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Iago’s insincere ‘sincerity’

Othello:
She loved me for the dangers I had passed,
And I loved her that she did pity them. (1.3.166-167)

With these simple words, Othello describes to the Senate, how this rare, unexpected love had blossomed between himself and Desdemona, despite all the differences between them, of race, age and life experiences. We are left in no doubt about his sincerity.

But what is it that makes these twenty syllables sound sincere? 

The answer lies in the rhythm that these words fall into – that rhythm that underscores blank iambic verse. Here’s how the pulse falls:

She loved me for the dangers I had passed,
And I loved her that she did pity them.
 

This ‘iambic’ rhythm mirrors our heart beat, and gives ‘life’ to the lines once we hear them spoken. They sound natural – ‘heart-felt’ – but more surprisingly, when we ourselves are being sincere we too tend to fall into this iambic way of speaking. I hear it in myself when I am sharing thoughts that I feel strongly about, and Charles Dickens reported that whenever he was in earnest he too heard himself speaking in this rhythm.

For me blank verse is ‘the sound of sincerity’. But it is only the sound of sincerity, because – and Iago is the prime example of this – it is possible for someone to sound sincere, when in fact they are lying through their teeth.

‘Honest’ Iago will poison the atmosphere of the play, so all that is good and loving in it will be destroyed – not by his actions, but by what he‘ll say, the suggestions he’ll make to Othello, Cassio and Roderigo. The very words he’ll use will turn this love story into a bloody tragedy.

Iago poisons the atmosphere of the play before it has really started – an argument in the dark, full of swearing, sexual disgust and characters being abused; Iago voicing racial taunts against Othello, and describing the, as yet, unconsummated love between Othello and Desdemona, as the copulating of farm animals:

Iago:
Even now, now, very now, an old black ram
Is tupping your white ewe. (1.1.91-92)

However, his devilish cunning lies not only in his ‘insincere’ use of blank verse, but in the way he sometimes chooses to speak in prose. 

Prose is not ‘the sound of sincerity’. Prose is its opposite; it is a smoke screen, hiding one thought behind another; it deals in wit, inventive ideas, speaking cleverly. And most of the six hundred or so lines of prose in this play are instigated by Iago.

Shakespeare frequently uses prose when he’s capturing the way soldiers talk to each other, who tend to hide their true feelings behind a mask of witty, worldly toughness. 

Othello will be undermined by Iago’s insincere verse. But before he can begin to shatter Othello’s confidence in Desdemona’s chastity, he has to work on Cassio and Roderigo, to get them to take on the roles he has created for them. Prose with its easy-flowing witty surface will be the language that is able to seduce them, because they’ll be aware that what Iago is suggesting to them is somewhat underhand, and in Roderigo’s case pure evil. But the cleverness of Iago’s prose masks what lies beneath.

Roderigo, now enlisted into the army by Iago, is a loutish simpleton, and in love, as he thinks, with Desdemona. Iago has befriended him and is milking him of his money. Now by browbeating him with words, Roderigo begins to be convinced by Iago’s outrageous suggestions that he might become Desdemona’s lover: 

Iago:
These Moors are changeable in their wills…
The food that to him now is as
luscious as locusts, shall be to him shortly as bitter as
coloquintida. She must change for youth. When she is
sated with his body she will find the error of her choice...
thou shalt enjoy her. (1.3.344-355)

Roderigo, knowing nothing about the world, or about women, is being groomed by Iago, ready to kill Cassio in return for having sex with Desdemona. 

Later when Cassio is disgraced for causing a riot, Iago suggests that Cassio could get back into Othello’s favour, by asking Desdemona to speak to Othello on his behalf. Iago’s prose here sounds on the surface like honest soldierly advice, but Cassio will come close to being murdered because of it:

Iago: 
Confess yourself freely to her. Importune
her help to put you in your place again. She is of so
free, so kind, so apt, so blessed a disposition, that she
holds it a vice in her goodness not to do more than she
is requested… And my fortunes against
any lay worth naming, this crack of your love shall
grow stronger, than it was before. (2.3.306-313)

Less than a couple of minutes later, Iago is telling us in verse how he intends to use the advice he has given Cassio – now speaking to the audience with a voice of ‘devilish sincerity’:

Iago: 
For whiles this honest fool
Plies Desdemona, to repair his fortune,
And she for him pleads strongly to the Moor,
I’ll pour this pestilence into his ear -
That she repeals him, for her body’s lust. (2.3.339-343)

Iago’s plan takes shape as we watch him; and as he watches us watching him, we become complicit in his devilry. By listening to him, it’s as if we encourage him to tell us more.  Now all’s in place for Othello’s destruction.

It’s not only that Iago’s blank verse sounds sincere, it’s the way Iago manages to suggest that behind his simple questions and answers are a host of thoughts too terrible to express: 

Iago:
Did Michael Cassio, when you woo'd my lady,
Know of your love?

Othello:
He did, from first to last:
Why dost thou ask?

Iago:
But for a satisfaction of my thought,
No further harm.

Othello:
Why of thy thought, Iago?

Iago:
I did not think he had been acquainted with her.

Othello:
O yes, and went between us very oft.

Iago:
Indeed?

(3.3.93-100)

Iago’s ‘Indeed’ speaks volumes. Later, suddenly – out of the blue – Iago utters the word ‘jealousy’,

Iago:
O, beware, my lord, of jealousy.
It is the green-eyed monster, which doth mock
The meat it feeds on. (3.3.167-169)

And once Iago has released that word into the play, it’ll be repeated many times over, right to the end.

With verse it is the small things that make all the difference. The fact that the word ‘jealousy’ is at the end of the line makes its impact felt more acutely. It is always where the line is reaching to that is important.  So Iago will be able to let the word ‘jealousy’ hover there to startle Othello the more.

Looking at how the rhythm of lines work reveals more. Here is an exchange from somewhat earlier in that same scene:

Iago:
My lord, you know I love you.

Othello:
I think thou dost.
(3.3.118-119)

This is a ‘shared’ line: Othello completes the line that Iago has started. This usually implies that the second speaker comes in on cue, though here something different happens. In this monosyllabic line there are eleven words, not ten.

Iago:
My lord, you know I love you.

Othello:
I think thou dost.
(3.3.118-119)

Marking in the rhythm, we can see that neither Iago’s ‘you’, nor Othello’s ‘I’ receive the pulse. What happens here is that Othello hesitates before he speaks; he experiences a brief moment of uncertainty. Might Othello be about to call a halt to this conversation? Might Iago’s machinations come to nothing?

This is the magic of verse in action – that it can capture all these nuances of speech and character. For Shakespeare, let us remember, verse represents not some heightened language, but simply the sounds of people talking. 

Without Iago there would be no play. Othello and Desdemona would have blissfully begun their married life on the island of Cyprus, the birthplace of Venus. None would die, Cassio would not have been maimed.

At the end Iago is almost an irrelevance – a ‘nothing’. He who had words aplenty for all occasions, now has none. Here’s his final line to those on stage:

From this time forth, I never will speak word. 
(5.2.322)

It is perhaps the only sincere verse statement he makes to them in the whole play.

Giles Block

Globe Associate - Text