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'[...] thou, Iago, who hast had my purse / As if the strings were thine' (Othello, 1.1.1-4)
Welcome to my Othello commentary.
This marks the start of my new series in which I publish notes, in order, on resonant quotations from Othello, not unlike the way Hester Lees-Jeffries did. Follow along if you like!
Tush! never tell me; I take it much unkindly
That thou, Iago, who hast had my purse
As if the strings were thine, shouldst know of this.
’Sblood, but you will not hear me:
If ever I did dream of such a matter, Abhor me.
So opens Othello, in the dark, though in a public place. There’s much fertile discussion to be had about Shakespeare’s public and private places, and an immediate contrast I can make is between this version of the public place, which is in the dark, and the opening of Romeo and Juliet, which starts in public, but in broad daylight (in the morning). Both openings are two-handers — private discourse between two men — which quickly leads to very public matters: public violence, public chaos. Both plays spring from a union of two men — and, notably, two men dissatisfied, with rather masculine grievances on their minds. Sampson and Gregory are equals, low-ranking men of the house of Capulet (though high-ranking enough to bear a sword in public, as a servant would not be able to), whose grievance is both inherited from their masters (who have, in turn, inherited it from their forbears: ‘The quarrel is between our masters and us their men’, (R&J 1.1)). Such an awareness of power structures greater than oneself resonate in the opening to Othello, too, though the tension comes not within the confines of the structure, but rather kicks vitriolic against them.
In any case, back to the opening. We join Iago and Roderigo as though we’ve chanced across them in Venice’s night-streets, our heads turned by Roderigo’s percussive ‘Tush!’, a mild oath sometimes considered (and censored as) profanity. We have no choice but to pay attention, right from the first syllable, lest we miss a detail, because we’re already on the back foot, unaware of why Roderigo is so cross.
Darkness abounds in many senses. Most literally, the scene is set at night, though this is only really apparent from the text when Brabantio is urged ‘Awake!’ The audience is in the dark about quite a lot: pronouns are used without attachment to proper nouns, we don’t know what Roderigo and Iago have been arguing about (apparently, from the heat of the exchange, for some time), we don’t know what the ‘matter’ is that Iago denies even ‘dream[ing]’ of. We are yet to be enfolded into the other senses of darkness that the play explores, exposes, and problematises — Othello’s blackness has not yet been referenced, and will not be hinted at until line 32: ‘And I, God bless the mark, his Moorship’s ancient!’ (Othello, 1.1.32).
One thing does stand out clearly: ‘thou, Iago.’ ‘Thou’ is grammatically necessary; Iago’s name, given that there is no ambiguity about to whom ‘thou’ refers. We need to know that this is Iago’s play: he is the first identified, his name ringing out in its strange Spanishness incongruous to the Venetian setting.1 He is going to bring order to the chaos (albeit with more chaos) by mirroring Roderigo’s mild oath with a more serious one, ‘S’blood’ (God’s blood), but both oaths are extra-metrical. The blank verse can’t quite settle down in these opening lines; no sooner has it smoothed itself back to iambic pentameter does an extra syllable rear up. Roderigo, Iago’s social superior, reminds him of such with ‘thou’, the informal version of ‘you’ used to express sometimes familiarity or intimacy, but in this case, superiority, but it’s for naught: as we’ll see in the lines that follow, Iago has the linguistic upper hand.
Finally: ‘as if the strings were thine.’ This a reference to how Iago controls Roderigo’s purse — that is, he’s had a lot of money out of Roderigo. ‘Purse’ is important here to signal a key idea: that of the value or worth of a person. Othello, as a Moor, is weighed and measured; his upset of Brabantio is worth less than his usefulness to the state as a soldier. But it is Iago who thinks of people in Capitalist terms, not least himself: ‘I know my price, I am worth no worse a place’ (Othello, 1.1.10). I also cannot resist looking at Iago having hold of someone else’s strings as a reference to him as master puppeteer of the play: little does Roderigo know the true extent of his friend’s cunning and treachery.
This post is part of my Shakespeare Deep Dive project, in which I read and write about everything Shakespeare ever wrote. You can keep up with my ever-expanding notes on it here.
Link perhaps to Sant’Iago (St James), scourge of Moors, a pretty relevant allusion for this play! ↩︎