One of Shakespeare’s most intense plays is, without a doubt, Othello – a tense, closely-knit play with an ever-increasing emotional scene.
Othello, a “noble Moor” who has just eloped with the fair Desdemona when the play opens, leaves Venice to command the Venetian armies against the Turks on the island of Cyprus, accompanied by his new wife and his lieutenant, Cassio. When they arrive, they find that the weather has destroyed the Turkish fleet. Iago, a standard bearer, repeatedly tries to undo Othello, finally succeeding when he plants Desdemona’s handkerchief on Cassio, managing to convince Othello that his wife has been unfaithful with the lieutenant. Othello smothers Desdemona out of jealousy, before Iago’s wife, Emilia, eventually reveals that Desdemona’s affair was but an invention of Iago’s. Iago immediately kills his wife also, and Othello then commits suicide in grief.
Upon reading the novel, one will see that the stark contrasts of character in this play are almost as remarkable as the depth of the passion. The Moor Othello, the gentle Desdemona, the villain Iago, the good-natured Cassio, the fool Roderigo, clearly offer a range and variety of character as striking and palpable as that produced by the opposition of costume in a picture. Their distinguishing qualities stand out to the mind’s eye, so that even when the reader opts not to think of their actions or sentiments, the idea of their persons is still as present. However for this particular paper, focus will be made on the villain Iago, Othello’s ancient (a position below lieutenant) and is undoubtedly the cause of all the tragedy which comes to pass as the play progresses.
From the beginning of the play, Iago is easily perceived as the manipulator. He is cunning in the sense that he does not dare oppose Othello directly. Rather, he uses other character whom he tricks. From his actions throughout the play one sees that Iago was gifted at using other people, to further his own schemes. In this aspect of his character, Iago can claim the throne as Shakespeare’s most evil villain (pun intended) since he is able to employ means by which he can effortlessly manipulate all those around him to do his bidding (kill Cassio, destroy Othello, discredit Desdemona’s virtue) by taking advantage of their trust and using his victim’s own motivations (Roderigo’s desire for Desdemona, Cassio’s desire to be reinstated) and weaknesses (Othello’s pride, Cassio’s impaired judgment whilst drunk), to achieve his ends.
Iago’s entire scheme begins when the “ignorant, ill-suited” Cassio is given the position he desired. Iago is consumed with envy and plots to steal the position he feels he most justly deserves. Iago deceives, steals, and kills to gain that position. However, it is not that Iago pushes aside his conscience to commit these acts, but that he lacks a conscience to begin with. Iago’s amorality can be seen throughout the play and is demonstrated by his actions.
For someone to constantly lie and deceive one’s wife and friends, one must be extremely evil or, in the case of Iago, amoral. In every scene in which Iago speaks one can point out his deceptive manner.
Iago’s character is complex, but in Act I, Scene I, where he describes his disgust at being overlooked for Othello’s lieutenant, we can see that a primary motivation for Iago’s skillful manipulations was revenge and anger; revenge for Cassio replacing him, anger that Othello overlooked him. Thus it can be seen that Iago’s manipulations are driven by a basic desire to avenge those who hurt him but also to gain what he believes is his, indeed Iago’s suggestion that Cassio and Desdemona are having an affair earns him (Iago) Othello’s trust and the position as his lieutenant in Act III, Scene III.
Iago tricks Othello into believing that his own wife is having an affair, without any concrete proof. Othello is so caught up in Iago’s lies that he refuses to believe Desdemona when she denies the whole thing. Much credit must be given to Iago’s diabolical prowess which enables him to bend and twist the supple minds of his friends and spouse. However being made lieutenant only satisfies his pride, his continuing with his plan to discredit Desdemona shows us that it is not enough for Iago to have what he believes is his, he must punish Othello for overlooking him in the first place by making Othello disbelieve and destroy his virtuous wife.
Iago also manages to steal from his own friend without the slightest feeling of guilt. He embezzles the money that Roderigo gives him to win over Desdemona. When Roderigo discovers that Iago has been hoarding his money he screams at Iago and threatens him. However, when Iago tells him some fanciful plot in order to capture Desdemona’s heart Roderigo forgets Iago’s theft and agrees to kill Cassio. Ultimately this fails, so Iago kills Roderigo himself.
Iago’s keen intellect is what intrigues the reader most. His ability to say the right things at the right time is what makes him such a successful villain. However, someone with a conscience would never be able to keep up such a ploy and deceive everyone around him.
If Iago has an Achilles heal, it was his wife Emilia, who despite threats and orders from Iago, revealed to all Iago’s treachery by declaring Desdemona’s innocence and explaining how she found Desdemona’s handkerchief, passing it on to Iago. For this Iago shows his total ruthlessness by killing Emilia and escaping, only to be later caught.
Iago sees his wife as an obstacle and a nuisance so he kills her. He kills her not as much out of anger but for pragmatic reasons. Emilia is a stumbling block in front of his path. She serves no purpose to him anymore and she can now only hurt his chances of keeping the position he has been given by Othello. Iago’s merciless taking of Emilia’s and Roderigo’s lives is another proof of his amorality.
Needless to say, Iago is one of Shakespeare’s most sinister villains, often considered such because of the unique trust that Othello places in him, which he betrays while maintaining his reputation of honesty and dedication. Shakespeare contrasts Iago with Othello’s nobility and integrity. He has more lines in the play than Othello, the most that any of Shakespeare’s non-title characters have. Iago is often referred to as “honest Iago,” displaying his skill at deceiving other characters so that not only do they not suspect him, but they count on him as the person most likely to be truthful.
Wikipedia, 2006: Othello [online]
Available at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Othello#Synopsis
[cited on December 3, 2006]
Absolute Shakespeare, 2006: Othello Character Analysis [online]
[cited on December 3, 2006]