“What is Iago? Shakespeare on Imagination and the Demonic”, Dr Patrick Gray (Durham University)
Date: Tuesday 5 April, 2016
Venue: Rogers Room, Woolley Building, The University of Sydney
Literary critics tend to find Shakespeare’s archvillain, Iago, a puzzling character. What is the root cause of his relentless evil? Othello wonders if his nemesis might be the devil himself. Drawing on recent work on Shakespeare’s indebtedness to medieval drama, I argue that Iago should be understood symbolically as well as naturalistically. He represents an aspect of Othello himself—his imagination, led astray by his emotions, as well as 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 of the witches in Macbeth and the ghost in Hamlet. Shakespeare’s sense of the imagination is indebted in these plays to Aristotelian faculty psychology, as well as Protestantism. Shakespeare’s personification of imagination in the figure of Iago closely resembles Spenser’s character Archimago in his allegorical poem, The Faerie Queene. 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 and Protestant iconoclasm, however, 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 co-editor of Shakespeare and Renaissance Ethics (Cambridge UP, 2014) and guest editor of a forthcoming special issue of Critical Survey on Shakespeare and war. He has published 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, and co-editing a collection of essays on Shakespeare and Montaigne. In April/May 2016, Patrick Gray is Early Career International Research Fellow at the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions.