Close reading of Iago’s soliloquy
This soliloquy brings Act One of Othello to a rousing and ominous close. The whole first Act we have been made aware of Iago’s feelings of animosity towards “the Moor” (Shakespeare l. 368) but it is here where we finally see, unmasked, his utter disgust for Othello, and Iago’s need to gain revenge. Shakespeare’s language – its sounds, images and diction – works to impress on the audience various elements of Iago’s state of mind, not least his feelings of hatred and an insight into the mind of evil.
Shakespeare works particularly with at least two kinds of sound in this piece. First, he chooses words which sound particularly harsh and spiteful in order to express his hatred towards Othello. Take, for example, the utterance “I hate the Moor” (368). Hatred is expressed in the blunt simplicity of the utterance – four frank monosyllables. And it is there, obviously, in the strong word “hate,” whose “a” can be elongated (“haaaaaate”), even to outrageous proportions as in Sir Ian McKellern’s portrayal (Othello).
Shakespeare expresses Iago’s general nastiness through sounds, too; for example, see (or listen to) the alliterative spikiness of “snipe” and “sport,” as well as “profane” and “profit” (Shakespeare ll. 366-368). Sound, specifically the phrasing of the passage, also gives the audience a sense of the movement of Iago’s argument. Initially, Iago is angry, but hesitant: Why do I feel this way? What shall I do? Such hesitancy is expressed through the many caesurae in the first section of the speech, such as “Cassio’s a proper man; let me see now;” (374) and of course “How?
How? Let’s see ” (376). All these stops make us feel Iago thinking through the problem, stopping and starting along the way. By the end of the speech, through rhyme and (finally) a fluid, non-broken line, Iago has his plan worked out: “Hell and night / Must bring this monstrous birth to the world’s light” (385-6). As an argument-laden passage, Shakespeare’s words do not contain many images, but those that are here are powerful in their expression of ideas.
Roderigo, for example, is referred to as “a snipe” (367), which as Edward Pechter explains in the accompanying footnote, is a “long-billed bird, used as a type of worthlessness. ” Roderigo is a little bird, a nothing, and perhaps the long bill connotes a kind of getting involved in business in which he is out of his depth. Another small image is that of Emilia’s possible affair – which allegedly occurred “’twixt my sheets” – a striking sense that Iago’s frustrations are sexually motivated. Perhaps the most striking image, however, is that of Othello as donkey, who “will as tenderly be led by the nose / As asses are.
In this image, the audience clearly sees how much Iago despises Othello, characterizing him as slow, stupid, and easily manipulated. The diction of this passage principally shows an evil, intelligent mind at work. Not only do the caesura mark hesitancy and at mind at work, but they also indicate the complexity of that mind. Iago works through things in a start-stop way, perhaps, but he still does so logically. Notice, therefore, his use of logical markers among his words: “For,” But,” “And,” “Yet,” “for,” “After,” and so on. He takes us with him through his argument.
Knowledge and evidence also seem to be on Iago’s mind; notice, at the start of the speech, “mine own gained knowledge” (366) and later “I know not if’t be true” (370). Knowledge is important to Iago, of course; he needs it in the play to be able to manipulate people, principally Othello, Rodrigo and Cassio. But as a manipulator, Iago is clearly not a hero-figure, and his diction generally reflects this. While his ideas might be devilishly clever, his words are not particularly difficult or laden with imagery, like his nemesis, Othello.