Flattery in Shakespeare's Othello: The Relevance of Plutarch and Sir Thomas Elyot

By Evans, Robert C. | Comparative Drama, Spring 2001 | Go to article overview

Flattery in Shakespeare's Othello: The Relevance of Plutarch and Sir Thomas Elyot


Evans, Robert C., Comparative Drama


"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)

I

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. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Flattery in Shakespeare's Othello: The Relevance of Plutarch and Sir Thomas Elyot
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.