FALSTAFF and Iago are indeed Shakespeare's two great studies in materialism. Mentally and morally, they are counterparts. That they affect us so differently is due to the difference between the comic and tragic environment. Still more it is due to difference in age. Falstaff, with his load of years and flesh, is a static force. Taking his ease at his inn, he uses his caustic materialistic creed and his mastery of moral paradox but as a shield to turn aside the attacks of a more spiritual society. Iago has looked upon the world for only four times seven years. His philosophy is dynamic. It drives him to assume the offensive, to take up arms against what he thinks the stupidity of a too little self-loving world. The flame, which in Falstaff only warms and brightens, sears in Iago; but it is much the same kind of flame and it attracts the same kind of moths. One may even imagine with a mischievous glee the warping and charring of green wit which would have resulted if Prince Hal and Poins had fluttered about Falstaff when he too was twenty-eight and "not an eagle's talon in the waist."
Iago is no more a born devil than Falstaff. He too might have gone merrily on drinking and singing, consuming the substance of two generations of Roderigos, till he too waxed fat and inert and unequivocally comic. His diabolism is an accident, thrust upon him early in the play, when in seeking to convince Roderigo of his hate for Othello he convinces himself likewise, and suddenly finds himself over head and ears in the depths of his own egoism, vaguely conscious that he is being used for the devil's purposes but incapable either of shaping the direction or checking the progress of his drift. There is, indeed, something suggestive of demoniacal possession in the way Iago yields during the first two acts to influences which he recognizes as diabolical but cannot at all understand. He whispers:
- I have't. It is engender'd. Hell and Night
- Must bring this monstrous birth to the world's light;
- . . . 'Tis here, but yet confus'd:
- Knavery's plain face is never seen till us'd.
What he should say is not "I have't," but "It has me." Shakespeare is peculiarly careful to exclude the possibility of anything like cold calculation or preconception of purpose.
Iago's ruin results from two by-products of his Falstaffian materialism. In the first place, the materialistic theory of life corrodes the imagination. In Iago's case, as in Falstaff's, it cuts its victim off from his future and ultimately severs his bond of sympathy with his fellows. It leaves him only the sorry garden patch of present personal sensation. There, indeed, the will can fitfully play the gardener, as Iago boasts, "plant nettles, or sow lettuce, set hyssup and weed up thyme, supply it with one gender of herbs, or distract it with many"; but it cannot range with large discourse or labor serenely toward a future harvest.
A natural corollary is that the materialist makes large and ever larger demands upon the present. Like the clown in Marlowe's Faustus, when he buys his shoulder of mutton so dear, he "had need have it well roasted and good sauce to it." Ennui grows constantly more unendurable and more unavoidable. Falstaff's life is a series of desperate escapes from boredom; it is for this that he joins the Gadshill party, that he volunteers for the wars. It is for this that he so carefully husbands Shallow: "I will devise matter enough out of this Shallow to keep Prince Harry in continual laughter the wearing out of six fashions." And Falstaff thinks with rueful envy of the capacity of romantic youth for sensation: "O, it is much that a lie with a slight oath and a jest with a sad brow will do with a fellow that never had the ache in his shoulders!"
It is for this that Iago so carefully secures Roderigo and his well-filled purse to spice his life in Cyprus. To avoid tedium is the great purpose of his existence, and truly his efforts are heroic. The brawl scene, with all its sinister potentialities, is for him a triumphant campaign against the blues. When at the close of the second act he looks up into the coming dawn and review the doings of the night, he is simply grateful for the anodyne he has ministered to himself. "By the mass," he exclaims, "'tis morning. Pleasure and action make the hours seem short." Be the future what it may, five hours have been saved from dullness!
Of course, Iago clings to a plot which offers such relief. Or course, his narcotized sensibilities prevent him from understanding the exquisite poignancy of others' feelings. Jealousy, we gather, is for him a welcome, though nearly exhausted, source of distraction, offering him the alleviation a man with a toothache may get when he bites his finger. How should he know Othello? And so he allows his dread of inactivity, his incorrigible craving for sensation, to drive him on through the temptation scene and all its, to him, fantastic consequences. His plot succeeds so well because he really has no plot. He dances from one mischievous suggestion to another with the agility and unsearchable purposefulness of a sleepwalker.
For Shakespeare, and the Elizabethans, less touchy than we about the particular ideals he shatters, I think Iago was distinctly attractive. Never, probably, was he more delightful to his companions that while his wild scheme spins through his irresponsible brain. Never, doubtless, did he more impress them with his "honesty," his lively, capable, warmhearted geniality. HIs spirit is fired with "pleasure and action," and he is almost lightheaded. His case is just the converse of Hamlet's. In one play we have the problem of the exhilirated materialist, in the other the problem of the soured idealist...
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