Consider this ambivalence: we boast a burgeoning service industry, but we can’t believe anyone in their right mind would want to be a servant.

In April Morning, a novel about the first battles in the American Insurrection, the father of the family will not bow his head in prayer. He declares he came to this New World to be able to look his God in the eye. “If God became a man,” he seems to think, “then God is your peer, your equal. So let all relationships of service and subordination be abolished, and death to patriarchy, amen.” Lucifer would second this sentence: “Here at least / We shall be free… Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven” (Milton, Paradise Lost, 1:258-263).

It seems there is a mandate to eliminate social roles of service and subordination, along with associated concepts and terms that bear the taint of servitude. Secretaries, stewardesses, and waitresses have been liberated: in the brave new world they are administrative assistants, flight attendants, and valued members of the wait staff team (see Culinary Lore for commentary on what Orwell called “new-speak”).

This shift is motivated partly by the desire to establish gender-neutral professional terms. But underneath there lurks a fear: cultural memory can still recall, it seems, the Latin word servus (which can be construed both as servant and as slave). No doubt the woman question and the servant question are related. Suffragettes and abolitionists intersect; and for at least two centuries concerted efforts have been made to liberate womanhood from the bonds of servitude.

When the first blushing stewards appeared among the stewardesses, and the first male nurses appeared among the nurses (the human beings who can nurse infants), there were some awkward moments. Mainstream culture was troubled: Isn’t it degrading (not to mention improper) for men to do women’s work—that is, to take on such servile roles? A solution naturally suggested itself: The men who take on these roles aren’t real men.

Long ago, in a place far away, the social order, the ancien regime, consisted of interlocking service relations. Peasant serves lord, lord serves king, king serves God. Nurse nurses infants, maid serves lady, lady serves lord. Ensign serves lieutenant, lieutenant serves general. The Christian people serves God, who so loved the human beings that he chose to appear in the form of a servant. Here, if you look carefully, you will see a gem glimmering in the darkness: the religious ideal of voluntary obedience, of whole-hearted devotion.

Is she sincere?

In Shakespeare’s Othello, we can see the disintegration of this ideal, the loss of belief in the possibility of serving with integrity. The African Othello (a Muslim turned Christian-European) is general in command of the Venetian forces; Desdemona is his wife and Brabantio’s daughter; Cassio serves as Othello’s lieutenant, and Iago as his ensign. A flag is a sign of something so big and so abstract (the people and their duty as citizens) that it calls out for encapsulation. The effectively emblematic flag serves as a rallying point with power to inspire long-term commitment. In battle, it is the ensign’s duty to maintain this outward and clearly visible symbol of the cause for which the troops are fighting. In practice, as an officer of intermediate rank, Iago performs a variety of duties: he draws his sword when Brabantio and his men attempt to arrest Othello; he escorts Desdemona from Venice to Cypress; he delivers messages and looks after the luggage. Iago defers to his superior in the formal pronoun you; Othello calls Iago his subordinate thou.

Laurence Olivier plays Othello

Study the words Iago uses to describe his position in relation to Othello (Act I, 42-65). Iago is speaking here to Roderigo, Desdemona’s rejected suitor, whom Iago draws along with false promises of hope. Iago is angry because Othello chose Cassio over him as his lieutenant (like a vice-president, the one who would take his place, should need arise). Iago schemes to take the lieutenant’s place and ruin the Moor. He masterfully deceives Othello into seeing sincere people (Cassio and Desdemona) as deceivers. For us the danger is that we all come to see social roles with Iago eyes: anyone who seems to be serving sincerely is either duping us or being duped.

Total social insecurity, the dark heart of anxiety.

Seducing or seduced?

Comments are inserted between the lines. Some words are in bold to indicate stressed syllables in the rhythm. The norm is ten-syllable iambic pentameter: “The native act and figure of my heart.” The full, uninterrupted speech follows the commentary.

I follow him to serve my turn upon him.

To play a trick on him and give him what he deserves, what he has coming

We cannot all be masters, nor all masters

Cannot be truly followed.

At the time an acceptable double negative: “nor can all masters be truly followed.” Since all strong-willed men wish they could be their own masters, in the service of their own interests, a few clever followers will merely seem to be serving their leaders. Iago likes to sound like he’s citing well-known proverbs, little bits of ancient wisdom.

You shall mark

Many a duteous and knee-crooking knave

Duteous: “doo-tyus.” Knave: a person of low birth or rank, a servant. But since servants can’t be trusted, a knave is a suspicious character, presumed to be dishonest, neither honoring others nor worthy of honor.

 

That, doting on his own obsequious bondage,

Such a man makes a fool of himself by taking pride in doing excellent work. He doesn’t realise that social ties are imprisoning chains. Obsequious: from the Latin sequor, “to follow.” Non sequitur: it does not follow. Second: what follows the first. ‘Obsequious’ was used to mean serving with prompt attentiveness; now it means serving with insincere servility, connected with Dickens’ Uriah Heep.

 

Wears out his time, much like his master’s ass,

For naught but provender, and when he’s old—cashiered!

Provender: food for livestock. Cashiered: fired or sacked, put out to pasture; related to casser (to break a contract), not to casse (a case or chest for cash and other valuables). Like a beast of burden, he wastes the time he could be using to serve his own interests. It doesn’t pay to serve sincerely: when you no longer serve a purpose, you’ll be discarded. Sincere service is sub-human, seen only in dogs and dumb asses.

 

Whip me such honest knaves!

A construction known as the ethical dative: For my part, I’d like to see them whipped! “Honest knaves” is an oxymoron, like “the traitors I trust” or “what’s bent is straight.”

 

Others there are

Who, trimmed in forms and visages of duty

Put on your face and fill out the form!

Keep yet their hearts attending on themselves,

And, throwing but shows of service on their lords,

Do well thrive by ‘em, and when they’ve lined their coats

Do themselves homage.

‘Homage,’ from the French homme for ‘man,’ was the formal action by which a vassal declared himself the ‘man’ of a feudal lord or master and bound himself to his service. If you do yourself homage, you declare yourself your own man, and you’re bound to be self-serving. Servants wore livery-coats bearing the household insignia, signs that the lord delivered food, shelter and clothing in exchange for service, as somatic cells are empowered to function by the blood-borne nutrition they receive from the heart.

 

These fellows have some soul,

And such a one do I profess myself—for, sir,

It is as sure as you are Ro-de-ri-go,

Were I the Moor, I would not be Iago:

You (the man I’m looking at and speaking to) are known to others by the name ‘Roderigo’ and a number of descriptions. Were I a master over others, I would in that guise no longer have to play the duplicitous knave: I could be what I ought to be, true to myself! Compare to Lucifer: “What matter where, if I be still the same / And what I should be: all but less than He / Whom thunder hath made greater?” (Paradise Lost, 1: 256-258). Wherever I go, and whatever social role I take on, it’s inadequate to my greatest of all greatness.

 

In following him, I follow but myself—

Heav’n is my judge, not I for love and duty,

One customarily swears by heaven to be true; Iago swears he’s telling the truth when he confesses he’s false.

 

But seeming so for my peculiar end;

The last bit has the following logical form: I’ll show my true colours when the cow jumps over the moon. Of course, the cow will never jump over the moon, and I will never show my true colours.

For when my outward action doth demonstrate

The native act and figure of my heart

In complement extern,

When my true nature spontaneously figures out how to display itself, as flower and fruit show spectators the species—which I in true duplicity must never allow!

 

…’tis not long after

But I will wear my heart upon my sleeve

For daws to peck at: I am not what I am.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, this is the first recorded example of this now proverbial phrase. The sleeve of the servant’s livery coat shows the insignia of the house he serves. I will not display the house I serve (my own) only to have crows peck at my heart-stone, as the bird-brained are drawn to trinkets not of gold yet that glitter. Ach, how great I could be if only I were someone else!

The horror

 

 

I follow him to serve my turn upon him.

We cannot all be masters, nor all masters

Cannot be truly followed. You shall mark

Many a duteous and knee-crooking knave

That, doting on his own obsequious bondage,

Wears out his time, much like his master’s ass,

For naught but provender, and when he’s old—cashiered!

Whip me such honest knaves! Others there are

Who, trimmed in forms and visages of duty,

Keep yet their hearts attending on themselves,

And, throwing but shows of service on their lords,

Do well thrive by them, and when they have lined their coats

Do themselves homage. These fellows have some soul,

And such a one do I profess myself—for sir,

It is as sure as you are Roderigo,

Were I the Moor, I would not be Iago.

In following him, I follow but myself—

Heaven is my judge, not I for love and duty,

But seeming so for my peculiar end;

For when my outward action doth demonstrate

The native act and figure of my heart

In complement extern, ‘tis not long after

But I will wear my heart upon my sleeve

For daws to peck at: I am not what I am.