There have been many different interpretations of Iago, but various versions of Act Two show the contrasting sides of his character. There are similarities in the portrayal of Iago throughout these adaptations, which are seen just as clearly in the feature film versions as in our class interpretations of Act Two.
There are clear parallels between our class adaptations, where one interpretation shows Iago as passionate and extreme, whereas the other shows him as evil and egocentric. One example of this is in lines 163-171 of Act 2 Scene 1, where Iago is planning his revenge on Cassio and Othello. “With as little a web as this I will ensnare as great a fly as Cassio.”
One understanding of the speech is that Iago is the typical “evil villain”, clearly showing his resentment and bitterness and hinting towards his scheming and wicked temperament. This relates to what Germaine Greer said in 1986 about the play and Iago’s character. Her opinion is that Iago gives the audience an “understanding … of the nature of evil” and sees his character as an example of “the dynamic presentation of evil as an active force.” The other interpretation of this soliloquy is of Iago being much more inconspicuous, looking spontaneous and less confident, showing his lower class and position.
The soliloquy at the end of Act 2 Scene 1 shows Iago’s true character, as it involves him exposing his inner thoughts and feelings to the audience. Again, two translations of this speech could be one of either cold anger and hatred, or passionate envy. This is mostly seen when Iago goes from saying “The Moor, howbeit that I endure him not…” to “Now, I do love her too…” This first part of this speech portrays Iago as either displaying contemptuous hatred towards Othello, or demonstrating a kind of sick envious longing for the traits Othello possesses that he, Iago, does not. The second part then goes on to briefly expose his compassion and love towards Desdemona, which is quickly suppressed, showing Iago to be considering what his emotions should be.
Two depictions of Iago in Act 2 Scene 3 are Miller’s and Branagh’s versions, both done in the form of feature films. This part of the scene shows Iago planning to lie to Othello about Desdemona and Cassio, and how he will convince Cassio to go to Desdemona for help, only worsening the situation for all three characters. Hoskins in Miller’s adaptation portrays Iago as quiet and calm but devious and evil at the same time. His two-faced, sly nature is clearly shown here as his mood, movements, facial expressions and tone of voice all change from calm and defensive to evil, cunning and manipulative. Using hand movements to emphasise his points, “Directly to his good”, he comes across as erratic, passionate and excited.
However, Branagh shows Iago as evil, scheming and devious throughout the soliloquy. He begins the speech as if attempting to convince the audience that he is innocent, but suddenly turns intensely evil, hateful and wanting revenge. Emphasising his points, he leans slightly into the camera when he says “Divinity of hell”, as if towards the audience, showing his sense of superiority whilst intimidating us. He then goes on to accentuate this point and his immorality, as he compares himself to the Devil.
“When devils will the blackest sins put on,
They do suggest at first with heavenly shows,
As I do now.”
Said with confidence and cunning, the audience is convinced Iago is evil and entirely sure of his plans and what he is doing. This point is further exaggerated when he rubs pitch into his hands and then “covers” the audience with it by covering the camera with his pitch-covered hands. As the pitch symbolises darkness and evil, we see an exceptionally apparent demonstration of his evil deceptive character. This scene also agrees with Greer’s interpretation, that Iago is “an objective correlative of the mindless inventiveness of racist aggression”.
Miller’s production of the scene shows Iago as not completely sure of what he is doing, as if he is still making these plans in his head as he speaks. We get this impression from things he has said earlier in the play, “’tis here, but yet confused; knavery’s plain face is never seen till used” about not knowing what he is doing until he is doing it. His tone of voice also suggests this, as he gets excited about every idea he visualizes, and also sounds less confident and assertive about these ideas. This is quite dissimilar to Branagh’s production, which shows Iago as entirely sure of what he is thinking and doing, and is realistically evil.
My own interpretation of the Act Two Scene Three soliloquy was that Iago’s tone of voice and mood changed suddenly and drastically from being friendly and offering guidance to Cassio, to turning sour, devious and hateful. This hatred and bitterness towards Othello is exaggerated by momentarily relaxing as he briefly speaks about Desdemona, describing her as being “framed as fruitful as the free elements”. His feelings towards Desdemona are completely opposite to his feelings towards Othello, as he acrimoniously spits out the words “to win the Moor”, also showing his jealousy, as Desdemona chose Othello not Iago.
Iago’s deceit and immorality are clearly shown in lines 325-6, when he speaks of how he will deceive Desdemona so “by how much she strives to do him good, she shall undo her credit with the Moor.” In some adaptations of this scene, Iago has laughed menacingly at these words, accentuating his evil, two-faced, scheming character, which is again seen when he plots to turn Desdemona’s “virtue into pitch, and out of her own goodness make the net that shall enmesh them all.” Here, Branagh made use of physical images by using his hands to metaphorically create the net.
Germaine Greer sees the play as a demonstration of “the struggle of good and evil” and how Shakespeare’s portrayal of Iago leaves the audience having new perceptions of “the nature of evil”. She grasps the contrast between Aristotelian views, “defective, absurd and inconsistent”, and Christian views, the “dynamic presence of evil as an active force”, and shows how they perfectly describe Iago’s character. She also notices how Shakespeare has risen against the contemporary views of the ubiquity of Satan, and shown Iago as “an objective correlation of the mindless inventiveness of racist aggression”.
Therefore, although there have been countless interpretations of Shakespeare’s Iago, it seems clear that he is obviously and intentionally evil, two-faced and devious, showing Shakespeare’s defiant views on evil and elucidating the fact that there are many people in the world who share Iago’s egocentric, racist and selfish views on life. As Germaine Greer said in 1986, “Iago is still alive and kicking and filling migrants’ letterboxes with excrement.”