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What is Iago? Shakespeare on Imagination and the Demonic


Date: Tuesday 5 April 2016
Time: 12-1pm
Rogers Room, Woolley Building, The University of Sydney
Enquiries: Craig Lyons (craig.lyons@sydney.edu.au)

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Literary critics tend to find Shakespeare’s arch-villain, Iago, a puzzling character. What is the root cause of his relentless, thorough-going evil? Coleridge, famously, saw in his soliloquies “the motive hunting of a motiveless malignity.” Othello for his part wonders aloud if his nemesis might be the devil himself. Drawing on recent work on Shakespeare’s indebtedness to medieval drama, I argue here that Iago should be understood symbolically, as well as naturalistically. He represents an aspect of Othello himself, his imagination, led astray by his own emotions, as well as, perhaps, some measure of diabolical malevolence. This interpretation of the imagination as dangerously unreliable, prey to strong passions, susceptible to demonic influence, yet even so liable to be confused with conscience, is not limited to Othello; the same might be said, for instance, of the witches in Macbeth, as well as the ghost in HamletShakespeare’s sense of the imagination is indebted in these plays to Aristotelian faculty psychology, as well as the influence of Protestantism, and can be discerned even more clearly by comparison to that of his contemporary, Edmund Spenser. Shakespeare’s personification of imagination in the figure of Iago closely resembles, above all, Spenser’s in his allegorical poem, The Faerie Queene, in the character Archimago. In Aristotle’s account of what he calls phantasia (“fantasy”), the imagination is relatively innocent; if it proves deceptive, it is because we ourselves have allowed our emotions to run riot. We as moral agents are in this sense responsible for our own misjudgement. With the advent of Protestant pessimism about human nature, however, as well as Protestant iconoclasm, this chain of causality becomes more ambiguous. Imagination takes on a role akin to that of the demonic in Christian thought: an external danger which we are responsible for holding at bay, yet nonetheless might not be able to resist.  

Patrick Gray is Lecturer in Shakespeare and Renaissance Literature in the Department of English Studies at Durham University. He is the co-editor with John D. Cox of Shakespeare and Renaissance Ethics (Cambridge UP, 2014) and guest editor of a forthcoming special issue of Critical Survey on Shakespeare and war. His essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Shakespeare Survey, Shakespeare Jahrbuch, Critical Survey, Comparative Drama, and Cahiers Shakespeare en devenir. He is currently working on a monograph on shame and guilt in Shakespeare, as well as co-editing a collection of essays on Shakespeare and Montaigne. In April and May 2016, Patrick Gray is Early Career International Research Fellow at the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions, 1100-1800.

Image: Painting, Edwin Booth as Iago, Thomas Hicks