This passage is a crucial part of the play, not only because it helps the audience to understand Iago’s relationship with Roderigo, but also because it provides a map for the rest of the play and offers some insight into Iago’s character. Iago’s brief soliloquy essentially exalts dishonesty and pretence, showing Iago’s disregard for truth telling. This is particularly ironic when one bears in mind that Shakespeare often refers to the character as ‘honest Iago’, indicating his common preoccupation with appearance versus reality concept.
In fact, in this passage, Iago is being truly honest with Roderigo, demonstrating his lack of respect for the character. It is almost as if, through telling him the truth, he is indicating his disdain for him and that he considers him to be below making up stories for. Iago also indicates his derision for the truth in his description of some servants: ‘Whip me such honest knaves! ‘ The passage begins with Iago’s explanation of his relationship with Othello: he claims that his service to Othello is founded not in desire to fulfil his master’s wishes but ‘to serve [his] own turn upon [Iago].
He has no love for Othello but merely wishes to ‘line his coat’. In addition to this, despite extolling his own abilities at deception, he seems to ridicule Othello for not realising Iago’s natural inaptitude at servility. In the line ‘Were I the Moor, I would not be Iago’, he explains that if he were Othello, he would not hire him as his servant, although this phrase may in fact be a shot at depth designed to impress the gullible Roderigo. His usage of the word ‘Moor’ also indicates his racist tendencies toward Othello.
The passage is a text of comparisons: Iago first describes two sorts of masters, then two sorts of servants. He believes that not all men are natural leaders and that those who are not do not warrant devotion or ‘[true] following’. We can infer from this that he does not think Othello a suitable master, as Iago evidently does not follow him truly. He also mentions two sorts of servants: the first ‘obsequious’ and sycophantic, embracing servility and essentially cast off when no longer useful or necessary. Shakespeare reduces these servants almost to animals with the simile ‘like his master’s ass’.
By making this allusion and saying that they work for ‘naught but provender’, these servants become a commodity like an ass that require only basic upkeep and feeding. This is successful in demonstrating Iago’s disdain for a servant who is foolish enough to give loyal servitude. The phrase ‘knee-crooking knaves’ furthers these simpering impressions – it provides a powerful physical image of smarminess and the alliteration in knee and knave seem somehow to provide a label for this distasteful brand of servant.
The phrase is neat and sophisticated and might be intended to make Iago appear witty and well-spoken, particularly to the slower Roderigo. The line ‘.. doting on his own obsequious bondage’ takes on greater resonance in the context of the play, particularly as Iago tells Othello ‘I am bound to thee forever. ‘ The second type of servant that Iago describes can hardly be said to be true servants at all – these men, wearing their ‘visages of duty’, go about their work and do what is expected of them, presenting an honourable front to the their masters.
However, Iago suggests that one’s heart should ‘attend on [one’s self]’ in order to thrive financially and holistically. Rather than suggesting, however, that one’s job should be but that, Iago rather exalts being two-faced and dishonest. This indicates at least some of his malignity. Interestingly, however, he appears to believe that his morals are, if not scrupulous, hardly cause for concern, claiming with a healthy dose of the laissez-faire the metaphor of ‘Heaven [being his] judge. ‘ Iago believes that those who are what they appear to be are foolish and make themselves vulnerable as one is opened to easy victimisation or daw-pecking.
The implication in his phrase ’tis not long after; But I will wear my heart upon my sleeve; For daws to peck at’ is that he will never expose himself to such risk and will remain a closed main. Iago’s language is frequently sophisticated and highly ambiguous. This gives an impression of profundity although on closer inspection, appears more to be nonsensical. It also begins a game of deception, both with those around him and with the audience as we are forced to wrestle with his paradoxes: ‘I am not what I am. At any rate, Iago manages to convince the listener that he is both learned and reflective, possibly inciting those around him to trust ‘honest Iago. ‘
This is a powerful rhetorical tool and part of what makes him so skilled in the art of dishonesty. This particular speech is exemplary in describing Iago’s cryptic choices of words. As is the norm with Shakespeare, the extract is written in iambic pentameter which, in contrast with some of Iago’s blank prose later in the play, seems to indicate a greater amount of thought behind Iago’s speech.
The last line is an example of Iago’s elliptical speech patterns: ‘I am not what I am. ‘ In many ways, this can be said to sum up the greater part of the text: Iago is dishonest, honest with Roderigo with his dishonesty and considers this limbo of not being to be the greatest form of self-preservation. However, in this last line, we see a glimpse of Iago’s self-doubt, compounded by Cassio’s promotion. This self-doubt combined with his jealousy and ambition helps indicate to the audience some of the internal motivation that leads to his sabotage of those around him later in the play.