Discuss Shakespeare’s portrayal of Iago in the first two acts of the play Essay

Katie E Payne English Literature Discuss Shakespeare’s portrayal of Iago in the first two acts of the play. So what motivates Iago? Iago is an urbane villain. He resembles the characteristics of a typical Shakespearean villain; presented with a felon who is adept at quick – witted improvisation. Professional jealousy is Iago’s initial motive for disgracing Cassio; but he also admits that he is personally envious of the “daily beauty” in the lieutenant’s life. Iago revels in his ability to dissemble and destroy.

And although to some extent he enjoys having an audience (Roderigo) and outlines his plots clearly, Iago is also rather mysterious and profound. Shakespeare allows Iago to refer to himself as the ‘devil’, but to say that he is immoral plainly because he is immoral, does not explain why he repeatedly explains himself to himself. Throughout both Acts, “Honesty” means both faithfulness and sincerity. You “honest friend” is one who is always there for you and who will always tell you the truth.

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Shakespeare purposely tolerates Iago a status of honesty, ironically using this for dishonest purposes. At the end of Act I, Iago is formulating his plan against Othello, he comments “The Moor is of a free and open nature, / That thinks men honest, but seem to be so, / And will as tenderly be led by the nose / As asses are”. Iago is aware that Othello considers him honest and he uses this to perform fictitious plans. Iago is more than a cynic; he often compares others to animals, especially when he’s referring to their sexuality.

In Act I, Scene I, Iago tells Roderigo that they can get a measure of revenge upon Othello by telling Desdemona’s father and kin of the elopement. Thus, though Othello may be happy at the moment, they can “Plague him with flies”. When they carry out this proposal, Iago repeatedly uses beastly vulgarity to describe the sexual relationship between Othello and Desdemona. He shouts out to Brabantio that “Even now, now, very now, an old black ram / Is tupping your white ewe”.

Moments later, he yells to Brabantio, “you’ll have your daughter covered with a Barbary horse; you’ll have your nephews neigh to you; you’ll have coursers for cousins and gennets for germans”. ‘Barbary’ is Northern Africa; ‘nephews’ here means grandsons; ‘coursers’ are swift horses; ‘gennets’ are Spanish horses; and ‘germans’ are close relatives. In short, if Brabantio doesn’t do something, his whole family will be nothing but wild animals.

Brabantio, who can only hear Iago, not see him, asks who he is, and Iago replies, “I am one, sir, that comes to tell you your daughter and the Moor are now making the beast with two backs” Act I, Scene II, When Roderigo says that he will drown himself out of disappointed love for Desdemona, Iago scornfully comments, “Ere I would say, I would drown myself for the love of a guinea-hen, I would change my humanity with a baboon”. A ‘guinea-hen’ is a large, spotted, noisy chicken, and Iago uses the word the way we use ‘dumb cluck’.

After Roderigo has left, Iago assures us that Roderigo is beneath contempt, “For I mine own gain’d knowledge should profane, / If I would time expend with such a snipe. / But for my sport and profit”. A ‘snipe’ is a bird notorious for its flightness and its tendency to run right into traps. At the end of Act II, Scene I, in which everyone arrives in Cyprus, Iago has a soliloquy in which he boasts that he will “make the moor thank me, love me and reward me. / For making him egregiously an ass”. Looking at Iago’s self-esteem, he has a very high opinion of himself.

He takes delight in his own evil and seems driven to prove that he can outsmart anyone. In order to prove to Roderigo that he hates Othello in Act I, Scene I, Iago tells the story of how he got passed over for promotion to lieutenant. He comments, “I know my price, I am worth no worse place”. Later in the same scene, still explaining his hatred of Othello, Iago praises those who serve their masters only for their own purposes; “when they have lin’d their coats,” they “Do themselves homage”. We would call such persons embezzlers, but Iago sees them in another light: “These fellows have some soul; / And such a one do I profess myself”.

Maybe Iago is known as “honest Iago” because of the way he talks. He’s ironic, sarcastic and he scoffs at any idea that he considers overblown. He presents himself as a down-to-earth kind of gentleman who asks questions and appeals to common sense. This is the main frustration for the audience, his Anti – Heroic Language. Practically every speech that Iago makes could be used as an example of some characteristic of his use of language. The following examples were chosen because they show Iago poking holes in someone else’s ideas. In Act I, Scene I, Roderigo has just pointed out that Iago said he hated Othello.

To this Iago responds, Despise me, if I do not. Three great ones of the city, In personal suit to make me his lieutenant, Off-capp’d to him: and, by the faith of man, I know my price, I am worth no worse a place. But he, as loving his own pride and purposes, Evades them, with a bombast circumstance Horribly stuff’d with epithets of war; And, in conclusion, Nonsuits my mediators; for, “Certes,” says he, “I have already chose my officer. ” And what was he? Forsooth, a great arithmetician, One Michael Cassio, a Florentine, (A fellow almost damn’d in a fair wife), That never set a squadron in the field,

Nor the division of a battle knows More than a spinster; unless the bookish theoric, Wherein the toged consuls can propose As masterly as he. Mere prattle, without practise, Is all his soldiership. The phrase ‘by the faith of man,’ is a variation on the colloquialism ‘in faith,’ which was used as we now employ “to tell the truth”. Iago follows this with an ironically understated self-evaluation: ‘I know my price, I am worth no worse a place’. He means that he deserves (at the very least) to be Othello’s lieutenant. He then scoffs at those who are supposedly better than he is (Othello and Cassio).

Othello, says Iago, speaks with ‘a bombast circumstance / Horribly stuff’d with epithets of war’. “Bombast” was a word for the cotton used to stuff the quilted men’s fashions of Shakespeare’s time. “Circumstance” in short means Othello is a stuffed shirt, full of hot air. As for Cassio, he’s a “great arithmetician”, a “Florentine,” who doesn’t know any more about war then a “spinster”. In modern parlance, he’s a bean counter from coo-koo land, who knows no more about war then a little old lady. When Desdemona, Iago and his wife, Emilia, arrive in Cyprus, Act II, Scene I, Cassio elcomes Emilia with a kiss, then says to Iago, “Let it not gall your patience, good Iago, / That I extend my manners; ’tis my breeding / That gives me this bold show of courtesy”.

Cassio is making a vast point of what a charmer he is, but Iago punctures his balloon with a joke: “Sir, would she give you so much for he lips / As of her tongue she oft bestows on me, / You would have enough”. He’s saying that if Emilia kissed Cassio as much as she nags Iago, Cassio would have more than enough kissing. This apparently casual devaluation of Emilia and her kisses is a ai??ade; a little later we learn that Iago is intensely jealous and suspects Cassio of having an affair with Emilia. Finally, I would like to attract our attention back to Iago’s “Honesty”.

When he explains to Roderigo that he hates Othello, Roderigo speculates why Iago is still working for him. Iago then goes on to explain that he’s a hypocrite, who is only pretending loyalty to Othello. He’s not like those men who loyally serve their masters all their lives. He contemptuously exclaims; “Whip me such honest knaves”. In Act I, Scene III, The Duke tells Othello that he must leave for Cyprus immediately, ut must also leave behind an officer to deliver documents from the Senate. Othello appoints Iago to be that officer, because “A man he is of honesty and trust”. A little later, Othello entrusts Iago with the responsibility of escorting Desdemona to Cyprus, and asks him to have Iago’s wife be her companion. He says, “Honest Iago, / My Desdemona must I leave to thee: / I prithee, let thy wife attend on her: / And bring them after in the best advantage”. At the end of the scene Iago knows that Othello considers him honest, and his planning on using that in his dishonest plans as stated earlier.

In Cyprus, observing the joyous reunion of Othello and Desdemona, Iago says to himself that he will wreck the lovers’ harmony: “O, you are well tunned now! / But I’ll set down the pegs that make this music, / As honest as I am”. When Othello reminds Cassio to keep a lid on the festivities in Cyprus (Act II, Scene III), Cassio replies that he has already given orders to Iago, and Othello says approvingly that “Iago is most honest” – that is, reliable. Later, after Cassio is drunk, Iago tell Montano the lie that Cassio gets drunk every night. Montano is shocked, and thinks that Othello ought to be told.

He says, “It were an honest action to say / So to the Moor”. In other words, it’s something that Iago ought to do out of loyalty to Othello, but Iago replies that he won’t say anything because Cassio is too much his friend. Shakespeare cleverly uses Iago’s language to ingest other characters around him in order to get what he wants without getting caught. “Honest Iago, that look’st dead with grieving, / Speak, who begun this? ” It looks to Othello Iago is anguished over the terrible trouble that Cassio and Montano have caused. Such grief is a natural, “honest” emotion.

A little later, after Iago gives an account of the fight, Othello omments, “I know, Iago, / Thy honesty and love doth mince this matter, / Making it light to Cassio”. Again through Othello’s speech, Shakespeare is making Iago appear loyal to his friend Cassio, that he has shaded the story to make Cassio materialize in a better light. However, Othello isn’t angry with Iago for doing what any “friend” would do; he’s angry at Cassio and does what Iago has wished, dismisses him on the spot. Alone with Iago, Cassio moans that his reputation has been ruined (Act II, Scene III). Iago replies, “As I am an honest man, I thought you had received some odily would”.

He is of the opinion that Cassio is just making a big fuss about his reputation, so much of a fuss that at first Iago honestly thought that Cassio had received an actual wound. He then goes on to advise Cassio that he can get his job back by asking Desdemona to speak to Othello, and Cassio thanks him for the advice, whereupon Iago expresses, “I protest [promise you], in the sincerity of love and honest kindness”. In other words, he is giving the advice just because he really likes Cassio. Still grateful, Cassio bids Iago goodnight by saying, “Good night, honest Iago”.

As soon as Cassio is gone the audience is left thinking , what a hypocritical fool, he then asks sarcastically, “And what’s he than that says I play the villain? / When this advice is free I give and honest”. Shakespeare established Iago as successful character because he can play a number of roles convincingly, and is able to adapt his tone and style to suit any occasion. He enjoys his ability others to delude others into believing he is honest. With Cassio he is bluff, coarse and genial. He also offers the lieutenant plausible practical advice; he adopts a similar sympathetic approach when he deals with Desdemona.

With Montano he makes a point of stressing that he has Othello’s and the Venetian states best interests at heart. There seems to be an absence of ego in all his dealings with these characters, who are socially and professionally superior to him. But Shakespeare does this deliberately ; with his inferiors, Iago can afford to be less cautious and selfless. Although we know Iago needs to persuade the foolish Roderigo that he has good reason to be frustrated, there is not that much difference between the Iago who speaks alone in soliloquies and the Iago who gulls Roderigo. Both sum-up Iago’s overall persona; dismissive, mean-spirited and boastful.


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