Iago’s Silence

November 29, 2017

By Rod Beecham

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From the production of Othello, at Pop-up Globe, Melbourne, October 2017. Photograph by Jennifer Mitchell

[The secondary literature on Shakespeare is unmanageably vast, and what follows does not pretend to be informed by it.  I am merely recording some thoughts I’ve had from teaching Othello in 2017.]

Othello, unlike Shakespeare’s other major tragedies, is a play in which the title character does not have the most lines.  That distinction belongs to the villain, Iago.  As those familiar with the play know, speech is the medium of Iago’s villainy: he furthers his designs through dialogue rather than action.  I have always been struck, therefore, by his last speech: ‘Demand me nothing; what you know, you know. / From this time forth I never will speak word.’ (V.i.300-01).

What is the significance of Iago’s silence?  He tells his outraged listeners: ‘what you know, you know.’  What do they know?  I take Iago to mean that what he has done has been discovered and, that being the case, there is nothing more to be said.  Gratiano responds that, ‘Torments will ope your lips’ (V.i.303), suggesting that Iago will reveal the reasons for his behaviour under torture, but we in the audience who have followed the action cannot believe that, for what more is there for Iago to reveal?  He made ‘the net / That shall enmesh them all’ (II.iii.339-40) out of his own envy and spite, and these are not feelings that can be assigned to specific causes: they are the essence of his nature.  Iago did what he did because he was Iago.

His silence, therefore, points to something profound and unsettling: that we cannot attribute explicable motivations to human behaviour, that destructive, anti-social behaviour simply is and cannot be traced to identifiable causes which, if discovered, would allow the possibility of remedy.  Is this what Shakespeare meant?

One might argue that Iago provides the audience with reasons for his behaviour.  He resents Cassio’s promotion and he thinks that Othello may have slept with his wife.  But his references to these motives are brief and sporadic, and they do not explain the misery his schemes inflict on Desdemona, towards whom he does not display any personal animosity at all.  Iago’s lack of passion has often been remarked upon, and it is a significant point to bear in mind when we start looking for explanations of his behaviour.  A character driven by resentment or by sexual jealousy would be consumed with passion, but the impression Iago leaves on the audience is one of calculating manipulation.  If he exhibits any genuine emotion at all, it is enjoyment of his own cunning.  Torments, we feel, will not open his lips because he has nothing further to reveal.

Which brings us to the significance of speech.  Iago’s final lines imply that speech, in his view, has become futile.  Everything that happened was driven by speech, so he appears to feel that, now he has been unmasked, there is nothing more worth saying.

The significance of speech is introduced at the very beginning of Othello.  The play opens in the middle of an argument between Roderigo and Iago, in which Iago exclaims, ‘you will not hear me’ (I.i.4), while Roderigo complains, ‘Thou told’st me’ (I.i.7).  As the audience quickly learns, ‘I said-you said’ is the central dynamic of the action.  Iago expresses contempt for Cassio, newly appointed as Othello’s lieutenant (a position Iago feels should have been his), labelling Cassio’s soldiership, ‘Mere prattle without practice’ (I.i.26).  We learn that Iago regards his own experience on active service as far more valuable than Cassio’s theoretical study of war, and that he attributes Cassio’s elevation to the power of ‘letter and affection’ (I.i.36); that is, personal recommendation and influence.  Iago, thereby, is established as a character who considers deeds to count for much less than words.

The consequences of this belief for Iago’s behaviour, and signs that his belief is not unreasonable, become quickly apparent.  The next scene presents Iago giving his own version of his conversation with Roderigo to Othello: ‘he prated / And spoke such scurvy and provoking terms / Against your honour’ (I.ii.6-8).  Ironically, Othello considers that his services to the state – his deeds, in other words – will protect him from ill-fortune (I.ii.18-24, 31-2), but, as the action proceeds, we realize that not deeds but words are Othello’s best protection.  It is his speech to the Senate that saves him from Brabantio’s wrath, not the memory of his prior service, and, as Othello himself explains, it was speech that drew Desdemona to him, the dilation of his pilgrimage, his ‘story’ (I.iii.153, 157).

Iago’s awareness of the effectiveness of speech as an instrument is evident in his second conversation with Roderigo towards the end of Act I.  ‘I have professed me thy friend’, he says (I.iii.332), and, ‘I have told thee / often, and I retell thee again and again, I hate the Moor.’ (I.iii.357-58).  Embedded in his speech, we see, are references to the act of speech.  He does not say, ‘I am your friend’: he says, ‘I have declared myself your friend.’  He does not say, ‘I hate Othello’: he says, ‘I have told you that I hate Othello.’  In the soliloquy that concludes the first Act, Iago says that he will ‘abuse Othello’s ear’ (I.iii.386); that is, he will exploit the power of speech to influence Othello’s perception.  In Iago’s view, speech does not mediate the truth, it constructs the truth.

There is an obvious connection with this view and the notion of personal reputation, a theme with which all readers of the play will be familiar.  When Cassio is cashiered in Act II he is distraught over his loss of reputation, ‘the immortal part’ of himself (II.iii.246).  Iago himself tells Othello that, ‘Good name in man and woman, dear my lord, / Is the immediate jewel of their souls.’ (III.iii.156-57).  Iago, of course, does not really believe this – he expressed a contemptuous view of reputation to Cassio in Act II (II.ii.251-54) – but he knows that it is a valuable commodity in the world and can to a large extent be created or destroyed by speech (we recall that he attributed Cassio’s original promotion to reputation rather than to inherent ability).  He therefore deploys speech to destroy the reputations of Cassio, Othello and Desdemona, trading cynically on his own reputation for honesty, which he knows is undeserved—a knowledge that adds to his contempt for his victims.

Lest this appear speculative, consider Iago’s brief soliloquy in the middle of the temptation scene, immediately prior to the reappearance of Othello.

The Moor already changes with my poison:

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. I did say so.

(III.iii.326-30)

Iago conceives, not just here but elsewhere in the play, of his words as ‘poison’, capable of distorting perception, generating thoughts that grow over time until they have taken complete possession of a person.  ‘I did say so’, he concludes, a remark capable of several interpretations but which, in all, reduces to the essential point that speech of and in itself is capable of constructing a person’s sense of reality.

Iago’s ultimate silence represents the defeat of this view, but the incomprehension of his accusers – ‘Torments will ope your lips’ – suggests that they have completely missed the significance of that silence, and that by looking for motives for Iago’s behaviour they are unwittingly allowing scope for future Iagos to replicate the successes of the master.  The world of the play is one in which, on the basis of speech alone, a character can say, ‘Now do I see ’tis true.’ (III.iii.445).  In this sense, Othello may be regarded as the bleakest of all Shakespeare’s tragedies—and, in our current age of spin, the most prophetic.

Rod Beecham was educated at Monash and Oxford and took his doctorate from the University of Melbourne.  He is currently preparing a biography of the poet Chris Wallace-Crabbe.  Rod is a Literature Lecturer in the Trinity College Foundation Studies Programme.

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