finally to desire for Desdemona's death, or, more precisely, for a specific kind and location of death: "Do it not with poison; strangle her in her bed, even the bed she hath contaminated" (IV.i.207-208). How does Iago arrive at this final attitude? What, other than a reflexive opportunism, a convenient fueling of Othello's jealousy, leads him to call for Desdemona's death by strangulation in the marriage bed? This essay seeks to answer these questions. It argues that the immediate cause for Iago's murderous rancor lies within the play itself, in an episode where Desdemona, all inadvertently, places Iago in a situation in which he humiliates himself. It argues further that themes evoked in this scene, of speech and silence, verbal competence and incompetence, resonate throughout the play (as they do throughout Shakespeare's career), in ways that should significantly influence our understanding both of Iago's behavior in Acts III and IV and of the fifth-act climax.

I

The episode in question is II.i.83-181, the interlude in which Desdemona "beguile[s]" the time before Othello's arrival at Cyprus by asking Iago how he would praise various sorts of women. Often in Shakespeare the incon-sequentiality of an episode relative to a play's plot alerts us to its significance in other terms. There is no plot reason, for example, why Borachio in Much Ado about Nothing should discuss fashion for thirty lines before revealing that he wooed Margaret under the name of Hero; but there is sufficient thematic reason, in the play's repeated concern with issues of true and false perception, for including the episode. So also here. Othello's ship need not arrive later than Desdemona's for any plot reason (it in fact left Venice earlier); so Shakespeare must have had other reasons for including the delay—perhaps to allow time to develop nuances of character, theme, and motive that he could not conveniently develop elsewhere.

The primary issues explored in the time between Desdemona's and Othello's arrivals are the nature and limits of Iago's verbal fluency and his attitudes toward women. In discussing these issues, it will be helpful if we first reflect on related depictions elsewhere in Shakespeare's drama—particularly in the romantic comedies, which form such a large part of Othello's immediate dramatic ancestry. Throughout the romantic comedies, Shakespeare links the maturation of the romantic hero (less frequently of the romantic heroine) toward a capacity for conjugal love with his becoming verbally fluent. At times, as in the instance of Claudio and Hero in Much Ado about Nothing, this movement proceeds straightforwardly, from an opening inarticulateness to a final fluency.2 More frequently, as in the instances of Helena and Demetrius in A Midsummer Night's Dream, Orsino in Twelfth...

(The entire section is 7,181 words.)