In Othello, the Moor of Venice, there is another Italian city that merits multiple mentions: Florence.
When we first meet Iago, he tells Roderigo of his bitterness at being passed over for the position of becoming Othello’s lieutenant, a role given over to “a great arithmetician, // One Michael Cassio, a Florentine” (I.i.18-9). Iago denigrates Cassio’s skill and experience as all theory, “bookish rhetoric” (I.i.23), and “mere prattle without practice” (I.i.25). During Shakespeare’s day, Florence was known as a center of learning, a birthplace of the Renaissance; thus, this bookishness seems supported.
Later in the play, however, after Iago offers to help Cassio, the lieutenant says of the ensign, “I never knew // A Florentine more kind and honest” (III.i.39-40). This is ironic since Iago, we as the audience know, is anything but “kind and honest.” This raises an even more interesting question: how is “Florentine” used here? Is Cassio saying that Iago, too, is a Florentine, or that Iago is a Venetian but that Cassio never met a man from his own hometown that is as honest as Iago?
The latter makes Cassio out to be a greater fool, and playing Cassio as a dupe is a completely valid portrayal. Additionally, Iago tells Othello that he “know(s) our country disposition well: // In Venice they do let God see the pranks // They dare not show their husbands” (III.iii.201-3). If “country” refers to Venice, the argument is done and Iago is a Venetian; if, however, “country” refers to Italy, then it’s possible that Iago is from Florence himself. And that has some implications.
If Iago is Florentine, then his reference to Cassio’s background cannot be purely about book learning positioned against Iago’s in-the-field experience, else he would venture into hypocrisy (and I see him as a villain and a liar, but not a hypocrite). Florence was also the center of finance and trade, heightening the importance of the “arithmetician” and “countercaster” (I.i.30) references. But if Cassio’s Florence is one of study and (or of) money, then Iago’s Florence must be representative of something else.
One of Florence’s famed citizens was one Niccolò Machiavelli, the author of the political treatise The Prince, and whose last name has become the root of an adjective meaning “characterized by, (esp. political) expediency; unscrupulous, duplicitous; astute, cunning, scheming” (“Machiavellian, n. and adj. B.” Oxford English Dictionary Online. December 2015. Web. 18 January 2016.). Sound like any character we know? cough Iago cough
Machiavelli was pre-Shakespeare. Could Shakespeare have had this author in mind? Could he have trusted that his audience would have understood the reference? It does make sense…