A True Atheism of Iago
Shakespeare is a subtle author when it comes to religion, and throughout Othello Iago never directly addresses his religious beliefs. Yet one passage in particular, that of Iago’s attempt to persuade Roderigo to control his passions, makes the case for Iago’s true atheism. He says:
Virtue! a fig! ’tis in ourselves that we are thus or thus. Our bodies are our gardens, to the which our wills are gardeners: so that if we will plant nettles, or sow lettuce, set hyssop and weed up thyme, supply it with one gender of herbs, or distract it with many, either to have it sterile with idleness, or manured with industry, why, the power and corrigible authority of this lies in our wills. If the balance of our lives had not one scale of reason to poise another of sensuality, the blood and baseness of our natures would conduct us to most preposterous conclusions: but we have reason to cool our raging motions, our carnal stings, our unbitted lusts, whereof I take this that you call love to be a sect or scion.
Rich with Biblical imagery, this passage is more than an attempt at manipulation. It reveals Iago to be a profound disbeliever in God who seeks to elevate himself and his credo of reason to the level of a deity.
The most telling diction in the entire passage is directly biblical, derived in particular from biblical stories and fables regarding nature. Iago early on inaugurates the tendency towards biblical rhetoric with his announcement of “a fig!” The fig leaf was worn by Adam and Eve after their awareness of their descent, and is deeply symbolic of human shame. As early as the Renaissance, sculptors and painters used the fig leaf to discretely cover genitalia and thereby hide the object of indignity. To equate virtue with both shame and a mere leaf is to deride it in the extreme. The Bible often addresses the cardinal virtues, namely faith, hope and love (all the things Iago forsakes). Thus Iago’s denigration of virtue is to equate Christian goodness (and chastity) with shame, and thus to make it without value; for what is the chaste virtue if it is shamed? Iago is the ultimate deconstructionist of myths and ideology, be it the mythology of Othello’s prowess, Desdemona’s fealty, or the sanctity of religious values. By thus denigrating virtue, Iago makes it clear that he cares little for it.
Also, the passage itself purposefully ignores the virtues of heroics. Rather than the heroic iambic pentameter, Iago delivers a speech in coarse prose, in contrast to Othello’s overblown language. For a play consumed with speech, to make it clear that Iago speaks not in the ennobled voice of a virtuous rhetoric is only to further emphasize that he cannot, or will not, aspire to the great virtues of nobility of heroics.
His scorn for virtue cements Iago as the antithesis to good Christian virtues, but hubris is in fact the great connection between Iago and atheistic qualities. For Iago does more than merely denigrate Christian values. He goes a step further, asserting God’s absence and the necessity of man to be his own God, in an extraordinarily brazen act. To declare that “our bodies are our gardens,” in reference to man’s free will, seconds after referring to the “fig” leaf, is to reference the image of the Garden of Eden, a concept that will be borne out by future references in the speech to Biblical plants and rhetoric. The Garden of Eden may have had Adam and Eve, but it also had a maker who tended to it; namely God, who can thus be considered the “gardener” of Eden. For Iago then to declare that there is no great gardener, only the rather egalitarian assertion of the universal “we” that all men are gardeners, all men tend to their own gardens and are responsible for their own fall is an assertion of startling, sacrilegious hubris in forsaking the role of God in determination. Iago notes that “we have reason to cool our raging motions,” and that is what separates us from the animals. Yet there is nothing, by his judgment, to separate man from the potential of godlike power, and utter free will. Like Milton’s Satan, Iago sees himself as deserving of as much power as God could ever possess.
If then, Iago asserts God’s absence in the face of human willpower, the series of Biblical allusions following this claim reinforce his atheistic viewpoint, as they show him to be devoid of sympathy or reverence towards traditional Christian virtues. Iago suggests a vast array of moral options in life, but, significantly, he places the traditionally malicious references first, only briefly mentioning the “thyme” with its positive association. Firstly, he addresses the choice to “plant nettles,” referenced in Isaiah 34:13, Job 30:7, Hosea 9:6 and others as a destroying plant that occupies a barren land, even by overtaking one that was once fertile. The “hyssop” mentioned was the branch that bore a vinegar-stained sponge and was offered to Christ on the cross, and in the Elizabethan era was viewed as “the last ‘torture’ of the living Jesus, an unnecessary and particularly repulsive humiliation of the dying man.” This is contrasted with the reference to “thyme,” an adornment of Christ’s childhood manger. The moral choice between these options of sterility, cruelty, and kindness means nothing to Iago, he can vault between negative Biblical associations (“hyssop” and “nettles”) and positive ones (“thyme”) with ease. He makes it clear that he cares little for the consequences of his actions; he claims that either “manured with industry” or “sterile with idleness,” it will be his choice. To use this diction is to reference fertility, and thus to say that to Iago the choice between fertility (and reproduction) or sterility (and death without offspring) is irrelevant. Indeed, in the entire play, despite the surprising amount of real, false, and implied sexual activity, the entire cast remains infertile and dies with a barren line. There is no observation of consequences, no concern for the legacy of the line and name, and seeming ignorance of any Biblical command to propagate.
Iago is the early atheist, for not only does he subtly hint towards his blasphemous views on religion (with his talk of only each man being his own gardener, rather than a godly presence) but his pointed absence of direct reference to God only cements Iago’s view of God’s absence. It is striking that a passage so full of Biblical allusion and rhetoric should fail to mention God, and in fact that failure makes Iago’s feelings about God’s absence all the more noticeable. To discuss absence is inherently difficult as it cannot truly be pinpointed, but to refer to “power and corrigible authority” and yet to declare that same authority to belong only to mankind is to complete eschew all concepts of a powerful God, a commanding God, and to elevate man to the level of God himself. Iago then elevates himself above all men, by declaring that one of the most basic human emotions, love, is something disdainful. The book of John, 4:8 says pointedly that “Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” For Iago to so disdain love is to distain God. His choice of words, “this that you call love,” with its extended and removed phrasing (he purposefully chooses not to directly say “love”) only further demonstrates that Iago considers himself above all other men: only he has the capacity to substitute reason for love and view love as an alien construct. Iago uses the garden image to emphasize man’s godlike power, but the reference of love to emphasize his own power over all other men. His use of “sect of scion” only further shows his lack of respect and belief in God, by equating a high Christian virtue with a heretical offshoot, especially considering the political climate of heresy and Protestant-Catholic tension at the time of Shakespeare’s writing.
Ultimately the character of Iago is strikingly difficult to understand. His motives are shifting, his values unclear, but in the above passage his relationship towards God is laid out. The play seems unwilling or unable to handle his scorn for God; Iago never directly states his disbelief but couches his words in Biblical, disdainful rhetoric. He is forced to play with suggestion, for how could such startling contempt for God be confronted in a play written at a time of religious battles? Iago acts without regard to moral and eternal consequence, most likely because he believes God to be completely absent.
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