Page 1 · Page 2 · Page 3 · Page 4

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

Purchase Books about Iago

THIS honesty and innate kindliness of Iago, which all the characters in the play vouch for through practically the whole course of the action, can be no melodramatic villain's mask. A man of deadly coldness and natural selfishness does not thus impress his fellows. Shakespeare's plays, indeed, do present us with figures possessing something of the Mephistophelian coldness of heart predicated of Iago. Cassius in Julius Caesar has suggestions of it; Don John in Much Ado has a great deal more. Now what is the general opinion of these characters? Do we find the lean and hungry Cassius a common favorite? Do we find Don John universally trusted and appealed to as a man of exceeding honesty? Can we imagine Portia carrying her troubles to Cassius, or Hero selecting Don John for confidant, as Desdemona selects Iago?

It is evident, I think, that Shakespeare imagined Iago a man of warm sympathetic qualities, begetting confidence of his acquaintances as instinctively and universally as Don John's coldness begot distrust. Can we find in Shakespeare another character possessed of mental qualities like Iago's and exerting a similar influence upon his companions? There is one such, I think.

The adjective inevitably applied to Iago is "honest"; it is the regular epithet also of Falstaff. The coupling of Falstaff and Iago may seem bizarre, and their relation is indeed a kind of Jekyll-Hyde affair; but that Shakespeare saw a likeness seems capable of proof, and each throws welcome light upon the character of the other. We need not dwell long upon their more social aspects, since exigencies of plot, which multiplied scenes of jovial merrymaking almost to the point of fatty degeneration in the Falstaff plays, reduced to the minimum the treatment of the corresponding side of Iago. Yet it is clear that Iago, like Sir John, has heard the chimes at midnight and been merry twice and once. Only a seasonal habitué of the taverns could talk as he talks in the scene of the arrival at Cyprus and in the brawl scene, or sing as he sings:

And let me the canakin clink, clink;
And let me the canakin clink:
A soldier's a man;
Oh, man's life but a span;
Why, then, let a soldier drink.

In Iago's intellectual attitude we find reminiscences of Falstaff's way of thinking, just as we find reminiscences of Brutus in Hamlet. Falstaff's famous words on honor are virtually paraphrased in Iago's definition of reputation. "O, I have lost my reputation!" cries the disgraced Cassio. "I have lost the immortal part of myself!" "As I am an honest man," answers Iago, "I thought you had received some bodily wound; there is more sense in that than in reputation. Reputation is an idle and most false imposition, oft got without merit and lost without deserving: you have lost no reputation at all, unless you repute yourself a loser."

One of Falstaff's most charming propensities is shared by Iago, and by no other character in Shakespeare. It is the trick of mischievously teasing the complaining victim, drawing him on from irritation to positive anger for sheer pride of intellectual superiority; allowing half-derisive confessions of abuse to accumulate till the victim is ready to strike, and then by a dexterous turn of phrase leaping clear away and leaving the dazed antagonist more firmly in his power than before. A good example is the passage in the second part of Henry IV, where Falstaff is caught slandering Prince Hal and Poins:

FALSTAFF: Didst thou hear me?

PRINCE: Yea, and you knew me, as you did when you ran away by Gadshill: you knew I was at your back, and spoke it on purpose to try my patience.

FALSTAFF: No, no, no; not so; I did not think thou wast within hearing.

PRINCE: I shall drive you then to confess the wilful abuse; and then I know how to handle you.

FALSTAFF: No abuse, Hal, on mine honor; no abuse.

PRINCE: Not to dispraise me, and call me pantler and breadchipper and I know not what?

FALSTAFF: No abuse, Hal.

POINS: No abuse?

FALSTAFF: No abuse, Ned, in the world; honest Ned, none. I disprais'd him before the wicked, that the wicked might not fall in love with him.

Compare Iago, when the long-suffering Roderigo at last turns upon him:

RODERIGO: I do not find that thou deal'st justly with me.

IAGO: What in the contrary?

RODERIGO: Every day thou daff'st me with some device, Iago . . . . I will indeed no longer endure it, nor am I yet persuaded to put up in peace what already I have foolishly suffered.

IAGO: Will you hear me, Roderigo?

RODERIGO: Faith, I have heard too much, and your words and performances are no kin together.

IAGO: You charge me most unjustly.

RODERIGO: With nought but truth . . . .

IAGO: Well; go to, very well.

RODERIGO: Very well; go to! I cannot go to, man; nor 'tis not very well: nay, I think it is scurvy, and begin to find myself fopped in it.

IAGO: Very well.

RODERIGO: I tell you 'tis not very well. I will make myself known to Desdemona: if she will return me my jewels, I will give over my suit and repent my unlawful solicitation; if not, assure yourself I will seek satisfaction of you.

IAGO: You have said now.

RODERIGO: Ay, and said nothing but what I protest intendment of doing.

IAGO: Why, now I see there's mettle in thee, and even from this instant do build on thee a better opinion than ever before.

Page 1 · Page 2 · Page 3 · Page 4

Search eBay! for SHAKESPEARE collectibles


Back to Shakespeare Index

Home · Theatre Links · Script Archive · Bookstore · Email · © 2002