Siarhei (Serge) Hudzen
May 1st, 2015
The Beast in Shakespeare’s “Othello”
"What is left when honor is lost?" This question, asked by Publilius Syrus, a known writer of the Ancient Rome during the times of Caesar, serves as a basis for the struggle between Othello and Iago. Both men are engaged in a battle over Othello’s honor. Iago is intent on destroying Othello’s sense of honor and reducing him to a bestial state. Iago views Othello as a beast masquerading in warrior’s dress. He wants to return Othello to what he believes to be his natural bestial state, and he realizes that to achieve this goal he must dupe Othello into violating his code of honor. Ironically, as Iago tries to unmask Othello’s bestiality, it is the beast within Iago that is exposed. This bestiality is rather an image of the savagely cruel behavior of both Iago and Othello throughout the play, and is what defines each of these main characters. Iago is the character that more accurately fits the definition of beast. According to “The Book of Beasts”, "the word ‘beasts’ should properly be used about lions, leopards, tigers, wolves, foxes, dogs, monkeys and others which rage about with tooth and claw--with the exception of snakes. They are called Beasts because of the violence with which they rage, and are known as ‘wild’ (ferus) because they are accustomed to freedom by nature and are governed (ferantur) by their own wishes" (7). Iago is synonymous with the snake. He, too, is governed entirely by his own wishes. This animal instinct, combined with his superior intelligence, makes Iago a dangerous cross between man and beast or, as Othello calls him, a "demi-devil" (5.2.303).
From the beginning of the play, Iago’s view of Othello as a beast is obvious. Iago repeatedly describes Othello in terms of animals. When Iago attempts to incite Brabantio’s anger, he does so by referring to Othello in vulgar, bestial terms. He says to Brabantio, "Even now, now, very now, an old black ram / Is tuping your white ewe" (1.1.89-90). He continues with, "you’ll have your daughter cover’d with a Barbary horse; / you’ll have your nephews neigh to you; / you’ll have coursers for cousins and gennets for germans" (1.1.110-114). He even exclaims to Brabantio that "your daughter and the Moor are now making the beast with two backs" (1.1.117-118). Each of these animalistic phrases could be viewed only as Iago’s attempt to anger Brabantio if it were not for the fact that Iago also refers to Othello as an animal when he is alone. In his soliloquy at the end of Act 1, Iago says that Othello "will as tenderly be led by th’nose / As asses are" (1.3.395-936). Whether alone or accompanied, Iago’s views on Othello are clear; he sees him as "an erring barbarian" (1.3.350). This is the main reason why he believes that Othello is the one who can truly be deceived into committing murder. Iago’s reasons for wanting Othello to murder Desdemona are never satisfactorily explained, which is a trait similar to that of an animal who acts irrationally and spontaneously, with no reason behind its actions. As Iago himself says, "What you know, you know" (5.2.306). He gives various reasons for wanting to destroy Othello, but none ring completely true. He is disgruntled because of Cassio’s promotion over him. He suspects Othello of bedding his wife. But why is he determined to have Othello murder Desdemona? His plot seems based on sport rather than reason. As he states himself, But for my sport and profit. I hate the Moor: / And it is thought abroad, that 'twixt my sheets / He has done my office: I know not if't be true; / But I, for mere suspicion in that kind, / Will do as if for surety. (1.3.12) Iago takes pleasure in controlling the Moor’s actions. He truly hates Othello, but his hate is not grounded in any firm reason. As the play progresses, Iago’s motive never fully crystallizes, but his determination to dupe Othello into murder, thereby destroying his sense...
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