THE ROMANTIC IAGO

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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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SHAKESPEARE is a great believer in the school of experience, and his tragedies commonly teach the lessons of that school. Lear is a notable instance; Iago is another. His crusted materialism fails to stand the test of actual practice to which he puts it. Pitted against the idealism of those whom Iago thinks fools, it is first pierced and then broken. When he makes his speech about reputation in the second act, he is no doubt quite honest; the contrary feeling of Cassio awakes his genuine surprise and irritation. But Cassio's is evidently a real feeling and one that challenges consideration. The next morning he paraphrases the idealistic conception.

Good name in man, and woman, dear my lord,
Is the immediate jewel of their souls.

He employs the sentiment, of course, for his own purposes, and perhaps with inward derision, but the day before, he would hardly have believed it could exist in reasonable men. To express the idea at all throws upoen a window of the soul. Another window is opened when his wife unwittingly presents him with his moral photograph:

I will be hang'd, if some eternal villain,
Some busy and insinuating rogue,
Some cogging, cozening slave, to get some office,
Have not devis'd this slander; I'll be hang'd else.

Suddenly he sees himself in the new spiritual light which things are taking on, and he recoils incredulous:

Fie, there is no such man; it is impossible.

Last scene of all, we hear Iago in his final soliloquy, hedged about by the desperate perils which his own moral obtuseness has drawn upon him. Only by homicide of the wildest sort can he hope to escape, but he reasons, with a weary detachment, of his chances, and he offers as a chief inducement to the reckless game the new motive of shame.

... If Cassio do remain,
He hath a daily beauty in his life
That makes me ugly.

Even the "counter-caster," Cassio, whose one admirable trait is his selfless hero worship of Othello, now seems clothed in a beauty of character which makes the materialist hate himself and drives him to desperate courses. How impossible such an attitude would be to the scournful Iago of the first acts! We have thus a measure of the moral awakening of Iago. His very crimes lead him to a purer sense of the values of life. As elsewhere -- in Lear, Macbeth, Hamlet, Julius Caesar -- the poet's doctrine is that false principles, if left free play, will undo themselves and work their own refutation.

We need a spectroscope for Shakespeare. Our perception of Iago is blurred by the glow of sympathy we feel for Othello and for Desdemona. But in so far as we can eliminate these two luminous figures from our view, we can see the outlines of what I fancy was the poet's original idea, the tragedy of Iago, the tragedy of the honest, charming soldier, who swallowed the devil's bait of self-indulgence, grew blind to ideal beauty, and in his blindness overthrew more than his enemies.

... What is a man,
If his chief good and market of his time
Be but to sleep and feed? A beast, no more.

Iago illustrates Hamlet's words. So, less luridly, does Falstaff, and the parallel may explain the poet's alleged harshness in the rejection of Falstaff by his king. But Falstaff's creator, as he brought Iago to a realization of Cassio's "daily beauty," gave Sir John also at his death a glimpse of the ideal: "A' babbled of green fields."

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