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'Thou toldst me thou didst hold him in thy hate' (Othello, 1.1.5)
Othello commentary, 2
This is the second in a series of posts of close-readings of Othello. For the previous (and first) post, go here.
Thou told’st me thou didst hold him in thy hate.
Despise me, if I do not. Three great ones of the city,
In personal suit to make me his lieutenant,
Off-capp’d to him: and, by the faith of man,
Why does Iago hate Othello so? Why do we never get a satisfactory answer? Iago is building here to one of the reasons: because Othello has overlooked him for promotion in favour of ‘One Michael Cassio, a Florentine, A fellow almost damn’d in a fair wife’ (Othello, 1.1.14–31). Roderigo’s ‘thou tolds’t’ might suggest that this is a well Othello returns to often; ‘hold’ reinforces the strength of Iago’s feeling. It’s ‘hate’ that knocks us off balance, perhaps, in that we’re still trying to figure out what’s going on. We learn of Iago’s hatred before we learn to whom it is directed? Perhaps this is for dramatic effect: Shakespeare keeps us in the dark as a way to build tension (see ‘Thou, Iago, who hast had my purse’ (Othello. 1.1.2–3)) but also to bring the chaos of Iago’s hate into question. Iago lives in a liminal space between order and chaos; his disruption in the play is wide-ranging and devastating, but there is a clinical, scalpel-sharp quality to it: ‘Work on, my medicine, work!’ (Othello, 4.1.44–51).
But with Iago there’s always another side. Such scalpel-sharpness is met by equal amounts bluntness. We don’t learn why the ‘great ones of the city’ changed their ‘personal suit to make [Iago] [Othello’s] lieutenant’, other than that they ‘off-capped’ to Othello, meaning that they (metaphorically) removed their head-coverings (here, cap is not meant to refer to specific headgear) to show Othello respect, to kowtow to him. What hold Othello might have over the imagination or decision-making of such ‘great ones’ is not revealed, though later the Duke clearly favours Othello’s military prowess and usefulness to dismiss Brabantio’s case against Othello later in the act. Othello is kept around as long as he fits with what he’s supposed to be; when he does not, there are stark and startling consequences, as demonstrated here by just how much ire he draws from Iago. That Roderigo does not question this is an early sign that Othello is, and always will be, an outsider, tolerated until he is no longer useful.