Iago's Creativity II
Iago's Flexibility (2.3)
In my earlier essay on Iago's Creativity, I asserted, without showing, that part of his intellectual ingenuity resided in his flexibility of mind. That is, the plot to undo Othello only takes shape gradually in his mind. Changes are needed. For example, Roderigo is being a pest and Iago needs his money, so a role must be devised for Roderigo in Othello's downfall. Iago has to juggle many balls at once before he finally lights upon the crucial factor: the handkerchief in its "reverse-sacramental role," as the visible symbol of an invisible diabolical scheme and emotion--jealousy. In this essay, I will show how Iago had to be flexible in his method as he learned how to destabilize Othello's mind.
Piquing Othello's Anger
Crucial to Iago's unfolding plans is his ability to shake Othello's calm demeanor. He attempted to do so in 1.2, where he breathlessly rushed to Othello at the Sagittary Inn with the incendiary news that Brabantio, a most powerful Senator, was after him. This news not only failed to unsettle Othello, but it led to a hearing in the Senate where Brabantio was not simply outvoted but also was humiliated. By Othello's maintaining his calm in the wake of this situation, Iago would have to try again.
Iago arrives at a more successful method of stoking Othello's anger in 2.3. He decides to withhold information from Othello at the crucial time and then, when Othello becomes angry, to yield apparently exculpatory evidence. This apparent exculpatory evidence will be something Othello takes very seriously and uses to punish Cassio.
When the commotion breaks out in 2.3.165ff., and Othello is roused from his wedding bed, he asks for an explanation. All three "witnesses," Iago, Montano and Cassio, do not answer him. The latter two are unable, having been weakened by drink or injury, and Iago says he saw nothing. Rather than using the method of parceling out information, which he did in 1.2, and which led nowhere, Iago will withhold what he knows to see what effect this lack of knowledge has on the Moor.
He soon discovers Othello's reaction. "Now by heaven,/ My blood begins my safer guides to rule,/ And passion, having my best judgment collied,/ Assays to lead the way (2.3.204-207)." 'Ah,' Iago thinks, 'his passion is stoked when he does not know crucial information which is his province to want to know. File that away for now. Withhold information at first.
Othello is not satisfied with lack of information. He has opened the door to his anger, and he will not (or cannot) shut it. "Give me to know/ How this foul rout began; who set it on;/ And he that is approv'd in this offense,/ Though he had twinn'd with me, both at a birth,/ Shall lose me (2.3.209-213)." He then turns again to Iago, "Iago, who began't (2.3.217)?"
Iago's Wily Response
Iago will now, under the apparent pressure exerted against him both by Othello and Montano, tell all. The method of his speech (2.3.220-246) invites brief consideration. On the surface he will try to minimize the responsibility of Cassio for the riot but subtly he will mention Cassio over and over so that his name so sticks in Othello's mind that he will have to discipline Cassio. He minimizes the responsiblity of Cassio in the last and first lines. From the end: "Yet surely Cassio, I believe, receiv'd/ From him that fled some strange indignity/ Which patience could not pass (2.3.244-246)." That is, in Iago's judgment, which counts for nothing, Cassio had to strike out against the stranger who, unfortunately (yeah, right) has disappeared. Iago therefore apparently washes his hands of any resonsibility for indicting Cassio. From the begining: "I had rather have this tongue cut from my mouth/ Than it should do offense to Michael Cassio (2.3.221-222)."
But Iago is so, so subtle. While saying that he wants to do nothing to expose Cassio to judgment, he manages to mention Cassio's name six times in these 27 lines. It is the gentleman who disappeared who apparently is responsible for everything, but it is "Cassio," "Cassio," "Cassio," whose name is mentioned over and over again. As often as he tells Roderigo to "put money in your purse" before heading with him to Cyprus, so he tells Othello "Cassio" did this or that.
When Othello hears Cassio's name and finds no other person around to take responsibility for the discord, Cassio must be blamed. Othello's fastidious nature, his desire to have nothing escape his notice while he is "on duty," which may derive ultimately from his marginal status as minority (that is, he must do the same job better than a Venetian or he risks being excluded), means that he must cashier Cassio.
But look how Iago's flexibility and creativity has now helped him. He knows that Othello can be angered by withholding information in an area under his responsiblity. He knows further that if he gradually reveals information to Othello, information that has both an explicit but also a subtle meaning, Othello will pick up on the subtleties because of his fastidiousness. Thus, Iago has patiently gathered the information he needs about Othello. He is now ready to provoke his jealousy, which he will do, big time, in 3.3.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long