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Iago the Meritocrat: Conflicting Interpretations of Individualism in the Early Modern Period
Unformatted Document Text:  for the coat of arms and, this time, the request was granted, ostensibly in recognition for unspecified “faithful services” of John’s grandfather to King Henry VII. The consequence of this grant included the privilege of displaying that coat of arms, using the word “gentleman” after his name, and the use of the title “Mister” in front of his name. It has been surmised that the ultimate factor behind this grant was recognition of the growing success of John Shakespeare’s son. Furthermore, it has been suggested that William would have been pleased with that decision, not just for the sake of his father but, also, because, rather than having earned that distinction, himself, William could claim to have inherited it. 12 The significance of that claim may be indicated in the second scene of the final act of his play, The Winter’s Tale. Within that play, the Old Shepherd and his son decide that they deserve to be treated as “gentlemen born” when they are knighted in appreciation of their loving treatment of Perdita. The preordained nature of such a distinction is, apparently, more impressive than its act-specific meritorious nature. 13 This interpretation of Iago within the context of this play does not, necessarily, contradict traditional explanations by other scholars and critics. Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s description of Iago as “motiveless malignity,” for example, still can be applied toward an interpretation of Shakespeare’s ultimate attitude toward this character, even when Shakespeare’s motive is further examined in this way. 14 But this alternative interpretation places the play and its antagonist within a broader social context. Therefore, it provides insight into aspects of late Elizabethan and early Jacobean society and politics, especially in relation to the author and his audience. That insight, in turn, offers a potentially better understanding of early modern England and the rest of Europe 6

Authors: McHugh, James.
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for the coat of arms and, this time, the request was granted, ostensibly in recognition for
unspecified “faithful services” of John’s grandfather to King Henry VII. The
consequence of this grant included the privilege of displaying that coat of arms, using the
word “gentleman” after his name, and the use of the title “Mister” in front of his name. It
has been surmised that the ultimate factor behind this grant was recognition of the
growing success of John Shakespeare’s son. Furthermore, it has been suggested that
William would have been pleased with that decision, not just for the sake of his father
but, also, because, rather than having earned that distinction, himself, William could
claim to have inherited it.
The significance of that claim may be indicated in the second scene of the final
act of his play, The Winter’s Tale. Within that play, the Old Shepherd and his son decide
that they deserve to be treated as “gentlemen born” when they are knighted in
appreciation of their loving treatment of Perdita. The preordained nature of such a
distinction is, apparently, more impressive than its act-specific meritorious nature.
This interpretation of Iago within the context of this play does not, necessarily,
contradict traditional explanations by other scholars and critics. Samuel Taylor
Coleridge’s description of Iago as “motiveless malignity,” for example, still can be
applied toward an interpretation of Shakespeare’s ultimate attitude toward this character,
even when Shakespeare’s motive is further examined in this way.
But this alternative
interpretation places the play and its antagonist within a broader social context.
Therefore, it provides insight into aspects of late Elizabethan and early Jacobean society
and politics, especially in relation to the author and his audience. That insight, in turn,
offers a potentially better understanding of early modern England and the rest of Europe
6


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