On the Acting of Iago
THE civil war which ended by placing the Puritans in power, and making Oliver Cromwell king of England under the name of Lord Protector, had for one of its consequences a solution of dramatic continuity which is of great importance in the history of the English theatre. The glories of the Elizabethan drama, indeed, had faded away rapidly during the reign of Charles I., having begun to wane in the later years of his father. It was in the traditions of the stage that the break was so sudden and so complete.
In 1642 the Elizabethan school of acting came to an end with the compulsory closing of the theatres; and although only eighteen years elapsed before they were reopened, in that time not only had all the old school of actors passed away, but with them had disappeared the taste which they had formed. At the return of Charles II. the theatres were reopened ; but the old English drama was not revived. Shakespeare’s plays, Beaumont and Fletcher’s, Jonson’s, were not performed. A new drama appeared in England, that known as the drama of the Restoration, — a base thing, witty but flimsy, and as devoid of real humor as of serious strength ; and with it came a new school of acting. Consequently, when, after many years of smut and smirk, Shakespeare’s plays began to be performed again, the actors were thrown wholly upon their own resources ; they were without any guide to the conception of his characters. Their predecessors before the Commonwealth had the beneiit of traditions which came, during an interval of little more than twenty-five years, directly down from Shakespeare himself, and which, but for that great political and social upturning of England, would have remained unbroken to the present day. The new school of actors were obliged, in theatrical phrase, to “ create ” the Shakespearean characters anew, without the guidance of the dramatist, who in all eases, it need hardly be said, has a formative influence upon the first presentation of his personages to the public.
Hence there was a great loss to the world; for the traditions of the stage are among the most enduring of immaterial things. How enduring they are, even as to minute points, is shown by evidence which is clear and unmistakable in regard to a trifling piece of stage “ business ” in Hamlet. In the scene of that tragedy in which the second appearance of the Ghost interrupts the interview between Hamlet and his mother, it was the modern custom, until very lately, for the prince to spring from his seat with such violence as to throw down the chair on which he was sitting. Now in 1709, Nicolas Rowe published the first edited collection of Shakespeare’s plays ; and each play had a frontispiece illustrating one of its most conspicuous scenes. The frontispiece to Hamlet illustrates the scene in question, and shows us Hamlet in an enormous flowing wig, startled out of his propriety, and his chair flung down in the foreground. We thus see that even this little trick was handed down from actor to actor, and held its place upon the stage for more than a hundred and fifty years. In all plays that have kept the stage for a long time there are traditional points not only like this, but of a more subtle and more important sort in regard both to character and action, which, without affecting the individuality of the principal actors, perpetuate certain traits and outlines of the visible play, and which we may be sure had more or less the approval of the author, many of them, doubtless, being of his suggestion. It is thus that Molière’s and Corneille’s and Racine’s dramas are performed at the Théâtre Francais. And but for the interruption caused by the civil war, and the success of the Puritans, we may be sure that we should have had Shakespeare’s own notions of his personages handed down to us from actor to actor. For he was not only the author of his plays (although some folk will have it that they were written for him by Bacon), but in actor hi them : he was on the stage, ready to give direction and suggestion to his brother actors who assumed the principal parts. The loss of these traditions is irreparable and deplorable.
Among the personages of his dramas who have suffered by this loss, and who are presented as he did not conceive them, is Jaques in As You Like It, who, as we see him on the stage, is as unlike the Jaques of the comedy as one man can be unlike another. The Jaques of the stage is a sentimental young man, who wanders about the Forest of Arden, mooning and maundering in a soft and almost silly way ; a sweet-voiced young fellow, with dark eyes and dark curls, who is pitiful of wounded stags, and given to moods of tender melancholy ; a moralizing dandy, whom the real Jaques would have made the butt of his ridicule. Shakespeare’s Jaques is an elderly man of the world, a selfish, captious, Crusty, clever cynic. In person he should be represented as a portly man of some sixty years of age, with gray in his beard, a head partly bald, and a constant sneer upon his lips. He had been a high liver and a hard liver ; so much so that the Duke sharply rebukes him for his censure of others when he himself was open to severest censure for his past life. The misconception of his character is the consequence chiefly of a misapprehension of the meaning of the word melancholy as applied to him, — “ the melancholy Jaques.” But Jaques’s melancholy was a sort of ill-nature, a morose feeling towards his fellow-men. Briefly, it was cynicism ; and this he shows not only in his act and speech, but in the description of it which he gives, Act IV. Scene i. : “ I have neither the scholar’s melancholy, which is emulation, nor the musician’s, which is fantastical, nor the courtier’s, which is proud, nor the soldier’s, which is ambitious, nor the lawyer’s, which is politic, nor the lady’s, which is nice, nor the lover’s, which is all these; but it is a melancholy of mine own, compounded of many simples, extracted from many objects, and indeed the sundry contemplation of my travels, in which my often rumination wraps me in a most humorous sadness.” This view of his character was set forth in Shakespeare’s Scholar, but although it has since then been generally accepted by critics of Shakespeare, no actor has had the hardihood to displace the traditionary young sentimentalist of the stage, and give us the elderly cynic that Shakespeare conceived and wrought out with his finest skill. The modern stage tradition as to Jaques had its origin at a time — more than a hundred years after Shakespeare’s death — when As You Like It began to come upon the stage again, and when the word melancholy had changed its significance. We may be sure that but for the civil war and the Puritans, tradition would have given us a Jaques of a very different character.
A much greater — we cannot say grander or nobler—■ conception of Shakespeare’s has suffered in like manner from the interruption of the traditions of the Elizabethan stage. I mean lago. It cannot be that the lago of the modern stage is, either in external appearance or in his characteristic traits, the man who deceived and betrayed Desdemona, Cassio, and Othello, lago, as Shakespeare presents him to any careful and thoughtful student of the tragedy, is entirely unlike the coarse although crafty villain who has held possession of the stage from the time of the revival of the Shakespearean drama until the present day. The latter is a creature of conventional and theatrical traits of person and of action, whom Shakespeare would not have allowed to occupy the stage for a single scene. Most of the Iagos that I have had the opportunity of observing — I cannot say of studying, for they were of such rude making, were such mere animated human formulas, that they neither required nor admitted study — would not have deceived a school-girl. Desdemona would have been far beyond their shallow scheming, and Othello would have brushed them out of the way with a back blow of his mailed hand. Even the best of them, Junius Brutus Booth and his gifted and accomplished son Edwin, failed entirely to apprehend Shakespeare’s ideal of this master villain of the world’s literature. The worst of them was he who played Iago to the greatest of Othellos, Salvini, on his first visit to the United States, some eight years ago. Upon this Iago Othello would have set his heel in their first interview, and crushed him out of existence like a noisome venomous reptile, — an insect; for he had not the dignity of a vertebrate animal. And yet this act or merely presented in a very complete and much elaborated way the common stage conception of the evil genius of the great tragedy. That conception is a subtle, fawning, crawling hypocrite, who, for some not very apparent reason, wishes to do as much harm as he can, and who accomplishes his ends by unscrupulous lying of more or less ingenuity. The character of this personage rests upon the foundations of malice and hypocrisy ; and the object of those who represent him is to present an embodiment of malice and hypocrisy, pure and simple. The result is a very exaggerated form of a very commonplace scoundrel. Salvini’s ancient was quite perfect of his kind, and therefore attained the eminence of being the most insufferable and aggressively offensive Iago that ever trod the stage. He managed in dress and in carriage, as well as in face, so to advertise his malice, and above all his hypocrisy, that he was in very deed the most loathsome creature, morally and physically, that I ever looked upon. Such a caitiff Iago was in fact, but not in seeming.
Before going on to consider the various passages of the tragedy which indicate Shakespeare’s conception of this personage — hardly inferior to any of his creations in its union of complexity and strength, and perhaps the most widely known of all of them as a type — it may be well to describe the real Iago, who, so far as my knowledge goes, has never been presented on the modern stage.
Iago was a young man, only twentyeight years old,—the youngest of all the men who figure in the tragedy, excepting, possibly, Roderigo. He says of himself that he has looked upon the world for four times seven years. Brave, and a good soldier, he was also of that order of ability which lifts a man speedily above his fellows. His manners and his guise were of a dashing military sort; and his manner had a corresponding bluntness, tempered, at times, by tact to a warm-hearted effusiveness, — by the very tact which prompted the bluntness. For that, although not exactly assumed, was consciously adopted. Nevertheless, he had little malice in his composition ; and unless for some good reason he would rather serve than injure those around him. He made himself liked by all, and was regarded not only as a man of great ability in his profession and of sagacity in affairs, but as a warm-hearted, “ whole-souled ” man, and the very prince of good fellows. Being all this, and being genial and sympathetic, he was eminently popular. He was, moreover, a heartless, selfish, coldblooded, unprincipled, and utterly unscrupulous scoundrel.
It was because he was this manner of man that he was able to work that woful ruin in which the love of Othello and Desdemona ends,—a ruin which in its extremity, however, he did not plan, and did not at first desire. In fact, he had no inclination to do harm to any one; he would not have gone out of his way to tread upon a worm, if it had kept out of his way, and been no barrier to his success in life.
It is needless to say that no such Iago has been seen upon the stage for the last two hundred years ; there is no memory or record of him. The elder Booth’s Iago was an admirable performance, almost wonderful in its force and keeping. I saw it in my boyhood just as this great actor was staggering off the stage ; and nothing equal to it have I ever seen except Rachel’s performances. But it was the simple, strong representation of a hardened, crafty villain, a monster of hate and of cruelty. The climax of the whole performance was in the Parthian look which Iago, as he was borne off wounded and in bonds, gave Othello, — a Gorgon stare, in which hate seemed both petrified and petrifying. It was frightful. Edwin Booth’s conception of the character, although not so clear and strong, is finer, more delicate, and more complex. His Iago is not externally a mere hardened villain, but a super-subtle Venetian, who works out his fiendish plans with a dexterous lightness of touch and smooth sinuosity of movement that suggest the transmigration of a serpent into human form. And in his visage, and above all in his eye, burn the venom of his soul, which makes his face at times look snake-like, as we say, — erroneously, however ; for the eyes of a snake do not burn and flash ; on the contrary, they have their hideous look because of a dull and stony malignancy of expression. But even Edwin Booth’s Iago, although much finer and more nearly consistent with itself and with the facts of the tragedy than any other that is known to the annals of the stage, is not the Iago that Shakespeare drew, and whose lineaments, moral and physical, have just been set before the reader. The chief cause of the general failure to present this character truly is the disposition and habit of the stage — a disposition and habit not unknown to real life — to divide men into classes, and to regard them individually as the embodiment. of some one passion, or motive, or type of character. Iago is a crafty hypocrite ; and therefore the stage has sought to set before us his hypocrisy and his craft in such a manner that they in combination are Iago. The best Iago of the modern stage is hypocrisy and craft embodied, and he is nothing else. Now the truth is that the embodiment of such a simple combination of moral baseness and mental subtlety was not in Shakespeare’s mind, and is a quite impossible agent and element of the confusion and disaster of the tragedy.
The most strongly marked external traits of Shakespeare’s Iago, the Iago who was known in Venice and rose rapidly in general favor there, were honesty and a warm heart: honesty of the kind which is notably outspoken and trustworthy ; warmth of heart which seems to have sympathy for all men, not only in all their hopes and sorrows, but in all their little likings and small personal vanities. Is there any wonder that such a man was popular and got on in the world, — that he was in favor with the best and greatest? For he was not a mere flatterer, however skillful. The most marked trait in this bold soldier’s character (to all eyes but one) was his good faith. As if with a premonition of the coming misconception and misrepresentation of his creature, and to put his seeming character beyond misapprehension, Shakespeare applies the epithet “ honest ” to him no less than sixteen times in the course of the tragedy. Such a description — we may almost say such a labeling — of another of his personages is not to be found in all the multitude that throng through his thirty-seven dramas. And this is the more worthy of note because in the Italian story out of which the play was made there is no hint of this trait of Iago’s character, nor indeed of any of his complex moral and mental constitution. He is absolutely and exclusively Shakespeare’s conception, His trustworthiness, because of his truthful nature and his warm and friendly heart, is the attractive trait of his character to those around him up to, and even past, the catastrophe which his cruelly indifferent selfishness brings about. Othello, after he has killed Desdemona, pauses in his agony to call his tormentor and destroyer “ my friend, honest, honest Iago.” All the principal personages of the tragedy, Desdemona and Cassio included, thus regard him ; although Cassio, himself a soldier, is most impressed by Iago’s personal bravery and military ability. In speaking of him, he not being present, the lieutenant calls him “ the bold Iago,” and in his presence says to Desdemona that she “ may relish him more in the soldier than in the scholar.” But Othello was chiefly attracted by his honesty and kindly nature. He speaks of him to the Senate as a man “of honesty and trust,” calls him “most honest,” says he is of “ exceeding honesty,” and indeed shows in all his conversation with him his absolute unquestioning reliance upon his good faith, — a good faith which is not mere uncontaminated purity from deceit, but an active, benevolent honesty which seeks the best good of others.
For loving kindness was hardly less than honesty an attractive feature of lago’s character. Othello constantly speaks of the love that he finds in his “ ancient.” His sympathies are always ready, always manifest. When Cassio is involved in the brawl, Othello, in the first outburst of his wrath, says,—
“Honest Iago, that look’st dead with griving, Speak, who began this ? On thy love, I charge thee.”
The man deceived even his wife ; for she, speaking the next day to Desdemona of Cassio’s disgrace, says, —
Now it is plain that Iago had no particular reason or occasion to deceive his wife on this point. He merely showed to her what he showed to everybody, a readiness to sympathize with the joys and sorrows and wishes of those around him. Emilia, a woman of the world, a woman of experiences, who knew her husband better than many wives know theirs, is yet imposed upon by this surface warmth and skin-deep glow of his character. It is not until the climax of the tragedy that even she is undeceived.
In the eyes of his friends and acquaintances Iago was not merely an honest man and a good-natured one, after the semblance of ordinary honesty and good nature. These traits were salient in him ; they distinguished him from other men. And they were his noted peculiarities of character among his acquaintances long before he had any temptation to reveal his real and inner nature, which, until the temptation came, was possibly but half known to himself. That temptation was the elevation of Cassio to the lieutenancy, — this lieutenancy being a place second in rank to that of a general officer.
For this honest, warm-hearted, effusively sympathetic man was a soldier of such approved valor and capacity, and so highly regarded, that when the lieutenant-generalship was vacant, notable men of Venice concerned themselves to have the young officer promoted to the place; for which they made personal suit to Othello, — an incident which in itself shows not only lago’s military distinction, but his success in attaching others to his interests. And Shakespeare, as if to put the full complement of Iago’s personal gifts beyond a question (he gives to Iago’s character a particularity of description as rare as that which he gives to Imogen’s beauty), makes Othello say of him that he “knows all qualities, with a learned spirit of human dealings.” Indeed, there is hardly a man of Shakespeare’s making, except Hamlet, who is set before us as possessing the manifold personal gifts, accomplishments, and attractions which won for Iago such distinction and such favor in the highest society of Venice.
As to the make of him, and what he really was, Iago by a very evident special design of the dramatist reveals himself fully in the first scene. After setting forth the promotion of Cassio as the cause of his ill-will to Othello, and expressing his contempt for such honest knaves (that is, merely such honest serving-men) as do their duty for duty’s sake, he says, —
Who, trimmed in forms and visages of duty,
Keep yet their hearts attending on themselves,
And, throwing but shows of service on their lords,
Do well thrive by them, and when they have lin’d their coats
Do themselves homage. These fellows have some soul;
And such a one I do profess myself.”
And again, in his soliloquy at the end of the first act, he shows us the same selfish, unscrupulous nature, but no disposition to malice, or even to needless mischief, — only a cruel heartlessness. Even the Roderigos of the world would have remained unharmed by him, unless he could have gained something by their injury. The very man who “ makes a corner ” in stocks or in provisions, by which he ruins'the acquaintance with whom he dined yesterday, and brings unknown widows and children to want, is not freer from personal malice towards his victims than Iago was from ill-will towards his. He would much rather have attained his ends by doing them a service. But let a worm or a friend bar his way, and he would rack and rend the one just as quickly and coolly as he would crush the other.
Some other traits of Iago’s character, which are manifested incidentally, notably a certain coarseness, and a lack of any tenderness or sentiment towards women, or any faith even in the best of them, I pass by with mere allusion ; although those which I have particularly mentioned are made by Shakespeare, with a great master’s subtleness and truth, marked elements in the composition of such a man.
In the creation of Iago the author of Othello had, as I have already remarked, no help or hint from the story out of which he made his tragedy, nor from any precedent play, so far as we know, — a rare isolation and originality in Shakespeare’s personages. The Iago of the Italian story is a coarse, commonplace villain, who differs from Shakespeare’s Iago in this very point that he is a morose, malicious creature. His soul is full of hatred ; he has the innate spontaneous malignity which some critics have found in Iago, and have attributed to the creative powers of Shakespeare, but which Shakespeare’s creation is entirely and notably without.
It was no mere villain, however black, no mere embodiment of cruelty, however fiendish, that Shakespeare saw in his idea of Iago. In that conception and in its working out he had a much more instructing, if not instructive, purpose. Such a purpose he seldom seems to have; nor does his own feeling toward his evil creatures manifest itself except on very rare occasions, and then slightly and by implication. But upon Iago he manifestly looked with loathing and with horror, although he spent upon him the utmost powers of his creative art. In Iago Shakespeare has presented a character that could not have escaped his observation ; for it is of not uncommon occurrence except in one of its elements,—utter unscrupulousness. But for this, lago would be a representative type, — representative of the gifted, scheming, plausible, and pushing man, who gets on by the social art known as making friends. This man is often met with in society. Sometimes he is an adventurer, like lago, but most commonly he is not; and that he should be so is not necessary to the perfection of his character. The difference in their social conduct between him and a genuine man is that this one is simply himself, and forms friendships (not too many) with those whom he likes and those who, taking him as they find him, like him; while the other lays himself out to make friends, doing so not always with the direct and specific purpose of establishing a social connection, but because it is his nature to, as the sea monster which preys upon its own kind throws out its alluring bait which is part of itself, whether there are fellow-fish in sight or not. This is not only his way of getting on, but his way of going through life. He accomplishes his purpose somewhat by flattery, of course, but less by direct flattery than by an ever-springing sympathy, and a readiness to help others in the little affairs in which their vanity or their pleasure is concerned. Sympathy in purposes and tastes is the finest, subtlest, most insidious flattery ; the lack of it repels shallow souls and thoughtless minds as surely as a rock will turn aside a shallow brook, — and how many men are there who are not shallow, and who do think ? As to helpfulness, you may be ready to watch with men when they are sick, to fight for them when they are in peril, to relieve them when they are in trouble ; but if you are careless about their little vanities and their little pleasures, you will be set down by most of them as ill-natured, selfish, and coldhearted. The opportunities of doing real service are rare ; the union of opportunity and ability is still rarer ; but every day brings occasion to gratify the
prurience of your neighbor’s vanity by the tickling of direct flattery, or to soothe it with the soft caress of seeming sympathy. The men who become popular, the women who achieve social success (except by the brute force of sheer money), are not those who are ready to visit the fatherless and the widow in their affliction, or who have in their hearts that charity which seeketh not its own, which thinketh no evil, but which beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things; they are rather they who do seek their own, and who think much evil, but who are ready to minister to the vanity and to serve the interests of those around them. And chiefly they are the former ; for not only are opportunities of service, even in small matters, comparatively rare, but the memory of service, substantial although it be, is not fed upon daily, like the words and sympathetic acts that are so hungrily swallowed into the bottomless maw of human vanity. He who once promoted his friend’s interest in a serious matter is less sure of being remembered with pleasure and gratitude than he who daily burns sweet-smelling incense before his nostrils. Therefore, if you would get on, if you would make to yourself friends of the mammon of unrighteousness, — as, if you are provident, you will, —if you would become popular, flatter ; flatter in every way, by word and deed; flatter everybody, without discrimination. For although this ought to make your praise actually worthless, even as flattery, the number of those who will remember anything else than this sigu of your good-will to them and their pleasure while they were in the company of such a warm-hearted and truly appreciative person as you are will be so small that in reckoning the social forces which you have to manoeuvre they need not be counted. Nor let your flattery stop with words. Be ready to further all the little projects of your acquaintances in which their personal vanity is involved. Help your stupid, pompous, ambitious friend to a place on a committee that will bring his name into print in a desirable connection. Do all you can to make the receptions of his awkward, vulgar, overdressed wife brilliant, and — yet more important — do all that you can to make her believe that they are brilliant. If to such charming social qualities you can add a reputation for candor and good faith, — which you can do by your art, if you are worthy of the highest social honors, and in which you will be aided by the readiness of people to believe in the candor of such an appreciative and sympathetic person as you are, — you will attain the height of popularity, and find all around you ready to promote your interests and rejoice in your good fortune. You will have made everybody your friend.
This sort of friend-maker is, as I have said, common enough ; but he rarely attains perfection, because he is rarely able to prevent his own personal likings and dislikings from influencing his conduct in some degree, and dulling the flavor of his flattery, or checking the effusiveness of his sympathy. He has, however, one quality in which he is complete : he is thoroughly selfish, — to the bottom of his soul. Amid all his good-fellowship, his conviviality, with all his heartiness of manner, his cheering speeches, and his ready sympathy, he has a sharp outlook for his own interest. The one constant thought of his life is to get on. This man who falls in with your humor, who slaps you (morally, if not physically) on the back, who makes you feel so well satisfied with yourself, and who is so ready to help you, if not to that which you really need, to that which you vainly fancy, — if not to the favor of Desdemona, to that of Bianca, has a single eye to his own advantage and his own profit. Watch him, and see how he prospers. See how, although he makes friends of all, he attaches himself to the powerful, the rich, the successful; but chiefly see how he uses all, rich and poor, great and small, for his own advancement. Watch him closely enough, and you will discover that this genial fellow, who radiates loving-kindness, is at heart stonily indifferent to anything but self.
It was this kind of man that Shakespeare chose as the type of supremest villainy, His Iago is first and chiefly the most popular young man in Venice. He has assiduously made himself so, because he knows that all his ability (which he does not in the least overrate) will not help him on so much as popularity will ; and that popularity brings not only success in the long run, but immediate opportunities of gain. He makes friends everywhere, — with the great ones of the state, but no less with the Roderigos. He wins everybody to trust him, in matters good and bad indifferently, that their confidence may be his profit.
Thus far Iago’s character is one not rare in any society nor at any time. Yet it has been misapprehended; and the cause of its misapprehension is the one element in which it is peculiar. Iago is troubled with no scruples, absolutely none. He has intellectual perceptions of right and wrong, but he is utterly without the moral sense, He has but one guide of conduct, — self-interest. It is often said of men that their ruling motive is self-interest, and that they are unscrupulous. But, fortunately for the world, men who are wholly without scruples, and who know no other guide of conduct than self-interest, are so very rare that few of us have the opportunity of observing such a man. Very selfish and very unscrupulous men we may all see. We may suffer from them ourselves, and if we do not we may loathe them for their cruel disregard of the interests and the happiness of others, when these clash with their interests or their pleasures. But almost all such men have a limit, if not to their selfishness, at least to their moral unscrupulousness. They will be very bold and very disregardful of right and wrong up to a certain point, and that may be near the vanishing point of moral sense. But there is a degree of moral recklessness at which they stop; and the consequence frequently is failure and sometimes ruin, — failure and ruin which might have been turned into success by pushing past the scruple, and disregarding everything, everything but the selfish end in view. Well for the world’s peace that it is so. For if to ability a man unites thorough unscrupulousness, there is no limit to the evil he may do; absolutely none, except the limit which is put by the end of him.
Now to his ability, his popular manners, his reputation for honesty and courage, and his supreme selfishness Iago added the great accomplishment of complete villainy, an absolute indifference to right and wrong. It was mere indifference. He had no special preference for wrong doing. If by doing right he could have prospered as well as by doing wrong, he would have done right, because right doing is more respectable and popular and less troublesome than wrong doing. But for right and wrong in themselves he had neither like nor dislike, and there was no limit to the degree of wrong that he was ready to do to attain his ends, — this fellow of exceeding honesty, who knew all qualities with a discerning spirit, and whose daily life was an expression of love and sympathy. And his capacity of evil was passive as well as active. He did not quite like it. (for some unexplained reason) that there was reason to suspect his wife with Othello ; but yet he had borne the scandal prudently, lest resentment, might interfere with his promotion. But when Cassio was made his general’s lieutenant the disappointed man coolly reckoned the fact as one of the motives of his action. His main purpose, however, indeed his only real purpose, was to ruin Cassio and get his place. As the readiest way and the most thorough way of ruining Cassio was to ruin Desdemona with him, well, Desdemona must be ruined, and there an end ; no more words about the matter. But her ruin in this way must surely involve her death at Othello’s hands. Well, then she must be murdered by her husband ; that’s all. But this would torture Othello. No matter. All the better, perhaps, — serve him right for preferring that theorizing military dandy to the place which belonged to a better soldier.
Iago, however, had no thought of driving Othello to suicide. Far from it. Had he supposed the train he laid would have exploded in that catastrophe. he would at least have sought his end by other means. For Othello was necessary to him. He wanted the lieutenancy, and he was willing to ruin a regiment of Cassios, and to cause all the senators’ daughters in Venice to he smothered, if that were necessary to his end. But otherwise he would not have stepped out of his path to do them the slightest injury ; nay, rather would have done them some little service, said some pretty thing, shown some attaching sympathy, that would have been an item in the sum of his popularity. There is no mistaking Shakespeare’s intention in the delineation of this character. He meant him for a most attractive, popular, goodnatured, selfish, cold-blooded, utterly unscrupulous scoundrel. The fact that pains are taken to show us that his very wife up to the last had confidence not only in the goodness of his heart, but, notwithstanding his suspicions of her (which she well knew), in his good faith to Othello, can have but. one meaning and one purpose.
As to the presentation of Iago on the stage, the indications are that it should be somewhat in this wise : His makeup and costume should be that of a dashing young military officer. In the first act he should wear velvet and lace. In the second, when he lands from the ship, he should be in armor, — breastplate and back-piece, cuirasses, vantbras, and gorget, which he should retain throughout this act; nor afterwards should he be without a marked military exterior. His manner and bearing should be remarkable for ease, frankness, and an overflowing kindness; and in particular he should be gay in a soldierly and slightly blunt fashion. He should seem to carry the lightest heart of all the personages of the drama, and should be the last one of them whom a spectator uninformed as to the nature and story of the play would suppose to have an evil design or a selfish purpose, but, on the contrary, the one whom such a person would pick out as the warmest hearted, the most trustworthy, and the merriest of them all. His manner towards Othello should be that of a subordinate to a heroic superior whom he loves and almost worships. To Desdemona he should bear himself with a mixture of deference, admiration, and coarse masculine cynicism. To Cassio he should behave like a brother in arms, with perhaps an occasional slight excess of deference to his superior officer, indicative of the jealousy that rankles in his bosom. To Emilia he should carry himself with a blunt and overtopping marital good-nature. And he should avoid all side glances of spite and hate and suspicion ; and except when he is quite alone, and communing with himself, no one either off the stage or on it should see the slightest reason to suspect that he is a villain, or to doubt the genuineness of his gayety and goodnature. It is worthy of remark that in the carousal scene, in the beginning of the second act, he is the gayest of all. He alone sings a drinking-song; and soon again he sings a jolly ballad. His is the only singing voice heard in the course of the drama, except poor Desdemona’s. His distinguishing external traits are sincerity, warmth of heart, and a light-hearted, soldierly gayety. His utter baseness and cold cruelty of soul should appear in the heartiness and simplicity of his manner in the scenes in which he tempts and tortures Othello, and in the quick alternation between his friendly and sympathetic interviews with Roderigo and Cassio and his killing the one and wounding the other. Both these murders (murders in intent) were, howeveri, merely to remove in the quickest and surest way obstacles to his purpose. His only exhibition of personal malice is in the killing his wife, who is the chief cause of the final failure of his schemes. He does not slay her with any purpose of avenging her imputed dishonor of him with the Moor; there is no such likeness between even the savage sides of their natures. He rather had submitted to that wrong in politic silence, willing to accept it as one of the steps in his promotion.
This is the Iago that Shakespeare drew, — a man whom he had seen, and whom we all have often seen, moving through society and making friends on every side, and who yet at bottom is utterly selfish, stony-hearted, and grasping. The dramatist added to the traits of this common type only the element of absolute unscrupulousness, which, although rare, is possibly not so rare as the course of events might lead us to suppose. The moral of Iago’s part in the tragedy is: Distrust the man whose peculiar faculty, or chief desire, is to make friends. He is likely to be selfish ; and if selfish he needs only temptation and opportunity to he a scoundrel.
There is but one difficulty about this presentation of Iago. I am inclined to think that the average modern theatregoer would regard it as a tame and spiritless performance ; and the business of the actor is to please the average theatre goer.
Richard Grant White.