Iago’s Detachment from Humanity and Morals
Iago’s isolation from humanity is ideological and emotional hermitry rather than physical solitariness: he detaches himself from social standards and practices, but continues to weave his diabolical influence as a player in the social scene, creating chaos and tragedy.
His moral isolation is seen early in the play. Iago repudiates Aristotelian virtue and Christian doctrines, adopting a utilitarian standard instead. He tells Roderigo, “Heaven is my judge, not I for love and duty,/ But seeming so for my peculiar end.” Love and duty, the touchstones of morality, are here reduced to mere facades for a self-serving utilitarian end. Cynicism may be the cause for this – an astute insight into human nature which reveals the inherent hypocrisies within these moral doctrines. “Many a duteous knee-crooking knave…wears out his time…for naught but provender, and when he’s old cashiered.” Iago recognizes that love and duty are apparently insufficient motives for a more compassionate treatment of a master’s followers; individuals cannot look to morality for felicity, they have to “keep yet their hearts attending on themselves,” safeguard their own welfare, and act based on the principle of utility. If Iago’s success lies in his ability to create “the net that shall enmesh them all,” then his moral isolation may be considered part of this success, for he would be little encumbered by moral scruples or, in Lady Macbeth’s words, “the milk of human kindness,” in achieving his desires.
After pushing for Cassio to “importune [Desdemona’s] help to put [Cassio] in [his] place again,” Iago begins a soliloquy with: “And what’s he then that says I play the villain,/ When this advice is free I give and honest,/ Probal to thinking, and indeed the course/ To win the Moor again?” Iago highlights the inadequacies of the moral standards by which he is judged, for he acts on the moral precept of giving advice which is reasonable (“probal to thinking”), “free” and “honest” whilst causing undesirable and indeed immoral consequences, making deliberate use of the law of double effect. Cassio’s innocuous plying of Desdemona becomes an insidious suggestion of adultery to Othello, who eventually kills Desdemona. By liberating himself from morality, Iago further aids Roderigo’s pursuit for Desdemona and helps to “satisfy” Othello’s need for proof of Desdemona’s infidelity, reducing moral rules to mere frivolity.
Iago’s moral isolation works together with his emotional isolation. He shuns all emotional attachments and even casts Emilia, his wife, aside in antipathy. “’Tis in ourselves that we are thus or thus,” Iago claims, choosing to remain unaffected by emotions and passions and maintain “the power and corrigible authority…in our wills.” He torments Othello mercilessly without compunction, reeling in delight rather than horror when Othello falls into a trance out of pain and jealousy. Iago’s immediate words are “Work on,/ My medicine, work! Thus credulous fools are caught,” revealing his excitement in the successful dénouoément of his “monstrous birth” and his patent disregard for compassion or even gratitude toward his trusting benevolent master. Othello pines away later on, emotionally saturated with visceral repetitions (“yet the pity of it, Iago. O Iago, the pity of it, Iago!”) to an Iago who remains stoically indifferent. He replies, subtly manipulative, “If you are so fond over her iniquity, give her patent to offend,” suggesting that Othello kill Desdemona. Once again even as the audience watches the grand noble Othello sink into an equally impressive and profound sorrow, Iago considers only his plan – his story of vengeance and tragedy – and his refusal to be subjected to the caprices of the heart ultimately lead him to success as a villain.
Iago has to role-play to achieve emotional isolation and retain his social contact. “For when my outward action doth demonstrate/ The native act and figure of my heart/ In compliment extern, ’tis not long after/ But I will wear my heart upon my sleeve/ For daws to peck at” – Iago, with his utilitarian perspective and emotional detachment, thus plays the part of his plan as required. He ends the above speech with the line: “I am not what I am,” consciously acknowledging his role as a player on the stage of society. Iago disengages from humanity; he no longer interacts as an individual with his unique and valid identity, but rather as an actor or an experimenter who plays with other characters and directs his own story – his own choice of events and plots. He comforts Desdemona – “Do not weep, do not weep. Alas the day!” – playing the role of the concerned friend; acts as the Ancient, “full of love and honesty” and who “sees and knows more, much more, than he unfolds” to Othello; and also ingratiates himself into masculine camaraderie in order to get Cassio drunk.
Iago withdraws into isolation even further by rejecting the paradigmatic norms concerning the etiology of intention and action. Throughout the play readers are given the impression that Iago’s actions are detached from all intentions – he seems to act for the sake of action, with only a few negligible and flippant references to intention. Coleridge attributes the term “motiveless-malignity” to Iago, an idea which is largely supported by the text. Early on he cites as motive for causing Cassio’s fall a careless desire “to plume up my will in double knavery” immediately after a casual “let me see now.” Iago reveals here an aesthetic concern rather than a real motive – he appears to consider his actions as a means to an artistic end, entirely frivolous and perhaps non-committal. Iago’s assertions that he hates the Moor all seem parenthetical, and his isolation extends to isolation even from the audience, who remains with no satisfactory explanation regarding his motives. Iago’s initial bitterness against the Moor when Cassio was promoted instead of him was not at all alleviated after he assumed Cassio’s position in Act Three. Furthermore, the motives he gives later on such as “If Cassio do remain he hath a daily beauty in his life that makes me ugly” are so inconsequential and incidental that the audience is inevitably disinclined to accept them. The “daily beauty” Iago claims to resent is mentioned four acts after the initial “to plume up my will,” and given one line before yet another plausible motive, which is prefaced with the parenthetical “besides”: “Besides, the Moor may unfold me to [Cassio]; there stand I in much peril.” Iago seems to be pandering to the audience’s need for action to be contextualized in terms of intention, a framework wherein action is explained by intention. Iago, however, behaves like a director of a play who explores the “what-ifs” – the contingencies of the world, very much like Shakespeare himself. He reveals, “There are many events in the womb of time, which will be delivered,” and uses the words “engender” and “birth” to describe his actions, as if they were artistic creations. The dramatist in him is shown during several asides wherein he watches the actions of the other characters in the play as a member of the audience would. The scene from which he isolates himself also reveals to him dramatic potential – the “what-ifs” – which he capitalizes on. Watching Cassio and Desdemona perform the rituals of courtly niceties, Iago’s mind leaps to capture the potential of such a scene seen from the perspective of a jealousy-plagued lover, hence explaining his confidence in “With as little a web as this will I ensnare as great a fly as Cassio”.
Iago continues to push events on piecemeal in planting the seed of jealousy in Othello and encouraging Cassio to importune Desdemona for help. His dramatic genius is further seen when he confidently gets Othello to watch a scene he acts out with the unsuspecting Cassio. Iago turns the conversation immediately to Cassio’s prostitute, Bianca, knowing that he will speak of her disparagingly and sexually. Given Othello’s propensity toward jealousy, he interprets this scene to Iago’s benefit. The system of “what-ifs” works by introducing a series of actions that are motivated by various plausible motives. Just as Shakespeare tests whether Macbeth’s ambition leads to the dissolution of the state, so does Iago introduce elements of hatred and jealousy to explore the lives of the people around him. This is the reason for Iago’s motiveless-malignity: every action may be explained by a plausible action; Iago is concerned only with how the action causes the drama, for any facile intention may be attached to any action in an experiment on human relationships. What if someone had truly hated the Moor out of suspicion of having been cuckolded? What if this same person also hated Cassio? What if Othello’s grandeur and nobility is transposed to a rage and sorrow as profound and magnificent? Iago only needs to play out the corresponding actions in his experiment to create his art, with no need to refer to any of these plausible intentions. His success in his “sport” hence stems largely from his isolation from participating in the social scene, just as a director is detached from his play.
Iago’s detachment, however, needs to be partnered with a strong understanding of human nature. Without his intuition Iago would not have been able to direct his play and his liberation from moral, emotional and intellectual standards would remain sterile. But while his isolation is a main contributor to his success, it also leads to his downfall. Despite Iago’s complacence, he never has the sovereign security of a director. He needs to play his role constantly and, as a participant, he cannot achieve complete isolation. He fails to play the role of a caring husband to Emilia, especially in instances when his directorial needs become more imperious. He snatches the handkerchief from Emilia when she finds it with an imperious “Give it to me,” and his habitual maltreatment of her is a major factor contributing to her jaded, cynical attitude. Iago’s complacence is unfounded when he repeatedly calls her foolish: “to have a foolish wife”; “you are a fool”; etc. Emilia ominously declares, “let them [husbands] use us well; else let them know/ The ills we [wives] do, their ills instruct us so.”
Faithfully enough, Iago’s detachment from human standards is adapted, though not adopted, by Emilia at the end of the play when she announces her obedience to a higher moral center: “I will speak as liberal as the north,/ Let heaven, and men, and devils, let them all,/ All, all cry shame against me, yet I’ll speak.” Emilia has claimed the same freedom for herself, the same liberty from heaven (Christian moral precepts) and men (society). She condemns her husband by revealing his misdeeds and repudiates her role as wife and woman in society – “’Tis proper I obey him Iago, but not now. Perchance, Iago, I will ne’er go home.” She speaks freely, countering Iago’s plans and sacrificing her “home” – her life in society. Iago is undone, his downfall precipitated more by complacence than by isolation. He, unlike Shakespeare, is not given directorial immunity.
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