Two Parts of a Single Motive: Identification and Recognition in Othello

Two Parts of a Single Motive:

Identification and Recognition

in the Tragedy of Othello

David Hurley

(Previously published in Studies in English Language And Literature, Vol 21, Department of English Studies, Hiroshima Jogakuin University, March 2013)


Kneeling together, and well they should, for they are but two parts of a single motive – related not as the halves of a sphere, but each implicit in the other. (Kenneth Burke, 2007, 93)

In his approach to rhetoric, Kenneth Burke was deeply influenced by Aristotle’s concept of “entelechy.” He was also imbued with the 19th century “philosophies of becoming,” and it is possible to discern something of Hegel’s “master-slave dialectic” and the concept of “recognition” in the Burkian terminology of “identification” and “consubstantiality.”

Burke’s method of analysing Shakespeare was part of a generational reaction (typically represented as having been initiated by F. R. Leavis and L. C. Knights) against the older method of “novelistic” or “impressionistic” character analysis, which had reached its apogee with A. C. Bradley’s Shakespearean Tragedy, and can be read as part of a dialectical process in which the 19th century “primacy of character” gives way to the twentieth century “primacy of form and function.” (Today, we may be witnessing a relegitimization of “character analysis” as part of an emergent “synthesis” which may have implications for the way in which we read the tragedies such as Othello in the course of this century.) Philosophers of becoming from Goethe to Marx were profoundly interested in “beginnings,” as were Aristotle, Machiavelli, and Shakespeare. What happens in Othello is necessarily informed by a shadowy back-story, elements of which are invoked by various characters at certain key points during the course of the play. However, in seeking to “go back to the beginning,” we discover that any attempt to establish a coherent background story is contingent upon the problems of knowing whom to believe, or knowing how much to believe, and upon the necessity of imitating Othello by inferring things unseen from the seemingly apparent givenness of things seen and reported,
according to the law of probability or necessity. (1451a) Consubstantiality
It is not my intention in this paper to argue that Iago and Othello are conflicting parts of a single psyche, nor does the term “consubstantiality,” which was borrowed from Latin Christian Christology by Burke and discussed in the first part of A Rhetoric of Motives (20-23), imply psychological interpretations of that sort, although there is inevitably a psychological element at play in the dialectical tension between the “unity” and “separateness” of the involved parties. Such dialectical tension is inherent in the Nicene theology of the term “consubstantialis” itself, as coined by Tertullian and used in the Nicene Creed to affirm that Christ is “consubstantiálem Patri,” which is translated in The Book of Common Prayer as, “Being of one substance with the Father.” Thus the “substance” or “essence” of Nicene consubstantiality is the nature of divine being itself. The focus of Burke’s rhetorical definition of “consubstantiality,” however, is on the mutual identification of a common, human, interest. Burke defines his rhetorical conception of “consubtantiality” as that which emerges when “identification” takes place between two parties as one attempts to persuade the other:
A is not identical with his colleague, B. But insofar as their interests are joined, A is identified with B. Or he may identify himself with B even when their interests are not so joined, if he assumes that they are, or is persuaded to believe so. Here are ambiguities of substance. In being identified with B, A is “substantially one” with a person other than himself. Yet at the same time he remains unique, an individual locus of motives. Thus he is both joined and separate, at once a distinct substance and consubstantial with another. (Burke, 1969, 20-21)
We might say that in the process of “identification,” while the persons remain separate and may act from different motives and psychological imperatives, one of them has convinced the other that their interests are essentially one and the same.

The Consubstantiality of Othello and Iago

At what point, then, in Othello does Iago persuade the Moor to identify with him and thereby achieve a state of “consubstantiality” in which Othello is persuaded to believe that his interests are “joined with” – or “bound to” – those of Iago? It is in Act Three, Scene Three, that the process of identification takes place, in the exchange that begins,
No, Iago, I’ll see before I doubt, when I doubt, prove, And on the proof, there is no more but this: Away at once with love or jealousy! (III. iii. 193-196)
It is as if Othello has, by his very resistance to Iago’s insinuating paradigma, provided his Ancient with a route map which Iago will attempt to reproduce as a virtual topography in Othello’s mind. The verbal signposts are: “see,” “doubt,” “prove,” “away” (with A or B). In this initial stage of identification, Iago responds by addressing Othello’s need to “see” by suggesting what he should “look to” and how he should “observe.” This phase of the rhetorical seduction of Othello commences with Iago’s employment of Othello’s hypothetical statement of intent as a pretext for his next move,
I am glad of it, for now I shall have reason To show the love and duty that I bear you With franker spirit: therefore as I am bound Receive it from me… (III. iii. 197-200)
The phrase “as I am bound” will be repeated at the end of the process by Othello, marking the first stage of identification with Iago, and pointing up a recurring theme of “bondage,” marked also by words such as “slave,” “knave,” “villain,” among others, which I shall touch upon later in this paper. Iago now engages in a diatyposis of precepts by which Othello may learn to “see” what he wishes him to see:
Look to your wife, observe her well with Cassio; Wear your eye thus, not jealous nor secure. (III. iii. 201-202)
He deploys as an exemplum a commonplace about Venetian women in general:
In Venice they do let God see the pranks They dare not show their husbands… (III. iii. 206-207)
He then offers “proof” that Desdemona, a specific instance of Venetian womanhood, shares the deceitful nature of her compatriots:
She did deceive her father, marrying you; And when she seem’d to shake and fear your looks, She lov’d them most. (III. iii. 210-212)
After amplifying the example (“She that so young could give out such a seeming…”), Iago deftly changes tempo and steps down to the apologetic mode (”but I am much to blame, I humbly do beseech you of your pardon”), switching attention away from the accusation back to the ethos of the accuser, whose feigned humility lowers Othello’s guard and induces him to reply, echoing Iago’s own duplicitous protestation, eighteen lines earlier:
I am bound to thee for ever. (III. iii. 217)
Thus, the first stage of the process of identification has been reached, and is bracketed by protestations of bondage. Iago’s skillful use of enargia to paint a vivid picture has affected Othello. Othello is thrown into a state of aporia, intensifies as the struggle for complete identification reaches its climax in the second half of Act Three Scene Three, and is first expressed by Othello in two lines at 229 and 231, with the dual ambiguity of the phrases, “I do not think but,” and, “And yet”:
I do not think but Desdemona’s honest
And yet how nature erring from itself –
Iago seizes the occasion which Othello here provides him to offer an apodeixis, or proof via an appeal to general experience, of the errancy in Desdemona’s nature, to amplify and complete a thought which the Moor has begun to entertain, in terms which are favourable to Iago’s intentions:
Ay, there’s the point: as, to be bold with you, Not to affect many proposed matches, Of her own clime, complexion, and degree, Whereto we see in all things nature tends… (III. iii. 232-235)
Having demonstrated the case, Iago advances swiftly and emphatically to a bold conclusion:
Fie, we may smell in such a will most rank, Foul disproportion; thoughts unnatural. (III. iii. 236-237)
Again, he as swiftly retreats to the apologetic mode, craftily reinforcing the linkage between “foul disproportion” and Desdemona’s “will” by denying that he is “distinctly” doing so, and by introducing a new accusation, which is hammered home via the fourfold repetition of the third person pronoun, thereby pinning the accusation firmly upon “her” without the risks attendant upon overtly naming Desdemona:
But pardon me: I do not in position Distinctly speak of her, though I may fear Her will, recoiling to her better judgement, May fall to match you with her country forms And happily repent. (III. iii. 238-242)
The paradigm suggested to Othello is one in which his wife will either continue to love him with a disproportionate and unnatural affection, or, “recoiling to her better judgement,” will perchance find him wanting in comparison with men of “her own complexion, clime and degree,” and repent of her marriage; a “repentance” that will be apt to follow the manner of “her country forms”. Iago’s punning use of “country” offers the dull Moor a hint, lest he be ignorant as to what such “forms” may entail. Here, Othello dismisses Iago with two commands which reveal that he has fallen so far under his influence that, doubting his wife, he unreservedly presumes that she should be spied on:
Farewell, if more Thou dost perceive, let me know more, set on Thy wife to observe… (III. iii. 242-244)
After Iago’s second departure, Othello’s soliloquy offers further confirmation that he has already progressed from the “seeing” stage to the “doubting” stage and is already beginning to anticipate the stages of “proof” and “away with,” but now the either/or dichotomy of “Away at once with love or jealousy” is muted to the degree that only one side of the equation finds expression as “love” falls silent in the face of doubt:
If I do prove her haggard, Though that her jesses were my dear heart-strings, I’d whistle her off, and let her down the wind, To prey at fortune. (III. iii. 264-267)
Earlier in the scene Othello had suspected Iago of concealing “a monster” in his thought, “too hideous to be shown,” and Iago later insinuates the “green eyed monster” of jealousy into Othello’s mind. It has been noted by Kenneth Muir and others that Iago makes use of animal imagery in the first three acts of the play, and that Othello “catches the trick” (Muir, 22) of using animal imagery during the third act of the play.
I had rather be a toad, And live upon the vapour in a dungeon, Than keep a corner in a thing I love, For other’s uses. (III. iii. 274-277)
As Muir notes,
The fondness of both characters for mentioning repulsive animals and insects is one way by which Shakespeare shows the corruption of the Moor’s mind by his subordinate. (21-22)
However, Othello has not yet completely identified himself with Iago; he oscillates in a state of ambivalent identification, now with Iago, now with Desdemona and has not yet settled into a state of consubstantiality with one or the other, for “doubt” has not yet been confirmed by “proof” and the sight, and name of Desdemona are still sufficient to cause Othello to look again at the other side of the “either/or” equation:
Desdemona comes, If she be false, O, then heaven mocks itself, I’ll not believe it. (III. iii. 281-283)
As the crisis reaches its climax, references to “heaven,” “eternal soul,” and “damnation” populate Othello’s discourse as he demands that Iago now supply “ocular proof” or “answer” to his “wak’d wrath.” Othello speaks throughout the play for the traditional worldview of fixed and immutable values, of a social world based on honour and underwritten by a divine order, in contrast to Iago’s more modern discourse of prudential Machiavellian calculation and self-referential relativity, in which virtue is subordinated to the will and reduced to a matter of self-fashioning or representation, or re-fashioned by employing reason and probability in the service of revenge and personal advantage. This dichotomy runs throughout the play to such an extent that, even when Othello and Iago are united in a state of “consubstantiality” in which they are “but two parts of a single motive” they are not at any point “identical” and Othello’s ethos is never entirely sublated. Thus, it can also be said of Othello that he “remains unique, an individual locus of motives,” (Burke, 1969, 21) such that, at the denouement he feels that he can justly say of himself, “nought did I in hate, all in honour.” Othello and Iago are both motivated by a desire for revenge; yet the ethos which informs that motivation is quite different from Iago’s. Iago seeks revenge out of a hatred which springs from jealousy; Othello seeks revenge as a just response to his sense of outraged honour. Towards the end of Act Three, Scene Three, Othello’s resistance to Iago’s attempted sublation of his ethos will come as a shock to Iago, who seems to believe his own wry observation that Othello can be “led by the nose As asses are” (I, 3, 401-2). Iago gains possession of Desdemona’s handkerchief and plans to use it so that it may further his intrigue. He relishes what has been achieved so far as confirmation of his own insight. Iago’s soliloquy at this point runs in a repeated sequence starting with a specific idea supported by a commonplace and followed by an observation as to its possible result, which in turn is reinforced by an additional specific idea supported by another commonplace and a concluding observation:
Specific idea (future): I will in Cassio’s lodging lose this napkin, And let him find it:
Commonplace: trifles light as air Are to the jealous, confirmations strong As proofs of holy writ;
Observation: this may do something.
Specific idea (present): The Moor already changes with my poison:
Commonplace: Dangerous conceits are in their natures poisons, Which at the first are scarce found to distaste, But with a little act upon the blood Burn like the mines of sulphur:
Observation: I did say so. (III. iii. 326-334)
This delicious meditation on the efficacy of his own experimental method, which can happily accommodate itself to uncertainty (“this may do something”) ends with a self-congratulatory “I did say so.” For all that, Iago’s experiment has not gone entirely as anticipated, and his Machiavellian facility for handling unexpected contingencies is now put to the test. As Othello progresses along the scale from “doubt” to “proof” he “threatens to turn his fury against Iago as he spasmodically doubts his own torrents of doubt” (Burke on Shakespeare, 92). He presents Iago with a more dangerous “either/or” challenge than the initial “away with love or jealousy,” and in doing so he applies to Iago the names of “villain” and “dog” reminding him of the servile status that he seeks to escape from:
Villain, be sure thou prove my love a whore, Be sure of it, give me the ocular proof, Or by the worth of man’s eternal soul, Thou hadst been better have been born a dog, Than answer my waked wrath. (III. iii. 365-369)
The choice, then is either to “prove my love a whore” in such a way that Othello will be able to “see” it (ocular proof), or to suffer Othello’s wrath and be damned, as is made clear in Othello’s reiteration of the threat, this time clearly stating that on one side of the “either/or” dichotomy the thought has crossed his mind that Iago may have slandered his wife:
If thou dost slander her, and torture me, Never pray more, abandon all remorse. On horror’s head horrors accumulate: Do deeds to make heaven weep, all earth amaz’d, For nothing canst thou to damnation add Greater than that. (III. iii. 374-379)
Othello, speaking from the old dispensation of absolute values, warns Iago that he can do nothing worse to the fate of his soul than to slander Desdemona. An inappropriate response could bring immediate destruction upon Iago so some quick thinking is required, a peremptory improvisation aimed at disarming Othello. Iago therefore turns away and breaks off the dialogue with an apostrophe which, though obviously intended to persuade Othello by the force of the emotion and to distract him from pressing home the charge of “slander,” addresses itself elsewhere:
O grace, O heaven… O wretched fool… O monstrous world… O world… (III. iii. 379-383)
Iago ironically berates himself for being so honest, offers to resign his office, and makes as if to take his leave of Othello. The diversion is effective. The force of Othello’s attack has spent itself and Othello lamely responds, “Nay, stay, thou shouldst be honest,” and the immediate danger to Iago has passed. Othello (in the Folio and Q2 editions) restates the case in more moderate terms,
I think my wife be honest, and think she is not, I think that thou art just, and think thou art not; I’ll have some proof… (III. iii. 390-392)
I’ll not endure it: would I were satisfied… (III. iii. 396)
This is the cue for Iago to resume his attack, for Othello has already begun to give ground and has retreated from his demand for “ocular proof or wrath,” to “some proof” and “satisfaction,” which in turn must be abandoned after Iago’s enargia of adultery, acting upon the screen of Othello’s mind as if he himself “gaped on” the act itself, demonstrates to him in pragmatic terms how difficult, or impossible it would be to see his wife “topp’d.” Othello retreats one more step and asks for “a living reason, that she’s disloyal.” This Iago pretends to give. After Othello has swallowed the bait, Iago upgrades his “living reason” to a “proof,” but in doing so he takes a step he has not before attempted; he tells Othello an outright lie. Speaking now of Cassio, he says,
In sleep I heard him say “Sweet Desdemona, Let us be wary, let us hide our loves;” And then, sir, would he gripe and wring my hand, Cry out, “Sweet creature!” and then kiss me hard, As if he pluck’d up kisses by the roots, That grew upon my lips, then laid his leg Over my thigh, and sigh’t, and kiss’d, and then Cried “Cursed fate, that gave the to the Moor!” (III. iii. 425-432)
Until the crisis of Act Three Scene Three it is impossible to catch Iago employing an outright lie about a past event, that is, a report about event rendered in the past tense and completely divorced from “the given,” from evidence available to other witnesses. I do not mean by such a claim that Iago never lies, but the form each lie takes is subtle, exaggerated, highly contextual, and buttressed by references to shared or common knowledge. When glossing his own actions and motives or those of others, he will typically speak in the conditional mood so that the intended falsehood is couched in hypothetical terms and thereby disarmed of its overt mendacity, but made all the more potent in its effect. A prudent lie will be mixed with some flags and shows of accepted truth, common experience or shared history as solid ground to retreat onto if the lie itself be challenged. In speaking of Cassio’s lewd dream, Iago has taken a new risk by telling an outright lie; yet Iago’s profit is twofold. He can cash in his reputation for honesty and rely on inference to do the rest while also seeking some protection for himself by relating Cassio’s supposed utterances in the form of a dream. “Nay, this was but his dream,” (III. iii. 433) says Iago, allowing Othello “to take inference for fact” (M. R. Ridley, 119) and providing himself with a line of retreat should his story be doubted. If Ridley is correct in supposing, as I think he is, that the line, “But this denoted a foregone conclusion,” should be attributed to Othello, as it is in Q1, Iago, seeing that Othello has accepted the lie at face value, pretends to attempt to assuage Othello’s wrath. He then throws in the handkerchief as a token of “ocular proof” to satisfy Othello’s visual imagination, first speaking to him in the first person plural and preparing him to “see” by telling him “we see nothing”:
Othello: I’ll tear her all to pieces. Iago: Nay, but be wise, yet we see nothing done, She may be honest yet; tell me but this, Have you not sometimes seen a handkerchief… (III. iii. 438-441)
There follows swiftly Iago’s most blatant and risky “outright lie” as he seizes the advantage:
… such a handkerchief – I am sure it was your wife’s – did I to-day See Cassio wipe his beard with. (III. iii. 444-446)
Othello is now convinced:
Now do I see ‘tis true; look here Iago(III. iii. 451)
Iago finds himself back in favour with Othello, no more the “villain” and the “dog” but once more called by his own, familiar name, “Iago.” Othello’s naming of Iago indicates that the two are now engaged in a “consubstantial” relationship in which Othello has been persuaded by Iago to identify himself with him even though, as the audience and Iago know, their interests are not actually “joined” in the conspiracy to murder Cassio and Desdemona. Act Three Scene Three ends on a moment of complete identification:
Othello: … now art thou my lieutenant. Iago: I am your own for ever. (III. iii. 485-486)

Masters & Slaves: Dialectical & Prudential Recognition

I have mentioned that Kenneth Burke’s concept of identification seems to have been influenced, at least in part, by the Hegelian concept of the lord and bondsman, or master and slave paradigm, which is discussed in G. W. F. Hegel’s Philosophy of Spirit, and provides a vivid example of the Hegelian dialectical method in action. It is possible to discern in the Hegelian concept of “Anerkennung” (“recognition”) a forerunner of the Burkian idea of “consubstantiality” and as such, it may afford us some interesting insights into the dialectical relationship that exists between Othello and Iago. Hegel writes that,
Self-consciousness exists in itself and for itself, in that, and by the fact that it exists for another self-consciousness; that is to say, it is only by being acknowledged or “recognised”… Thus its moments must on the one hand be strictly kept apart in detailed distinctiveness, and, on the other, in this distinction must, at the same time, also be taken as not distinguished, or must always be accepted and understood in their opposite sense. This double meaning of what is distinguished lies in the nature of self- consciousness: – of its being infinite, or directly the opposite of the determinateness in which it is fixed. The detailed exposition of the notion of this spiritual unity in its duplication will bring before us the process of Recognition. (178 )
(Last sentence: Die Auseinanderlegung desBegriffs dieser geistigen Einheit in ihrer Verdopplung stellt uns die Bewegung des Anerkennens dar.) And later:
Both moments are essential, since, in the first instance, they are unlike and opposed, and their reflexion into unity has not yet come to light, they stand as two opposed forms or modes of consciousness. The one is independent, and its essential nature is to be for itself; the other is dependent, and its essence is life or existence for another. The former is the Master, or Lord, the latter the Bondsman. (189)
Before applying any observations regarding the relevance of Hegelian “recognition” to Othello, I will consider the concept of “recognition” from a prudential perspective with reference to The Prince, by Niccolo Machiavelli, specifically, to the twenty-second chapter, Of the Secretaries of Princes:
Ogni volta che uno ha iudicio di conoscere el bene o il male che uno fa e dice, ancora che da sé non abbia invenzione, conosce l’opere triste e le buone del ministro, e quelle esalta e le altre corregge; et il ministro non può sperare di ingannarlo, e mantiensi buono. ( 94)
(“Whenever one has judgement to recognise good or bad when it is said and done, although he himself may not have the initiative, yet he can recognise the good and the bad in his servant, and the one he can praise and the other correct; thus the servant cannot hope to deceive him, and is kept honest.”) What is revealed by those two approaches to the question of “recognition” – the Hegelian and the Machiavellian – is a tension that runs through the heart of Othello, which plays itself out as Iago’s ambitious struggle to escape from servitude and to achieve a sense of “self-existence” through what he considers to be an appropriate “recognition” (Annerkennung) of his “worth” by Othello. The tragedy unfolds as a consequence of Othello’s refusal to accord Iago any recognition beyond that of a “bondsman,” and of his imprudent failure to “recognise” (conoscere) and forestall Iago’s “opere triste.” There are other patterns of “recognition” in Othello, most notably the mutual recognition of Othello and Desdemona:
She lov’d me for the dangers that I had pass’d And I lov’d her that she did pity them. (I. iii. 167-8)
The two lines syntactically echo each other and swap the subject and object between themselves so that Othello seems to see an idealized version of himself in Desdemona’s pity of him in a moment of Hegelian sublation. Likewise, Desdemona’s profession of love is couched in terms which place the emphasis on what she has willingly invested in the marriage, and yet clearly, in seeing “Othello’s visage in his mind,” we understand that the act of seeing an expansive vista of romance and adventure was something that took place in her own mind in response to the stories he told; in short, a form of consubstantiality occurs in which Desdemona loses herself to herself and finds herself again in Othello in a complimentary process of Hegelian sublation:
I saw Othello’s visage in his mind, And to his honours, and his valiant parts Did I my soul and fortunes consecrate… (I. iii. 252-254)
After he has smothered Desdemona, and, in spite of Emilia’s protests, before he discovers that he has been set on by Iago, Othello, speaking to Gratiano with reference to Desdemona and Cassio, says,
… she did gratify his amorous works With the recognizance and pledge of love, Which I first gave her… (V. ii. 214-216)
He is speaking of the “magic” handkerchief by means of which he, as he thought, had secured and demonstrated Desdemona’s perpetual “recognition” of him. The handkerchief becomes a symbol of mutual recognition, a talisman or token (Alexander Schmidt, vol II, 948) and a guarantor of his and Desdemona’s mutual “recognition” of each other. What he believes he sees in the displacement of the handkerchief, the apparent “ocular proof” of Desdemona’s infidelity, is a horrific “recognition” of himself as a “name” blackened by the filthy beard-wiping of another. It is as if Othello, the moorish denizen, sees in Desdemona’s loving “pity” an idealized version of himself, an idealized, white, Venetian worthy indeed of “recognition” whereas what he sees in Cassio’s possession of the handkerchief is a reduction of himself to the status of an erring, black barbarian, a shadowy figure flitting “here and everywhere” ignorant of Venetian habits and an object of contempt. In narrating the history of the charmed napkin, and in investing it with such a powerful totemic significance (through the incantatory power of rhetoric), Othello proves Brabantio’s suspicions to be apposite for we hear Othello speaking the very language of magic and charms that Brabantio had suspected him of using to seduce Desdemona:
…that handkerchief Did an Egyptian to my mother give, She was a charmer, and could almost read The thoughts of people; she told her, while she kept it ‘Twould make her amiable, and subdue my father Entirely to her love: but if she lost it, Or made a gift of it, my father’s eye Should hold her loathly… (III. iv. 53-60)
One of the functions Othello performs is to be a spokesman for traditional forms of oratory and for the symbolic order which such oratorical forms attempt to justify. Ken Jacobson suggests that,
the play can be read as an agon between traditional and emergent models of oratory, as embodied by the general and his ensign,” (502)
while Joel B. Altman speaks of the play as being written,
at the intersection of the old and venerable religious path to identity, and of a modern itinerary of callings with roots in a still more ancient model of rhetorical self-fashioning. (18)
Thus, Othello’s orotund and at times almost Ciceronian style (Jacobsen, 502) is expressive of a belief in absolute values, which exist behind and before, as well as over and above the world which he inhabits, and is underpinned by appeals to heaven. Yet at other times, he sinks back into the language of primitive magic and witchcraft. We might also note that here that, as his moment of anagnorisis (another form of “recognition”) approaches, shortly after having murdered Desdemona, Othello tells a different story about how his mother came to receive the handkerchief. No longer is it a magical guarantor of nuptual love, handed to his mother by an Egyptian enchantress, but a more mundane and demystified “antique token” given to her by her husband, just as Othello gave it to Desdemona; “recognition” as an enchanted, feminine, form of mutual identity is replaced by a more masculine “recognizance,” a token of a pledge agreed up by two separate parties. It is as if the handkerchief itself has become a symbol of the dialectical tensions inherent in the process of consubstantiality that we have been considering in the course of this paper.

Othello and Iago as Lord and Bondsman: A Probable Back-Story

What then of Iago? No sooner does Iago enter than we hear the staccato voice of one who has not been recognised according to what he considers to be his desert and who chafes under his bondage to Othello:
… three great ones of the city, In personal suit to make me his lieutenant, Off capp’d to him, and by the faith of man, I know my price, I am worth no worse a place. (I. i. 8-11)
Iago’s specific complaint is that, having served with Othello “At Rhodes, at Cyprus and on other grounds, Christian and heathen,” he has been passed over in spite of having enough influence in Venice to find three backers to mediate for him. Othello has preferred Cassio, a man who, according to Iago, has little or no military experience. Iago asserts that Cassio has been chosen “by letter and affection, Not by the old gradation, where each second stood heir to the first” (I. i. 35-36). Should we believe what Iago tells us about himself and Cassio? A. C. Bradley advises that,
One must constantly remember not to believe a syllable that Iago utters on any subject, including himself, until one has tested his statement by comparing it with known facts and with other statements of his own or of other people, and by considering whether he had in the particular circumstances any reason for telling a lie or for telling the truth. (201)
It is a prudent approach for the critic to take, but note that the monitory opening clause is considerably qualified by the close of the sentence, and rightly so, for we should also be on our guard against supposing that everything Iago tells us is an outright lie. It is also necessary for the dramatic coherence of the play that Othello’s trust in Iago be based upon a reasonable assessment of him as being honest. Othello’s trust in Iago rests upon his pragmatic estimation of Iago’s ethos, which has been informed by his experience of Iago while Iago has been engaged in his service. Iago, we learn, has proved himself time and again to be honest and reliable. A man’s ethos is considered to be the product of habit, and therefore not thought to be easily subject to change, as Altman notes (66). Therefore, since Iago has appeared to be habitually honest in his dealings with Othello, it is reasonable for Othello to judge Iago as being worthy of his trust. Apart from the nine months or so which immediately precede the opening of the play, Othello’s occupation has been, as he testifies to the signory, “in the tented field,” which makes it more probable than not that Iago has indeed spent much of his time campaigning with Othello on behalf of the Venetian Republic. When Iago feigns shock at the news that Othello is angry with Desdemona, he says,
Can he be angry? I have seen the cannon, When it hath blown his ranks into the air: And (like the devil) from his very arm Puff’d his own brother, and can he be angry? (III. iv. 131-134)
The story Iago tells is “probal to thinking” and there is no reason to suppose that Iago would be so imprudent as to risk telling an outright lie to Desdemona when there is no immediate or pragmatic motive to do so. To think otherwise would be to suppose that Iago delights in telling lies for the non-Machiavellian purpose of “keeping his hand in,” (John Roe, Shakespeare and Machiavelli, 7) as if he were cut from the same cloth as Barabas in Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta. Iago’s intention is more likely to be to convey a sense of “surprise” at Othello’s sudden anger (while the dramatic function of the speech is to impress upon the audience a sense of Othello’s noble quality of calmness in the heat of battle). The detail about Othello losing his brother to a cannonball is probable, and it is not entirely improbable that Iago was a witness, if he did not hear the story from Othello or a third party. When trumpets herald the approach of Othello’s ship, Iago responds, “The Moor, I know his trumpet,” and Cassio replies, “Tis truly so.” It may be objected that it does not take long for a soldier to learn the sound of his commander’s trumpet, but this exchange conveys the impression that Cassio, no less than Iago, is familiar with Othello’s military arrangements. When Desdemona attempts to plead Cassio’s case she says,
A man that all his time Hath founded his good fortunes on your love, Shar’d dangers with you, (III. iv. 92-93)
which suggests that Iago most probably slandered Cassio, when he told Roderigo that his soldiership was “mere prattle without practice.” (I. i. 26) Desdemona’s speech also seems to me to contain a clue as to the true source of Iago’s rage, which is that he, no less than Cassio, “hath founded his good fortunes” on Othello’s love and finds himself pushed into second place by Cassio, or into third place by Cassio and Desdemona. In this way we are able to tease out a probable back-story for the play in which Iago campaigned in the field and threw in his lot with Othello. While their ambitions are moving in the same direction it remains in Iago’s interest to be loyal to Othello and deal honestly with him. This is the probable prior state of “consubstantiation” which I believe informs that pre-history of the plot, with Iago, the bondsman, identifying with Othello, his lord. The play opens not long after Iago undergoes what might be termed a personal, off-stage, anagnorisis, in which he suddenly “recognises” his actual status in relation to Othello as being little more than that of a “bond-slave” (to use Brabantio’s disparaging term). To paraphrase Aristotle’s definition of anagnorisis, Iago might be said to have undergone “a change from ignorance to knowledge, producing … hate between the persons destined by the poet for … bad fortune” (Poetics, 1452a). But notice what we are forced to do in order to construct a “likely” backstory. We are presented with a series of statements and propositions, but we have no “ocular proof” for any of them. We must judge each on its “probable” merits, just as Othello must. We too, then, are bound or enslaved by the duplicity of language as we “think” something “is” and think it “is not” and “would be satisfied” but are unable to break through the dark glass and see things as they are, unmediated, “face to face” (Corinthians I, xiii, 12).

Iago and Othello: Slavery and Sublation

In the opening scene Iago complains about “the curse of service,” which he sees as an “obsequious bondage,” suitable only for “honest knaves.” References to “service” and “bondage” crop up throughout the first act. Iago tells Brabantio “we come to do you service” (1. i. 110-111). In Act One Scene Two, Iago tells Othello that he lacks “iniquity sometimes to do me service” (I. ii. 3-4). Othello, who stands in relation to Iago as a lord to his bondsman, is himself in the position of a servant in relation to the rulers of Venice and speaks of “my services, which I have done the signory.” The scene closes with Brabantio predicting that “Bond-slaves, and pagans, shall our statesmen be” (I. ii. 99). In Act One Scene Three Desdemona tells her father that she has a divided duty and is “bound” to him for life and education, and in the closing scene of the play Emilia is “bound” to speak. In Act Four Scene Two Iago tells Roderigo, “you shall think yourself bound to put it on him,” but it is in Act Three Scene Three that Iago and Othello are “bound” to each other in their conspiracy, as I have already noted. Iago’s servitude to Othello is represented in its most literal form on stage as he receives various menial orders from him to “conduct,” “go,” “disembark,” “look about,” “give,” “leave.” Othello himself also speaks of having been enslaved, in the literal sense, presumably by the “Ottomites” (I. iii. 33):
Of being taken by the insolent foe; And sold to slavery, and my redemption thence (I. iii. 137-138)
As the play progresses, the term “service” falls away, but the disparaging terms “knave,” “villain,” and “slave” and their various cognates, multiply. They are aimed at each of the four main male characters at various points throughout the play, but once Iago’s intrigue has been revealed by Emilia, it is Iago who is repeatedly named as a villain and slave. Iago refers to Othello as a “Barbary horse” and Desdemona recalls that her mother had a maid called “Barbary,” and whatever other associations the word may have, it reminds us of the Barbary Corsairs, the slave trading pirates of Mauritania. The branding of Othello as “the Moor” reminds us not only of the Spanish Reconquista of Spain, but also, and more tellingly for our purposes, of the moorish or Barbary slave trade. The Moors were Muslim slave traders whose slaves were taken from the coasts of Europe, or captured at sea (as happened to Miguel de Cervantes in 1575), and sold on to the Ottoman empire. Iago’s name reminds us not only of the Spanish renaming of the apostle James as “Santiago Matamoros” or St James the Moor-killer (Barbara Everett, Shakespeare Survey, 35. 103), but also of the early Spanish slave trade in the colony of Santiago (Jamaica), referred to as “Saint Iago” by the English, and unsuccessfully assaulted by an English expedition in 1596. As the action unfolds, we see the dialectical relationship between the principle “master and slave” pairing of Othello and Iago develop to the point where Iago obtains Othello’s renewed “recognition” of his “worth.” Although he still continues to play the servant’s part and carry out Othello’s orders, those orders are actually directed by Iago’s will as Othello has fallen into a state of mental bondage (a form of “consubstantiality”) under the force of Iago’s rhetorical persuasiveness:
Othello: Within these three days, let me hear thee say That Cassio’s not alive. Iago: My friend is dead: ‘Tis done as you request… (III. iii. 478-481)
This is the stage of the Master-Slave relationship in which the slave is “sublated” in the other:
On approaching the other it has lost its own self, since it finds itself as another being; secondly, it has thereby sublated that other, for this primitive consciousness does not regard the other as essentially real but sees its own self in the other. (179)
Othello has been oscillating, as it were, between two sublations, firstly, in relation to Desdemona, and secondly, in relation Iago. Act Three Scene Three provides us with the dramatic representation of that oscillation.

The Unspoken Motive of Ambition

A. C. Bradley wrote that “Iago’s plot is Iago’s character in action” (179), but he did not attribute to Iago’s character the passion of ambition as the driving force that motivated him:
Taking all the facts, one must conclude that his desires were comparatively moderate and his ambition weak…” (220)
What then, was Iago’s motive according to Bradley?
To “plume up the will,” to heighten the sense of power or superiority – this seems to be the unconscious motive… His thwarted sense of superiority wants satisfaction. What fuller satisfaction could it find than the consciousness that he is the master of the General who has undervalued him and of the rival who has been preferred to him…?” (229)
Though this is a typically sensitive and insightful character reading, it seems to me to fall short because it overlooks those places in the play where Iago anticipates the success of his intrigue in terms that are highly charged with an ambition to “make” himself or to raise his status:
If consequence do but approve my dream, My boat sails freely, both with wind and stream. (II. iii. 53-53)
This is the night That either makes me, or foredoes me quite. (V. i. 127-128)
In his essay, Othello: An Essay to Illustrate a Method, Kenneth Burke criticises Bradley’s “novelistic” approach to character analysis, and applies his own “dramatistic” method to the play. Commenting on Bradley’s remark that “Iago’s plot is Iago’s character in action,” he notes,
…[it] is excellent, unless it tempts us, as it did him, to reverse the order of our inquiry, looking at Iago’s conduct as though it were the outgrowth of his character, rather than looking at his character as having been so formed by the playwright that it would be a perfect fit for the kind of conduct the play required of him. (87)
Iago’s ambition is not foregrounded because in the end we are dealing with the tragedy of Othello, not of Iago, and as such, we are not being directed to follow Iago’s ambitions, but rather, to observe how a valiant soldier is destroyed at the height of his fortune. The play opens with the frustration of Iago’s ambitions, engendering the jealous hatred that energises and informs the events of the play, but Iago’s ambition is not of major concern within the play itself. That ambition operates as the largely unspoken motive behind the dominant passion of jealousy is revealed by Othello’s “farewell” speech in Act Three Scene Three:
O now for ever Farewell the tranquil mind, farewell content: Farewell the plumed troop, and the big wars, That makes ambition virtue. (III. iii. 353-356)
Speaking of the passage I have just quoted, Burke comments,
In accordance with our method, we cannot lay too much emphasis on this speech. For the audience is here told explicitly what the exclusive possession of Desdemona equals for Othello, with whatvalues, other than herself she is identified. Here they are listed: Ambition, virtue, quality, pride, pomp, circumstance, glory, and zest in his dangerous occupation. (92)


Othello may be characterized as a play which has its prior motivation grounded in ambition; ambition in the pursuit of classical tenets of “virtue” – or of a more modern Machiavellian “virtù”. Othello himself, as a denizen, is ambitious to achieve status and recognition in Venetian society. At the beginning of the play he has acted in a precipitous manner to achieve that ambition by conspiring to remove Desdemona from her father’s house and marry her without his permission, calculating that the “services” he has done the signory “shall out-tongue his complaints.” Iago does not give a fig for classical virtue, but in “pluming up” his “will” he seeks to fashion himself as a man of “virtù” as part of a prudential strategy to free himself from his current servitude by a peremptory and invidious pursuit of revenge informed by frustrated ambition and served by a cunning Machiavellian rhetoric that is instantly adaptable to the needs of the moment. That Othello should believe Iago and identify with him during the course of the play seems less incredible if we “go back to the beginnings” and recreate a probable history in which each recognises his own interest as being served by the other, and in which Iago, until what I have referred to as his moment of personal anagnorisis, identifies his interest with that of Othello and therefore performs his duties boldly and honestly as each pursues his respective ambition.


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