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Iago the Meritocrat: Conflicting Interpretations of Individualism in the Early Modern Period
Unformatted Document Text:  1 Among the earliest authorities to address these critical themes are Samuel Johnson, The Plays of William Shakespeare (London: J. & R. Towson, 1765), vol. VIII, pp. 470-484, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “Notes on Othello,” in Literary Remains, Henry Nelson Coleridge, ed. (London: William Pickering, 1836), vol. II, pp. 256-262. 2 A very long list of scholars and critics have offered a standard set of explanations for Iago’s motivation, including John Jay Chapman, A Glance Toward Shakespeare (Boston 1922), pp. 45-48 (describing Iago as a representation of evil incarnate), A. B. Feldman, “Othello’s Obsession,” 9 American Imago (June 1952), pp. 151-156 (raising the claim of Iago as a furstrated homosexual), Robert Heilman, “Dr. Iago and His Potions, 28 Virginia Quarterly Review (Autumn 1952), pp. 568-584 (describing Iago as the devil), Stanley Edgar Hyman, Iago: Some Approaches to the Illusion of His Motivation (New York: Atheneum, 1970), pp. 8-28 (describing the concept of the stock stage villain, relating to the medieval morality play, representing “vice”), G. W. Knight, Wheel of Fire (London 1930) (explaining Iago as being, simply, inhuman), pp. 127-131, among many other sources. 3 A good overview of this transitional period can be found in John Gillingham and Ralph A. Griffiths, Medieval Britain: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), pp. 176-188. The actual boundary between medieval and modern periods remains vague and subject to debate, although historians frequently identify the final phase of the Middle Ages with the sixteenth century, such as Donald Sullivan, “The End of the Middle Ages: Decline, Crisis, or Transformation?” 14 The History Teacher, no. 4 (August 1981), pp. 551-565. 4 John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, Elizabeth Rapaport, ed. (Indianapolis: Hacket, 1978), pp. 62-63. This general theme and its implications are critically assessed in Gertrude Himmelfarb, On Liberty and Liberalism: The Case of John Stuart Mill (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1974), pp. 92-108. 5 Othello, act I, scene i. The edition that is used as a reference for this examination is William Shakespeare, The Riverside Shakespeare, G. Blakemore Evans, Harry Levin, Herschel Baker, Anne Barton, Hallet Smith, Marie Edel, Frank Kermode, eds. (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1996), pp. 1,246-1,296. 6 This interpretation reflects an assertion that Iago represents (consistent with both Renaissance and early liberal thought) a model of pure intellectual autonomy—again, consistent with the values and images of classic individualism, as explored in Colin McGinn, Shakespeare’s Philosophy (New York: Harper Collins, 2006), pp. 61-89. 7 The classic (and, arguably, best) explanation and evaluation of this historical perspective is provided by E. M. W. Tillyard, The Elizabethan World Picture (New York: Random House, 1968), pp. 25-37. This concept reflected an aspect of historicist analysis of this period that emphasized a

Authors: McHugh, James.
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1
Among the earliest authorities to address these critical themes are Samuel Johnson, The Plays
of William Shakespeare (London: J. & R. Towson, 1765), vol. VIII, pp. 470-484, and Samuel Taylor
Coleridge, “Notes on Othello,” in Literary Remains, Henry Nelson Coleridge, ed. (London: William
Pickering, 1836), vol. II, pp. 256-262.
2
A very long list of scholars and critics have offered a standard set of explanations for Iago’s
motivation, including John Jay Chapman, A Glance Toward Shakespeare (Boston 1922), pp. 45-48
(describing Iago as a representation of evil incarnate), A. B. Feldman, “Othello’s Obsession,” 9
American Imago (June 1952), pp. 151-156 (raising the claim of Iago as a furstrated homosexual),
Robert Heilman, “Dr. Iago and His Potions, 28 Virginia Quarterly Review (Autumn 1952), pp. 568-584
(describing Iago as the devil), Stanley Edgar Hyman, Iago: Some Approaches to the Illusion of His
Motivation (New York: Atheneum, 1970), pp. 8-28 (describing the concept of the stock stage villain,
relating to the medieval morality play, representing “vice”), G. W. Knight, Wheel of Fire (London
1930) (explaining Iago as being, simply, inhuman), pp. 127-131, among many other sources.
3
A good overview of this transitional period can be found in John Gillingham and Ralph A.
Griffiths, Medieval Britain: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), pp.
176-188. The actual boundary between medieval and modern periods remains vague and subject to
debate, although historians frequently identify the final phase of the Middle Ages with the sixteenth
century, such as Donald Sullivan, “The End of the Middle Ages: Decline, Crisis, or Transformation?”
14 The History Teacher, no. 4 (August 1981), pp. 551-565.
4
John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, Elizabeth Rapaport, ed. (Indianapolis: Hacket, 1978), pp. 62-63.
This general theme and its implications are critically assessed in Gertrude Himmelfarb, On Liberty and
Liberalism: The Case of John Stuart Mill (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1974), pp. 92-108.
5
Othello, act I, scene i.
The edition that is used as a reference for this examination is William Shakespeare, The
Riverside Shakespeare, G. Blakemore Evans, Harry Levin, Herschel Baker, Anne Barton, Hallet Smith,
Marie Edel, Frank Kermode, eds. (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1996), pp. 1,246-1,296.
6
This interpretation reflects an assertion that Iago represents (consistent with both Renaissance
and early liberal thought) a model of pure intellectual autonomy—again, consistent with the values and
images of classic individualism, as explored in Colin McGinn, Shakespeare’s Philosophy (New York:
Harper Collins, 2006), pp. 61-89.
7
The classic (and, arguably, best) explanation and evaluation of this historical perspective is
provided by E. M. W. Tillyard, The Elizabethan World Picture (New York: Random House, 1968), pp.
25-37. This concept reflected an aspect of historicist analysis of this period that emphasized a


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