In Othello Shakespeare makes an important departure in his use of the soliloquy. Whereas in tragedies like Hamlet and Macbeth the soliloquy is monopolised by the hero, in Othello it is the villain who has the lion’s share of soliloquies––eight soliloquies are assigned to Iago, whereas Othello has only three of them. An important reason for this departure is that the character of the hero in Othello is too straightforward and transparent to need much elucidation through soliloquies.
On the other hand, Iago is not at all what he seems, and without his soliloquies the reader or spectator would have been as much in the dark about him as the characters in the play. An important feature of Iago’s soliloquies is that most of them occur at the end of scenes. These soliloquies foreshadow coming events and thus help in plot-development, in addition to their obvious function of revealing the mind and motivation of Iago.
Of the eight soliloquies of logo, the first three have been characterised as epiphanies, and the remaining five as signposts. That is to say, in the former group he intimately reveals his nature, whereas in the remaining five soliloquies we see him first groping after a plan and then gradually seeing his way clearly towards successive steps of it. Thus these soliloquies reveal what Iago is going to do with respect to other characters.
The first three soliloquies serve the important function of giving to the audience significant information which they have no other means of obtaining. However, we have to make an important reservation about Iago’s soliloquies––they are not to be taken as expressing objective truth, although they truly reflect his own mind. Thus when he says about Othello that––
it is thought abroad, that ’twixt my sheets
Ha’s done my office ; I know not, if ’t be true.
This is not to be taken as evidence that there was a rumour of this kind going about. If Shakespeare had meant us to believe this, nothing would have been easier for him than to make Roderigo or Montano, or even the Clown, blurt it out ; but we never hear the slighest hint of it ; it is one of logo’s inventions, and gives us clear information about his state of mind ; he is not under hallucination, he is in the subtler, but very common condition, which almost everyone experiences in some degree, of one who is entertaining a fantasy in order to feed a passion. Psychologically, logo is a slighted man, powerfully possessed by hatred against a master who (as he thinks) has kept him down, and by envy for a man he despises, who has been promoted over him. All this comes out in the first lines of the play. Such a man will naturally have a fantasy life in which be can hate these enemies the more, that he may revenge himself upon them the more. The fantasy that comes most easily to him is that of crude copulation ; it is his-theme-song.
Grading in Horror
These three soliloquies are graded in their horror and heinousness, with the most horrible of them coming last of all. Their function is not to bring logo closer to the audience, or create sympathy for him but to distance him from them, to create hatred for him. This is what is unique in them. Iago’s soliloquies are designed to make him progressively more repellent. They are the hairpin bends by which we descend into the abysses of his nature. There is also another purpose to be discerned in these speeches. They are there to offer the living image of a man who is the opposite of what he appears to be. He is a walking illustration of the theme with which he opens the play
I am not what I am.
Analysis : First Soliloquy
The first of these soliloquies occurs at the end of the First Act. The care of Desdemona has just been entrusted to Iago and he is left with Roderigo, whom he immediately instructs in the means of seducing her. Roderigo, gulled by his hopes and lust, goes out obediently to sell all his land. It is time for Iago to explain himself a little to the audience. Once again he asserts the basic fact :
I hate the Moor
and gives us a first pointer to the plot that is forming in his mind :
Let me see now.
To get his place, and to plume up my will
In double knavery. How ? How ? Let’s see.
After some time, to abuse Othello’s ears,
That he is too familiar with his wife……
and he finishes this aspect of the soliloquy with––
I have’t : it is engendred : Hell, and Night,
Must bring this monstrous birth, to the world’s light.
Second and Third Soliloquy
In the second soliloquy, Iago brings his plot into slightly sharper focus ; he will abuse Cassio to the Moor and make the Moor thank him and reward him for ‘making him egregiously an ass’ : but still the line of action is a little blurred :
’Tis her : but yet confus’d,
Knavery’s plaine face, is never seen, till us’d.
The complete, explicit plot is reserved for the third’ soliloquy :
For whiles this honest Fool
Plies Desdemona to repair his Fortune,
And she for him, pleads strongly to the Moor,
I’ll poor this pestilence into his ear :
That she repeals him, for her body’s lust,
The remaining five soliloquies are signposts in the sense of giving valuable indications about Iago’s plots. Their primary importance is not psychological : in them we find Iago giving practical shape to his thoughts. In one of them he reveals his plan of dropping Desdemona’s handkerchief in Cassio’s house, in the fullest confidence that the discovery of the handkerchief will be regarded by Othello as a strong confirmation of his suspicions. In another he announcer that he is going to cause a rift between Othello and Cassio and bring about the latters’ downfall. In still another soliloquy we find him justifying the doom which he has in store for his victims, especially Cassio and Roderigo.
One of the soliloquies of Othello is tendered absolutely essential by the fact that he has just forfeited the reader’s sympathy by striking at Desdemona in public and needs to rehabilitate himself. Dramatically, this soliloquy, with which the last scene starts, is not so essential, for Desdemona could have been, if Shakespeare so chose, shown as awake. On the other hand, the need for Othello to restore himself in the reader’s estimation, to some extent at least, and the need to show that he thought of Desdemona’s billing not as murder but as a piece of justice, was paramount, and only a soliloquy could achieve this. Othello has already decided what to do before be begins the soliloquy :
It is the cause, it is the cause, my soul–
Let me not name it to you, you chaste stars––
It is the cause.
What underlies this soliloquy is the Othello’s conviction that adultery deserves death, and he takes Desdemona’s culpability for granted. His fault is that of foolish gullibility; which fully deserves the curse––“O fool ! fool ! fool !”
Othello’s last soliloquy is intensely poetic and is great in its impact. The soliloquy imparts a beautiful pattern to the scene, with even some of the words repeated at the end. The soliloquy heralds an act of justice, committed on the wedding-bed of Desdemona, which becomes her death-bed in the beginning of the scene, and Othello’s death-bed at the end of it. Both the killings are essential acts of justice, and each is preceded by a kiss. However, where the first deed is enacted in ignorance, the second is done in full tragic enlightenment. In Othello’s first speech, which is a soliloquy, Othello says, kissing Desdemona––
One more, one more.
Be thus when thou art dead, and I will kill thee,
And love thee after. One more, and that’s the last.
He recalls this just before he is going to kill himself, and exclaims :
I kiss’d thee are I kill’d thee. No way but this––
Killing myself, to die upon a kiss.
Thus Othello’s soliloquy also is an integral part of the scene in which it occurs. It comments on the action which is about to take place, expressing the agent’s conscious motive and giving his view of its nature. It reveals a vast change in Othello’s mood––the earlier fury has given place to a deadly quiet which is frightening. As Bradley observes, the man who utters this soliloquy doer not seem to be the same man whom we have seen in Act IV. Othello’s words tell us that he is going to rave Desdemona from herself, not in hate, but in honour and love. His anger has passed, and in its place there is now a, boundless sorrow. Indeed, without this soliloquy, Othello would look less of a tragic hero and more of a bloody murderer.