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Iago the Meritocrat: Conflicting Interpretations of Individualism in the Early Modern Period
Unformatted Document Text:  Nor the division of a battle knows More than a spinster; unless the bookish theoric, Wherein the toged consuls can propose As masterly as he: mere prattle, without practise, Is all his soldiership. But he, sir, had the election: And I, of whom his eyes had seen the proof At Rhodes, at Cyprus and on other grounds Christian and heathen, must be be-lee’d and calm’d By debitor and creditor: this counter-caster, He, in good time, must his lieutenant be, And I—God bless the mark!—his Moorship’s ancient. 15 It is true that, at other points within the play, Iago offers alternative explanations (especially in his confiding monologues with the audience) for his hatred of Othello and his desire to seek revenge upon him and the people who are closest to him. Furthermore, other compelling motivations have been suggested. Those reasons include psychopathic illness (as a result of a frustrated brilliant mind), racial antipathy, lustful jealousy regarding Desdemona, jealousy of the success of Othello, Michael Cassio, and other characters, and a briefly stated assertion (offered, unconvincingly, in passing) that Othello may have seduced Iago’s wife, Emilia. 16 With the exception of the final explanation, they are speculative motives. Obviously, the explanation that Iago represents an early modern individualist who is defying a system that has denied him is, in itself, highly speculative. But it has the advantage of being couched within a plausible historical and socio-political and economic context. The growing prominence of trade, merchants, artisans and a financial community was relative small in sixteenth-century Europe but it was growing. England, in particular, was beginning to prosper in its foreign and domestic commerce by the end 8

Authors: McHugh, James.
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Nor the division of a battle knows
More than a spinster; unless the bookish theoric,
Wherein the toged consuls can propose
As masterly as he: mere prattle, without practise,
Is all his soldiership. But he, sir, had the election:
And I, of whom his eyes had seen the proof
At Rhodes, at Cyprus and on other grounds
Christian and heathen, must be be-lee’d and calm’d
By debitor and creditor: this counter-caster,
He, in good time, must his lieutenant be,
And I—God bless the mark!—his Moorship’s ancient.
It is true that, at other points within the play, Iago offers alternative explanations
(especially in his confiding monologues with the audience) for his hatred of Othello and
his desire to seek revenge upon him and the people who are closest to him. Furthermore,
other compelling motivations have been suggested. Those reasons include psychopathic
illness (as a result of a frustrated brilliant mind), racial antipathy, lustful jealousy
regarding Desdemona, jealousy of the success of Othello, Michael Cassio, and other
characters, and a briefly stated assertion (offered, unconvincingly, in passing) that
Othello may have seduced Iago’s wife, Emilia.
With the exception of the final
explanation, they are speculative motives.
Obviously, the explanation that Iago represents an early modern individualist who
is defying a system that has denied him is, in itself, highly speculative. But it has the
advantage of being couched within a plausible historical and socio-political and
economic context. The growing prominence of trade, merchants, artisans and a financial
community was relative small in sixteenth-century Europe but it was growing. England,
in particular, was beginning to prosper in its foreign and domestic commerce by the end
8


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