William Shakespeare

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Othello: Unreliable Narrator 1 key example

Read our modern English translation.
Act 3, scene 3
Explanation and Analysis—Iago as playwright :

Iago, a character whose tendency to lie and manipulate is clear to the audience, is an unreliable narrator. While the play does not assign an official chorus or narrator, Iago’s regular soliloquies, in which he often recounts the actions of the play and foretells what will happen, gives him the function of one. His narration, however, is clearly biased, with Iago’s agenda against Othello made clear to the audience. The disparity between what Iago says in private to what he says in public—for example saying in private that he hates Othello, but in public that he loves him—unambiguously highlights Iago’s duplicity. Knowing this, Shakespeare indicates that Iago’s commentary on the events is unlikely to be trustworthy. 

Iago’s function as an unreliable narrator has metafictional implications in how it draws attention to the power of language to manipulate. Iago’s power over the other characters in the play is achieved through his mastery of rhetoric, with him able to trick others by weaving convincing narratives. Iago manipulates Othello, for example, through his careful choice of words, a fact that Othello ironically alludes to:

And for I know thou ’rt full of love and honesty
And weigh’st thy words before thou giv’st them breath

Othello’s awareness of how Iago “weigh’st” his words before he speaks them is surprisingly insightful. Iago has of course very carefully constructed what he is saying to Othello, but in a way not done out “of love and honesty” but, on the contrary, out of malice and deceit. Nonetheless, the attention that Othello draws to the considered nature of Iago’s words reminds the reader of how Iago manipulates his listeners through language. Words are Iago’s weapon of choice. Consequently, the audience is reminded that they too are subjects of Iago’s contrived speeches. Iago’s soliloquies, for example, in which the audience is the sole listener, can also manipulate.

By drawing attention to this, Shakespeare highlights the manipulative power plays in literature more generally. Iago himself is portrayed as a kind of secondary playwright in the way he sets up scenes for other characters to witness. He manufactures the scene of Cassio talking about Bianca in earshot of Othello, for example, but tricks Othello by framing it in a way that makes it seem that Cassio is talking about Desdemona. As such, Iago skillfully chooses what to show and what not to show in order to get the audience to believe his chosen narrative. That Shakespeare allows the audience to witness this acknowledges his own potentially manipulative role as storyteller, with his play also carefully and deliberately manufactured to craft a particular narrative.