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
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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)


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.

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


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