Academic journal article Journal of Evolutionary Psychology

"Honest" Iago and the Evil Nature of Words

Academic journal article Journal of Evolutionary Psychology

"Honest" Iago and the Evil Nature of Words

Article excerpt

What if you were evil? How would you destroy your enemies? Would you do it by telling the truth? Probably not. But, if you were Iago, you would. And it makes perfect sense.

If one lives in a world of goodness, honesty and truth, then evil would have to be, of course, anything, that is untruthful--succinctly, anything that is a lie. Yet who among us lives in such a world of goodness and "truth"? We may like to believe we do, but our world is anything but truthful. In fact, we lie all the time. It is accepted and, worse, expected. For example, if your dear Granny should ask how she looks in the new hat she is so proud to have purchased, would you tell her the truth? Would you say, "Granny, you look silly and awful?" I doubt it. You'd probably tell a little lie. You'd probably tell her she looks nice, wouldn't you? Or what about your boss? Would you tell your boss the truth all the time? If you took a day off, would you admit you weren't sick but just overslept because you were out "partying" all night? Would youngsters tell their parents the truth? Do their parents really want to know? When asked what they did till two o'clock in the morning, do you think your teenagers would actually tell you? Or are you satisfied they're home safely and respond to your query--" what did you do last night?"--with a dispassionate and simple, "nothing much"? And what about you? What lies do you tell--especially to yourself?

What am I getting at? In a truthful world, an evildoer causes mayhem by lying. But in a world filled with lies--as ours is--how does one become evil? The answer is as obvious as it is simple: One tells the truth! In a world where everyone survives by telling lies to each other and, more importantly, to him- or herself, the person who tells the truth is the one who strips away the protective fabrications and, in the process, conjures up the most chaos. Thus, as bizarre as it may seem, Iago's source of evil, his "poison," is truth!

Consequently, "Honest Iago"--just think of the numerous times his honesty is referred to in the play--tries whenever possible to tell the truth, so much so that sometimes when he does tell a lie he will actually admit it. For example, after he deftly manipulates the "truth" by using a conditional interrogative to provoke Othello's jealousy, "What if I had

said I had seen him do you wrong?" (IV, i, 24, The Arden Shakespeare: Complete Works, revised edition, 2002), Iago creates chaos because Othello's imagination and assumptions lead him to believe Cassio has actually admitted an affair with Desdemona--even when Iago admits he is only asking "what if" and really doesn't know the truth:

Othello: What hath he said?

Iago: Faith, that he did--I know not what. He did--

Othello: What? What?

Iago: Lie.

Othello: With her?

Iago: With her, on her, what you will. (IV, i, 31-34)

Another example occurs when Iago relates Cassio's "dream" about Desdemona. Iago paints an adulterous scene for Othello's imagination, claiming Cassio--who talks in his sleep--was dreaming aloud about making love to Desdemona. But when Othello, totally believing the dream as real, shouts in pain, "O monstrous! Monstrous" (III, iii, 428), Iago is quick to belie the reality of what he just related, "Nay, this was but his dream" (III, iii, 429). We have no way of knowing whether or not Cassio actually does talk in his sleep or if he had such a dream, but it doesn't matter because Iago's admission truthfully negates the reality of the situation playing out in Othello's imagination.

But is Iago's world really so filled with lies that he can utterly manipulate the truth to create havoc? It sure is, thanks to the genius of Shakespeare, who envisions a dramatic realm so real it "mirrors" life. In Shakespeare's hands, the purpose of life is to provide a mirror for the plays just as the plays (as Hamlet informs us) mirror nature. …

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