“Evil” is a word always associated with William Shakespeare’s character Iago. However is branding this character simply “evil” too broad a term? Perhaps there is a more suitable accurate term to describe him by, but equally perhaps one could argue that Coleridge’s term “motiveless malignity” is the only way Shakespeare’s character Iago is depicted in the text.Iago throughout the play commits many atrocious acts. He is constantly manipulating people and trying to cause heartbreak and sorrow for others “Rouse him, make after him, poison his delight”.
He even goes as far as to force his wife to steal from her friend Desdemona “My wayward husband hath a hundred times Wooed me to steal it; but so she loves the token”. If one were to look at Iago as a character in general then he definitely would not be one considered to have even a speck of righteousness or honour by any degree.Beginning with Act 1 Scene 3 one can see how many varied interpretations you could make of Iago. Throughout the scene Iago dismisses love’s existence repeatedly “lusts whereof I take this that you call love”, “Virtue? A fig”. Iago suggests here that he does not think love really exists and if it does it is worthless.
There are many conclusions that one could draw from this bleak view that Iago holds.A quite interesting view that could be held is that Iago is so quick to dismiss love for other people that perhaps this is only through jealousy, as he cannot experience love for himself. One could argue that these quotes infer that Iago holds a very bitter view on the world, in which he sees the world as a place where everyone can love and be loved, except him of course, who cannot feel love in any dimension apart from the physical representation of it, which therefore would be rather cold and empty for him.So one could say that the reason he hates Othello is because he looks at Othello and Desdemona and their love and sees everything he will never have with Emelia or anybody.
This is lack of feeling for Emelia is made quite clear simply by the fact that he does not seem to truly care that Othello might of had an affair with her and seems only annoyed that Othello might have got one over on him “I hate the moor And it is thought abroad that ‘twixt my sheets H’as done my office. I know not if’t be true, But I, for mere suspicion in that kind, Will do, as if for surety”.This is an ironic idea as the play focuses on Othello’s jealousy quite heavily “Or failing so, yet that I put the moor At least into a jealousy so strong That judgement cannot cure” and yet perhaps Iago is the most jealous and envious character in the play, and even more ironically he is jealous of Othello and Desdemona .However although one could reach this conclusion about Iago from the scene, there are other ends one could reach from the scene if it is looked at further. One could say that Iago’s words do not paint a clear picture as to whether he has a motive for his cruel schemes or not, for example one could surmise that is chief priority in life is making all the money he can and getting as much joy as he can, hinted his conversation with Roderigo in the scene and the advice that he gives him “Make all the money thou canst”, “A pox of drowning thyself, it is clean out of the way. Seek thou rather to be hanged in compassing thy joy than to be drowned and go without her”. From this it is supposable that all of Iago’s schemes and plans are just to increase his joy or gain wealth, which would certainly explain his ill feelings for Cassio and Othello as with them out of the way, one has to ask, who would take their places and their pay? Iago.
Many authors have taken this interpretation of Iago as a base for the main characters in their works. For example Mervyn Peake’s enigmatic Steerpike who appears in the thrilling Gormenghast trilogy, who uses his lust for personal gain and power to place him in an immense position of power and wealth.However at other times the motives he gives seem more like alibis than genuine motives ” I hate the moor, And it is thought abroad that ‘twixt my sheets.
….. I know not if’t be true But I, for mere suspicion in that kind, will do, as if for surety”.
This appears in his soliloquy, which suggests that as he is not feeding it to anyone and it is more of a representation of his thoughts than anything, whereas his comments earlier in the scene regarding money could not be his true feelings and he is just saying these things to influence Roderigo in his decisions. In this small section, Iago shows he is planning to hurt Othello whatever happens and admits almost that it is useful that the rumours about Othello and his wife are around, as if he is caught he has the perfect alibi to explain his actions and discredit Othello. Therefore one could argue from this scene that Iago is infact a “motiveless malignity”.
In Act 2 Scene 1 Iago puts across a representation of himself, which perhaps is the most interesting yet. As Iago describes himself as an honest man: “As honest as I am”.One should ponder the meaning of the word “honest” in this sentence. For instance if Iago is referring to goodness or righteousness when he is referring to the word “honest”, then this comment could be regarded merely as a private joke. For example if you were to lie to someone then afterwards say “as truthful as I am”, when really the whole time you have been lying to them. So if Iago is using the word honest in this sense it has no real significance, as it is just another part of Iago’s deceitful character.However one could say that when Iago says he is honest it is really true.
From this self-analytical statement from Iago one could say that what he is, is honesty in its purest form. By honesty what one could be inferring is that what Iago is, is a realist in the truest sense, in terms of his truthfulness with himself and with life. (For example if you go around thinking everything you do is right, you love everybody and everybody loves you. That might be pleasant but at the same time one could argue that it is not honest, in that it is not a realistic outlook on life, as one must understand that everybody cannot always love you and everything you do can never be right). So in this sense Iago is extremely honest. Iago is not interested in others feelings, you can see this in derogatory manor in which he talks about people “And to see how he pries the foolish woman your wife! She gave it to him, and he hath given it is whore”, he is not interested in his wife “Villainous whore”.So perhaps he feels that it is a waste of time to bother himself with ideals such as love or friendship. Perhaps by the word honesty he means that where other people (such as Othello) “The moor is of free and open nature That thinks men honest that but seem to be so; And will as tenderly be lead by the nose as asses are” are prepared to go through life with “rose coloured shades” on thinking they are in love, Iago is aware enough to see through this to embrace the cold brutality of existence as he sees it.
Perhaps then Iago could really feel that he possesses honesty in its purest sense; (the ability to see past the distractions of life which hide it’s real natural cruelty). So perhaps what one could see as cruelty on the part of Iago is infact just honesty in its most base form.Despite that flash of reasoning behind Iago’s insane cruelty, once again in Iago’s soliloquy at the end of the scene, Iago seems like Coleridge’s “motiveless malignity”. “Till I am even with him wife for wife”.
Iago wanting to punish Othello in kind for an act Iago even admits probably did not take place (Othello sleeping with his wife, that is Iago’s not his own) highlights the truly evil traits that Iago possesses. This clear wish to hurt and punish is always clear with Iago “I have’t! It is engendered! Hell and night Must bring this monstrous birth to the world’s light” and once again this soliloquy seems to point to Iago being indeed Coleridge’s brutal representation of him, as once again he does provide a motive but a motive he knows to be false.However one has to consider, if Iago is indeed motiveless, then why would he bother with all the scheming, because if he had no motive whatsoever then he would have no reason to do all these things, so one must conclude that he does indeed have some motive to commit these atrocities, whether it be for money, jealousy or even revenge.Looking at Iago’s actions one could say the only motive behind what he does, is that he enjoys manipulating people and enjoys causing people pain and suffering. He sees other people only to be used and exploited “Make the moor thank me, love me, and reward me for making him egreligiously, And practicing upon his peace and quiet, Even to madness”.
Wanting to drive Othello to madness for what seems only for enjoyment, can only be described as sadistic by Iago.Yet to lay down in stone that Iago’s only motivations are sadistic ones, is still perhaps slightly dubious. If one refers back to Act 1 it seems suggestible that what Iago is really concerned with is the gain of wealth on his part. This can be interpreted from the advice that he gives Roderigo; to make as much money as he can “make all the money thou canst”. Iago is giving this advice as a substitute for Roderigo to use instead of pursuing his love for Desdemona. This clearly indicates therefore that Iago definitely thinks that personal gain takes precedence over spiritual values such as love or compassion. This feeling in Iago could perhaps fuel his attacks on Cassio and Othello, as I mentioned earlier perhaps to gain their jobs and pay.
In Act 2 however, this view is completely contrasted in Iago’s soliloquy mid-scene, this speech seems to suggest that all of Iago’s interests are purely centered around the pleasure he can get from corrupting good things into bad things “And out of her own goodness make the net that shall enmesh them all”. This quote referring to Desdemona, is a rather depraved way to look at things, turning Desdemona fairness into foulness. This is a constant theme through many of Shakespeare’s plays, my use of the words fair and foul reminds one of Macbeth where once again good is turned into bad. The way Shakespeare uses the image of “a net to enmesh them all”, is a particularly good image as the use of a net suggests an underhand craftiness from Iago, as because snaring someone with a net is generally a cowardly trap, rather than an upfront confrontation.
This enjoyment that Iago seems to take from distorting goodness into badness supports the idea of him being a sadist, taking pleasure in the misfortune of others or schadenfreude as it is known. One might argue that this is Shakespeare’s intention as during this soliloquy he uses a lot of devilish imagery “Divinity of hell”, “When devils will the blackest sins put on”. Shakespeare continues with the satanic imagery, making Iago distort the meaning of words usually associated with heaven “Even as her appetite shall play the God”, “They do suggest at first with heavenly shadows”.Throughout the play Iago shows many typical devilish characteristics. He tends to play on people’s weaknesses and insecurities.
The way in which he talks to people is Old Testament Satan like, as he plants the bad seed of an idea in their head and lets their insecurities grow the seed for him. This is visible in the text for example where Othello and Iago are watching Desdemona greet Cassio.”IAGO: Ha! I like not thatOTHELLO: What dost thou say?IAGO: Nothing my lord…..
OTHELLO: Was not that Cassio parted from my wife?IAGO: Cassio, my lord? No, sure, I cannot think it,That he would steal away so guilty-like, seeing you coming”This aspect of Iago’s character would be very prominent in the 17th century viewer’s mind, as although their society was beyond the trend of accusing innocent women of being witches and burning them in the name of God, they were still very God-fearing and extremely religious. They believed in hell as reality.This type of imagery is consistent through the play and can even be found in the stage direction “[he kneels]” if you take for example the perverse ceremony between Iago and Othello at the end of act 3, “In the due reverence of a sacred vow”.Iago’s actions in the last scene raise interesting questions, once again the question of whether Iago is honest or not is put forward. Iago states that he only told Othello what he thought and nothing more, but it was Othello’s jealous nature, which spawned all of the trouble that happened, “I told him what I thought and no more Than what he found himself was apt and true”. Although one could argue that this enhances the idea that Iago is truly an honest man, I would say that this quote leans more to the image of Iago only planting the bad thought in the brain, solidifying his image image as the devil incarnate.
Iago’s last words in the play are truly genius by Shakespeare; they manage to compound his attitude to society and his lack of need to really belong in one short sentence “Demand me nothing. What you know, you know. From this time forth I never will speak word”. This is a last victory for Iago, all the other characters must know the full story of the events that transpired but due the deaths that Iago orchestrated, they can only find out from Iago what happened, which will never happen.This concretes his evil persona as even in defeat he still gains crude victory over the other characters. His decision to remain silent can be seen as very significant.
He could perhaps grovel or plead that it was all a misunderstanding, however he does not want to as one could argue, he does not care that he cannot ever speak to them again and his silence causes them pain anyway, he does not want to break silence in other words.This could prove that Iago is not indeed a “motiveless malignity” as if he were to have no motive, then this antagonising silence would not have come about. This silence is cold and calculated, being the only way Iago can face defeat and victory at the same time, as he enjoys watching the others suffer in his silence.So in conclusion, looking at the different ways you can interpret Iago from the text, one must certainly conclude that Iago is not a “motiveless malignity” as one can plainly see a motive of attaining joy from others’ downfall, using evil, anubian deeds. The main difference between my interpretation and Coleridge’s being that, whereas Coleridge believes that Iago has no motive for his evil, I believe that he does have a motive, which is gaining enjoyment from the misfortune of others.
One could further this by saying that in the religious times in which the play was written, Shakespeare made Iago the ultimate evil force by making comparable to Satan himself. A summary of the plot, which hints truthfulness in this statement, is that; the play Othello is about Iago slowly luring Othello into temptation.