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Flattery in Shakespeare's Othello: the relevance of Plutarch and Sir Thomas Elyot.

"How to Tell a Flatterer from a Friend" is the title of one of Plutarch's most famous Moralia, but the phrase could just as easily be the subtitle of Shakespeare's Othello. Flattery and false friendship were topics that preoccupied many people during the Renaissance, a period in which private connections were even more important than today in determining a person's economic success, social status, and even his deeper sense of self-worth. We pride ourselves, in the present era, on objective measurements of merit, including impartial testing, "blind" reviews, and the detached assessments of disinterested peers. Of course, establishing personal connections--winning friends and influencing people--is hardly unimportant even now, but in the early modern period the process of achieving (and maintaining) social status and social security depended crucially on earning the trust and respect of others. (1)

Plutarch's essay was designed to address a crucial problem: how could one determine whether a person who seemed a friend was really a friend in fact? This dilemma was much more puzzling than it might at first appear, since Plutarch (and many others) insisted that the most skillful and dangerous flatterers were also the least obvious, and were extremely difficult to distinguish from true comrades. Spotting an obvious flatterer was easy, but discerning a clever one was a much harder task. Shakespeare's Iago, of course, is one of the cleverest false friends of all time, and indeed Marvin Rosenberg has argued that it is only Othello's friendship with Iago that can explain the abruptness and depth of the Moor's transformation from a noble and respected commander to the tragic killer of a deeply loving wife. "What," Rosenberg asks, "could subvert such nobility? And betray it into murder? Only ... betrayal by a friend so close, so trusted, that Othello has no choice but to listen to him." (2) In this essay I plan to focus in close detail on one of the most crucial scenes of such betrayal in the play--act 4, scene 1. I hope to show, with some precision, how that scene depicts Iago acting successfully as exactly the kind of false friend with whom Plutarch and so many others were so much concerned. Finally, I hope that this detailed discussion of Othello and Iago will help complicate our sense of the characterizations Shakespeare offers of each figure. Othello is less a foolish dupe who falls victim to the connivings of a satanic Machiavel (as some critics have alleged) than a basically (if flawed) good man betrayed by an apparently good friend. (3)


Before proceeding to a close discussion of the opening scene of act 4, it may be worth asking a few simple questions that seem not to have been very fully addressed: could Shakespeare have read Plutarch's famous essay? Might a reading of that essay have helped influence his depiction of Iago? We know that Shakespeare was enormously influenced by Plutarch's other writings in crafting many of his other plays; is it possible that Plutarch also influenced Othello?

Asking these questions is simple enough, but answering them is not. Fortunately, though, one hardly needs to prove that Shakespeare could have read Plutarch's essay in order to show that ideas similar to Plutarch's could easily have influenced his thinking. In fact, part of my purpose here is to itemize (apparently for the first time) some of the texts Shakespeare might have known that may have influenced not only his thinking but also the thoughts of his audience as they contemplated the problem of how to tell a flatterer from a friend.

Plutarch's essay would have been easily available to Shakespeare in the edition of the Moralia translated by Philemon Holland and published in London in 1603. Shakespeare, by that year, had already demonstrated a profound interest in Plutarch's historical work, the parallel Lives, in the edition translated by Sir Thomas North from the French of Jacques Amyot. It is therefore easy to imagine that he would have been extremely interested in the appearance of an English version of the Moralia in 1603. It is possible, in fact, that Holland's translation may have been in existence several years earlier than this date of publication would suggest, since a version of the text was entered on the Stationers' Register on 18 April 1600 by the publisher W. Ponsonby, while the same translation was later entered on the Register on 5 July 1602 by G. Bishop and others. When the book finally did appear in print in 1603, the publisher was A. Hatfield. (4) It seems possible, then, that Holland's translation may have existed in manuscript several years before it finally appeared in print. Indeed, it may have existed in manuscript at least four years before our first recorded performance of Othello in November 1604.

Dates become important because of the disagreements among the best editors of Othello concerning when Shakespeare's play was most probably composed. E. A. J. Honigmann, for instance, suggests that "Othello was probably written at some point in the period from mid-1601 to mid-1602." (5) Norman Sanders, however, argues that "the play was probably written circa 1602-4," and he interestingly adds that it "is fairly clear that some passages in the play were written under the influence of Philemon Holland's translation of Pliny's Naturalis Historia, which was published in 1601." (6) M.R. Ridley notes that there has long been much disagreement about the date of composition; he cites extensive references to the controversy but offers no clear opinion of his own. (7) Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor note that information "about the Turkish invasion of Cyprus appears to derive from Richard Knolle's History of the Turks, published no earlier than 30 September 1603, so Shakespeare probably completed his play some time between that date and the summer of 1604," since we know that the work was performed at the very beginning of November 1604. (8) Exactly when the playwright may have begun composing the work is, of course, another matter, although the closer that date gets pushed toward 1604, the more possible it is that Holland's published translation of Plutarch's Moralia may have had some influence on Shakespeare's thinking. (9)

In a little-noticed article, Michael Lloyd argued in 1960 that Shakespeare may have seen Holland's translation before it was printed, although Lloyd did not offer a very full or especially convincing case for this view. (10) His argument is not at all crucial to mine, however, because it is easy enough to show that Shakespeare might well have known ideas similar to Plutarch's (and in fact derived from Plutarch) even if he never read Holland's translation in any form. Thus, among the many sources to which Shakespeare certainly would have had easy access, and which clearly relied heavily on Plutarch's essay, was the chapter entitled "The election of friends and the diversity of flatterers" in Sir Thomas Elyot's famous work The Book Named The Governor. Kenneth Muir contends that Shakespeare "certainly knew" Elyot's important treatise, (11) and in fact this acquaintance with Elyot is so widely taken for granted among scholars that there seems little point in rearguing the case here. (12) What does seem worth doing, however, is exploring some of the parallels between Plutarch's phrasing and Elyot's, thereby demonstrating the kind of impact Plutarch might have had--if only indirectly--on Shakespeare (and particularly on his ideas about friendship) in the years before the dramatist composed Othello. (13)

No sooner does Elyot begin his chapter on distinguishing flatterers from friends than he starts citing the famous Greek thinker, noting that "Plutarch saith, whatsoever he be that loveth, he doteth and is blind in that thing which he doth love, except by learning he can accustom himself to ensue and set more price by those things that be honest and virtuous than by them that he seeth in experience and be familiarly used." (14) Holland's translation of Plutarch's phrasing is remarkably similar: "For the lover is ordinarily blinded in the thing that he loveth, unless he have been taught, yea, and accustomed long before, to affect and esteem things honest above those that be his own properly, or inbred and familiar to him." (15) Elyot's next sentence is also directly indebted to Plutarch, although the allusion now is to a passage that comes somewhat later in Plutarch's text. "And surely as the worms do breed most gladly in soft wood and sweet," writes Elyot, "so the most gentle and noble wits, inclined to honour, replenished with most honest and courteous manners, do soonest admit flatterers, and be by them abused" (155). In Holland's version of Plutarch, the same passage reads as follows: "But like as worms breed most of all and soonest in firm, tender and sweet wood: even so, for the most part, the generous and gentle natures, and those minds that are more ingenuous, honest, amiable, and mild than others, are readiest to receive and nourish the flatterer that hangeth upon him" (38).

Immediately after offering the analogy of the worms in fine wood, Elyot presents another extended simile: "For like as the wild corn, being in shape and greatness like to the good, if they be mingled, with great difficulty will be tried out, but either in a narrow-holed sieve they will still abide with the good corn, or else, where the holes be large, they will issue out with the other; so flattery from friendship is hardly severed, forasmuch as in every motion and affect of the mind they be mutually mingled together" (155). The parallel to this passage comes from a much later section of Plutarch's essay than the previous two parallels--a fact that demonstrates that Elyot is not copying in a merely mechanical or unthinking manner but is instead carefully picking, choosing, and assembling his texts. In the Holland translation, the parallel passage reads as follows: "For like as among wild seeds of another kind, those that being of the same form, fashion, and bigness with the grains of wheat are intermingled therewith, a man shall hardly try out from the rest, for that they will not pass through the holes of the sieve, ruddle or try, if they be narrow; and in case they be large and wide, out goeth the good corn together with them; even so it is passing hard to separate flattery from friendship, being so intermeddled therewith in all accidents, motions, affairs, dealings, employment, and conversation as it is" (42).

Elyot's debt to Plutarch appears again when he later tells a story about "the servants of Dionysius, King of Sicily, which although they were inclined to all unhappiness and mischief, after the coming of Plato they perceiving that for his doctrine and wisdom the King had him in high estimation, they then counterfeited the countenance and habit of the philosopher, thereby increasing the King's favour towards them, who then was wholly given to study of philosophy. But after that Dionysius by their incitation had expelled Plato out of Sicily, they abandoned their habit and severity, and eftsoons returned to their mischievous and voluptuous living" (155).

This story, too, has its echo in Plutarch, as Holland's version shows: "Thus by report it fell out upon a time at Syracuse: For when Plato thither arrived, and Denys all on a sudden was set upon a furious fit of love to philosophy, his palace and whole court was full of dust and sand, by reason of the great recourse thither of students in geometry, who did nothing but draw figures therein. But no sooner had Plato incurred his displeasure and was out of favour: no sooner had Denys the Tyrant bidden philosophy farewell, and given himself again to belly-cheer, to wine, vanities, wantonness, and all looseness of life ..." (46).

One more extended parallel will help to show just how heavily Elyot, in his relatively short chapter on flattery, draws on sources in Plutarch's famous essay. Thus Elyot reports that "Carneades the philosopher was wont to say that the sons of nobleman learned nothing well but only to ride. For whiles they learned letters their masters flattered them, praising every word that they spake; in wrestling their teachers and companions also flattered them, submitting themselves and falling down to their feet; but the horse or courser not understanding who rideth him, nor whether he be a gentleman or yeoman, a rich man or a poor, if he sit not surely and can [i.e., know] skill of riding, the horse casteth him quickly" (157). In Holland's version of Plutarch's essay, the same anecdote reads as follows: "Carneades was wont to say that the sons of kings and great rich men learned to do nothing well and right, but only to sit and ride an horse. For that their masters are wont to flatter and praise them in all their schools where they be taught: for if they be at the exercise of wrestling, you shall have him that wrestleth with them of purpose to take a fall and lie under them: Marry, the horse, not knowing nor having the reason to discern a private man's son from a prince; nor whether he be poor or rich that sits upon his back, will be sure to cast him over his head and lay him along, whosoever he be, that cannot skill how to hold and rule him" (62).

Various other parallels between Elyot's chapter and Plutarch's essay can easily be cited. These include comparisons of flatterers to counterfeit coins, or the reports of how followers of Plato and of Alexander the Great imitated even their masters' postures. (16) By now, though, the crucial point is clear: Shakespeare need not have read Plutarch's essay in Holland's translation in order to be familiar with that essay's main arguments. Shakespeare may have read Holland's rendering, either in manuscript or in print, before composing Othello, but he hardly needed to read Plutarch in order to know what many in his culture already knew so well, not only from books but from personal experience: how hard it could truly be, sometimes, to tell a flatterer from a friend.

Elyot and Plutarch were hardly alone, however, in stressing how difficult it could often be to distinguish a true friend from a pretender. This notion was a standard component of commentary on friendship both in the sixteenth century and in the classical period. Erasmus considered the difficulty so important that he even prepared a translation of "Plutarch's book on the distinction between a Flatterer and a Friend" for Henry VIII and mentioned it in his correspondence. (17) Meanwhile, William Baldwin's enormously popular Treatise of Morall Philosophie, which stayed continuously in print for well over a century after its first publication in 1547 (and which was highly recommended for use by students), assembled many citations from classical philosophers on friendship (and on numerous other topics). Thus Baldwin quoted Plato as having said that there is "little difference betweene our enemy and our friend, and [it is] hard to know the one from the other," and he also cited Marcus Aurelius as advising that in "friendship fayned is great doubtfulnesse, doublenesse, faintnesse, coldnesse to doe good, much hardnesse, slipperinesse and inconstancie." Likewise, Baldwin quoted Periander as counseling as follows: "Admit none thy friend, except thou first know how hee hath behaued himselfe with his other friends before, for looke how he serued them, euen so he will serue thee." (18)

In his exceptionally valuable compilation of classical, medieval, and Renaissance notions of friendship, One Soul in Bodies Twain, Laurens J. Mills covers the broad range of standard comments on the topic. Mills also deals in particular with the difficulties contemporaries expressed about attempting to distinguish false friends from true ones and also about simply finding true friends. (19) Indeed, Mills maintains that as friendship became an increasingly important ideal in the thought and literature of the time, disappointment with false friendship was also more and more often expressed: along with the "glorification of friendship" went the "complaint that friendship [was] not what it once was, and condemnation of flattery and false friendship." Mills cites many such condemnations, from writers as diverse as Francis Kinwelmarsh, W. Hunis, Richard Edwards, Timothy Kendall, Thomas Proctor, Baldassare Castiglione, Thomas Churchyard, Stephen Gosson, Robert Greene, John Bodenham, and various anonymous authors. Mills even reports that in the poetic "anthologies of 1557 to 1590, flattery and false friendship received more discussion than the joys of friendship." (20) Nor did concern with perversions of friendship end in the 1590s: although published several years after the first performance of Othello, an essay by Daniel Tuvill entitled "Cautions in Friendship" also discusses at length many of the most common Renaissance fears about false friendship, warning that "even the clearest and best-discerning judgments may easily be deceived." (21) Paradoxically, the more friendship came to be esteemed as an important social and ethical value, the more disappointing the shortcomings of both actual and false friends would appear. In creating Iago, then, Shakespeare was fashioning a character who was bound to be of great interest to many members of his audience.

Further evidence to support this claim (and this time it is evidence drawn mainly from the drama of the period) is provided by Paul A. Jorgensen, who long ago showed the degree to which Iago is modeled on knavish characters (often linked, ironically, with overt claims of honesty) from Tudor plays. These included dramas by such playwrights as Richard Edwards and Robert Wilson, as well as works by anonymous authors, including such titles as A Knack to Know a Knave (1594) and A Knack to Know an Honest Man (1596). Jorgensen also calls attention, in a very brief footnote, to the tradition of mocking false "Honest Man" figures in the Theophrastan character-essays of the period, although all of the examples he cites unfortunately postdate Othello, often by many years. His list, however, can easily be supplemented by many pre-Othello character-portraits. (22) By far the most interesting comments that Jorgensen offers, though, concern a book of 1596 entitled The Triall of true Friendship; or perfit mirror, whereby to discerne a trustie friend from a flattering Parasite. Otherwise, A knacke to know a knave from an honest man: By a perfit mirrour of both: Soothly to say: Trie ere you trust; Beleeve no man rashly. (23) Both the title and the existence of this book help establish, once more, that there was significant interest, in the period before Shakespeare undertook Othello, in the kind of character represented by Iago.


Iago is so successful as a flatterer and false friend precisely because of his widespread reputation for "honesty" among almost all the other characters in the play; Othello is hardly the only person who thinks of him as "Honest Iago" (1.3.295). (24) It was, of course, just this kind of hypocrite whom sixteenth-century moralists had in mind when they warned how difficult it could sometimes be to distinguish a flatterer from a friend. Obvious flatterers or fawning sycophants were easy to detect, but more subtle and sophisticated deceivers were much harder to spot, and it would be quite a challenge to imagine a deceiver more subtle or more sophisticated than Iago.

Various passages in the relevant literature on false friends warn against exactly this kind of person. Thus Elyot notes, in a passage that fits Iago perfectly, that
 there be some that by dissimulation can ostent or show a high gravity,
 mixed with a sturdy entertainment and fashion, exiling themselves from all
 pleasure and recreation, frowning and grudging at everything wherein is any
 mirth or solace, although it be honest; taunting and rebuking immoderately
 them with whom they be not contented; naming themselves therefore plain
 men, although they do the semblable and oftentimes worse in their own
 houses. And by a simplicity and rudeness of speaking, with long
 deliberation used in the same, they pretend the high knowledge of counsel
 to be in them only. And in this wise pitching their net of adulation they
 entrap the noble and virtuous heart, which only beholdeth their fained
 severity and counterfeit wisdom, and the rather because this manner of
 flattery is most unlike to that which is commonly used. (157)

Right from the start and then again throughout the play, Iago exhibits many of these traits. Thus his very first word is an irreligious oath (1.1.4), and he begins the drama by arguing at length with Roderigo, the friend he has long been deceiving. He specifically rejects any intention to behave as "a duteous and knee-crooking" servant who is in "obsequious bondage" to Othello (1.1.44-45): he will not, in other words, play an obvious flatterer or sycophant but will instead, although "trimmed in forms and visages of duty" (1.1.49), serve himself. The "fellows" who adopt this latter course "have some soul/And such a one do I profess myself" (1.1.53-54). He obviously enjoys disrupting not only Othello's marriage but also Brabantio's sleep, but in his first appearance with the Moor (1.2.1-17) we see him displaying "a high gravity, mixed with a sturdy entertainment and fashion," even while he is also "taunting and rebuking immoderately them with whom" he is not content. He shows his ability to exile himself "from all pleasure and recreation, frowning and grudging at everything wherein is any mirth or solace" when, counseling Roderigo, he refers to "our carnal stings, our unbitted lusts; whereof I take this, that you call love, to be a sect or scion" (1.3.331-33). (25) In all these ways, then, Iago illustrates exactly the kind of character described in the excerpt from Elyot's Governor.

However, other similarities between Elyot's words and Shakespeare's ensign also exist. Thus Iago counts on the fact that "The Moor is of a free and open nature/That thinks men honest that but seem to be so" (1.3.398-99), just as Elyot says that skilled hypocrites "entrap the noble and virtuous heart, which only beholdeth their [i.e., the hypocrites'] fained severity and counterfeit wisdom." Meanwhile, Iago names himself what Elyot terms a "plain" man when he later openly tells Desdemona that he is "nothing if not critical" (2.1.119), and Desdemona herself subsequently (if somewhat jokingly) calls him "a most profane and liberal [ i.e., free- spoken or unrestrained] counsellor" (2.1.163-64). (26) Nevertheless, Iago secretly prides himself on being a skillful deceiver: "Knavery's plain face," he says, "is never seen, till used" (2.1.310): Iago's brand of flattery, Elyot might say, "is most unlike to that which is commonly used." Iago, it is true, does sometimes show himself skilled in what Elyot calls "pleasure and recreation" as well as "mirth or solace," especially during the scene in which he manages to make Cassio drunk (2.3.1-115), but the ensign is also careful to condemn such "vice" as soon as Cassio is out of earshot (2.3.119). Ironically, one of the few times that Iago is accused of failing to speak entirely with the "plain[ness]" that Elyot attributes to the skilled hypocrite is when Othello alleges that the ensign, because of his friendship for Cassio and also because of his basic "honesty and love," chooses to "mince" his description of Cassio's bad behavior (2.3.243). Othello repeats the same basic assessment later, when he tells Iago, "I know thou'rt full of love and honesty/And weigh'st thy words before thou giv'st them breath" (3.3.121-22), but now he is responding to what Elyot might term the "long deliberation" of Iago's speech. Othello knows that such delays, "in a false disloyal knave/Are tricks of custom," but he feels that "in a man that's just,/They're close delations, working from the heart,/That passion cannot rule" (3.3.124-27). Othello is fooled by what Elyot would call Iago's "fained severity and counterfeit wisdom," and indeed Elyot's general description of a skilled false friend fits Iago perfectly.

What seems true of Elyot, who was inspired by Plutarch, and whom we can be certain Shakespeare read, also seems true of Plutarch himself. If we are willing to entertain the possibility that Shakespeare may in fact have read Plutarch's famous essay (perhaps in the translation by Philemon Holland), we can spot many passages from the essay that seem relevant to Shakespeare's play. Of course, it isn't necessary to prove that Shakespeare himself read Plutarch's comments (either in the original, or in Holland's translation, or in any other version) in order to appreciate the general relevance of the essay to the tragedy: both works are centrally concerned with the issue of "How a Man May Discern a Flatterer from a Friend." (27) Shakespeare in his play, like Holland in his translation, was dealing with a problem in which there was already widespread and demonstrable interest.

Holland prefaces his translation with a "Summary" in which he offers his own remarks on the topic. In these comments he notes that Plutarch shows that "there is nothing whereof we are to be more wary and heedful than false friendship, which he calleth flattery" (36). Holland concurs with Plutarch in thinking that "the only principal remedy to stop up the entry against all flatterers is to know ourselves well" (36)--a comment obviously relevant to Shakespeare's play, since so many critics have argued that Othello is lacking in precisely this kind of self-knowledge. (28) Holland warns that "it happeneth oftentimes that we esteem them [i.e., flatterers] to be our perfect friends, so skilful are they in counterfeiting" (36), and he offers a quick overview of Plutarch's depiction of a false friend--a sketch that might also be taken as a thumbnail depiction of Iago: "he doth conform and frame himself to the humour and nature of those whose company he haunteth; ... he is unconstant and mutable, changing and turning into many and sundry fashions without any right and sincere affection, applying himself all the while to everything else but virtue, willing to be reputed always more lewd and vicious than those whom he flattereth ..." (36). This last point is especially relevant to Iago, who, even as he begins to deceive Othello about Cassio's intentions toward Desdemona, is careful to warn the Moor that his "thoughts" may be "vile and false" and that some "foul things" may have intruded into his "breast" (3.3.139-41). He thus shows himself, again in the words of Holland's "Summary," as someone capable of "working covertly and underhand for to deceive more cleanly, transforming virtue into vice, and making it nothing strange and coy to blame himself, for to do the more mischief afterwards to another" (37). Holland ends his summary by warning that Plutarch's essay should especially be "well read and marked in these days of all persons, but those especially who are advanced above others in worldly wealth or honourable place" (37). A person such as Othello, in other words, needs to be especially careful of false friends.

Plutarch makes the same point himself in the essay proper, when he advises his readers about the ambitious designs of false friends: "look where there is the glory of the world, where there is authority and power, thither they flock, and there they grow," but he immediately warns that "no sooner is there a change of fortune but they sneak and slink away, and are no more seen" (39). One is reminded of Iago's abandonment of both Roderigo and Othello at the end of the play: once they have lost their fortune (in either sense of the word), he has no further use for them. "For it goeth very hard with a man," Plutarch notes, "if at the very instant and not before, even when he hath most need of friendship, to perceive those to be no friends whom he took to be, and namely, when he hath not with him at hand a good and faithful friend, to exchange for him that is untrusty, disloyal and counterfeit" (39). This, of course, is precisely the positions in which Roderigo and especially Othello find themselves near the conclusion of the drama, for Roderigo discovers just before he dies that Iago has been playing him for a fool, and Othello learns not only that Iago has done the same thing with him, but also that Othello has exchanged a good friend--Michael Cassio--for one "that is untrusty, disloyal, and counterfeit" (39). (29)

Nevertheless, although Plutarch insists that it is therefore crucial to distinguish a false flatterer from a true friend, he is also the first to admit that doing so is no easy task: "a right hard matter it is to know the one from the other; especially if we speak of a right flatterer indeed, who is his own craftsmaster, and can skill how to handle the matter artificially, and with great cunning and dexterity" (41). A bit later he asks and then answers an important question: "What kind of flatterer then is it so hard and yet needful to beware of?" (41). He then replies, "Forsooth, even of him who seemeth none such, and professeth nothing less than to flatter: whom a man shall never find about the kitchen where the good meat is dressed, nor take measuring of shadows to know when the day goes, and when it is dinner or supper time: nor yet see drunken and lying along the ground untowardly, and full like a beast" (41-42). One thinks here of Iago's conduct when he and Cassio drink with the Cypriots: the ensign, unlike the lieutenant, easily holds his liquor. Later, when the drunken Cassio begins to brawl in the streets, Iago, in contrast, retains his own sobriety, pretends to pity his friend's susceptibility to alcohol (2.3.117-27), and is even appointed by Othello to calm the town (2.3.251-52)--after which he later spends the night on "the watch," like a reliable and disciplined soldier (2.3.329). (30)

He offers Cassio what seems sensible and sane advice (2.3.294-97; 309-21), and he even takes the risk of pointedly disagreeing with his friends when he thinks they are wrong (1.3.306-333; 2.3.258-67; 291-97; 302-05)--the kind of thing an obvious flatterer would not do. No wonder, then, that the most dangerous sort of flattery is that "which is covert and not apert or professed; which is serious (I say) and not practised by way of jest and sport" (42). Iago, then, is only practicing his craft most skillfully when he pretends to resist confirming Othello's growing suspicions of Cassio, or when he pretends to be concerned not to damage Cassio's reputation in any way. Plutarch says that a skillful flatterer "loveth to be a curious polypragmon" and "to intermeddle in all matters; he hath a mind to be privy and party in all deep secrets" (42), and Iago is more than willing to admit as much. Thus he tells Othello,
 ... I do beseech you ....
 As I confess it is my nature's plague
 To spy into abuses, and oft my jealousy [i.e., zeal]
 Shapes faults that are not--that your wisdom
 From one that so imperfectly conceits
 Would take no notice, nor build yourself a trouble
 Out of his scattering and unsure observance ... (3.3.149-51)

In making this confession, however, he also illustrates another trait that Plutarch ascribes to the ingenious false friend: "these flatterers for advantage will not spare their own selves: For like as wrestlers debase their own bodies and stoop down low otherwhiles, for to overthrow their fellows that wrestle with them, and to lay them along on the ground; so in blaming and finding many faults with themselves they wind in and creep closely to the praise and admiration of others ..." (58). However, by speaking as he does here, Iago reveals that he has mastered yet another trait of the skillful flatterer, who, according to Plutarch, "bearing well in mind that he in every place is to play the second part, yieldeth always in his imitation the equality from himself, and doth affect to counterfeit another so as he will be the inferior, giving the superiority unto the other in all things but those which are naught" (50). Even in confessing that he is someone who tends to "spy into abuses" and find faults (3.3.150-51), (31) Iago plays the role of the clever false friend as Plutarch describes it, for Plutarch says that such men "have learned forsooth to knit and bend the brows, they can skill, iwis, to flatter, and yet look with a frowning face and crabbed countenance, they have the cast to temper with their glavering glozes some rough reprehensions and chiding checks" (63). This kind of false friend, Plutarch says, presents himself to the world as a person who is "ready to find fault with everything"; he pretends that "there is not a man living that he will pardon and forgive; he blameth and accuseth everyone; and his whole study is to win the name and reputation of a man that hateth vice ..." (63). Iago, it is true, seems at first reluctant to blame and accuse Cassio of adultery, but this is only part of his skillful flatterer's pose of being a charitable and humble man. Later, however (especially in the final two acts), he will have no qualms about playing the part of the blamer and accuser.

Perhaps no passage in Plutarch's essay seems more particularly relevant to Shakespeare's Othello than the one in which Plutarch describes how a skillful flatterer can provoke discord and jealousy between loved ones, and especially between lovers:
 in amatorious and love matters they pass [i.e., surpass themselves]: there
 you shall have them most of all to come over those whom they flatter and
 lay on load; to them they will join close, and set them on flaming fire.
 For if they see brethren at some variance, or setting nought by their
 parents, or else to deal unkindly with their own wives, and to set no store
 by them, or to be jealous and suspicious of them; they never admonish,
 chastise, or rebuke them for it, that they may amend, but rather they will
 kindle more coals between, and increase their anger and discontentment on
 both sides ... (66) (32)

This description of the flatterer's tactics might almost serve as a thumbnail summary of the plot of act 3, scene 3 of Othello--the scene in which Iago slowly but surely stokes the flames of Othello's jealousy. Indeed, the excruciatingly hesitant way in which Iago first plants a suspicion and then pretends to dismiss it suggests the process Plutarch describes when he remarks that the false friend's "counterfeit liberty of plain dealing and plain speech may be very well likened to the wanton pinches and bitings of luxurious women who tickle and stir up the lust and pleasure of men by that which might seem to cause their pain" (67). (33) There is, indeed, an almost erotic quality to Iago's seduction of Othello here, especially since the ensign is alternately coy and blunt in the ways he speaks. He seems to illustrate Plutarch's warning that "lewd and mischievous flatterers, knowing full well that frank speech is a singular help and remedy against flattery, abuse it to flatter withal" (68). (34) Thus Iago, while sometimes pretending reticence, at other times calls attention to how "bold" his words are (3.3.232), and at one point he even upbraids Othello, exclaiming, "Are you a man? have you soul, or sense?" (3.3.377). He even criticizes Othello for seeming "eaten up with passion" (3.3.394), and he consistently counsels patience and reason (e.g., 3.3.453-55) even as he attempts to undermine both of those traits in the Moor. Iago is precisely the kind of smooth operator whom Plutarch sought to expose.

Iago continues to behave as Plutarch might have predicted when, having consummated his new relationship with Othello in a ceremony that has reminded many readers of a marriage (3.3.463-70), he now vows his firm allegiance to the Moor as well as his willingness to do whatever Othello asks: "Let him command/And to obey shall be in me remorse/What bloody business ever" (3.3.470-72). Similarly, Plutarch writes that a flatterer will usually show "himself in appearance always diligent, ready and prompt in all occurrences, without seeking any colourable pretences of shifting off, and a refusing to do anything" (70). Plutarch also writes that the flatterer is typically "double diligent, [and] he will be continually employed and never at rest, without seeming at any time to be weary, no place, no space nor opportunity will he give the other to do any service; he looketh to be called unto and commanded ..." (71). Plutarch even uses a brief poem to illustrate the flatterer's prompt readiness to serve. He thus imagines a false friend saying, "What would you have? say but the word to me,/Without all doubt effected it shall be" (71). One thinks of Iago's stunningly brief promise to Othello concerning Cassio: "My friend is dead,/`Tis done--at your request" (3.3.476-77). The typical flatterer, Plutarch writes, "is ready with the foremost to apply himself to the appetite and inclination of another, yea and withal, pricketh and inciteth him forward to enter upon it" (72). Plutarch later calls this tendency of flatterers a "readiness to make offer and promise ... quickly," and, as he also notes, a true "friend is willingly employed in honest causes, but a flatterer in shameful and dishonest" (75). (35) All these claims are obviously applicable to Iago. Here and throughout the play he behaves very much as the kind of flatterer and false friend Plutarch had long ago described.


One section of the play in which Iago's conduct as a false friend can be analyzed especially closely is the crucial opening scene of act 4--a scene in which nearly all the major characters appear, and a scene in which Iago finally manages to ensure the ultimately tragic outcome of the drama. By the end of this section, Othello has explicitly vowed to strangle Desdemona (whom he then publicly strikes), and Iago has openly marked Cassio for death. During the course of this lengthy episode, Iago convincingly manages to play the false friend before three separate targets--Othello, Cassio, and Lodovico, none of whom seems for a minute to doubt the ensign's solid integrity. (36) In no other portion of the play, perhaps, is his performance of this hypocritical role of false friend so brazen and sustained. It seems all the more ironic, then, that a scene that is so important to such a significant theme of the drama has so often, in theatrical history, been chopped to bits: much of this portion of the play (including nearly its entire first half) were traditionally cut from many productions when the work was performed in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. (37) All the more reason, then, to examine it carefully and try to determine why it should be included, and why Shakespeare himself considered it worth including.

Puzzles begin immediately, as does the emphasis on friendship. E. A. J. Honigmann notes that in the quarto version of the text, Othello enters following Iago, whereas in the folio version this priority is reversed. Presumably the folio editors thought that Othello should be the first figure onstage by virtue of his superior military rank and social status, but Honigmann suggests that the quarto text "may be right in making Iago lead, Othello follow." (38) Certainly it is Iago who is figuratively in the lead in almost all of this scene, so it seems appropriate that he should be the first character to enter, with Othello tagging along behind him. Clearly it is Iago who first speaks, although the meaning of his words is anything but obvious, at least to us: "Will you think so?" (4.1.1). Othello's reply--"Think so, Iago?" (4.1.1)--sheds no further light on what the two men are--and have been--discussing. Honigmann notes that "the opening words imply that the speakers have talked for a while," (39) a fact that implies not only their new intimacy but also Othello's new dependence on his friend's counsel and advice. By plunging in medias res, Shakespeare not only momentarily confuses us but also thereby excludes us from the tight intimacy that Othello and Iago now share. The opening of this scene is in fact a replay of the very opening of the drama, where we had at first been unsure, precisely, of what Iago and his friend Roderigo were discussing (1.1.1-16). In act 4 all we can be certain of, at first, is that Othello is totally focused on Iago's opinion.

It seems typical that Iago begins the scene by asking a question rather than making an assertion, since part of his success as a manipulative false friend depends on his ability to insinuate rather than openly state his aims. In fact, each of his first three sentences here is a question, and all of them seem designed to give Othello some apparent resistance--exactly the kind of behavior Plutarch might have predicted. Rather than openly and obviously agreeing with everything Othello says (the approach a crude flatterer would adopt), Iago is far more subtle: he manipulates his target by encouraging Othello to assume that the Moor is thinking for himself. John E Andrews has suggested that Iago's opening question--"Will you think so?"--can be taken to mean "[d]oes it please you to think so?" (40) but the line can just as easily be understood to imply "do you insist on thinking so?" Either reading would be pervasively ironic, and indeed Andrews's reading would already imply Iago's sadism: clearly it does not please Othello to think whatever it is he has been thinking. However, the reading that assumes that Othello is being insistent also implies that Iago is here acting the role of the truly good friend--someone who tries to encourage Othello to be reasonable, not willful. The irony, of course, is that by seeming to resist Othello's passionate reactions, Iago only stirs them more deeply.

The clipped brevity of the exchanges in the opening lines of this scene helps reinforce our sense of the new intimacy of these two men, and there is almost a sense of pathetic dependency in Othello's need to argue with his ensign--a man whose agreement would hardly have seemed so crucial to him at the beginning of the play. (41) When Iago pretends to be untroubled by the possibility that Cassio and Desdemona have exchanged a "kiss in private," Othello's response--"An unauthorised kiss!" (4.1.2)--seems almost childish in its vehemence and in its insistence on the crucial adjective. In this opening scene of act 4, Iago seems (and indeed is) the more rational of the two characters; he thereby plays the traditional role of the calm counselor who apparently tries to steer his friend away from hasty emotional responses. All the while, of course, he provokes the very emotion he seems to reject, especially when he casually suggests that even if Desdemona were to be found "naked with her friend in bed/An hour or more" such conduct might not necessarily mean "any harm" (4.1.3-4). Ironically, he alludes to a standard test of true, nonsexual friendship at the very moment that he, himself, is behaving as a false friend. He invokes the ideal of friendship even as he himself corrupts that ideal. Othello's reply, which mentions "hypocrisy," "the devil," and "temptation" (4.1.6-8), seems all the more ironic since it is unknowingly addressed to a devilish, hypocritical tempter. Iago is deliberately using reasoning that will seem weak to Othello and that will thereby provoke emphatic counter-arguments.

Iago's subtlety as a false friend is evident again when he deliberately raises the issue of the now-missing handkerchief that Othello had given to Desdemona as a symbol of their love. Iago's first reference here to the missing linen seems, initially, to suggest that he considers it quite important (4.1.10), and for a moment he even seems intent on overtly angering Othello by mentioning this delicate subject. Likewise, Othello's abrupt, inquisitive response suggests that he seems eager to have his passions stirred (4.1.11), but Iago no sooner broaches the topic than he seems to dismiss its importance, arguing that since the handkerchief does indeed belong to Desdemona, she has the right to "bestow't on any man" she chooses (4.1.12-13). When making this argument, he is careful to use the words "my lord" and "I think"--thus implying both his respect for Othello and his mature rationality. It is, in fact, as an ostensibly mature, rational friend that he gives Othello this unwelcome advice. A flatterer less intelligent and conniving than Iago would, instead, have obviously egged Othello on by openly encouraging his anger about the handkerchief, but Iago knows that the best way to manipulate the Moor is by seeming to do the opposite. Thus, here as so often elsewhere, he gives his commander just enough resistance to achieve, simultaneously, several related objectives: first, he shows that as a supposedly true friend he is willing to risk opposing his friend's gut instincts; second, he shows that as a supposedly good man he is committed to generous thought and rational conduct; and, third and most important, by apparently giving Othello resistance, he manages to stir the very passions he seems to reject. The danger of Iago is less that he is a flatterer than that his flattery is so clever and subtle.

Othello's angry outburst in response to Iago's subtle provocation consumes four passionate lines; Iago's laconic response--"Ay, what of that?" (4.1.23)--takes only four syllables. Those syllables, however, are packed with implications: they suggest, on the one hand, that the ensign (unlike his commander) is in firm control of his emotions; they therefore suggest that Iago's advice is rational and thus of genuine value; they subtly minimize, by their very brevity, the importance of the handkerchief; and in all these ways they thereby make Iago seem less obviously manipulative, and thus all the more effective as a manipulator. Iago's next tactic, however, is even more devious. Rather than simply pretending to dismiss the significance of the missing handkerchief, he now seems to dismiss the importance of two even more crucial possibilities: that he may not only have witnessed Cassio having an affair with Desdemona but that he may also have heard Cassio publicly boasting about the liaison (4.1.24-29). He raises these issues not by making a statement but merely by offering an apparently hesitant, even reluctant question ("What if...?" [4.1.24]), thus insinuating--but in a deniable way--the very thoughts he wishes to plant in Othello's mind. He condemns as "knaves" any persons who would brag about their adultery (4.1.25)--thereby acting, ironically, the part of the deceitful knave himself. He also condemns those who "must blab" about their affairs (4.1.29), thereby implying that he, at least, is a man in full control of his tongue (as in fact he is) and thus presenting himself as someone who is all the more trustworthy as a reliable friend. Meanwhile, by suggesting that Cassio is a blabber, he makes Cassio seem even less a friend to Othello than the lieutenant had already seemed before: it is bad enough to commit adultery, but even worse to humiliate the husband in public. In addition, Shakespeare uses this reference to blabbing as subtle preparation for the moment, later in this scene, when Cassio seems to confirm the charge by gossiping within Othello's hearing (4.1.100-144).

Iago continues to goad Othello by pretending he is reluctant to say what he clearly intends to insinuate (4.1.30-34), and his ostentatious reticence seems full of implications. It suggests, for instance, that he is reluctant to be a blabber himself by betraying Cassio, his friend; it suggests, as well, that he is reluctant to offend, hurt, or anger his other friend, Othello; and it suggests, too, that he is reluctant to injure any further the reputation of Desdemona, to whom he also seems bound by ties of friendship and duty. When he says, concerning Cassio, that the latter "did--I know not what" (4.1.32), his very reluctance to speak frankly testifies, ironically, to the apparent depth of his friendship for everyone concerned. Ironically, it is Iago's very hesitancy and reticence--not any blatant incitement to anger or obvious flattery--that finally push Othello over the edge and plunge him into his famous epileptic fit. As Iago bends over his commander's prostrate body, he openly addresses him by name (4.1.48)--one of the few times he does so in the entire play. (42) He can afford to do so now, of course, because Othello cannot hear him, but his decision to use Othello's name in this way seems (like almost everything else Iago does and says) richly complex: it simultaneously implies intimacy, concern, contempt, and control. It is, perhaps, also a public performance of deeply emotional friendship--especially if it is meant to be overheard by Cassio, who now appears onstage.

It is difficult to know precisely how to interpret Iago's first words to Cassio here: "How now, Cassio?" (4.1.48). Do they express genuine surprise, or legitimate shock, or startled fear, or fiendish delight, or some combination of all these possibilities? Whatever the case, Iago proves more than equal to the sudden appearance of his other friend; he is, if nothing else, a master of improvisation. As he and Cassio hover over Othello's body, the deep concern the ensign apparently shows for his commander must inevitably impress Cassio that Iago is a friend to be trusted--even as Iago discourages Cassio from acting on his own concern for Othello (behavior that might spoil the ensign's plot). When Cassio advises--or even attempts--the rubbing of Othello's temples, Iago quickly warns that such conduct might cause the Moor to break out into "savage madness" (4.1.55). This warning is ironic on several levels: first, because it is precisely such madness that Iago himself hopes to provoke in the Moor; second, because if Othello awoke and witnessed Cassio's kindness, he might feel greater friendship for his former lieutenant; and, third, because Iago pretends to be worried both for Othello and for Cassio if Othello should suddenly awake. He implies that Othello might feel either embarrassed for himself or fury for Cassio, and Iago--good friend that he is--seeks, of course, to avert either possibility. (43)

When Othello does eventually awake, Iago stages the performance of a lifetime. When he questions whether the general may have hurt his head in his fall, Othello responds--in genuine hurt? in menacing anger? or in some combination of both?--by asking, "Dost thou mock me?" (4.1.60). Othello's query gives Iago the license he needs to pretend to be hurt himself--and also to display some righteous indignation: "I mock you? no, by heaven!/Would you would bear your fortune like a man!" (4.1.60-61). Note how variously his question can be spoken: if one reads it as "I mock you?" the question implies commendable self-respect. If one reads it as "I mock you?" the question implies profound respect for Othello. If one reads it as "I mock you?" the question implies that such mockery is the furthest possible thing from Iago's mind. Probably all three connotations are relevant, and in any case the question suggests a kind of shock that Othello could ever suspect his friend of such petty meanness. This apparent challenge to his own character gives Iago the right to challenge Othello and thus to display the frankness one expects of a true friend. He therefore urges Othello to bear his "fortune like a man" (4.1.61). This insistence on behaving like a man not only reminds us of his earlier contemptuous treatment of his good friend Roderigo (1.3.336), but it also becomes a leitmotiv for the rest of the present scene. Iago's emphasis on manly behavior is, of course, highly relevant to the Renaissance cult of masculine friendship: he is essentially counseling Othello not to behave in any way that would bring disgrace either on himself or on his male friends (such as Iago himself). His advice is all the more ironic since Iago himself is presently behaving in ways that are simultaneously unmanly, inhuman, and inhumane.

Othello seems embarrassed and abashed by his friend's seemingly frank reply; to compensate and perhaps even apologize for his accusatory question, he now openly mocks himself by saying, "A horned man's a monster and a beast" (62). His willingness to speak so bluntly and self-disparagingly to Iago suggests how much he trusts the ensign; his self-mockery implies his assumption that Iago will not agree but will in fact try to reason him into a less stinging self-assessment. And this, of course, is precisely what Iago begins to do: by telling Othello that "[t]here's many a beast then in a populous city,/And many a civil monster" (4.1.63-64), Iago tries to lighten Othello's psychological load, but he does so in a way that seems typically blunt and uncompromising. He does not attempt, as an obvious flatterer would, to tell Othello that his situation is not bad; instead, he simply tells him that his situation is no worse than that of many others. (His references to "beast[s]" and "civil monster[s]" seem all the more ironic in light of his own conduct here and elsewhere.) In fact, he once again effectively combines deference and blunt advice: he counsels his respected friend ("Good sir") to "be a man" (4.1.65), but in a way that also implies his deep contempt for his supposed friend. Moreover, by continually urging Othello to "be a man," Iago will ultimately help encourage his friend to behave like a vicious animal.

These menacing implications seem suggested in several ways. First, they seem implied by Iago's ironic subsequent reference to "the fiend's arch-mock" (4.1.70)--a phrase he overtly uses to condemn devilish contempt, but one which easily fits his own satanic treatment of Othello. Second, a new level of danger seems to enter Iago's speech when he seems (like a good friend) to identify and empathize with Othello's plight, proclaiming, "No, let me know,/And, knowing what I am, I know what she shall be" (4.1.72-73). These words also remind us of the way he consistently perverts the dictum (crucial to both classical and Renaissance cultures) that a man should know himself. Finally, the reference to "what she [i.e., Desdemona] shall be" seems especially ominous--although most editors, interestingly enough, seem not to have commented on the darker implications of the phrasing here. Clearly Iago implies that if he were a man who discovered that his wife was making him a cuckold, he would know "what she shall be"--i.e., "what would happen to her." To be blunt: she would die. Iago thus begins to implant in Othello's mind the idea of murdering Desdemona--a murder that will confirm this play's status as one of the greatest of all tragedies. (44)

Othello's response--"O, thou art wise, `tis certain"--is, word for word, one of the most ironic lines in the entire play. In the first place, Iago is wise, but not in the deepest, truest, most ethical sense of that word; instead, he is merely clever and calculating, and he is especially wise in his knowledge of Othello's vulnerabilities. For these reasons, it both is and is not "certain" that Iago is "wise," but it clearly is not certain (another possible implication of Othello's words) that Desdemona is guilty of adultery. Othello's proclamation of Iago's wisdom--a crucial trait in a good friend--therefore displays Othello's own lack of real wisdom and deep discernment. Unfortunately, Othello shows himself to be a fool by pronouncing Iago wise.

Precisely because Othello does consider his friend a paragon of wisdom, he is all the more ready and willing at this point to turn himself over to Iago's directions. The ensign now takes explicit charge, acting the role of stage manager as he commands his commander to "Stand you a while apart/Confine yourself but in a patient list" (4.1.75-76) while Iago prepares to interview (and incriminate) the unsuspecting Cassio. His counsel of patience is richly sardonic, since he now intends to destroy whatever remaining patience Othello may still possess. Iago now feels so confident of his dominance of Othello that he even uses the occasion to chastise his friend's recently unreasonable behavior:
 Whilst you were here o'erwhelmed with your grief
 --A passion most unsuiting such a man--Cassio
 came hither. I shifted him away
 And laid good `scuse upon your ecstasy,
 Bade him anon return and here speak with me,
 The which he promised. Do but encave yourself
 And mark the fleers, the gibes and notable scorns
 That dwell in every region of his face;
 For I will make him tell the tale anew
 Where, how, how oft, how long ago, and when
 He hath and is again to cope your wife.
 I say, but mark his gesture; marry, patience,
 Or I shall say you're all in all in spleen
 And nothing of a man. (4.1.75-90)

These fourteen lines are extraordinarily rich. Once more Iago speaks as a painfully frank friend, rebuking Othello's passion, but only, of course, in order to rouse his better nature. (Meanwhile, beneath this ostensible purpose, the lines also imply his real contempt and disdain for the Moor.) He now no longer simply urges Othello to behave like "a man" but like "such a man"--that is, a man of Othello's lofty military rank, prominent social station, and respected reputation. By revealing that Cassio "came hither" while Othello was passed out, Iago gives the Moor even further reason to feel embarrassed and humiliated, but he also gives Othello even more reason to feel grateful to his fast-thinking friend, who managed to get rid of Cassio by "shift[ing] him away" (a properly modest verb). Meanwhile, whereas the noun "ecstasy" could, in Shakespeare's day, have a fairly clinical meaning (suggesting "all morbid states characterized by unconsciousness, as swoon, trance, catalepsy, etc.," it could also carry many unattractive, highly embarrassing connotations, including the "state of being `beside oneself,' thrown into a frenzy or a stupor, with anxiety, astonishment, fear, or passion" (OED). By referring to Othello's "ecstasy" then, Iago simultaneously achieves several objectives: he once again pretends to be (and indeed is) brutally frank; he manages to express his secret contempt for his supposed friend; he ostensibly encourages Othello (by using a kind of "tough love" approach) not to descend to such passion again; he implies his own steadfast rationality and firm good sense; and he shows how resourceful he was in quickly thinking of the least embarrassing way to explain Othello's unconsciousness. Here as so often elsewhere, then, Shakespeare makes Iago choose his words with astonishing precision. This man is anything but a simple-minded flatterer.

It never seems to occur to Othello that the man who now openly announces his plans to deceive Cassio is, at this very moment and precisely by making this announcement, deceiving Othello himself. Perhaps Othello is so trusting, in part, because he assumes that Iago is acting as a false friend toward Cassio partly because Iago is disgusted by Cassio's alleged false friendship for Othello. In any case, Iago does his level best to make Cassio seem even less of a friend to Othello than Othello had already believed. Earlier Iago had tried to convince Othello that Cassio was involved in adultery with Desdemona; then he had made the situation seem even worse by implying that Cassio was publicly boasting of the affair; now, to compound matters even further, he suggests that Cassio is openly contemptuous and insulting, not only toward Othello but also, implicitly, toward Desdemona herself. Thus Iago urges Othello to "encave" himself and to "mark the fleers, the gibes and notable scorns/ That dwell in every region of his face." These instructions are ironic on several counts. Particularly interesting, for example, is the verb "encave," which Shakespeare seems to have invented and which editors usually gloss as "to hide" or "to conceal" Surely, though, the word's connotations are far richer than this. They are ironically relevant, for instance, to Iago's constant advice that Othello should behave like a man, for now he is urging Othello to hide himself like an uncivilized brute or wild animal. One wonders, too, if Shakespeare may have had in mind that most famous of all caves--the one described by Plato, inhabited by persons who think they are perceiving clearly when they are actually seeing only the dim shadows of reality. This, obviously, will soon be Othello's condition: he will see Iago and Cassio in conversation and will overhear bits of their speech, and he will think he understands what is truly happening, but he will be significantly deceived. Indeed, Iago is careful to instruct him to "mark" merely the expressions on Cassio's face--not to try to hear exactly or entirely what Cassio actually says. The irony is screwed a bit tighter when we realize that in the very act of describing Cassio's alleged scorn for Othello, Iago expresses his own contempt for the Moor. Iago implies that Cassio is not merely an adulterer, but is also a crude man without a conscience--a description, of course, that applies far more accurately to Iago himself.

Once again Iago urges Othello to show "patience," but he does so immediately after mentioning how Cassio has already been able (and plans again) to "cope" Othello's wife. In other words Iago, the seemingly wise and rational friend, once again counsels patience even as he attempts to destroy it. He urges Othello not to give into his "spleen," when it is precisely such a reaction that he is trying to provoke. Once more, editors' glosses tend not to do full justice to one of Shakespeare's words, for the "spleen" during this period was considered the seat not merely of passion in general or of anger in particular, but also of such other emotions as melancholy, morose feelings, sudden impulse, whim or caprice, changeable temper, hot or proud temper, impetuosity, eagerness, ill-nature, ill-humor, and peevishness (OED). All of these connotations are relevant to Othello's case, and all suggest the absence of any mature, manly, rational control of the emotions--the very kind of control, by the way, that Iago demonstrates throughout this scene, even when he pretends to be most passionate. Little wonder, then, that he once again warns Othello of behaving as less than "a man." Othello's response (4.1.90-92) is so pathetic in its assertion of masculine bravado that it might easily have come from Roderigo; Othello seems to speak less to reassure Iago than to reassure himself. By proclaiming that he intends to be "cunning in [his] patience" but also "most bloody," he wants Iago to hear and know that he does not intend to be weak. A stronger character would not need to make this announcement, nor would he need to insist on having an auditor to hear it. Similarly, Othello's reference to his own intention to be "cunning" seems especially ironic since it comes precisely at the moment when he is being duped, and also since it is addressed to one of the most cunning characters ever created. Othello reveals himself to Iago here almost as one might unburden oneself to one's closest, most trusted friend.

As Othello "encave[s]" himself, Iago prepares for the arrival of Cassio-an arrival that will allow the ensign to enact once again the role of false friend, but now with a different target. Before Cassio actually appears, Iago confides in the audience (as he so often does), telling us explicitly of his plans to dupe another friend. Part of what is most disturbing about Iago, in fact, is that he so often addresses us as if we are his friends; he treats the audience as intimates, even as fellow-connivers or co-conspirators. He begins the present speech by expressing contempt for Bianca, the prostitute who, "by selling her desires,/Buys herself bread and clothes" (4.1.95-96). It never seems to occur to him that he is himself a prostitute in a far deeper sense and with far less justification than Bianca: she sells her body to buy necessities, whereas Iago prostitutes his friendships with nearly everyone else in the play, and he does so in response to no pressing need. Indeed, it is precisely because he has been so intimate with Cassio that he can now confidently predict how the latter will react when Iago feeds him lines: "He, when he hears of her, cannot refrain/From the excess of laughter" (4.1.99-100). Paradoxically, Iago now intends to exploit one of the most common traits of friendly relations--shared laughter--to undermine the very friend with whom he shares some laughs. Earlier in this scene he had played effectively on Othello's grief and anger; now he will do the same with Cassio's good spirits. Shakespeare implies this shift of the scene's tone in a wonderfully balanced line: "As he [i.e., Cassio] shall smile, Othello shall go mad" (4.1.101). Contemplating his own cleverness, Iago can even express some pity (or is it contempt?) for the man he now calls "Poor Cassio" (4.1.103).

When Cassio actually arrives, Iago shifts gears and immediately addresses him with overt respect: "How do you now, lieutenant?" (4.1.104). The reference to Cassio's former title is, of course, a sly, sadistic dig, but Iago knows that it can also be safely interpreted as a sign of his own humility, as well as an indication of his genuine respect for the man he has supplanted as Othello's chief officer. Indeed, by calling Cassio "lieutenant," Iago can even be interpreted as trying to cheer his friend by implying either (1) that Iago still considers Cassio his superior despite their abrupt shifts in formal status or (2) that he expects Cassio will soon regain his old office through Desdemona's interventions. In either case, although Cassio is stung by the reminder of the rank he has lost, he doesn't suspect that Iago intended the pain. Instead, Cassio is so willing to assume Iago's friendly intentions that he is even willing to confess openly his grief, and he is also willing to allude overtly to his desire for his old status (4.1.105-06). His words, however, do not suggest any disappointed ambition so much as they imply the pain of having lost Othello's friendship and respect. That loss, he suggests, "kills" him--words that will soon prove (thanks to Iago) nearly prophetic (4.1.106).

Cassio's confession of grief gives Iago the chance to play the role of friend-as-consoler; he encourages Cassio to "[p]ly Desdemona well" if the lieutenant hopes to win back his lost office (4.1.107). Iago can thus confidently allude to the generous motives of Cassio's one true friend (Desdemona) even as Iago himself pretends to act in the same capacity. Now, however, he shifts tones once again, using the rhetoric of friendly male camaraderie by pretending to address Cassio man-to-man (and joshingly) about Bianca. Iago had tried this ploy much earlier with Cassio when speaking about Desdemona (2.3.13-25) and it hadn't worked, but here, when Bianca is the subject, the stratagem proves effective. The fact that Iago can allude so casually to Bianca suggests, perhaps, that he and Cassio have discussed her previously--a presumption which, if credible, would again imply an intimacy between these two friends that Iago can now proceed to exploit.

The ensuing dialogue is particularly rich, especially since Othello now begins to comment on (and misinterpret) every detail of Cassio's behavior. Othello watches as one friend (Iago) deliberately deceives another (Cassio) into supposedly revealing how the latter friend has deceived his friend Othello. All the while, of course, it is Iago--not Cassio--who is deceiving the Moor. And, since Iago is ostensibly acting explicitly as Othello's agent, Othello himself thinks he is deceiving Cassio even as he is being deceived himself! That is, Othello is willing to act as a false friend to Cassio by authorizing Iago to act as a false friend to Cassio--never suspecting that Iago is acting as a false friend to both the general and the former lieutenant. Iago, meanwhile, pretends to report news that his friend Cassio may not have heard: he tells him that Bianca "gives it out that you shall marry her" and then he innocently asks, "Do you intend it? (4.1.116-17). Although we know that he considers Bianca a whore, Iago is careful not to pass judgment on his friend's taste in women; at the same time, he seems to presume that a man of Cassio's standing will not establish a permanent union with such a woman. He alerts his friend to some news the friend may not yet have heard, and then, rather than rashly presuming the supposed news to be correct, he tolerantly gives his friend every chance to explain his intentions. Iago thus implies his confidence that Cassio will choose to act wisely, and in this way he refrains from any rush to negative judgment. Iago conducts himself, in other words, precisely as one might hope a true friend would behave.

Cassio's response when Iago asks whether he plans to marry Bianca is to laugh heartily. Although we frequently delight in another person's laughter, our reaction here is bound to be far more complicated. In the first place, we know that Othello will malignly misinterpret such joy--as he promptly does. In the second place, Cassio's laughter at Bianca's expense makes him seem (for perhaps the first time in the play) truly unattractive and shallow. At the very, moment when Iago is deceiving Othello, he nonetheless also ironically manages to reveal something significant about Cassio's character--a side of that character we had not glimpsed before. Cassio the deceived friend is willing himself, it appears, to deceive Bianca--or at least to use her for sex while apparently pretending to deeper feelings for her. When he stops laughing, he contemptuously, refers to her as merely "a customer," and then, ironically after such an uncharitable remark, he asks that Iago show him some "charity" by refraining from considering Cassio's "wit" so "unwholesome" as to intend to marry a prostitute. Then he bursts out laughing again (4.1.120-22). Nearly every word Cassio speaks here seems ironic: his appeal that Iago should think well of him paradoxically makes him seem even less appealing, perhaps, than at any other point in the play. Presumably Cassio speaks so bluntly to Iago here precisely because he regards Iago as such a good friend; his response can almost be glossed as meaning, "You, my friend, should know me better than to assume I would marry a whore!" Any friendly feelings we may have previously felt for Cassio are now complicated, not only by his own friendliness toward Iago but also by the revelation that he has been behaving as a false friend toward Bianca. Deceiving Othello may never have been Cassio's intent, but he does seem guilty of deceiving his lover.

The ironies of this scene continue when Iago, protesting that he is not lying about the supposed rumors of marriage, is implored by Cassio, "Prithee say true" and immediately responds, "I am a very villain else" (4.1.125-26). True speech is, of course, the last thing to expect from Iago, but his very willingness to risk the charge of being a "villain" testifies to his public confidence in his virtuous friendship. Meanwhile, Cassio's claim that Bianca is deceiving herself because of her own self-love and self-flattery (4.1.128-30) is all the more ironic since it is Cassio himself who is here displaying both traits, and it is Cassio himself who is being flattered and manipulated by Iago. Cassio is willing to benefit from his relationship with Bianca, but he is unwilling to affirm any real or permanent link with her--and in both of these ways, of course, he is behaving very much as Iago does. Indeed, a nice example of Iago's manipulativeness occurs at this very moment, when he apparently "beckons" Othello to move nearer and hear Cassio's speech (4.1.130). Othello assumes that Iago calls him closer so that Othello can now hear the truth with his own ears; the real truth, however, is that Iago calls Othello closer because he has now established the likelihood of successful deception.

Various other details of this exchange are relevant to the theme of flattery and friendship. Thus, Cassio refers to his recent conversations with "certain Venetians" (4.1.134)--a reference that shows that although he has lost Othello's friendship he is still well regarded by some of his countrymen: he, after all, is a true Venetian, as the Moorish Othello can never be. Similarly interesting is the moment when Othello seems accurately to interpret one of Cassio's gestures and even, in fact, seems correctly to finish one of his sentences (4.1.135-36). This, ironically, is one of the few moments in this entire scene in which Othello does manage to get something right (although he misinterprets its significance by assuming that Cassio is speaking of Desdemona when Cassio really is referring to Bianca). It is precisely because Othello knows his former friend so well that he can so accurately interpret Cassio's gestures and can even correctly assume he knows the words Cassio speaks. The ironies increase, however, as Cassio humorously recounts for Iago the infatuated behavior of Bianca (4.1.138-39). He now seems to be enjoying some of the very few genuinely light-hearted moments he has probably experienced since being discharged as Othello's lieutenant; he feels relaxed enough with his friend Iago that he can temporarily forget his griefs. All the while, of course, his good humor is being used to poison further his previously friendly relations with Othello.

Bianca's sudden appearance onstage seems expected neither by Cassio nor by Iago, and it is hard to tell from Iago's reaction whether he is pleasantly surprised or suddenly fearful, or perhaps some combination of both (4.1.144). In either case, he magnificently rises to the challenge (as he always does) and manages to turn a potential problem into a further improvisational triumph. Part of the humor of Bianca's appearance comes from seeing how suddenly Cassio turns solicitous; earlier, when speaking with his friend Iago, he had dismissed Bianca as a "customer" (4.1.120), but now he sings a different tune. However, rather than calling attention to this change or even criticizing Cassio's apparent hypocrisy, Iago again acts the part of the good friend--the fellow male who knows how difficult women can be. When Bianca storms off, Iago exclaims "After her, after her!" to an apparently perplexed Cassio. One interpretation of his exclamation might be, "Go ahead! Pursue her, since it's obvious that she really does mean something to you!" Another interpretation might be, "After heft--don't worry about seeming to be unfriendly to me by leaving so abruptly!" In either case, Iago once more acts the role of the true friend who puts his comrade's interest first. Indeed, this whole exchange with Cassio now ends on a note of light-hearted friendship and mutual concern (4.1.161-66).

Partly for this reason, Othello's opening words after he first emerges--"How shall I murder him, Iago?" (4.1.167)--seem all the more ironic. His question suggests the degree to which he now thoroughly trusts Iago and views him as a reliable confidant. Iago's ironic response--"Did you perceive how he laughed at his vice?" (4.1.168)--is partly designed to make sure that Othello has in fact witnessed the scene Iago has staged, and is partly also intended to suggest Iago's supposedly honest disgust that Cassio could not only commit adultery but then also laugh about it. Of course, by asking Othello this question Iago also inevitably reminds us of his own shamelessness and evil; indeed, he is in a sense laughing at Othello, and making a fool of him, by asking him this very question. Here and throughout the play, it is Iago who is truly the character who laughs at his own vice.

When Othello cries out "O Iago!" in what may be either pain or anger or both, Iago responds with language calculated to intensify both emotions: "And did you see the handkerchief?" (4.1.169-70). Partly, of course, he is just checking to make sure Othello has indeed glimpsed this crucial piece of evidence, but partly he is also expressing his shock--shock!--as an honest man at the depths of Cassio's perfidy. Perhaps, too, he is expressing genuine shock and pleasure at his own good fortune: who could have predicted not only that Bianca would appear just then, but that she would also bring with her the incriminating piece of linen? As if to twist the irony even tighter, Shakespeare even has Iago pretend some friendly concern for Desdemona's reputation when he asks Othello to consider how cheaply Cassio "prizes the foolish woman your wife!" (4.1.172-73). By raising this issue he implies that Cassio is a false friend not only to Othello but to Desdemona as well.

Iago soon changes his tone, however, when Othello begins to express some lingering affection for Desdemona. Thus, when Othello refers to his wife as "[a] fine woman, a fair woman, a sweet woman!" (4.1.175-76), Iago instantly retorts, "Nay, you must forget that" (4.1.177). One way to interpret his response is to see him as an increasingly blatant satanic figure--a Machiavellian tempter who is now determined to extirpate any mercy Othello may still feel. However, another way to read such responses is to see them as the counsel of a caring friend who does not want his comrade to torment himself unnecessarily. Both interpretations seem appropriate, and both help to complicate and enrich our sense of Iago's character. Surely Othello must see Iago mainly as a friend here, rather than as an obviously demonic schemer. Reading such lines as this one (or his extremely similar subsequent comment, "Nay, that's not your way" [4.1.183]) as the words of a blunt-spoken friend makes Iago seem less a merely cartoonish villain at this point in the play. Nonetheless, his behavior also corresponds closely to the kind of counsel Plutarch attributes to the skilled flatterer: "Art thou angry with one? punish him (saith he) ... Suspectest thou this or that? believe it confidently (saith he)" (69).

In line with his earlier insistence that Othello should act like a man, Iago now counsels firmness and masculine resolution. Iago here presents himself as the honest speaker of painful truths; he will not be a yes-man when Othello needs to hear some honest facts. He even risks offending Othello by implying that the Moor may be guilty of doting foolishness (4.1.194-96). Ironically, it is this potentially offensive speech that finally seems to win Othello over: it is as if he cannot imagine that anyone would speak to him so bitingly if that person did not have his best interests truly at heart. Playing the part of the righteously indignant friend, Iago at times seems even more concerned for Othello's honor and reputation than Othello does himself. Iago professes to be shocked not only that Desdemona would betray Othello, but that Cassio--Othello's friend--would do so as well. To make matters worse (according to Iago), Cassio was not only Othello's friend but was also Othello's deputy--a fact that compounds his treachery (4.1.198-200). It is this apparently deep moral outrage, expressed by a devoted friend, that ultimately seems to shame Othello into turning irrevocably against Desdemona (4.1.201-03). It never occurs to the Moor, throughout this exchange, that Iago may himself be guilty of the very charges he alleges against Cassio.

When Othello proposes poisoning Desdemona, Iago is instantly ready with a better suggestion: strangle her in her marriage bed. It is as if he wants Othello to be intimately, physically involved in her murder, so that both the killer and the victim will carry the memory of the gruesome death to their graves. Meanwhile, Iago's voluntary offer to murder Cassio (4.1.208-09) is presumably meant to show the depth of his commitment to Othello's cause as well as the profundity of his moral outrage at Cassio's perfidy. He acts as if Cassio, in supposedly betraying his friendship with Othello, has betrayed his friendship with Iago as well. In fact, of course, the situation is almost precisely the reverse: it is Iago, not Cassio, who is the master-betrayer of this drama. It is Iago who emerges, almost without a rival, as the play's true antifriend.

Iago has the chance to enact the role of false friend one last time in this lengthy scene--this time with still another target. The person he now deceives is Lodovico, a Venetian emissary who also happens to be Desdemona's cousin. Iago greets Lodovico warmly (4.1.220-21), but their next exchange is exceptionally brief: when Lodovico asks Iago, "How does Lieutenant Cassio?" Iago replies with two words: "Lives, sir" (4.1.223). The ensign's initially gracious tone and verbose greeting make his sudden abruptness seem all the more pronounced. We, of course, knowing the vow Iago has just made to kill Cassio, hear the menacing undertone of his words, but Lodovico and Desdemona probably interpret his words in another way--as the delicate reticence a good friend might show when reluctant to hurt the feelings of anyone present, particularly Othello and Desdemona. Thus the very curtness that we hear as a threat can be heard by the characters onstage as a sign of extreme sensitivity to the emotions of others. At the same time, the phrasing is even more effective, for Iago says nothing here that would make Othello doubt his loyalty. Indeed, if Othello hears Iago's words as we do--as a sly threat on Cassio's life--the Moor would have every reason to be pleased with such a clever response. In two words, then, Iago once again proves himself the rhetorical master of any situation.

Iago uses reticence effectively once again near the end of this scene. Lodovico, astonished by Othello's sudden outburst of anger and especially by his act of striking Desdemona, asks the ensign, when he and Iago are alone, whether this Othello can possibly be the same "noble Moor" they both knew in Venice (4.1.264). Iago now responds with four words rather than merely two: "He is much changed" (4.1.268). Always apparently the good friend, he seems obviously reluctant to say anything that might damage the reputation of his commander; at the same time, he will not explicitly say that Lodovico is mistaken. His very brevity is worse than if he had said volumes. His reticence continues when Lodovico asks whether Othello might even be insane. Iago simply responds, "He's that he is" (4.1.270). These words are then followed by a famously puzzling remark that can be interpreted in a variety of ways: "I may not breathe my censure/What he might be; if what he might, he is not,/I would to heaven he were!" (4.1.270-72). Iago's usually plain speech seems temporarily to have deserted him, but only because he is reluctant to condemn his friend. He reluctantly concedes, in wonderfully understated phrasing, that Othello's striking of Desdemona was "not so well;' but then he immediately adds, "yet would I knew/ That stroke would prove the worst" (4.1.273-74). He thus seems, simultaneously, to (1) show his concern for Othello by mitigating the latter's fault, (2) imply, nonetheless, his equally deep concern for Desdemona, (3) offer a veiled but friendly alert to Desdemona's cousin, and (4) in all these ways, imply his general friendship for everyone involved. When Lodovico asks whether Othello's violence is an ingrained habit or a merely temporary aberration, Iago replies by saying, with the same kind of feigned reluctance he had earlier used so effectively on Othello,
 Alas, alas!
 It is not honesty in me to speak
 What I have seen and known. You shall observe him,
 And his own courses will denote him so
 That I may save my speech. (4.1.276-80)

This long scene ends, in other words, much as it began: with Iago pretending to be hesitant to condemn a friend; with Iago urging a target to trust, instead, the evidence of the target's own eyes; and with the target therefore trusting a man who seems to display the very "honesty" for which he is widely reputed--a reputation to which Iago even modestly alludes. The final sentence of this scene is fittingly and devastatingly ironic: Lodovico confesses, "I am sorry that I am deceived in him" (4.1.282). By "him" he means Othello, but his words are accurate in a sense he doesn't intend: he has indeed been "deceived in" Othello, but the man who has deceived him is the man now standing before him--the man he now trusts. Lodovico thinks he now knows the truth about Othello, but instead he is just the latest person who, thanks to Iago, has come to misunderstand everyone and everything he thinks he comprehends--particularly Iago himself. Lodovico, in other words, is just one of the many characters in this play who cannot tell a flatterer from a friend.

Auburn University at Montgomery


For assistance with various aspects of this project I am grateful to several persons, including Professor John Denton for a quick and very helpful response to a e-mail query about Shakespeare's use of Plutarch; to Tim Bailey of the Interlibrary Loan office of the Auburn University Montgomery library; to Lois Kepes of the reference department of the library at the University of Pittsburgh; and to David Isaacson of the library at Western Michigan University. I am also grateful to a number of colleagues who responded to an inquiry on the SHAKSPER listserv concerning the likely date of composition of Othello. The strong consensus seems to be that the play was written either in 1603 or in 1604--a point that is very relevant to my larger argument.

(1) For previous discussions of this topic, and for citations of many relevant secondary sources, see the chapter on friendship in my book Ben Jonson and the Poetics of Patronage (Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press, 1989), and see also my article "Friendship in Hamlet," Comparative Drama 33 (1999): 88-124.

(2) Marvin Rosenberg, The Masks of Othello: The Search for Identity of Othello, Iago, and Desdemona by Three Centuries of Actors and Critics (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1961), 203; see also 178-79 and 203-05.

(3) For examples of critics who see Othello as a kind of credulous, gullible fool, see the following entries in the invaluable reference work Othello: An Annotated Bibliography (compiled by Margaret Lad Mikesell and Virginia Mason Vaughan [New York: Garland, 1985]): 9 (Stopford Brooke); 28 (M.R. Ridley); 105 (Cesar Foligno); 109 (Arnold F. Powell); 223 (Lorentz Eckhoff); 284 (Albert Gerard); (419) Kenneth Muir; 471 (Gerhard Kaiser); 761 (Harold A. Mason); 770 (Ram Sharma); 1071 (Charles Lamb); 1655 (M.R. Ridley).

In an article entitled "Friendship in Shakespeare's Othello" (Ben Jonson Journal 6 [1999]: 109-46), I have discussed some aspects of friendship in this play at length, but that article does not very fully explore act 4, scene 1, nor does it discuss parallels between Shakespeare's drama and the writings of Plutarch and Sir Thomas Elyot. The main purpose of the present piece is to explore these latter topics in some detail. The earlier article cites various general commentary on Othello and friendship; to preserve space, I have decided not to repeat such references here.

(4) For these details, see A Short-Title Catalogue of Books Printed in England, Scotland, and Ireland and of English books printed abroad, 1475-1640, first compiled by A. W. Pollard and G. R. Redgrave, 2nd ed., revised and enlarged, 3 vols. (London: Bibliographical Society, 1991), item number 20063.

(5) Honigmann's edition is the third included as part of the Arden Shakespeare series (Walton-on-Thames, Surrey: Thomas Nelson, 1997), 345.

(6) Sanders' edition is part of the New Cambridge Shakespeare series (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), 1. The reference to Holland's Pliny is interesting if for no other reason than that it shows that Shakespeare was already familiar with Holland's work as a translator of classical texts.

(7) Ridley's edition was the second included as part of the Arden Shakespeare series (London: Methuen, 1958), xv.

(8) See William Shakespeare, The Complete Works: Compact Edition (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988), 819.

(9) The Norton Shakespeare, ed. Stephen Greenblatt et al. (New York: Norton, 1997), dates the play as "1603-4" but offers no explanation (2091). The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans, et al., 2d ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997) contains an introductory essay by Frank Kermode that mentions that "there is no objection to the date 1603, though present opinion favors 1604" (1246). The article on Othello in The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare, ed. Michael Dobson and Stanley Wells (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001) suggests that "it seems likeliest that the play was composed in late 1603-4" (330).

(10) See Michael Lloyd, "Plutarch's Daemons in Shakespeare," Notes and Queries 205 (September 1960): 324-27, esp. n. 325. Lloyd offers fairly solid evidence for thinking that Shakespeare had read Holland's translation by the time he had come to write Antony and Cleopatra; such evidence at least helps to establish the dramatist's genuine interest in the Moralia and his eventual familiarity with Holland's rendering. For more on the possible influence of the Moralia on Antony and Cleopatra, see Lloyd's article "Cleopatra as Isis," Shakespeare Survey 12 (1959), 88-94. Meanwhile, Reinhold Sigismund notes many similarities between ideas expressed in Shakespeare's works and in the Moralia, but he does not try to prove definitively a direct influence; see "Uebereinstimmendes zwischen Shakespeare und Plutarch: Aus den Lebensbescreibungen sowohl wie aus den moralischen Schriften des Letzteren," Shakespeare Jahrbuch (i.e., Jahrbuch der Deutschen Shakespeare-Gesellschaft)) 18 (1883): 156-82. On the possibility that Shakespeare may have read the Moralia in French as early as 1598, see Albert S. Cook, "Shakespeare's `Pattens' of Bright Gold," Journal of [English and] Germanic Philology 4 (1902): 481-82. H.B. Charlton suggests similarities between ideas expressed in Holland's translation of the Moralia and in Shakespeare's Macbeth, although that play was almost certainly written later than Othello; see Charlton's book Shakespearian Tragedy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1948), 184-88; see also 72-75. For help in tracing these and other references, I am grateful to John W. Velz, Shakespeare and the Classical Tradition: A Critical Guide to Commentary, 1660-1960 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1968). On the general popularity of the Moralia in Shakespeare's era, see T. Spencer, "Shakespeare and the Elizabethan Romans," Shakespeare Survey 10 (1957): 27-38, esp. 33. See also Charles and Michelle Martindale, Shakespeare and the Uses of Antiquity: An Introductory Essay (London and New York: Routledge, 1990), esp. 128. Although Kenneth Muir comments that it is not certain that Shakespeare "knew Holland's translation of Plutarch's Moralia," he also notes that the doubt is ironically due in part to the "widespread dissemination" of the ideas those essays contained. In other words, it would be easier to trace specific debts to Plutarch in general and to Holland's rendering in particular if Plutarch's brand of thinking had been less common in the Elizabethan period. See The Sources of Shakespeare's Plays (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1978), 6. Muir himself, by the way, suggests some interesting parallels between Holland's translation and a passage in Macbeth; see his Arden edition of that play (London: Methuen, 1951), lxi. However, he there misdates Holland's translation as having appeared in 1601.

(11) See Muir, The Sources of Shakespeare's Plays, 95; see also 18 and 151.

(12) As evidence of the widespread assumption of Elyot's influence on Shakespeare, see, for example the articles on Elyot in two standard reference sources: The Reader's Encyclopedia of Shakespeare, ed. Oscar James Campbell and Edward G. Quinn (New York: Crowell, 1966) and Charles Boyce, Shakespeare A to Z (New York: Roundtable Press, 1990).

(13) For a discussion of this topic as it relates to an earlier play by Shakespeare, see Hisanori Kimira, "Sir Thomas Elyot's The Governor and the Theme of Friendship in The Merchant of Venice," Otaru Shoka Daiguku. Jimbun Kenkyu (Otaru Commercial College. Review of Liberal Arts) 57 (1979): 70-82. For the argument that Shakespeare relied on Elyot in presenting his depiction of friendship in Two Gentlemen of Verona, see volume 1 of Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, ed. Geoffrey Bullough (New York: Columbia University Press, 1966), 203-04. Shakespeare use of Elyot's discussion of friendship (book II, chapter xii) in composing this play (which preceded Othello by several years) makes it almost certain that he would also have known of Elyot's nearby discussion of how to distinguish flatterers from friends (book II, chapter xiv).

(14) Here and elsewhere I quote from the Everyman edition, prepared and introduced by S. E. Lehmberg (London: Dent, 1962), 154-58. For the present quotation, see 155. Hereafter I will cite page numbers parenthetically. The Everyman edition has the advantage of being widely available, but I have also consulted A Critical Edition of Sir Thomas Elyot's The Boke Named the Govenour, ed. Donald W. Rude (New York: Garland, 1992). One advantage of Rude's edition is that it reprints (as the Everyman edition does not) Elyot's printed marginal citations of some of his quotations. These include two citations of "Plutarchus de cognoscenda amico ab adulatore." Presumably, then, the sixteenth-century edition of The Governor used by Shakespeare would also have included these marginal citations of Plutarch's important essay. Rude's notes (323) trace most (but not all) of Elyot's allusions to Plutarch.

(15) Here and elsewhere I quote from the Everyman edition of selections from Holland's renderings: Plutarch's Moralia: Twenty Essays translated by Philemon Holland, ed. E.H. Blakeney (London: Dent, [1911]). For the specific passage just cited, see 38. Hereafter I will cite page numbers parenthetically.

Oddly enough, this Everyman edition still seems to be the only generally accessible collection of examples from the 1603 printing of Holland's translation. The 1603 text is not yet included, for instance, as part of the University Microfilms series of Early English Books (although a 1657 printing, revised and corrected, is included), nor does the 1603 printing seem to have been republished in any of the standard series of facsimile editions of early modern texts.

Interestingly, Plutarch himself makes clear what Elyot does not: that Plutarch is partly citing Plato here. In the Loeb Classical Library edition of the Moralia, the relevant passage is translated as follows: "`For love is blind as regards the beloved,' unless one, through study, has acquired the habit of respecting and pursuing what is honorable rather than what is inbred and familiar." The first eight words are from Plato's Laws. See Plutarch's Moralia, ed. and trans. Frank Cole Babbitt, 14 vols. (London: Heinemann, 1927), 1: 265.

(16) Elyot, 156; Holland's Plutarch, 40, 77. Elyot, 155-56; Holland's Plutarch, 48.

(17) See The Correspondence of Erasmus, Letters 142-297, 1501-1514, trans. R.A.B. Mynors and D.F.S. Thomson; annotated by Wallace K. Ferguson (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1975), 249-50. Erasmus notes in a letter to Sir Thomas More that "I am translating a book by Plutarch on how to tell a flatterer from a friend--rather long, but I like it the best of them all" (249). Ferguson's annotation notes that the translation still exists in manuscript (but not holograph) in the Cambridge University Library.

(18) See the facsimile edition of Baldwin's treatise (enlarged by Thomas Palfreyman) edited by Robert Hood Bowers (Gainesville, FL: Scholars' Facsimiles and Reprints, 1967), esp. 174-79. The quotations cited above come from pages 176-77.

(19) Laurens J. Mills, One Soul in Bodies Twain: Friendship in Tudor Literature and Stuart Drama (Bloomington, IN: Principia Press, 1937).

(20) Mills 112; 123; 124; 125, 136-37; 126; 129; 163; 166; 196; 198-99; 244; 124, 125,127-29, 165-66; 127.

(21) See Daniel Tuvill, Essays Politic and Moral and Essays Moral and Theological, ed. John L. Lievsay (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1971), 47-55; for the cited passage, see 47. In his annotations of this essay, Lievsay cites a comment from another essay by Tuvill: "A man may easily secure himself from open and professed enemies, but from such as under a pretense of amitv do go about to overthrow his safety there is no sanctuary" (182). He also cites a quotation from Sallust taken from Barnabe Barnes' 1606 translation of Cicero's Four Books of Offices: "`where greatest friendship harboreth, there hath deceit most power and force to practice'" (182).

(22) See Paul A. Jorgensen, "Honesty in Othello," Studies in Philology 47 (1950): 557-67. In a footnote on page 559, Jorgensen cites essays by Nicholas Breton, Joseph Hall, and John Earle, but these were first published, respectively, in 1616, 1608, and 1628. However, numerous earlier books, including a number that predate Othello, include essays dealing with character-types relevant to the issues of flattery, false friendship, true friendship, and how to distinguish a flatterer from a friend. These include [Ulpian Fulwell], The First Parte of the Eyghth liberall Science entituled Ars Adulandi (London, 1576); [Thomas Rogers], A philosophicall discourse, Entituled, The Anatomie of the minde (London, 1576), which contains an essay "Of enuie" as well as "Notes of unfained frendship"; [Henry Cheeke], The Forrest of Fancy (London, 1579), which contains an essay on "Perfecte friendship"; Ulpian Fulwell, The First Parte, Of the Eyghth liberall Science: Entituled, Ars adulandi, The Arte of Flatterie (Newly corrected and augmented; London, 1579), which contains a verse tribute to "A faithful friend"; the anonymous The mirrour of friendship: both how to know a Perfect friend, and how to choose him, translated from Italian by Thomas Breme (London, 1584); William Rankins, A Mirrovr of Monsters (London, 1587), which contains an essay on "Flatterie"; Walter Dorke, A Tipe or Figure of Friendship (London, 1589); [Thomas Lodge], Wits Miserie, and the Worlds Madnesse (London, 1596), which contains essays on "Scandal and Detraction" and on "Adulation," "A detractor," and "An envious man"; Thomas Bastard, Chrestoleros (London, 1598), which contains an essay on a true friend; [Tommaso Garzoni], The Hospitall Of Incvrable Fooles (London, 1600), which contains an essay on "Parasiticall or scoffing" fools; William Vaughan, The Golden-groue (London, 1600), which contains an essay on "A flatterer"; Robert Johnson, Essaies, Or Rather Imperfect Offers (London, 1601), which contains an essay on "Men who rise into favor by putting others into disgrace"; and Henry Crosse, Vertves Commonwealth: Or the High-Way to Honovr. Wherein is discouered, that although by the disguised craft of this age, vice and hypocrisie may be concealed: yet by Tyme (the triall of truth) it is most plainly reuealed (London, 1603). The preceding list does not include subsequent pre-1604 editions of the works cited unless substantial revision is indicated on the title page. (For help in tracing these titles, I am indebted to Chester Noyes Greenough, A Bibliography of the Theophrastan Character in English [1947; rpt. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1970].)

(23) 561.

(24) Here and elsewhere when citing Othello, I will be referring to the text as presented in E.A.J. Honigmann's third Arden edition (Walton-on-Thames: Nelson, 1997).

(25) See also 335-36.

(26) In an earlier passage from The Governor--a passage Shakespeare almost certainly had read--Elyot had already issued a warning that seems fully applicable to Iago. There Elyot had remarked that since "liberty of speech is now usurped of flatterers, where they perceive that assentation and praises be abhorred, I am therefore not well assured how nowadays a man shall know or discern such admonition from flattery, but by one only means, that is to say, to remember that friendship may not be but between good men" (151).

(27) This is Holland's translation of the title; see the Blakeney edition (36)

(28) For examples of such views, see the following items listed in Othello: An Annotated Bibliography, compiled by Mikesell and Vaughan: 61 (Leo Kirschbaum); 260 (Robert B. Heilman); 584 (Virgil K. Whitaker); 1148 (Gary Carey and Paul A. Jorgensen); and 1158 (Joan Ozark Holmer).

(29) Plutarch writes that when the traits of the flatterer are properly compared "with true, sound, and grave friendship, which (as they say) will endure the hammer, he cannot choose but find himself to be but light, falsified, deceitful." Because of this contrast, Plutarch says, the flatterer realizes that eventually he "must needs be detected and known for such a one as he is" (77). One thinks of Iago's remarks concerning Cassio late in the play: "If Cassio do remain/He hath a daily beauty in his life/That makes me ugly; .../he must die" (5.1.18-22).

(30) It was Iago, of course, who had persuaded Cassio to drink in the first place, despite Cassio's own fear that he might become drunk (2.3.26-44). Plutarch (in Holland's translation) had already imagined such a situation: "say a man do suspect that he hath taken a surfeit, either by over-liberal feeding or drinking heady wine, and upon that occasion make some doubt to bathe his body, or to eat presently again and lay gorge upon gorge (as they say): A true friend will advise him to forbear and abstain; he will admonish him to take heed to himself and look to his health: In comes a flatterer, and he will draw him to the bain in all haste" (69).

(31) See also 139-44.

(32) Elsewhere Plutarch notes that a flatterer will not object if his target decides to "misuse his wife, [or] disdain and despise his kindred" (64).

(33) Later, listing some other behavior of flatterers and false friends, Plutarch makes a number of other comments that seem highly relevant to Othello's relationship with Iago. Thus Plutarch writes that flatterers, among other actions, typically help to "kindle and augment the fire of inconsiderate anger; provoke them [i.e., their targets] unto envy; ... [encourage them to become] always worse, and apt to conceive ill; [and prompt them to become] more fearful, jealous and suspicious, by the means of some new accusations, false surmises and conjectural suggestions, which they be ready to put into their heads" (68-69).

(34) For a particularly blunt example of such frank speech see, for instance, 3.3.397-99.

(35) Plutarch later writes that a real friend will behave in such a way "that if his friend's occasions do require any manner of expense, danger, or travail, he [will] shew himself at the first call and holding up of his finger ready to come, and cheerfully to take his part and undergo the same, without any shifting off, or allegation of any excuse whatsoever" (76). In these respects, the true friend sounds exactly like the false friend already described, but Plutarch is careful to add the following qualification: "marry, if there be never so little shame or dishonour that may accrue thereby, he shall then refuse and pray him to hold him excused; he shall request pardon and desire to have leave for to be dismissed and depart in peace" (76). The false friend, in other words, will assist in anything, and especially in an evil act; the true friend, on the other hand, will assist only in doing what is virtuous. As Plutarch later explains, "in such affairs as may be done under the arm, that is to say, which be close, secret and filthy services, he [i.e., the false friend] is the forwardest man in the world, and maketh no excuses" (76). One thinks of Iago's boast to Othello, early in the play, that he was tempted, in dealing with one of Othello's critics, "t'have yerked him here, under the ribs" (1.2.5). For more on the flatterer's willingness to assist in any dishonest cause, see Plutarch (77). On the true friend's obligation to assist only in ethical undertakings, see, for example, the translation of Cicero's De Officiis by Walter Miller in the Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1913), 313-15.

(36) Ironically, it is Roderigo--consistently regarded as a fool by Iago, by the audience, and by most critics--who is most consistently suspicious of the falsity of his friend--a suspiciousness that is already obvious in the play's very opening words. None of the more "intelligent" characters ever doubts Iago as repeatedly as Roderigo does.

(37) See the extensive commentary in Julie Hankey's edition of Othello, published as part of the Plays in Performance series (Bristol: Bristol Classical Press, 1987), esp. 267-71.

(38) n. 253.

(39) Ibid.

(40) John F. Andrews, ed., Othello (London: Dent, 1995), 178.

(41) Plutarch notes that persons of great status, such as Othello, are especially susceptible to a flatterer's allurements: "Lo, what is the force and power of flattery to win grace and favour; and namely in those who would be reputed the mightiest monarches [sic] and greatest potentates of the world, it beareth most sway ... where there is an high spirit and haughty mind by nature, not guided by sound judgment and reason, but lifted up with the favours of fortune, or nobility of birth, it is the easiest matter in the world even for the most base and vile persons to conquer such" (78-79). Cicero, in De Officiis, also noted that persons in lofty positions were most susceptible to flatterers, but he commented that such persons were therefore especially in need of true friends (93-95).

(42) See Honigmann, 257n.

(43) Iago's skill in getting rid of Cassio before Othello awakes, and his subsequent friendly demeanor toward Cassio later in this scene, remind one of a passage in Plutarch: "a flatterer will do what he can to chase away true friends, and not suffer them to approach near; or if he be not able to do so, then openly and in public place he will seem to curry favour with them, to honour and admire them, as far better than himself; but secretly, underhand, and behind their backs, he will not let to raise some privy calumniations, and sow slanderous reports tending to their discredit" (78).

(44) The record of editorial commentary on this line is interesting. Thus the variorum edition prepared by Horace Howard Furness (New York, J.B. Lippincott, 1886; rpt. New York, Dover, 1963) cites as its only comment (239) a remark by George Steevens, who argued that "Redundancy of metre, without improvement of sense, inclines one to consider this word [i.e., "she"] as an intruder. Iago is merely stating an imaginary case as his own. `When I know what I am, I know what the result of that conviction shall be.' To whom, indeed, could the pronoun 'she' grammatically refer?" The answer to Steevens' question seems, pretty clearly, to be "the wanton" mentioned two lines earlier. Even if one agrees with Steevens' concerns, however, the line still has a menacing, threatening implication. That implication is not spelled out in several later extremely fine editions, such as (for example) the New Swan edition, prepared by Gamini Salgado (Harlow, Essex: Longman, 1976); or the New Folger Library Edition, prepared by Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine (New York: Washington Square Press, 1993); or the third Arden edition, prepared by E.A.J. Honigmann. The menacing implications are noted, for example, by Norman Sanders in the New Cambridge edition and, especially, by M.R. Ridley in the second Arden edition. Ridley comments that the ensign's words here are "another of Iago's cryptic remarks. I suppose he implies `knowing my own temper I know what her fate would be.'"
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Author:Evans, Robert C.
Publication:Comparative Drama
Date:Mar 22, 2001
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