by: Tucker Brooke

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This document was originally published in The Yale Review, Volume VII. Tucker Brooke. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1918.

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OF Shakespeare's characters," writes Professor Bradley, "Falstaff, Hamlet, Iago, and Cleopatra (I name them in the order of their births) are probably the most wonderful. Of these, again, Hamlet and Iago, whose births come nearest together, are perhaps the most subtle. And if Iago had been a person as attractive as Hamlet, as many thousands of pages might have been written about him, containing as much criticism good and bad."

Now heaven forfend that the mountainous cairn of commentary erected over the bones of him who so infelicitously remarked, "The rest is silence," be ever duplicated. But I am constrained to take up the cudgels against this general imputation of the unattractiveness of Iago and vindicate his place in the sun, beneath the beams of that romantic luminary which so irradiates all his great compeers: Honest Jack, the Prince of Denmark, and the Serpent of Old Nile. We are prone to turn our scandalized backs upon Iago and flatter ourselves, as our ancestors have been doing since the days of Samuel Johnson, that the rogue shall never beguile us; and thus we miss the many evidences that Iago was to Shakespeare intensely, even romantically, attractive.

"Evil has nowhere else been portrayed with such mastery as in the character of Iago," Professor Bradley further remarks; and he goes on to declare: "It is only in Goethe's Mephistopheles that a fit companion for Iago can be found. Here there is something of the same deadly coldness, the same gaiety in destruction."

The gaiety in destruction we may admit -- more easily in Shakespeare's character perhaps than in Goethe's; but the deadly Mephistophelian coldness of Iago requires establishment. The difficulty is that what the critics see -- this chilly, almost passionless, egoism -- is so remarkably at variance with what Iago's companions in the play see in him. The qualities they all recognize are blunt honesty, rough imperturbable good nature, extraordinary cordiality and trustworthiness, hiding under the thinnest mask of cynicism, as in real life they so often do.

Shakespeare is at particular pains to emphasize the unanimity and positiveness of this impression. At the beginning of the third act, by way of preliminary to the great "temptation scene," he favors us with a regular symposium on Iago's character. The witnesses are most varied in experience, attitude of mind, and intimacy of acquaintance. Their evidence is overwhelmingly unanimous and consistent. Says Cassio, the foppish Florentine: "I never knew a Florentine more kind and honest." Says Emilia, Iago's plain-spoken wife: "I warrant it [Cassio's misfortune] grieves my husband as if the case were his." Says Desdemona: "O, that's an honest fellow!" Says Othello: "This fellow's of exceeding honesty"; and much more to the same effect.

The words are fully born out in action. In their trust of Iago all Iago's acquaintances are united. Roderigo lets him have his purse as if the strings were his; Cassio accepts his counsel unhesitatingly; Othello, searching his brain, finds the idea of Iago's insincerity simply unbelievable; Emilia, when finally confronted with irrefragable proof of his duplicity, is thundersmitten, but still incredulous. She turns in deepest indignation to Iago:

Disprove this villain [Othello] if thou be'st a man:
He says thou told'st him that his wife was false:
I know thou did'st not, thou'rt not such a villain:
Speak, for my heart is full.

It is Iago to whom Othello as a matter of course entrusts the safety of his bride on the voyage to Cyprus; it is he from whom Desdemona seeks such amelioration of distress as can be found during her anxiety lest Othello's ship has foundered; and it is Iago -- not Gratiano, her uncle, or Lodovico -- for whom she sends in her very darkest moment. "Prithee, to-night," she bids Emilia,

Lay on my bed my wedding sheets: remember;
And call thy husband hither.

It is Iago of whom she asks her most difficult question, "Am I that name, Iago?" and to whom she turns for assistance:

. . . O good Iago,
What shall I do to win my lord again?
Good friend, go to him.

Does Shakespeare then wish us to understand that this chilly egoist, this monster of "deadly coldness," has impressed a diametrically false conception of his nature upon his entire circle of acquaintance -- upon the observant and unobservant, upon men and women, upon the most intimate and the most casual associates alike? If so, the less Shakespeare he. Since the principle was so forcibly promulgated by Coleridge, it has been accepted as an axiom of criticism that Shakespeare never makes the claptrap device of surprise a main element in his plays. He does not much avail himself of its meretricious interest in the development of his plots; far less does he in the more essential matter of character. Lincoln's adage that you cannot fool all the people all the time is no more fully verified in life than in the plays of Shakespeare.

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