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self, so none can be understood by himself: his character being partly derived, must also be partly interpreted, from the particular state of things in which he lives, the characters that act with him, and upon him.
It may be from oversight of these things, that the first Act in Othello has been thought superfluous. If the rise, progress, and result of the Moor's passion were the only aim of the work, that Act might indeed be dispensed with. But we must first know something of his character and the characters that act upon him, before we can rightly decide what and whence his passion is. This knowledge ought to be, and in fact is, given in the opening scenes of the play.
Again We often speak of men as acting thus or thus, according as they are influenced from without. And in one sense this is true, yet not so, but that the man rather determines the motive, than the motive the man. For the same influences often move men in different directions, according to their several predispositions of character. What is with one a motive to virtue, is with another a motive to vice, and with a third no motive at all. On the other hand, where the outward motions are the same, the inward springs are often very different so that we cannot rightly interpret a man's actions, without some forecast of his actuating principle; his actions being the index of his character, and his character the light whereby that index is to be read. The first business, then, of a drama is, to give some preconception of the characters which may render their actions intelligible, and which may itself in turn receive further illustration from the actions.
Now, there are few things in Shakespeare more remarkable than the judgment shown in his first scenes; and perhaps the very highest instance of this is in the opening of Othello. The play begins strictly at the beginning, and goes regularly forward, instead of beginning in the middle, as Johnson would have it, and then going both ways. The first Act gives the prolific germs from which the whole is evolved; it is indeed the seminary of the whole play, and unfolds the characters in their principles, as the other Acts do in their phenomena. The not attending duly to what is there disclosed has caused a good deal of false criticism on the play; as, for example, in the case of Iago, who, his earlier developments being thus left out of the account, or not properly weighed, has been supposed to act from revenge; and then, as no adequate motives for such a revenge are revealed, the character has been thought unnatural.
The main passions and proceedings of the drama all have their primum mobile in Iago; and the first Act amply discloses what he is made of and moved by. As if on purpose to prevent any mistake touching his springs of action, he is set forth in various aspects having no direct bearing on the main course of the play. He comes before us exercising his faculties on the dupe Roderigo,
and thereby spilling out the secret of his habitual motives and impulses. That his very frankness may serve to heighten our opinion of his sagacity, the subject he is practising upon is at once seen to be a person who, from strength of passion, weakness of understanding, and want of character, will be kept from sticking at his own professions of villany. So that the freedom with which he here unmasks himself only lets us into his keen perceptions of his whens and hows.
We know from the first, that the bond of union between them is the purse. Roderigo thinks he is buying up Iago's talents and efforts. This is just what Iago means to have him think; and it is something doubtful which glories most, the one in having money to bribe talents, or the other in having wit to catch money. Still it is plain enough that Iago, with a pride of intellectual mastery far stronger than his love of lucre, cares less for the money than for the fun of wheedling and swindling others out of it.
But while Iago is selling pledges of assistance to his dupe, there is the stubborn fact of his being in the service of Othello ; and Roderigo cannot understand how he is to serve two masters at once whose interests are so conflicting. In order, therefore, to engage his faith without forsaking the Moor, he has to persuade Roderigo that he follows the Moor but to serve his turn upon him. A hard task indeed; but, for that very cause, all the more grateful to him, since, from its peril and perplexity, it requires the great stress of cunning, and gives the wider scope for his ingenuity. The very anticipation of the thing oils his faculties into ecstacy; his heart seems in a paroxysm of delight while venting his passion for hypocrisy, as if this most Satanical attribute served him for a muse, and inspired him with an energy and eloquence not his own.
Still, to make his scheme work, he must allege some reasons for his purpose touching the Moor: for Roderigo, gull though he be, is not so gullible as to entrust his cause to a groundless treachery; he must know something of the strong provocations which have led Iago to cherish such designs. Iago understands this perfectly he therefore pretends a secret grudge against Othello, which he is but holding in till he can find or make a fit occasion; and therewithal assigns such grounds and motives as he knows will secure faith in his pretence; whereupon the other gets too warm with the anticipated fruits of his treachery to suspect any similar designs on himself. Wonderful indeed are the arts whereby the rogue wins and keeps his ascendancy over the gull! During their conversation, we can almost see the former worming himself into the latter, like a corkscrew into a cork.
But Iago has a still harder task, to carry Roderigo along in a criminal quest of Desdemona; for his character is marked rather by want of principle than by bad principle, and the passion with which she has inspired him is incompatible with any purpose of
dishonouring her. Until the proceedings before the Senate, he hopes her father will break off the match with Othello, so that she will again be open to an honourable solicitation; but, when he finds her married, and the marriage ratified by her father, he is for giving up in despair. But Iago again besets him, like an evil angel, and plies his witchcraft with augmented vigour. Himself an atheist of female virtue, he has no way to gain his point but by debauching Roderigo's mind with his own atheism. With an overweening pride of wealth Roderigo unites considerable respect for womanhood. Therefore Iago at once flatters his pride by urging the power of money, and inflames his passion by urging the frailty of woman for the greatest preventive of dishonourable passion is faith in the virtue of its object. Throughout this undertaking, Iago's passionless soul revels amid lewd thoughts and images, like a spirit broke loose from the pit. With his nimble fancy, his facility and felicity of combination, fertile, fluent, and apposite in plausibilities, at one and the same time stimulating Roderigo's inclination to believe, and stifling his ability to refute, what is said, he literally overwhelms his power of resistance. By often iterating the words, "put money in your purse," he tries to make up in earnestness of assertion whatever may be wanting in the cogency of his reasoning, and, in proportion as Roderigo's mind lacks room for his arguments, to subdue him by mere violence of impression. Glorying alike in mastery of intellect and of will, he would so make Roderigo part of himself, like his hand or foot, as to be the immediate organ of his own volitions. Nothing can surpass the fiendish chuckle of self-satisfaction with which he turns from his conquest to sneer at the victim :
"Thus do I ever make my fool my purse;
For I mine own gain'd knowledge should profane,
But for my sport and profit."
So much for Iago's proceedings with the gull. The sagacity with which he feels and forescents his way into Roderigo is only equalled by the skill with which, while clinching the nail of one conquest, he prepares the subject, by a sort of forereaching process, for a further conquest.
Roderigo, if not preoccupied with vices, is empty of virtues; so that Jago has but to play upon his vanity and passion, and ruin him through these. But Othello has no such avenues open the villain can reach him only through his virtues; has no way to work his ruin but by turning his honour and integrity against him. And the same exquisite tact of character, which prompts his frankness to the former, counsels the utmost closeness to the latter. Knowing Othello's "perfect soul," he dare not make to him the least tender of dishonourable services, lest he should repel his confidence, and incur his resentment. Still he is quite moderate in his
professions, taking shrewd care not to whiten the sepulchre so much as to provoke an investigation of its contents. He therefore rather modestly acknowledges his conscientious scruples than boasts of them; as though, being a soldier, he feared that such things might speak more for his virtue than for his manhood. And yet his reputation for exceeding honesty has something suspicious about it, for it looks as though he had studied to make that virtue somewhat of a speciality in his outward carriage; whereas true honesty, like charity, naturally shrinks from being matter of public fame, lest by notoriety it should get corrupted into vanity or pride. Iago's method with the Moor is, to intermix confession and pretension in such a way that the one may be taken as proof of modesty, the other, of fidelity. When, for example, he affects to disqualify his own testimony, on the ground that "it is his nature's plague to spy into abuses," he of course designs a contrary impression; as, in actual life, men often acknowledge real vices, in order to be acquitted of them. That his accusation of others may stand the clearer of distrust, he prefaces it by accusing himself. Acting, too, as if he spared no pains to be right, yet still feared he was wrong, his very opinions carry the weight of facts, as having forced themselves upon him against his will. When, watching his occasion, he proceeds to set his scheme of mischief at work, his mind seems struggling with some terrible secret which he dare not let out, yet cannot keep in; which breaks from him in spite of himself, and even because of his fear to utter it. He thus manages to be heard and still seem overheard, that so he may not be held responsible for his words, any more than if he had spoken in his sleep. In those well-known lines, -"Good name, in man and woman, is the immediate jewel of their souls," &c., -he but gives out that he is restrained only by tenderness to others from uttering what would blast them. And there is, withal, a dark, frightful significance in his manner, which puts the hearer in an agony of curiosity: the more he refuses to tell his thoughts, the more he sharpens the desire to know them: when questioned, be so states his reasons for not speaking, that in effect they compel the Moor to extort the secret from him. For his purpose is, not merely to deceive Othello, but to get his thanks for deceiving him,
It is worth remarking, that Iago has a peculiar classification, whereby all the movements of our nature fall under the two heads of sensual and rational. Now, the healthy mind is marked by openness to impressions from without; is apt to be overmastered by the inspiration of external objects; in which case the understanding is kept subordinate to the social, moral, and religious sentiments. But our ancient despises all this. Man, argues he, is made up altogether of intellect and appetite, so that whatever motions do not spring from the former must be referred to the latThe yielding to inspirations from without argues an ignoble want of spiritual force; to be overmastered by external objects,
infers a conquest of the flesh over the mind; all the religions of our nature, as love, honour, reverence, according to this liberal and learned spirit are but "a lust of the blood and a permission of the will," and therefore things to be looked down upon with contempt. Hence, when his mind walks amidst the better growings of humanity, he is "nothing, if not critical:" so he pulls up every flower, however beautiful, to find a flaw in the root; and of course flaws the root in pulling it. For, indeed, he has, properly speaking, no susceptibilities; his mind is perfectly unimpressible, receives nothing, yields to nothing, but cuts its way through every thing like a flint.
It appears, then, that in Iago intellectuality itself is made a character; that is, the intellect has cast off all allegiance to the moral and religious sentiments, and become a law and an impulse to itself; so that the mere fact of his being able to do a thing is sufficient reason for doing it. For, in such cases, the mind comes to act, not for any outward ends or objects, but merely for the sake of acting; has a passion for feats of agility and strength; and may even go so far as to revel amid the dangers and difficulties of wicked undertakings. We thus have, not indeed a craving for carnal indulgences, but a cold, dry pruriency of intellect, or as Mr. Dana aptly styles it, "a lust of the brain," which naturally manifests itself in a fanaticism of mischief, a sort of hungering and thirsting after unrighteousness. Of course, therefore, Iago shows no addiction to sensualities on the contrary, all his passions are concentrated in the head, all his desires eminently spiritual and Satanical; so that he scorns the lusts of the flesh, or, if indulging them at all, generally does it in a criminal way, and not so much for the indulgence as for the criminality involved. Such appears to be the motive principle of Satan, who, so far as we know, is neither a glutton, nor a wine-bibber, nor a debauchee, but an impersonation of pride and self-will; and therefore prefers such a line of action as will most exercise and demonstrate his power.
In our remarks on Edmund, we have observed that he does not so much make war on morality, as shift her out of the way, to make room for his wit: seeing his road clear but for moral restraints, he politely bows them out of door, lest they should hinder the free working of his faculties. Iago differs from him, in that he chooses rather to invade than elude the laws of morality: when he sees Duty coming, he takes no pains to play round or get by her, but rather goes out of his way to meet her, as if on purpose to spit in her face and walk over her. That a thing ought not to be done, is thus with him a motive for doing it, because, the worse the deed, the more it shows his freedom and power. When be owns to himself that "the Moor is of a constant, loving, noble nature," it is not so much that he really feels these qualities in him, as that, granting him to have them, there is the greater merit