Where Iago Lies: Home, honesty and the Turk in Othello[1]

Sam Wood
Manchester Metropolitan University

Sam Wood. "Where Iago Lies: Home, honesty and the Turk in Othello". Early Modern Literary Studies 14.3 (January, 2009) 2.1-27 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/14-3/Woodiago.html>.

  1. While critical debate around Othello has drawn attention to Iago’s ability to “enmesh” his fellow characters on the island of Cyprus through what has been variously called his “ceaseless narrative invention” (Greenblatt 235) or his construction of stories that respect the “conditions of plausibility” (Sinfield 31), the question of his motivation has been either ignored or deliberately avoided. Such an approach risks stripping Iago of his humanity, and presents him as an improviser who “revels in his ability to manipulate his victims” for no discernable reason (Greenblatt 233) or a supernatural and diabolical force beyond the realms of humanity. In contrast to these arguments, this essay draws attention to the theme of home and honesty that runs through the play to suggest that Iago is, in fact, profoundly discomforted by his ability to manipulate his victims, and that we are able to find a motivation in this discomfort. Further, it builds on the work of Daniel Vitkus, Eric Griffin, and Matthew Dimmock to highlight the contemporary topicality of the themes of home and honesty in the context of foreign policy shifts. Such an approach suggests that it is English national identity that may “turn, and turn, and yet go on”, with the result that it is promiscuously and ambivalently constructed between the poles of the Ottoman Empire and Catholic Spain.

  2. For Stephen Greenblatt the explanation for Iago’s ability to possess others lies in his empathetic manipulation of their lives without their understanding that they are being so manipulated in what he calls a “process of fictionalization that transforms a fixed symbolic structure into a flexible construct ripe for improvisational entry” (234). That is, the ability to see the seemingly solid structures of a culture and identity – marriage, the authority of the Venetian state, what Sinfield might call ideology (31-2) – as fictions that can be manipulated. “This process”, Greenblatt continues, “is at work in Shakespeare’s play where we may more accurately identify it as submission to narrative self-fashioning” (234). This submission is to be found in other characters, not least Othello himself, who, as Greenblatt points out, in telling his “round unvarnish’d tale” (1.3.91) “[presses] up against the condition of all discursive representations of identity. He comes dangerously close to recognizing his status as text and precisely the recognition that the play as a whole will reveal to be insupportable” (238).

  3. Yet in the case of Iago, Greenblatt seems to suggest, this recognition is not so insupportable as Iago “is fully aware of himself as an improviser and revels in his ability to manipulate his victims” (233). Further, Iago himself is included in his “ceaseless narrative invention” whose predicate is “above all a sense that one is not forever fixed in a single, divinely sanctioned identity” (235). Thus, it is suggested that in his role-playing Iago is able to imagine his non-existence, and the divine “I am that I am”, which would guarantee Iago’s self-interested pursuit of his “own peculiar end” (1.1.59), is replaced with “I am not what I am” (1.1.64) that suggests an absolute vacancy masked as self-interest (235-36).

  4. For Greenblatt, Iago’s vacillation between self-interest and vacancy suggests “the principle of narrativity itself cut off from original motive and final disclosure. The only termination possible in his case is not revelation but silence” (236-37). This indicates two further aspects of Greenblatt’s argument: first, his point that “at the heart of this tale [Othello] is the telling of tales” (237); second, it indicates that Greenblatt is not much interested in Iago’s motivation and the “notorious results” (236) of speculating about his “peculiar end”.[2] In this, of course, he is not alone; Coleridge saw in Iago’s survey of his materials at the end of Act 1, Scene 3 “the motive hunting of motive-less Malignity” (Honigmann 33-4).[3] The results of such speculation are notorious because, taken individually, the motives Iago offers – his being passed over for promotion to the lieutenancy in favour of Cassio (1.1.7-32), or the suspicion that Othello has done his office “’twixt his sheets” (1.3.385-87) – seem inadequate to the “monstrous birth” he would have brought to “the world’s light” (1.3.403).

  5. The point I wish to underscore here is that what Greenblatt finds fascinating about Iago is precisely what he calls insupportable in the case of Othello. This would suggest that Iago, in Greenblatt’s reading, does not share with Othello a horror of seeing himself as a vacuity whose only possible content and therefore identity can be a fiction. Indeed, for Greenblatt, unlike Othello, “Iago knows that an identity that has been fashioned as a story can be unfashioned, refashioned, inscribed anew in a different narrative” (Greenblatt 238). In this argument there would seem to be no crisis in the irony of Iago asking of Othello’s demand for the “ocular proof” (3.3.363) of Desdemona’s infidelity, “Would you, the supervisor, grossly gape on?” (3.3.398) as it is, of course, Iago who is the supervisor, or director, of events as well as an actor in them.[4] In contrast, I suggest that for all Iago’s understanding that identity is fashioned, his revelry is more ambiguous than Greenblatt’s account allows, and that for all his “ability to imagine his non-existence so that he can exist for a moment as another in another”, by which I understand the ability to see identity as a fictional construct, Iago is horrified by it and finds himself monstrous for it. For this reason, I suggest that Iago hates himself, and it is worth noting that from the outset he invites us along with Roderigo not to stone or hang him if he has concealed his knowledge of Desdemona’s marriage, but to “abhor” and “despise” him if he “ever dreamed of such a matter” (1.1.4-7). In this self-hatred, as well as being director, actor and spectator, Iago is profoundly alien, or other, to himself. It is in this idea that the self can be its own other, the vacillation Greenblatt speaks of, that I suggest that Iago’s discomfort lies, and in the reasons for that discomfort it is possible to locate not only motivation, but also Iago’s most human quality.

  6. The argument that Iago holds himself in contempt is not new, and was presented in the 1950s by Marvin Rosenberg. Rosenberg sought to defend Iago against the charge that he is either a decent man provoked into an understandable revenge, or a “creature of subhuman evil, malignant without any motivation, an embodiment of Satan himself” (Rosenberg 145-49). This is a view that finds recent expression in the work of Daniel Vitkus, for whom the play is rooted in the morality play tradition and is “a tragedy of damnation” which that “ends with the triumph of Vice, that ‘demi-devil’ Iago, who has won another soul for Satan” (Vitkus 97).[5] Instead, by looking at Iago’s usually pleasant exterior in contrast to the soliloquies “which show the inner Iago [to be] one great fury of passion, the more furious because so much of his passion is smothered when he is with people”, Rosenberg argues that the thought of the “decent or noble qualities” of Cassio, Othello and Desdemona “automatically evokes a counter-thought of hostility” (Rosenberg 153). Behind this, Rosenberg argues, lies “a searing contempt for his own self” of which we learn towards the play’s conclusion when we and Roderigo are told that Cassio “hath a daily beauty in his life / That makes me ugly” (5.1.19-20).

  7. In order to further illustrate his argument, Rosenberg turns to contemporary psychology to point to the neurotic type “whose main motivating force in life is his need for vindictive triumph”, who can only prove self-worth to himself “by arrogating to himself extraordinary attributes … determined by his particular needs”, and who having “smothered positive feelings, he can only rely on his intellect for the mastery of life” (154).[6] The description of the type concludes by looking at a subject’s imagination and “vision of the future. He is and will be infinitely better than ‘they’ [the others] are. He will become great and put them to shame” (154).[7] Alongside this, Rosenberg also perceives in Iago’s statement that the thought that Othello has slept with Emilia “doth like a poisonous mineral gnaw my inwards” a physical illness to match his psychological disorder (155). It is this ulcer, associated with thoughts of infidelity, that Rosenberg suggests that Iago “in his revenge fantasies, wishes to fasten onto Othello” (155-56).

  8. These diagnoses – both psychological and physical – seem to me unsatisfactory, and there is something risible about the suggestion that Shakespeare’s tragedy could have been averted if only Iago had the proper antacids. Further, Rosenberg, like all critics, including this one, but unlike the psychologist, is not given access to the childhood of his “patient”, and no further explanation of this vindictiveness in Iago is offered other than recognizing him in the psychological typologies of the mid-twentieth century (155). Despite these objections, I agree with Rosenberg’s original perception of Iago’s self-hatred, and the suggestion that Iago wants to put Othello and others in a similar position to his own while considering himself better than they. But this condition is ontological and not gastro-intestinal, and depends crucially on Iago’s perception of himself in relation to others. Put differently, the question that I think should be asked is what it is about Cassio’s beauty that makes Iago ugly. By thinking about Iago’s self-hatred in this way, I hope to highlight Iago’s discomfort with his abilities in terms which that acknowledge the fictionality indicated by Greenblatt and Sinfield.

  9. In order to answer this question, I wish to draw attention to the important connection the play makes between home, or the idea of belonging, and honesty. This connection, I suggest, lies at the heart of both the play and Iago’s self-hatred, and is also writ large through the play’s setting, characterization, and language. By “home”, I mean an affective sense of belonging more intimate than identity, and while national identity, for example, may imply a home, it does not necessarily convey the sense of emotional attachment that a subject may have to his or her home; the sense that at home, “where one properly belongs,” one might find “refuge, rest, or satisfaction” that is suggested by the OED’s fifth definition. To put these terms into what I hope is clearer relief, by identity I mean the place held by an individual in a cultural register. Identity is relational and discursive, requiring signs enabling identification and affirmation of that place both by the individual and others. Home is distinct from identity in that place in a cultural register is more keenly felt, less likely to be acknowledged as a mere place in a cultural register, and more closely resembles ideas of essential and authentic being. While identity may be performed, home is understood to be a site of emotional nourishment permitting honesty. Perhaps more crucially, while misidentification might be considered to be a failure of performance, the keener sense of home will view misidentification not as a miscasting but as a casting out and all that that implies with literally no place of last resort. Further, as an affective sense of belonging the idea of home should not be taken always to imply the domestic or a specific location. It might be a place in institutional and cultural order, as I suggest it is for Cassio, or, indeed, the particular relationship to place, antithetical to the sentimental and bourgeois notion of home, that is offered by Othello when he speaks of his military career.

  10. There are, of course, many ways in which a person might belong to another. It is Othello’s anxiety that Desdemona does not belong to him, or that the marital bond has been violated, that is the play’s main theme, while it is the idea that Desdemona belongs to her father that informs the action of Act One, Scene Three. It is in the uncertainty of to which of these two households – marital and paternal – that she belongs that Desdemona perceives her “divided duty” (1.3.181).[8] Othello, as much as he belongs to the Venetian state as its military representative, has belonged to others in that we are told he was a slave (1.3.139), and belongs to Desdemona to the degree that she has seen his “visage in his mind” (1.3.253). Further, there is the question of the religion he was born into, with critics disagreeing on whether he was born a Christian or converted from Islam.[9] There is also the question of “Othello’s occupation”, which at once refers to the battlefield and the marital bed, but also the security of his identity as the husband of a faithful wife. In this sense, it would seem that security of identity depends on security of possession and of possessions; that is, in having a home to which one belongs and which belongs to one. If this is the case, then it would seem that there could be no fate more ironic for a man who prizes honesty above all else to have the honesty of his intentions, indeed his very ability to be honest, called into question as “an extravagant and wheeling stranger / Of here and everywhere” (1.1.134-35). More ironic still is his echo of the description when, convinced of Desdemona’s infidelity, he says, “Sir, she can turn, and turn / And turn again” (4.1.253-54). In the context of such remarks it does not seem unreasonable to suggest that one cannot be understood as honest unless one has a stable identity and can be easily placed in the imperatives and structures that order a given society. Here it is worth glancing at the extent of Othello’s belonging to the Venetian state and where doubt of that lies. For as much as he is identified as a stranger before we meet him, his possession by the Venetian senate seems to be unequivocal and quite secure given the urgency with which it turns to him - perhaps more unequivocal than the Duke’s “proper son” (1.3.70). Further, while anxieties about miscegenation are voiced by Iago, Roderigo and Brabantio, they are not given expression by other members of the Venetian senate, suggesting that Eric Griffen is right to posit a “Shakespearean Venice as ‘open’ as the Venice of the sixteenth-century – open to men and women from every part of the earth” (Griffin 59-60). If such multiethnicity is accepted, then it would seem that Othello’s place in Venice is secure so far as the senate is concerned, and that any doubt of that security lies on Othello’s part.

  11. But Othello and Desdemona are not the only characters who are of uncertain belonging. Iago is a Spanish name, not Venetian, as is Roderigo.[10] “Iago,” in particular is significant in the context of the play’s religious and racial tensions, and as Eric Griffin points out, he shares his name with the Spanish patron saint and slayer of Moors (Griffin 68). Cassio is a Florentine. And other than Desdemona, among the main characters it might be said that only Emilia is Venetian, and even this must be equivocated: there is no evidence to support the assertion, and she may have come from Spain with Iago. Even if it could be said she is Venetian, it could equally be said that she labours under the same “divided duty” that Desdemona perceives. Further, once they arrive on the debatable island of Cyprus, they are all away from home – doubly so as the island, which was successfully defended in 1571 at the Battle of Lepanto, fell to the Ottoman Empire in 1573. In this sense, many of the play’s characters seem not to belong at all, and, in fact, might better be described as homeless.

  12. Yet this condition also seems to be one in which the English audience of Shakespeare’s play found itself, most crucially by asking those who might see themselves in the drunken brawl that proves to be Cassio’s downfall:
    Are we turned Turks? and to ourselves do that
    Which heaven forbid the Ottomites?
    Here again, we may understand questions of home and honesty or fidelity, this time in the context of the national and religious home.[11] The question was not a new one. Erasmus had made a similar comparison in 1515. Speaking against proposals for a crusade against the Ottoman Empire, he felt that “if you take away the name and sign of the Cross, we are just like Turks fighting Turks” (Mann Philips 344).[12] At the beginning of the sixteenth century England was able to treat the Ottoman Empire as the site of distant lucrative markets and as a shadowy threat to be used in the politics of Christendom but with which Henry was no more interested in as a military antagonist than had the Indies been threatened (Setton 3: 185). By the opening of the seventeenth-century, England and the Ottoman Empire had their important trading relationship formalized in the Levant Company and Elizabeth was involved in complex negotiations with the Moroccans against their mutual enemy in Spain.[13] Despite such diplomatic amity, the image of the Turk as a demonized menace to Christians was not lost as the Ottoman Empire sought to advance westwards and Mediterranean travellers risked capture by Ottoman pirates (Matar, Islam 5-6). Instead the image was one of fearful fascination leading to the production of such books as Richard Knolles’ Generall History of the Turkes (1603), which speaks of “the glorious Empire of the Turkes, the present Terror of the World” (Vitkus 81).[14] Further, as Matthew Dimmock notes in his discussion of Othello, its date of composition is on the cusp of an Elizabethan foreign policy cultivating Anglo-Ottoman relations in opposition to Catholic hegemony, and the Jacobean emphasis on Christian inclusiveness (Dimmock 202-03).[15] Thus, while the final years of Elizabeth’s reign saw Hakluyt publish the correspondence between Sultan Murad and Elizabeth preliminary to the incorporation of the Levant Company in 1580, 1604 saw the Somerset House conference and peace with Spain.[16] In addition, while Anglo-Ottoman relations were facilitated by a respective suspicion of images, emphasized when Elizabeth styled herself as “the most invincible and most mighty defender of the Christian faith against all kinde of idolatries” (Hakluyt 175), peace with Spain might have suggested the end of military and religious certainties central to English identity under Elizabeth. It is in this later context that Griffin suggests that Shakespeare, “resurrects and improvises upon his nation’s anti-Hispanic heritage, and, at the very moment at which a new era of intercultural relations has begun to emerge, bids a ‘a Spanish fig’ in respect of his king’s new foreign policy” (Griffin 84).

  13. Shakespeare’s play is set in and is the product of a culture increasingly uncertain of where and how it belonged. Diplomatic and commercial relations have an impact on Shakespeare’s play, as well as the climate of its production. In 1600-01 Londoners would have witnessed the six-month visit of the Moorish ambassador and his party. Honigmann suggests that the ambassador provided Shakespeare with a model for Othello (2), while Matar suggests that the prolonged stay exposed Londoners to Islamic religious practice with regard to diet, for the ambassadorial party’s meat was necessarily halal, as well as with regard to death, as one of his party died while in England (Matar, Turks 33-4).

  14. Beyond these official contexts Islam was also known through the renegado, or as the chronicler of English exploration, Richard Hakluyt, put it in 1599, “He was a Renegado, which is one that first was a Christian, and afterwards becommeth a Turke” (Matar, Islam 23). Many of these converts to Islam were captured as they travelled through the Mediterranean for trade or on pilgramage to the Holy Land, and there are repeated references through the period to appeals for their ransom (Matar, Islam 5-6). Others, however, converted voluntarily, which at the very least posed questions about the relative attractions of the two faiths (Matar, Islam 22). The question entered the trade negotions between Elizabeth and the Ottoman Sultan Murad III, where provison is created not only for the return of English captives but also for those who choose to convert to Islam.[17]

  15. Given these contexts, while I disagree with his reading of Iago as satanic, Daniel Vitkus is quite right, in an argument that also highlights the sensuality of conversion, to present Othello in the context of “the idea of conversion that terrified and titilated Shakespeare’s audience [with] a fear of the loss of both essence and identity in a world of ontological, ecclesiatical, and political instability” (Vitkus 77-8). However, by seeing an identity between a Cyprus beleagured by Turks and an England beleaugured by Spanish Catholics (Vitkus 96-7), too great an emaphsis is placed on the threat of conversion as something at once external and potential, rather than something internal and actual. English attitudes towards Islam and the Ottoman Empire were highly ambivalent. On the one hand, the Ottoman Empire was a military threat to Christianity, as well as presenting what some found to be an all too attractive alternative. On the other hand, there were lucrative markets to exploit and the possibility of a powerful military ally. These two aspects are brought together by the English explorer and Ottoman captive, Thomas Shirley. For Shirley, exposure to or “conversation” with Islam could convert the Christian. Further, he noted the political implications of even recognizing the authority of the Sultan: to recognize the Sultan as a legitimate authority was to blaspheme, “because ‘Musselman’ means believer, and any Christian who acknowledges ‘a Mahometan to bee a faythefull beliuer doeth confesse himself to bee an infidell’” (Matar, Islam 30).[18] By this standard, though, all English foreign policy was that of an infidel. Indeed, as Matthew Dimmock has demonstrated, from the early sixteenth century both Catholic and Protestant religious polemics conflated religious opponents with the Turk, and from Catherine of Aragon through to the excommunication of Elizabeth and afterwards, English monarchs and the English were figured as infidels (Dimmock 20-86).

  16. Returning to the play, the loss of Christian and English identity in the political sphere is mirrored, and made still more problematic by the identification of the blasphemously drunken “Turks” on Cyprus with the “exquisite” drinkers of England set up by Iago’s praise of them in relation to their neighbours:[19]
    Why, he drinks with a facility your Dane dead drunk; he sweats not to overthrow you Almain; he gives your Hollander a vomit ere the pottle can be filled.

    If Shirley’s feared conversation were not bad enough, identification of the English with the Turk, is made still more uncomfortable through the contrast of a drunken brawl with an abstaining Islam. In this sense, it is the English who must be faithless and dishonest, doubly so as they have not even “turned Turks” but have ironically turned bad Turks, or false followers of a false religion.

  17. At the centre of this drama, of course, stands the military commander of a “free and open nature / That thinks men honest that but seem so” (1.3.398), and whose geographical and religious origins have caused so much critical debate. But even if these important debates are set aside there is considerable reason for thinking why this rootless character for whom, as Iago correctly surmises, “Men should be what they seem” (3.3.131), has difficulty seeing things other than beyond the “complement extern” (1.1.62) that Iago so assiduously plays on. As much as it is possible to understand Othello’s career of possible conversion, definite command in service of the Venetian state, and equally definite marriage as steps to exist in ever tighter networks of belonging, satisfying what Honigmann calls an “inner need for assimilation” (Honigmann 23), Othello is most at home in the clear cut world of military command. As C.F. Burgess argues, the unequivocal world of military life leaves Othello unprepared for “the labyrinthine twists and turns and impossible alternatives which Iago offers him and with which his mind – untrained in complexities, innuendoes, and seeming facts – cannot cope” (212). More recently, Matthew Dimmock, considering Othello alongside other anti-Ottoman warrior figures, has emphasized Othello’s self-definition in terms of battle and its apparent certainties (Dimmock 203).

  18. More than this though, attention needs to be drawn to the fact that Othello speaks of his “free unhoused condition” in terms that recall the idea of home in terms of the domestic, and he welcomes the “flinty and steel couch of war” as his “thrice driven bed of down”, conflating the military and the domestic (1.3.231-33). In Desdemona’s decision to join her husband as he commands the Venetian fleet, we might see the model of a glamorous and cosmopolitan marriage of a globalized cultural and political elite which that rejects parochial ideas of home to find a home in work and power. In this sense, Othello’s home is precisely the homelessness that Roderigo presents as untrustworthy. Despite this, it is this “unhoused condition” that Othello expects to “put into circumscription and confine” by marrying Desdemona, and in this sense he exists as much between the honesty of a military homelessness and the honesty of a domestic home. The marriage between Desdemona and Othello is an attempt to reconcile these terms, but one that fails, in part, because of the conflicting ideas of what a home should be. If this is the case, it becomes possible to understand why Othello expresses his despair at Desdemona’s suspected infidelity as a farewell to the “pride, pomp and circumstance of glorious war!” (3.3.358) It was on the battlefield that certainty, stability and honesty resided. The curious identification of Desdemona with battle is a lament for order, fidelity and trust. In this regard, it is significant that Othello greets his wife, perhaps not ironically, as a “fair warrior”, that is, as a soldier from whom he can expect a similar straightforwardness. Alongside this is the point that “so long as [his] marriage survives, Othello will be incorporated in the state [….]” (Matar and Stoekel 238). If these points are accepted, then “Othello’s occupation” is triply “gone” (3.3.360) with his loss of the battlefield to the storm, his trust in his honest soldier-wife, and also his identification with the Venetian state. With these, what he occupies and what occupies him, in the sense of employment, is “gone”, and the consequence of not occupying or being occupied by Desdemona, the battlefield, or the Venetian state is that Othello loses the terms in which he sought to define himself and so is himself unable to be honest, that is, seem what he is, because he is none.

  19. It is Othello’s belief that signs honestly refer to things that Iago exploits to bring his general to his tragic end, and in that Iago refuses to show the “outward action” which would “demonstrate / The native act and figure of [his] heart / In complement extern”, Othello is one of the knaves that Iago would have whipped (1.1.40-64). More than this though, Iago exploits the disparity between Othello’s desire to belong, on the one hand, and the sense that he and Othello are “naturally” homeless and are situated at best ambiguously in Venetian society, on the other.

  20. In contrast to his exploitation of Othello’s desire for a home, it is Cassio’s “daily beauty” that makes Iago ugly. This is not merely a question of good looks, but the degree to which Cassio seems to belong to his context and himself, of Cassio’s notion of home, and of Iago’s perception of Cassio as a “proper man” (1.3.391). For if Othello is unable to belong, Cassio is unable to escape his ideas of home, and from the moment he is discovered in the drunken brawl, he is cast, like the English, between the poles of Christian and Turk, true and false, human and bestial. Iago puts it differently when he asks, “Have you forgot all sense of place and duty?” (2.3.163), and it is this “place” that Cassio jealously wishes to reclaim and Iago pursues. Later, Desdomona reassures Cassio, “I give thee warrant of thy place” (3.3.20), which, if successful, would rehabilitate him back not only into Christian decorum, but also a world where everything has its place and is where it belongs. But “place and duty” suggests that as well as in terms of the Turk, we should also think of Cassio in terms of his love of manners and his description as a “proper man”.

  21. Cassio illustrates a central tension of Burckhardt’s Renaissance Man, complete in himself, self-conscious beyond membership of the general categories of “race, party, family or corporation” (Burckhardt 98). Instead of belonging to such categories he seems to be possessed of an inner essence that allows him to be independent of the structures in which he exists and able to look disinterestedly on the world, but also able to act appropriately within those structures, and according to “place and duty”. Yet, more than Othello, Cassio is dependent on networks of belonging to know himself, and his idea of himself as human seems to depend on his understanding of his place in these networks of belonging. When his binge drinking leads to inappropriate behaviour, his response is commensurate with the implications of a fall from grace and the religious implications of that word. “I have lost that immortal part of myself”, he says, “and what remains is bestial” (2.3.259-60).

  22. Cassio is profoundly dependent on his ideas of home and sense of place. He explicitly makes this connection twice in the play. First, after Iago’s mocking intellectual somersaults on the quayside, Desdemona asks Cassio his opinion. Here the reply is, “He speaks home, madam, you may relish him more in the soldier than in the scholar” (2.1.165). The term here is borrowed from marksmanship, where home is the target, just as one may also say that a person’s aim is true. To speak home then is to speak directly or honestly, to tell home truths. He makes the link between home and honesty again after he has lost his place and is seeking to reclaim it with Iago’s help. Here, the Florentine Cassio says, with an irony not lost on a reader of Machiavelli, that he “never knew / A Florentine more kind and honest” ( Further, that aspect of Cassio that is most obviously essential to his sense of himself, his reputation, can be restored to him by reclaiming his “place” as Othello’s lieutenant.

  23. Presented this way, Cassio’s despair and loss of humanity is not the result of his failure to live up to notions of appropriate behaviour, but the loss of his place. Cassio cares deeply about what other people think and to that extent is deeply contingent. Yet significantly, while reputation and Cassio’s immortal part is something grounded in the opinion of others, it is also, as Iago points out, a story that one might tell oneself (2.3.262-72). Further, it is vitally important that he belong in particular ways. In order to regain his place, despite his initial protestations that he would “rather be despised” than appeal Othello’s decision and “deceive so good a commander with so slight, so drunken, so indiscreet an officer” (2.3.273-75) - deceive, in other words, by seeming to be something he is not – Cassio’s scruples quickly go by the board and he attempts to get his job back not openly but through his boss’s wife. Cassio, in short, will do almost anything to get back the place to which he belongs, and also confirms the observation made earlier that honesty depends on belonging, because as soon as he no longer belongs, Cassio becomes dishonest. The point that needs underscoring here is that for both Othello and Cassio home is that which enables honesty, but also that home is itself a story, a “round unvarnish’d tale” or a “false imposition” (2.3.265). What is at stake in these stories is sense of self and the ability to speak that self, with the result that Cassio loses the distinction between himself as human and himself as bestial.

  24. Yet, despite being aware of the contingency of identity on stories and the absence of its essential truth, Iago still envies Cassio’s beauty. Cassio, who has “a person and smooth dispose / to be suspected” is “framed to make women false” (1.3.396-97). Cassio, in other words, fits; but not only Iago’s own production of fictions, but the fictions of his society. In so doing, Cassio, unconsciously effaces fictionality, and has an ease, complacency, dare one say, a stupidity, that makes him the “lord and owner of his face”. That is, Cassio seems to have overcome any sense of fictionality by becoming the face of his society and culture in a way that Iago and Othello have not. Cassio is coherent with his context and, perhaps more crucially, seems quite at home in that context, giving no sign of any discrepancy between an interior self and external self. I say a stupidity because Iago is too intelligent to see that anyone can be lord and owner of his face; the terms themselves belong to the culture of reputation and virtue, of Turk and Christian, that Iago sees to be fictional, in contrast to Othello and Cassio, who both seek homes and are invested in the idea of home. Here, I suggest that Iago sees the very idea of home, the origin of any essential being, to be a fiction, because he realizes that any home is no more than a collection of stories that gives a person identity. In this sense, Othello’s “round unvarnished tale”, Cassio’s reputation, and what Greenblatt calls the characters’ “submission to narrative self-fashioning” can be understood as attempts to write themselves home; an attempt to mask homelessness and, to use Sinfield’s term, plausibly fit into the social structures in which they find themselves.

  25. Understood this way, Iago turns to being passed over for promotion and the suspicion of Othello’s adultery with Emila, not so much as causes to action, but as ways of framing himself and giving himself a content and credible motivation, for his own benefit as much as anyone else’s. Iago is able to say “I am not what I am” because he sees home to be a consequence of stories. The result is that he knows himself to be fictional and that he will always be housed by stories of his own making. This affects his relations to others, and he is torn between contempt for the sense of home pursued by Cassio and Othello on the one hand, and envy of their coherence with the apparently solid fictions that they inhabit on the other. For this reason, he rejects honesty because he feels himself to have no essential being and knows that the only thing he can honestly speak about are fictions. In this sense, Iago’s “peculiar end” is obscure to critics as it is equally obscure to him; there is nothing inside him that he could betray. It is because of this interior void that I suggest Iago is alien to himself, not least because the empathy that Greenblatt sees in him enables him to see how others are at home or belong in larger stories but never himself. To be such a solitary vacuity would make him monstrous in comparison, and for this reason it must be disproved. This is no less the case in the parodic marriage that takes place between Othello and Iago in which the latter takes the place of both Desdemona and Cassio.[20] At this moment Iago and Othello belong to each other and in doing so may be said to create a home for themselves.[21] But while Iago is in some respects faithful to his “husband” in being the obedient “bride”, he never loses sight of the fictionality of his “home” or his place within it as his role of “bride” and liar, or fictional subject, become conflated and “knowing what I am, I know what she shall be” (4.1.72-3). And it is because of his sense that he must always be a liar and simulate solidity that he cannot say honestly with the clown that “to devise a lodging and say [a man] lies here, or he lies there, were to lie in mine own throat” (3.4.11-13).

  26. The scope of Iago’s interior void may be detected when we consider Iago’s ironic self-identification as a Turk. This occurs in his quayside banter with Desdemona amidst jokes about female deception, and which is a sinister prelude to the later action. Here, if we accept the use of the Turk as a figuration of falsity, then Iago says quite clearly that he is false. It is, therefore, one of the greatest ironies of the play that Iago is never more honest when he suggests his lack of honesty.[22] This irony becomes paradoxical if we follow Eric Griffin and see Iago not only to be Spanish in origin, but more specifically identified with Saint James, the Spanish patron saint and slayer of Moors (Griffin 68). In this case, Iago inhabits both the identity of slayer and slain, and in doing so, enters into the coincidence of self and other that Othello will finally enter into with tragic results. Iago escapes Othello’s immediate fate, I suggest, because as much as he envies the apparent security of home either identity might offer, he is aware that he can only be tied to either by a story that his relentless self-consciousness can unpick. The result is that while he does not succumb to the fatal consequences of a conflicted identity, he will always know himself to be false. Such a paradoxical coincidence can be seen in the shifts of English foreign policy, and it is possible to suggest that the play dramatizes a contemporary awareness of the constructedness of English identity as it shifted from a policy that found affinity with Islam and was hostile to Spain to one which emphasizing peace with an Spain, previously seen as idolatrous. In such a context, it is the English who can promiscuously “turn, and turn, and yet go on”, and the possibility of articulating identity diminishes as shifts in foreign policy make identity increasingly uncertain and contradictory.

  27. In his paradoxical truth-telling, Iago is reminiscent of the humanist fools and clowns of Shakespeare’s plays. He is distinct from these figures in his self-hatred. This self-hatred, I have suggested, is, despite his perception that home is fictional, rooted in his envy of the “smooth dispose” that Cassio’s witless belief in fictions allows. This implies a doubt in Iago, which may also be seen as arrogance, that it is he alone who finds a disparity between “complement extern” and the “native act and figure of [his] heart”. It is in part because of this clown-like mode of truth telling that I disagree with Vitkus that Iago is a satanic figure, while also agreeing with him that the play is rooted in the morality plays of the medieval period. Iago’s foolish truth-telling humanizes those aspects of his character that draw on Vice. The point I wish to recall here is that made by Walter Kaiser, that “if, as Aristotle said, laughter is the exclusive property of man, the fool is the most human of us all” (11). Although Iago does not laugh much in the play, he is capable of great irony and it is because of his ability to see through social conventions that he is able to be actor, director and audience to events. It is because he wants to believe in the fiction of homes, the fiction that gives Cassio his “daily beauty” or that Othello pursues, and that gives them the external appearance of internal coherence, but cannot, that he attempts to destroy them. 

Works Cited


[1].  I am grateful to Paul Hammond, David Lindley, and the other members of the Renaissance Research Group at the University of Leeds for their helpful comments on an earlier version of this article..

[2].  It is not clear which arguments Greenblatt is thinking of here; however, he may be thinking about the debates around Iago’s alleged homosexuality. Honigmann discusses this idea and its history (50-52).

[3].  Honigmann cites S.T. Coleridge, Lectures 1809-1819 On Literature. Ed. R. A. Foakes. 2 vols. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1987) 2: 315.

[4].  Honigmann’s gloss to “supervisor” cites OED 2 to suggest the theatrical sense of this term as “one who directs the work of others”.

[5] Vitkus refers his reader to the exploration of this pattern by Bernard Spivack. Shakespeare and the Allegory of Evil. New York: Columbia University Press, 1958.

[6]. Rosenberg cites Karen Horney, Neurosis and Human Growth. New York: Norton, 1950. 197-213.

[7].Rosenberg’s interpolation.

[8].  This uncertainty is expressed twice to Othello, firstly by Brabantio (1.3.293-94), and, secondly, by Iago (3.3.209-11). It is the transition of women from the paternal to the marital household that Sinfield discusses as a “faultline” in patriarchal ideology (Sinfield 42-7).

[9].  Daniel Viktus seems to suggest he is a convert who might “revert” (90). Matar and Stokel disagree with this reading and that of Ania Loomba for a variety of reasons to argue that Shakespeare left the religion of his Moors unclear and that “as far as Shakespeare was concerned, the threat Othello posed lay not in religion but in the coal-black colour of his skin” (246-49). Honigmann asks if the answer might lie in the direction of “a more primitive worship of the sun and moon and elemental forces of Nature, overlaid by later Christian imagery and attitudes?” (22-3).

[10]. Andrew Hadfield suggests that “it might be worth exploring the possibility that it is Iago as much as Othello who is stereotyped as the ‘other’”. (“Race in Othello: the History and Description of Africa and the Black Legend,” Notes & Queries 45 (1998): 336-38.) Iago’s Spanish origins are also discussed by Barbara Everett (“‘Spanish’ Othello: the making of Shakespeare’s Moor”. Shakespeare and Race. Ed. by Catherine M. S. Alexander and Stanley Wells. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2000. 64-81.) Her article, though not available while this essay was being written, was influential in its genesis, particularly her comments on displacement.

[11].  For a tracing of the conflation of the Turks with Christian religious adversaries through the Reformation see Dimmock. New Turkes: dramatizing Islam and the Ottomans in Early Modern England. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2005.

[12].  The adages were first translated in 1569 and were widely used as a school textbook. For this and more on Shakespeare’s reading see Stuart Gillespie. “Shakespeare’s Reading of Modern European Literature”. Shakespeare and Renaissance Europe. Ed. by Andrew Hadfield and Paul Hammond. London: The Arden Shakespeare, 2004, 2005. 98-122.

 [13].  Matar and Stoekel point to the anxiety of those called upon to fight in such a joint military venture (225). For further discussion of Anglo-Islamic relations in the specific context of Shakespeare’s representation of the non-European Mediterranean see Matar and Stoekel. See also Matar, Islam in Britain and Turks, Moors and Englishmen in the Age of Discovery (New York, 1999).

[14]. Vitkus cites Richard Knolles. The Generall History of the Turkes. London, 1603. 1.

[15].  For Dimmock’s full account of these foreign policy shifts see pp. 199-203.

[16].  Richard Hakluyt, The Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffiques & Discoveries of he English Nation, 8 vols. Glasgow: Maclehose, 1904. 5: 169-202.


18 … [should Muslims capture and sell a slave] if the partie shalbe found to be English, and shall receive the holy religion [Islam], then let him be freely discharged, but if he will still remaine a Christian, let him then be restored to the Englishmen.

(The interpretation of letters in Hakluyt’s The Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffiques & Discoveries of he English Nation, 8 vols. Glasgow: Maclehose, 1904. 5: 188. Cited by Matar 21.)

[18]Matar cites Thomas Shirley, Discours of the Turkes by Sr. Thomas Sherley. Ed. E. Denison Ross (London: [unknown publisher], 1936. 15.

[19].  Daniel Vitkus has pointed to the identification of England with Cyprus as islands saved from religious enemies by providential storms. (96) He also sees a parallel between England and Venice, both anxious to sustain good trading relations with the Ottomans (93). His remarks following this parallel, that Venice, the “virgin bride of the Mediterranean needed the protection of virile foreigners”, might then be read in the context of the negotiations between Elizabeth and the Moroccans indicated by Matar and Stoekel.

[20].  Nick Ray of the Renaissance Research Group at the University of Leeds pointed out a lieutenant obviously stands in the place of others.

[21].  I am grateful to Paul Hammond for drawing this to my attention.

[22].  The same irony is played on with Iago’s protestations to Othello over the perils of honesty for “honesty’s a fool / That loses what it works for” (3.3.385-86).

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at M.Steggle@shu.ac.uk.

© 2009-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).