Critical Appreciation of Othello: Act 1 Scene 1
The passage, act 1 scene 1, lines 41 to 82, open with a long speech from Iago. Already, from the onset we see that he feels it is wrong to follow his master ‘ the Moor’, demonstrated by the answer he gives to Roderigo’s statement of:
“I would not follow him then” – line 40,
“O sir, content you.” – line 41
It is as if it were a discontenting thought to think that Iago actually really wanted to follow his master of his own accord. Iago expands on his opening statement, informing us that he is only following Othello for his own benefit, and informs us on his view of there being two types of knaves. The first, follows his master to help his master, works hard and is humble and actually enjoys his devoted service to his master;
‘Many a duteous and knee-crooking knave,
That doting on his own obsequious bondage’ line 45-46
But for all their hard work Iago feels that they get nothing back in return and in addition will be looked down upon and be seen in the same category as the ‘master’s ass’, as they only receive food and lodging (‘for nought but provender’), in return for years of dedicated service only to be dismissed without a second thought.
This is not for Iago, he will not be used by others, but in turn wants to use others for his own benefit ironically using the cover of a used ‘honest’ servant. It is this word ‘honest’ that appears many times in the play and is used to mean different things, mainly trustworthy and truthful or simple and easily deceived. But when used in reference to Iago there is often a sense of patronisation or an indication of it intended as an insult to suggest stupidity. When Iago uses the word ‘honest in line 49 saying:
‘Whip me such honest knaves.’
He shows the audience exactly how he views the perception of the word ‘honest’ as he uses it to describe the foolish ‘duteous and knee-crooking knave’. Here Iago makes it clear how he understands the meaning of the word ‘honest’ even though the use of the word is frequent and varied and of course deliberately ambiguous in other references in ‘Othello’.
Iago now moves onto the second type of knave, which he associates himself with: these knaves outwardly give off the appearance of hard working and submissive servants, but inwardly they are working for their own agendas. Even though these knaves look as though they are sacrificing a lot for their masters with little apparent return, in fact they are using their masters to their advantage better than their masters are using them. Therefore in paying service to Othello he is in effect paying service to himself.
This gives an impression of selfishness but we must remember that just because Iago is not a master, does not make him feel that to serve a master is a privilege. Therefore, like people who are more fortunate than him and are higher in the social and military rank, he too wants people to devote their lives to him. As he can’t have this, it is only natural that he would want to get something out of this ‘relationship’, (though in the end circumstances do get out of hand and develop into tragedy.)
The second type of knaves who are ‘trimmed in forms and visages of duty, yet keep their heart attending on themselves’ (lines 50-51) Iago feels that:
‘ These fellows have some soul’ – line 54
This suggests that Iago sees this deceit and pretence in a man as character and qualities to be admired and respected for: in fact the reverse of societies view of men who lie and plot others’ downfall.
Iago has already introduced the theme of deceptive appearances, and that actions and true thoughts or feelings have nothing in common. Therefore no one can judge or analyse someone else’s actions without knowing how that person feels, and even with this knowledge, one can still not understand or appreciate the character’s motives. These issues are demonstrated in Iago’s following lines:
‘Were I the Moor, I would not be Iago;
In following him, I follow but myself.
Heaven is my judge, not I for love and duty,
But seeming so for my peculiar end.’ Lines 58-61
Iago’s mysterious statement ‘Were I the Moor, I would not be Iago’ indicates that the Moor symbolises authenticity and all things genuine while Iago stands for falseness and deceit. Therefore one cannot be the other as they are opposites and work antagonistically. Therefore we are faced with the common ‘good against evil’ presentation, (which later proves evil to be the winner).
It seems that Iago sees himself and Othello as opposites and therefore Othello will never be able to understand Iago, and therefore can not understand his deceitfulness and plotting against his ‘friends’ and Iago will never be able to comprehend Othello’s love for Desdemona as a thing of beauty and purity. Thus Iago can only make the tragedy happen by manipulating what is good and sowing the seeds of doubt.
Iago comments that he is not seeking ‘love and duty’ and so we start to wonder at how Iago will ‘ thrive by them’ from his ‘peculiar end.’ This last statement suggests that nobody will understand Iago’s motives or the passion which drives his actions because even Iago refers to his end as ‘peculiar’ and therefore as people will not be able to see it from Iago’s point of view they will wrongly assume that he is a psychopath or mental. The lines:
‘…not for love and duty,
But seeming so for my peculiar end’
create dramatic tension and suspense, making the audience wonder what Iago could possibly have in store for them. Therefore, Shakespeare has written this line deliberately ambiguous to arouse curiosity in the viewers.
Ironically, line 60 includes:
‘Heaven is my judge’
this is the same heaven that does not intervene in any of the unfolding tragedy even though Cassio, Desdemona, Othello and even Emilia call to heaven for blessings and protection.
Iago feels that honesty and sincerity are weaknesses that make you more open to attack and therefore more vulnerable. It is here that a hint of insecurity is detected in Iago as it seems it is in his nature to envy those whose character or situation is in any way superior to his own thereby leading to Iago suffering from a sense of injured merit. He seeks to destroy anything which by its very superiority threatens his self-love and he is always finding ways in which he feel that Othello and Cassio have slighted him.
Thus he cannot control this feeling of rejection and it grows on him making him feel insecure and wanting to take revenge on those who make him feel belittled. Also, maybe Iago thinks that he can not ‘wear my heart on my sleeve for draws to peaks at’ as he can not reveal his true soul to anyone because then he will no longer be able to hide behind a mask or character which what is known about them is false, which will make Iago feel more safe, again pointing to Iago feeling insecure.
Iago ends his speech with a paradox: ‘ I am not what I am’. This is in effect summarising Iago’s speech into saying that what people conceive him to be is not the real him, and the real him will never be revealed for people to comprehend, so people will never ‘see’ the real genuine Iago. This of course is the main reason Iago manages to deceive Othello and this is also a problem for Rodrigo, but at this stage Rodrigo does not pick up on this point, as he is a bit slow to say the least.
It is rather ironical that Iago only reveals his true intentions and plans to Rodrigo who is the only person too stupid to really understand their full implications, highlighted by Rodrigo’s random and abstract comment:
“What a full fortune does the thick-lips owe,
If he can carry it thus!” Lines 67-68
Next we see Iago at his best: making havoc. Iago plainly delights in his own skill at causing chaos and his desire to make another human as unhappy and miserable as possible. When he plans to wake Brabantio, and ‘poison his delight’, he maximises Brabantio’s humiliation at the dishonour of it by telling Rodrigo to ‘proclaim him in the street’. Iago seems to get carried away by his lust in planning to tell Brabantio of his misfortune saying ‘plague him with flies’ and ‘incense her kinsmen’.
This of course is an example of Iago’s two faced nature as to Brabantio he seems to be on his side by informing Brabantio of his daughter’s secret liaison with Othello, yet in the next scene, Iago is seen with Othello acting as the faithful manservant. Read also Critical appreciation of the poem “Old Ladies’ Home”.
Even though Iago wants Rodrigo to call out to Brabantio, he can not help himself adding to Rodrigo’s feeble and polite attempt at calling Brabantio with loud and alarming phrases and cry’s of ‘Thieves,’ repeated four times to make Brabantio feel as uncomfortable and worried as possible. It seems that Iago is drawing out the situation and going the round about way of telling Brabantio what has happened, to leave Brabantio in suspense and confusion for as long as possible.
Iago’s energy and excitement is conveyed in the pace and thrust of Iago’s poetry or prose. In Iago’s soliloquy-like speech (lines 41- 66) poetic images and long words do not slow the quick movement, like the agile darting of Iago’s mind constantly on the look out for new niches to get in and use to his advantage. The light punctuation helps keep the fasted paced childlike enthusiasm.
Iago’s speeches are full of ambiguous and mysterious phrases, these highlight his double character that is in fact a paradox in itself and often seem to present two conflicting and antagonist characters, even though they are both represented through Iago. There seems to be no fixed sentence length with many varied disjointed phrases helping make up Iago’s speech and present his rush of ideas and force of feeling.
This passage is really a platform for the ‘plotter’ Iago, to reveal his true feelings on his relationship with Othello and how he intends to use his service to Othello and the social role he is expected to play as a base for his deceit and ruin of other characters. Therefore dramatically this is an intimate scene between the audience and Iago (with Rodrigo, as merely an excuse for Iago to speak) where they are invited to see events and situations from Iago’s point of view.
This low-key plotting and the later loud disruption caused by Iago to wake Brabantio, is further indication of how quickly and easily i.e. how flexible, Iago can be to change to suit the situation to deceive characters, manipulate trust and ultimately cause a tragedy through his consuming hatred for seemingly all things good and beautiful.