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Honest Iago

Author(s): Julian Willis Abernethy


Source: The Sewanee Review, Vol. 30, No. 3 (Jul., 1922), pp. 336-344
Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/27533566 .
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HONESTIAGO"
or aesthetically
that I am abnormally
sensitive
or
I
the
read
whenever
hear
perverse,
yet
play of Othello my
soul it tormented
iteration of the word *'honest".
by the endless
I do not believe

The

recurrence

monotonous

of

"honest

lago"

arouses

my

sense

even belligerent
to an emphatic,
resentment.
propriety
The irritating phrase distracts
from the main
attention
issues of
the plot with which
the mind should be absorbed,
jars upon the
of artistic

like a discord

nerves
matic

the rules of dra


in music,
transgresses
and detracts from the dignity of tragic drama.
use of the word
and peculiar
looks like an

consistency,
an excessive

Such
obvious

device

to

it

indicates

Certainly
was
What
a means
matic,
dience.

this

tickle

the

deliberate

Did

purpose?

of emphasizing
Iago's
as well as uncomplimentary
Did

of the play
knocking

he

regard

of

the

groundlings.

and

specific purpose.
as
regard it merely
Shakespeare
would
?
This
be
undra
duplicity

to the intelligence
of the au
structural element
it as a fundamental

has haunted me somewhat


problem
at the gate
haunted De Quincey,
inMacbeth
? The

investigation.
challenges
In its two forms of adjective
occurs

word

intellects

some

cur as many

times.

fifty-one
as twenty-eight

as the
and it

and noun, honest and honesty, the


In only one other play does it oc
such as
times, and similar words

never occur more


than fifteen
times
in a
violent, just,
in
to
times
It
is
used
reference
single play.
lago,
twenty-six
ten times by lago himself,
thirteen
times by Othello,
twice by
In all of these applications
and once by Desdemona.
it
Cassio,
brave,

that lago
and often summarizes,
expresses,
just those qualities
a strain of irony running
It thus constitutes
does not possess.
the play.
with an
lago uses the word of himself
throughout
smile or diabolical
grin, or, when the occasion requires,
a
manner
brazen-faced
lie.
Othello's
with the sangfroid of
of
a
indicates
the
confidence,
deep-seated
epithet
expressed
using
of a child.
and guilessness
the symplicity
with
The
irony in
acidulous

his

case

is of the unconscious

kind,

recognized

only

spectator.

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by

the

"Honest

337

Lago"

are em
of the play two leading motives
and
Othello's
and
these
ployed,?Iago's
credulity,
mendacity
are inseparably
a
motives
stream
of
connected,
single
forming
from
which
flow
all
the
and
all
action
the
of
influeuce,
passion
In

the

construction

the plot.
is not a constructive
Othello's
for it
motive,
jealousy
is the product of the action controlled
it
by lago.
Incidentally
should be noted that although Othello maybe
the "tragic
hero",
the real hero of the play is lago.
He
is the centre of interest,
of the machine.
is the only character who
the mainspring
He
exercises
creative power and initiates movement
in the plot; all
are his puppets,
servants of his purposes,
other characters
tools
in
construc
his
two
used
diabolical
schemes.
Of the
fabricating
tive motives

the word

it signifies
lago
used by Othello

his

"honest"
own

is the keynote:
when
used by
when
and love of deviltry;
his own simplicity
for
and capacity

falseness

it signifies
continuous

of the note seems to


being
sounding
serve as a perpetual
to the auditor, as if he might sleep
reminder
is
what
the
about.
It is in this unusual method
ily forget
play
a keynote
and its dominant
motive
that Othello
of employing
fooled.

differs

widely

The

in

its construction

from

the

other

great

trag

edies.

of dramatic construction,
about which
principle
is
is no essential
the
for growth
disagreement,
necessity
in and through action.
The per
of character
and development
must
of events,
the succession
sonages of the plot
expand with
A

fundamental

there

unfold
est

as by a law of inherent necessity.


Our inter
as Macbeth,
and
Hamlet,
Lady Macbeth,
an
of
soul
is a profound
eager anticipation
curiosity,

themselves

in such characters

Brutus

is satisfied at each step


in the progress
of
which
revelations,
and discover
the plot by new spiritual
surprises,
developments,
In Othello
there is not, and cannot be, any such profound
ies.
interest.
mains
creative

From
stationary;

re
scene of the play Iago's character
in
is development
the
His
action.
only
new devices
in constructing
works busily
of

the first
there

machinery
but the
wickedness,
"motiveless
malignity"
tent

in its operation.
Schelling
says, "the
22

of his soul never change;


his
dynamics
is a fixed, static force, uniform and consis
as Professor
From first to last he is merely,
avows his
shameless
egoist who proudly

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The

338

Sewanee

Review

it to the gallery".
This
generalization,
contact
closer
with the text.
be
however,
justified by
At the very opening of the play the word "honest"
is first used,
a dramatic keynote,
a hint as
and fittingly by lago, constituting
and

villainy

bawls

must

that we should expect


to see developed
a
as
But
it is immediately
abandoned,
keynote
takes pains to characterize
and classify himself.

to his character
action.
at once

in the
for lago
With

he describes
servants
the class of honest
contempt
he does not belong:
knaves
who
dote
"knee-crooking"
to their masters.
bondage"
"obsequious
"Whip me

sneering
to which
on their

such honest

he says, and then proceeds


to describe
knaves",
to which he himself does belong, men who?

class

".
Do

on their lords,
of service
but shows
throwing
thrive by them, and when
lin'd their
they have
: these
fellows
themselves
have some soul,
homage

And

a one

such

".

do

myself",

the cogent

I am not what

is a cold-blooded

Here

I profess

with

the speech

closing

coats

well

Do

the

epitome

of himself,?

I am."

avowal

of all

the qualities
of which his
not wait
to be explained
by
His deeds
explains himself.

He
does
soul is composed.
the action, but fully and accurately
to him
the character
he attributes
after this in no way modify
The
illustrate
it.
instead
self; they merely
passage,
therefore,
we
as
a
are
hint of what
to look for in
of serving
premonitory
black

serves to intro
the subsequent
of Iago's character,
development
now
that character
We
completey
developed.
already
he is just a stage villain,
know all about the man; henceforth
as Hazlitt
saw
he has given himself,
living up to the character

duce

Turn

now

to Othello.

".

A man

.
he

So

gay,

In the

in introducing

"honest",

"a

light-hearted

monster,

first uses

the

villain".

comfortable

cordial,

careless,

word

of Kean,

in the acting

him,

lago

third

scene

he

to the Duke:?

my
your grace,
please
is of honesty
and trust."

ancient;

is the first announcement


compliment
singularly malapropos
serve as the
should
and
in
blind
faith
of Othello's
lago,
keynote
an
and psychological
moral
of his credulity,
hint.
interesting

This

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"Honest
But

the

end

tragic

lago
complete
knowledge
left in doubt but the physical
in accomplishing
his purpose.

our

already

is
nothing
preempts
speculation;
instruments
that he will employ
in these opening words
Hence

us

plainly and simply that he is fooled, and every


he tells us the same
afterwards
the word "honest"

tells

Othello

in our minds;

is foreordained
of

339

Lago"

time he uses

is concentrated
in the plot, not
this point interest
was
of the plot.
That crabbed critic, Thomas Rymer,
than half right:?
From

thing.
motives
more

now
"lago
a nauseous

can

only

acturn

agere,

and

vex

the

with

audience

repetition."

the clever
of lago as we watch
knavery
is
tricks of a conjurer.
His mechanical
stimulating,
deviltry
but it arouses no deep emotions
either against his own
exciting,
or in favor of his victim's
this
hideousness
innocence.
Indeed,

We

watch

the

clever

the absence
of .quick interplay of intense
feeling,
actor
is perhaps
the most strik
between
and
auditor,
sympathy
of
with
fact
one's
Othello.
ing
experience
to a drama of
The play now drops from a drama of character
of

placidity

intrigue.

Says

Professor

Bradley:?

"The
fact that Shakespeare
does not show that the plan,

can make
abstractly

a play succeed,
is a
considered,

good plan."
of this fact, in relation
of danger to the dignity

His

suspicion
consciousness
to warn

us

"we

that?

must

not call the play


from a tragedy

tinguished

character

Iago's

This

is evasive

presents
no more

as well as his
to Othello,
of the tragedy, leads him

a tragedy of
of character.

as dis

intrigue
Iago's

is

plot

in action."

differentiation.

character

in evolution.

than one

of Ben

of the
Tragedy
A "character

highest
type
is
in action"

'humors', and of such stuff


the third scene, there is lit
great tragedy is not made.
in the two leading motives
tle or no development
; but the key
note

of

both

indefinitely,

motives,

the

like the clapper

Jonson's
After

word

"honest",

of a bell,

What

goes

on

sounding

little dramatic

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sig

The

340

Sewanee

Review

it
is lost by repetition;
it had
in the beginning
ex
it
no curiosity
to
the
it
;
; suggests nothing
imagination
at the outset.
It
that was not fully explained
plains nothing
a mere
or
two
charac
to
the
affixed
becomes
label,
tag
leading
nificance
arouses

Every time lago appears, he wears this tag, which plainly


and every time Othello
'I am a villainous
reads:
hypocrite';
'I am Iago's
the same
appears he wears
tag, and it reads:
a scroll issuing
from the
fool';
just as in the old copper-plates
ters.

mouth
This
figure

his name and character.


of an important figure announces
is the method
of modern
each important
caricature;
in the cartoon
bears a label, lest the identy of the per

and the force of the satire be lost. As an


sonage be mistaken,
of humor, ridicule
is highly
instrument
and satire, this device
so
two
must
But
far as it
effective.
be noted:
things about it
to give
it appeals
is intended
information,
only to children
so far as it is used to empha
the dull-witted
populace;
size personal qualities,
it always
lowers the dignity
of its sub
it
the established
of the comedy of cari
being
province
ject,

and

to trail nobility
in the dust.
Such a tag, or conspicuous
cannot
to
intended
be
and keep
convey information
sign-board
as
to
of the hearer
the mind
for this
the
characters,
straight

cature

would

be a gross

to the intelligent
Is it not pos
hearer.
was aiming at certain effects
that Shakespeare
affront

sible, therefore,
that lie more properly within
the domain
for the
thereto by a thrifty consideration
a dramatic

office?

Such

exactly

the kind

contrivance

of

as

popular
an open mind,
free from .prepossessions
is
obvious
it
that there
enough
assumption,

of tradition

possibilities;

it

is almost

and

husband,

to spring, but it is the stock material


in the eighteenth
century the common,
the character
comic motive.
of
Again,

tragedy
profound
and
became
edy,
comic

is

are many strong


the chief element

For instance,
in this play.
comedy elements
and jealous
of the plot, the idea of the hoodwinked
a
out
not
motive
of which we should
is
highly heroic

filled with

is
of

interest.

To

constant

the box

the tag "honest"


of simple satirical
that
the gods
joke
pleases
and a cleverly labelled and satirized character

pit and gallery;


sure to attract wide

the

induced

comedy,
of
receipts

entirely

expect a
of com
almost
lago

humorous,

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is

"Honest

341

Lago"

of the grim, sardonic variety, and commands


being
for comic action.
situations
Indeed, lago is the full
many excellent
of the old Vice,
the refined and fully developed
consummation
in Gammer
the Bedlam,
of the type of Diccon
mischief-maker
the humor

Gurtor?s

Needle.

One

imagine an actor in this part


the audi
of by-play with
intimacy

can easily

a confidential

establishing
ence through

sly asides

of gesture
and

Mephistophelian
grins
nose, eyes rolled to heaven
and other similar
tricks of

leers,
after
the

with
expression,
at
in
cheek,
tongue
fingers
a specially
choice falsehood,
and

facial

comedian.

Indeed,

so much

is

in believing
element, we are fairly justified
of lago was at first, and perhaps frequently,
as a comic character.
it must be admitted
presented
Certainly
that there is a strong inherent possibility
of such a conception.
This
somewhat
adventurous
is not entirely with
suggestion
there of this comic

that the

character

a "curious
mentions
Halliwell-Phillipps
the effect that the part of lago was "originally
and
that Shakespeare
undertaken
comedian",
by a popular
some of the speeches
to the peculiar
talents of the
"adapted
one
source
actor".
In Gildon's
of the
possible
Reflections,
out

historic

warrant.

to

tradition"

it is stated

tradition,

that?

into his
put several words and expressions
"Shakespeare
to his character,
to make
the
part, perhaps not so agreeable
audience
laugh."
but more

Incidental
famous

positive

evidence

is contained

in Rymer's

critique:?

some
is in this play some burlesque,
"There
ramble of comical wit, some show and mimicry
the

humor and
to divert

spectators."

to the part of lago, and seems to indicate


at about 1693,
the
of the part prevailing
pretty clearly
conception
founded quite likely on already established
But with
tradition.
out giving
undue weight
to this evidence,
and considering
of the play itself, we are reasonably
only the peculiar
qualities

This

must

refer

a position
to give
to Othello
somewhere
between
a
name
we
and
for
which
pure
might have
lofty tragedy
comedy,
to seek, perhaps,
in Polonius's
fantastic
catalogue.
constrained

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The

342

Review

Sewanee

of the dignity
and rank of this play is
disparagement
a
test
with regard to the com
the
of
rigid
application
justified by
mon laws of nature and human experience.
By almost universal
or
avowed
there
is
implicit,
something
inherently
judgment,
Such

in the

irreconcilable

sharply provocative
common
humanity;
even the enigmatical

features

of resentment
and,

in

Hamlet,
in the attempt
expended
it into the realm of probable

been

"The

of Othello,
something
and protest on the part of our
the case of no other
play, not

dominant

has

such energetic
critical effort
the action and bring
or possible
human
experience.

to rationalize

subtlest

and strangest work of Shakespeare",


says Swin
one is inclined, while admitting
In spite of this assurance,
to harbor a lurking distrust of the subtlety.
the strangeness,
It is

burne.

to be true to nature.
transcendent
merit
Is this
Shakespeare's
or
a
nature
the
truth
of
is
it
expressed,
emphatically
cleverly
play
libel on nature,
and thus a conspicuous
contrived
exception
the side of its moral
the play
content,
among his plays ? On
baffles

analysis,

fact that there

assails

the

reason,

common-sense.

flouts

is no rational

of Iago's

The

diablerie

and
explanation
warrant
is
fair
for
Such
both.
disbelieving
credulity
as wre know
transcend
human
characters
it; they
experience,
are essentially
vast repudiations
rather than exempli
monsters,

Othello's

of human

exhibits
of perverted
the
of malig
nature,
insanity
monstrous
Marvellous
creations
but
creations,
they are,
nity.
of a high order that produce
and
Frankensteins
shuddering
fications

of the

nature;
of
insanity

pathological
jealousy and

horror.

is unquestionably
the least
the four great tragedies Othello
as
those demands
and expectations
which
regards
satisfactory
nor
to awaken.
It neither
elevates
great tragedy is supposed
Of

in accordance with Aristotle's


It leaves the
consoles,
requirement.
sense of human degradation;
the quick
mind with a sickening
are
to
the
idealism
of
absent;
atmosphere
ening impulses
lofty
an
that Prince
the play is heavy with
atmosphere
impurities,
Hamlet

could not possibly


".
to seed
grows
it merely."
Possess

That

have breathed,?
.

; things

. an unweeded
rank and gross

garden,
in nature

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"Honest

343

lago"

can live here.


sweet and wholesome
Every character
falls a vic
is tainted, and even the innocent Desdemona
to breathe.
in
air she is compelled
tim to the poisonous
Our
as
we
terest in such characters
is at most
intellectual
;
try
only
it is the action, not the pas
may to be generously
sympathetic,
Nothing
but one

sion, that holds our interest.


The
culmination
of the

no equipoise
of
tragedy produces
no
to
of
cosmic
recognition
feeling,
resignation
justice,
a Providence
but
it
in
toward
ways
good;
working
mysterious
a
universe
that the
produces rebellion, disgust,
flaming conviction
no calm

itself should

be moved

of Lear

clusion

to avenge Desdemona's
The con
death.
the
conclusion
but not
intolerable;

is terrible,

The grand tragic movement


is unmitigatedly
horrible.
is controlled
of Lear, Hamlet,
and Macbeth
by a deep current of
fa
like the underlying
fate imposed by the Infinite,
necessity,
more
more
true
to
and
talism of Greek
profound
tragedy, only
of Othello

human

In these plays the tragic end is justi


is conciliated
and rests satisfied;
In Othello
for the end has been demonstrated.

life and destiny.


of the

the mind

fied;
the necessity
there is no
is full

such

conviction

reconciled
of

hearer

no such
and therefore
conclusion,
necessary
The progress of the action
is experienced.

irreconcilable

contradictions

of

the natural

the logic that


experience;
the logic of demons.
It would be fatuous to question

leads to Desdemona's

work

with

human

of dramatic

art, considered

the greatness

law of
death

of Othello

is

as a

regard to its technique.


some of the finer poetic

If it is less abundantly
supplied with
in the other tragedies?golden
that greet us so familiarly
aspects
riches of thought, aspiring
soul revelations,
idealism, profound
of expression,
delicacies
winsome
astonishing
impulses of imagi
to
be
because
intended
nation?it
may
Shakespeare
primarily
the play, what it veritably
Inter
is, a perfect acting play.
a
hoc
like
has
been
criticism,
Providence,
post
pretative
imper
in providing
with lofty intentions.
Shakespeare
tinently prolific

make

We

moralize

opher,
thrifty
vantage.

rapt with
dramatist
We

too confidently,
exalt the poet and philos
at man's
weak mortality,
above the
gazing
of
watchful
for
economic
coigns
diligently

his mind

are apt to lose sight

of the man

of business

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behind

The

344

Sewanee

Review

Stopford Brooke would have


psychologist".
was struggling
that while writing
Othello Shakespeare
his spirit of the blackcholer
which possessed
it", per

the "subtle-souled
us believe

to "purge
suaded to this purgation
by realizing "how dark, grim
the
is
cruel
On
the contrary,
plicable
irony of life".

and inex
when

he

was

his quill to begin Othello,


it is more rational to
sharpening
assume
that his soul, instead of being dark with
tempest, was
of
in a state of warm self-complacency,
induced by the discovery
material
in old Cinthio's
suited to the mak
novel so admirably
stage success.
ing of a sensational
"From all the tragedies on our English
stage", wrote Rymer
in 1693, "Othello
is said to bear the bell away." This was testi
to the popularity
of the play from an unwilling
witness,
mony
and for more

than two hundred

has continued with


away as a popular

years Othello
to bear the bell

a fair degree

of uniformity
as an acting play
Its transcendent
merits
stage presentation.
are indisputable;
its concentrated,
swift
its con
action,
direct,
common
of
chain
its
tinuous
and easily com
events,
exciting

are elements
passion,
prehended
William
Winter:?
Says

that

insure

popular

success.

as a dramatic
"Viewed
fabric, that is to say,
exclusively
with reference to the element of action, and that only, Othello
is not only the best of Shakespeare's
plays, but the best
language."
play in the English
are dramaturgic,
its supreme
excellences
words,
than profoundly
its
feature is a mas
poetic;
triumphant
is
its appeal
It
intellectual.
scenic, objective,
terly technique;
is not a play that "reaches
through the mind to pluck the heart".
In

other

rather

With

and Lear,
Macbeth, Hamlet
Othello cannot claim fellowship.

by reason

Julian
Burlington,

Willis

of these

limitations,

Abernethy.

Vermont.

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