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Iago the Meritocrat: Conflicting Interpretations of Individualism in the Early Modern Period
Unformatted Document Text:  Iago the Meritocrat Conflicting Interpretations of Individualism in the Early Modern Period James T. McHugh, Roosevelt University One of Shakespeare’s most fascinating characters is the principal antagonist of his tragedy, Othello: The Moor of Venice. Iago has intrigued and perplexed audiences and critics for centuries, not only because of his cleverness and ruthlessness but, also, because of his motivation. He is an interesting character simply in his role as a soldier who, eventually, betrays his trusting commanding officer, Othello, through deceit, leading to his downfall and the downfall of other people in relation to him. Beyond his actions, though, his underlying motives have proven to be elusive to audience and critics, alike. 1 In fact, identifying those motives has been a particularly challenging exercise for scholars, largely because Iago often is perceived as failing to provide an adequate explanation for the terrible actions in which he engages. His ultimate goal is understood to be revenge. However, the precise injury that he seeks to avenge is, at least somewhat, ambiguous—especially compared to the magnitude of the destruction that he inflicts. 2 Othello was written, as were all of Shakespeare’s plays, during a pivotal time in English and European history. The end of the sixteenth century and the beginning of the seventeenth century could be identified as the final phase in the transition from late medieval norms, institutions, and values to the early modern period. Of course, there is no clear dichotomy between the medieval and the modern and this transition had been occurring for centuries. But, especially in England, the beginning of the seventeenth century and the end of the Tudor dynasty (marked by the death of Queen Elizabeth I in the same year as this play was first performed) represented a final stage of that transition, 1

Authors: McHugh, James.
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Iago the Meritocrat
Conflicting Interpretations of Individualism in the Early Modern Period
James T. McHugh, Roosevelt University
One of Shakespeare’s most fascinating characters is the principal antagonist of his
tragedy, Othello: The Moor of Venice. Iago has intrigued and perplexed audiences and
critics for centuries, not only because of his cleverness and ruthlessness but, also, because
of his motivation. He is an interesting character simply in his role as a soldier who,
eventually, betrays his trusting commanding officer, Othello, through deceit, leading to
his downfall and the downfall of other people in relation to him. Beyond his actions,
though, his underlying motives have proven to be elusive to audience and critics, alike.
1
In fact, identifying those motives has been a particularly challenging exercise for
scholars, largely because Iago often is perceived as failing to provide an adequate
explanation for the terrible actions in which he engages. His ultimate goal is understood
to be revenge. However, the precise injury that he seeks to avenge is, at least somewhat,
ambiguous—especially compared to the magnitude of the destruction that he inflicts.
Othello was written, as were all of Shakespeare’s plays, during a pivotal time in
English and European history. The end of the sixteenth century and the beginning of the
seventeenth century could be identified as the final phase in the transition from late
medieval norms, institutions, and values to the early modern period. Of course, there is
no clear dichotomy between the medieval and the modern and this transition had been
occurring for centuries. But, especially in England, the beginning of the seventeenth
century and the end of the Tudor dynasty (marked by the death of Queen Elizabeth I in
the same year as this play was first performed) represented a final stage of that transition,
1


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