Conceit and Self-Worth According to Iago
In Shakespeare’s play Othello, the character of Iago takes on the role of a person warped within his own thoughts and feelings. Although people today have the benefit of psychology, back in the 1600s people with severe psychological disorders were left un-medicated and free to roam as citizens of society. Although Iago would have benefited from medication of today, in his mind he was the best, even though his own imagination got the better of him and fed his own misguided mentality. One of the best examples of this warped mentality is a conversation which Iago has with Othello mid-way through the play (3.3.160-66). As one analyzes Iago’s words, the depth and complexity of his mental unrest ooze between the lines of this speech. And after careful analysis of the complexity of Iago’s thoughts in this speech, Iago’s psychological shortcomings of conceit and self-worth unravel before our eyes.
At first glance, as Iago starts to verbally protect his reputation in the eyes of Othello, who has accused Iago of “…conspir[ing] against thy friend…” (3.3.147), Iago appears to be speaking of the nature of his reputation. But the lines can be analyzed on a much deeper level. When Iago says, “Good name in man and woman, dear my Lord…” (3.3.160), the obvious first impression is that he is issuing the beginning of a statement about his own reputation. But, deep within the layers, this statement can be seen as a start in expressing how Iago feels about Othello having taken his reputation as a man and smashed it in the public eye. Iago mentions early in the play that, “…it is thought abroad that ‘twixt my sheets / He has done my office” (1.3.369-70). By this earlier statement we see that Iago has been plagued with rumors that his reputation as a married man has been defiled.
Even as Iago continues his thought, transitioning from the beginning of this stanza and completing it into the next, a more complex meaning of interpretation can be seen. As he opens his speech with the introduction of one’s reputation, he completes the thought with reference to said reputation as “…the immediate jewel of their souls” (3.3.161). Seemingly, this statement refers to one’s reputation as being of greatest interpersonal value. Upon deciphering both the passage and play, there are two prominent features that stand out from this portion of the speech. The first of these features is that reputation is obviously of importance in Iago’s mind to men only, even though he speaks of both men and women. This is evident earlier in the play as Iago belittles his own wife, describing his wife’s position in the home as, “You rise to play and go to bed to work” implying that women have no need to consider their reputation since their work is so obviously meant for the bedroom (2.1.118). And yet, the second feature which is reflected within the these line takes on a different and more personal feeling for Iago, that of his own reputation as a tarnished jewel which he feels is ruined by the Moor passing him over for a higher military position. Iago throws out to Roderigo, “…And I – God bless the mark! – his Moorship’s ensign” as if the position is of a disgraceful nature (1.1.32).
Further into the speech Iago makes an attempted stab at portraying material possessions as substances of little importance. This line strikes me as bold. Although Iago speaks of the “purse,” I can’t help but wonder if there is an undertone of material possessions with regard to, as Othello believes, the misplaced handkerchief. It is as though he mocks and bates Othello for being so concerned about such a simple material object as he says, “Who steals my purse steals trash; ‘tis something, nothing:…” (3.3.163). Soon after this, Iago speaks to himself of the recently obtained handkerchief, “Trifles light as air / Are to the jealous confirmations strong / As proofs of holy writ. This may do something” (3.3.326-28). Iago’s hunch plays out correctly as the handkerchief turns out to be the demise of Othello’s relationship with Desdemona and, due to Othello’s encouraged jealousy, eventually leads to Othello murdering his wife and himself.
When you wrap the previous line regarding the theft of Iago’s purse with the next line, “’Twas mine, ‘tis his, and has been slave to thousands…” (3.3.163), there is again an obvious intent and hidden meaning. Again, an obvious interpretation would be that many a person has been a slave to finances and that he does not wish to be compelled to be one of those slaves. The unspoken undertone of the latter portion of these two lines speaks more of Iago’s discontent again at being passed over for the higher position in Othello’s military regimen. During the initial scene, Iago’s conversation with Roderigo, in which he pours out much of his anger to Roderigo, Iago simply states, “Why, there’s no remedy. ‘Tis the curse of service” (1.1.34), implicating the ever familiar feeling that many soldiers even today feel of having no recourse on decisions of their welfare.
Looking further at this last statement, Iago’s conversation regarding his hurt pride can be considered as Iago throwing forth his attitude once again with regard to women. When rereading, “’Twas mine, ‘tis his, and has been slave to thousands” we see the old ways of thinking about women exemplified (3.3.163). We already know that Iago’s feelings about women are reflective of the culture of the time; that women are dismal creatures put on Earth only to please man and raise heirs for the family name. In his conversation with Desdemona, Iago has no difficulty expressing his feelings about women’s place in society. After Iago describes his ideal woman, Desdemona spurs Iago on by asking what women are to do; to this, Iago willing offers, “To suckle fools, and chronicle small beer” (2.1.162). This was a direct insult on all women implicating servitude to domesticity and wench-hood. Thereby, this statement can be read as: women belong to him, women belong to others, and have belonged as slaves to thousands.
From there Iago completes the circle of his speech back to the consequence of his ruined reputation. “But he that filches from me my good name / Robs me of that which not enriches him / And makes me poor indeed” (3.3.164-66). Early in the play Iago expresses his feelings that the Moor is more interested in his own personal gain than in than seeing to the welfare of others around him:
Others there are
Who, trimmed informs and visages of duty,
Keep yet their hearts attending on themselves,
And, throwing but shows of service on their lords,
Do well thrive by ‘em, and they have lined their coats,
Do themselves homage (1.1.49-54).
These lines implicate Iago’s feeling that Othello would rather look good in the eyes of his higher-ups by appointing people of good public persona than follow the tradition of putting those who have earned the title by tenure of service in higher ranks. Thereby Iago assumes Othello has no concern as to how Iago will look in public having been passed over for a mere accountant.
In yet another twist in reading these last three lines of this speech, one can conjecture a sense of Iago’s disdain toward Cassio. As much as Iago is bitter at Othello for passing him over, Iago is equally bitter at Cassio for having the rank Iago feels he deserves. Previous to this speech in the play, Iago makes note that Cassio was “…a great arithmetician…That never set a squadron in the field…” (1.1.18&21). With Cassio’s lack of battle skills, Iago feels free on several occasions throughout the play to condescend Cassio by calling him a fool and toys even in conversation with Cassio about such matters as reputation. After a drunken brawl breaks out, caused by Iago’s cunning, manipulative abilities, Cassio becomes injured. Iago takes this opportunity to discuss said matters of reputation. After reminding Cassio of his honesty as a man, Iago ploys, “Reputation is an idle and most false imposition, oft got without merit / and lost without deserving” (2.3.251-52). Hence, we wonder, was Iago speaking of Othello, or Cassio? Or both?
Within this albeit short speech we get a strong glimpse at how tangled the web of Iago’s mind can be. We get a feel for the depth of his psychological unrest and see how his mind can wrap quickly his feelings from one person to another in one quick jump of phrases. In these seven short lines we see Iago’s self-concern about how others perceive him, we see his own fixation on how great he sees himself, and we see how he deceives himself. For me, Iago’s psychosis intrigues me to read this play again and again since, on a very basic level, most of us can probably see parts of Iago within ourselves, no matter how deep within ourselves we have to look.