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A Lust of the Blood and a Permission of the Will - Iago's Art of Persuasion

Updated on October 1, 2011

Iago has always been, for me, one of Shakespeare's most compellingly drawn characters. Of all the characters in Othello, Iago appears above his peers for his perceptiveness, perspective and humor. He offers more insight into the human condition then any of the others. Certainly as "honest Iago," the character is compelling as a witty, virtuous companion. It is easy to understand why his peers enjoy his company and his counsel, and many of his arguments remain applicable to the ethos of modern western civilization. It is equally mysterious, if not poignant, that he seems to follow none of his own good advice and often locates a loophole in his reasoned argument that provides justification for his most outrageous actions.

Iago's remarks to Roderigo after the audience with the Duke are demonstrative of the highly persuasive nature and delivery of his argument. The passage I focused on concerns love, and Roderigo's self-pitying comment about wanting to kill himself because he could not have Desdemona. It demonstrates Iago's rhetorical prowess and abilities as a wise confidant, always keying into root and offering encouraging words that are accepted hungrily. It is interesting to consider why Othello did not make Iago his lieutenant, given his superior battle experience and often insightful comments about humanity.

Roderigo: What should I do? I confess it is my shame to be so fond, but it is not in my virtue to amend it.

Iago: Virtue? A fig! ‘Tis in ourselves that we are thus, or thus. Our bodies are our gardens, to which our wills are gardeners; so that if we will plant nettles or sow lettuce, set hyssop and weed
up thyme, supply it with our gender of herbs or distract it with many - either to have it sterile with idleness or manured with industry - why, the power and corrigible authority of this lies in our
wills. If the balance of our lives had not one scale of reason to poise another of sensuality, the blood and baseness of our natures would conduct us to the most prepost'rous conclusions. But we have reason to cool our raging motions, our carnal strings or unbitted lusts, whereof I take this that you call love to be a sect or scion. (I,iii)

Roderigo is saying that he is a slave to his feelings for Desdemona, believing he hasn't the moral strength to control them. Iago's answer penetrates to the heart of the matter, namely the nature of love and fate and to each its own reply.

As is the case with his defense of wine to Cassio, Iago first excuses virtue from responsibility. Instead, it is our will, our free will, that determines our individual destiny. For Iago, we always have a choice of what we can become. The example being that if we plant nettles we are planting for the purpose of making cloth; if we "sow lettuce" we are planting for food. If we don't work for what we want, our will becomes sterile and powerless. In Iago's eyes, if the will is "manured with industry," if it is attended for that which we want, it thrives and we get what we want. In either case, the only power to change our lives is "in our wills."

The second part of the answer connects with the first part by suggesting that our wills represent our reason, that which supposedly separates us from mindless action or reaction. Poised against our reason is our nature, the base and primordial instincts, playing puppeteer with the procreative drives of our ancient selves.

So to Roderigo it is our virtue, that which is bestowed upon us like fate, that determines how we act. Iago says quite the opposite. It is our free will that makes us who we are, and the only fate involved is the one we cultivate ourselves. It is our reason that stands balanced against our natures, keeping us from following our primal lusts. Roderigo is implying that love is part of this base nature while Iago's argument rejects holding virtue accountable for our actions and feelings.

Iago uses several metaphors in this comment to draw his point. The first is that of gardens to our bodies and gardeners to our wills. The comment's reference to the Book of Genesis and the Garden of Eden. The cause of exile for Adam and Eve from Eden, from a perfect and "natural" state, was that they had eaten from the tree of knowledge. Because Adam chose to eat the apple, he demonstrated that he had free will to do so.

It is "our wills" as the gardeners of our destiny, not nature or virtue or other things bestowed by God. Despite the serpent and Eve, Adam still had a choice, and he chose knowledge. The other prominent metaphor is to the scale, the symbol for justice and the balancing instead of our reason against our nature. It is our reason that keeps the baseness from overwhelming and consuming us with primal appetites. And our primal rage is cooled by the force of our reason. It is maintained in balance as long as the will and reason have strength.

Iago, like Othello, is a man of action. To him, it is far better to die trying to get what you want then to die because you could not have it. Iago's plot with Roderigo is an essential ingredient in the foundation of his plan to revenge himself on nearly everyone. His method for luring Roderigo is by appealing to his reason, not his passion. This is an interesting twist and it is what makes Iago so wonderfully devious. He does not rail publicly against the presumed injustice of the promotion of Cassio but instead reasons out his plot for revenge privately. It is his very public pronouncement of his own inadequacies and biases that make him "honest Iago," a man who holds no illusions about himself and is hence positioned to truthfully observe the illusions of others. And it is by these illusions that Iago expertly manipulates the actions and emotions of the other characters. He is indeed a powerful puppeteer.

Iago's attitudes about love are curious because they don't permit the notion that love can compel beyond reason. It is an estimation of a very limited power of love, one incapable of unbalancing reason. Iago instead talks about the importance of self-love as being the most essential aspect of love. It is this justification that he uses to pursue his course of vengeance, convincing himself of the justness of his cause. In one light, if Iago followed his own advice in this passage, he would let "reason cool our rage motions," and forgive Othello for choosing Cassio over him. He would be "honest Iago," accepting his position with equanimity. But as the complete Iago, he is saying that others are responsible for his condition and that it is his reason that dictates the course of his revenge. Iago is himself suffering from a "lust of the blood and a permission of the will," the very thing he counsels Roderigo against. And it is this complexity, in a sense a very familiar internal human struggle, that makes Iago's character as rich as it is.


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