"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Othello - Iago's Motives

The best explanation of Iago's motives is that of A.C. Bradley, a critic writing in 1904.

"To 'plume up the will', to heighten the sense of power or superiority - this seems to be the unconscious motive of many acts of cruelty which evidently do not spring chiefly from ill-will, and which therefore puzzle and sometimes horrify us most. It is often this that makes a man bully his wife or children of whom he is fond. The boy who torments another boy, as we say, 'for no reason'....is pleased with his victim's pain, not from any disinterested love of evil or pleasure in pain, but mainly because this pain is the unmistakeable proof of his own power over his victim. So it is with Iago."

This is a very different and interesting interpretation of most. Iago is a villain, but he is not evil, and his actions are derived from:

"...the keen sense of superiority, the contempt of others, the sensitiveness to everything which wounds these feelings, the spite against goodness in men as a thing not only stupid but, both in its nature and by its success, contrary to Iago's nature and irritating to his pride...Othello's eminence, Othello's goodness, and his own dependence on Othello, must have been a perpetual annoyance to him.

"The most delightful thing to such a man would be something that gave an extreme satisfaction to his sense of power and superiority; and if it involved, secondly, the triumphant exertion of his abilities; and thirdly the excitement of danger, his delight would be consummated"

It is interesting to compare Iago with Richard III who is another villain who has the same sense of superiority. However whereas for Iago it is the process, the game which is the satisfaction in itself, Richard has the sole goal of becoming king. His actions, as I have written before in reference to Nietzsche, are beyond good and evil, Machiavellian in origin, and a pure expression of will. It takes the goal, the singularity of purpose, and the absolute drive to succeed with no compunction or moral reflection which makes Richard more "evil". While it is true that through Iago's plotting both Othello and Cassio are destroyed, their deaths are almost incidental to the success of the plot.

As I have noted above, Bradley has divided Iago's motives into three, and it is worth exploring them in more depth:

"Iago's longing to satisfy the sense of power is, I think, the strongest of the forces that drive him on. But there are two others to be noticed. One is the pleasure in an action very difficult and perilous and, therefore, intensely exciting...He feels the delight of one who executes successfully a feat thoroughly congenial to his special aptitude, and only just within his compass; and as he is fearless by nature, the fact that a single slip will cost him his life only increases his pleasure...

"But Iago, finally, is not simply a man of action, he is an artist. His action is a plot, the intricate plot of a drama, and in the conception and execution of it he experiences the tension and joy of artistic creation..."

This explains why Iago is such an intriguing and compelling character, one which in many ways surpasses Richard. Richard is pure will, deviousness, and compulsion. Iago is what Swinburne has called 'the inarticulate poet'.

Bradley argues that Iago's stated motives are not convincing. For example resentment at Cassio's appointment is mentioned once in the play then never again. Hatred of Othello is mentioned in the first act alone. Cassio's intrigue with Emilia is almost an afterthought. Iago's 'love' for Desdemona is alluded to in the second soliloquy but then disappears. At first I thought that Iago's being passed over could be a plausible reason for his actions. It happens all the time. Resentment builds up, festers and becomes corrosive, and usually petty actions are taken against the superior who chose a competitor and against the competitor himself.

But Bradley is right - if this really were a revenge play, then the motive would be clear, unmistakeable, and persistent. Although 'Hamlet' is not a true revenge play because Hamlet's motivations have as much or more to do with his resentment of his mother than a true, pure desire to kill the king and avenge his father's death, it is clearly a type of revenge.

In Bradley's view, Iago is an even more attractive 'villain' than Richard. As I have written before, I am particularly drawn to amoral, willful characters; for there is a purity of vision and dominance of the individual. Most people, in Nietzsche's view are part of a herd, and the Richards of the world both show Man at his most heroic and at the same time show the ordinariness of most men's lives. Iago, however, is the poetic refinement of this sentiment - he is both beyond good and evil and an artist is fulfilling his motives.

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