Iago is a gripping and sophisticated villain, who seems to be inherently evil and revels in his ability to dissemble and destroy. Iago deceives, steals and kills to gain what he wants and does not seem to have any conscience when doing this. It would seem that Iago is a villain without motive and to some extent an “inhuman dramatic device.”
Iago appears to be trapped in a tangle of lies, deceit and betrayal, which are perceived in his enlightening soliloquies, his deceiving language, his never-ending strive for revenge and his readiness to manipulate the characters in ‘Othello.’
It would seem that Iago has many cogent motives, which could explain several of his actions, however it is my belief that he is slightly more ominous and simply is a villain we love to hate.
Shakespeare presents the reader with three possible motives for Iago’s behaviour, although there are many more, which we can speculate on. Iago has no consistent voice; in every situation, he adopts the tone and manner, which suits his purpose.
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, “I follow him to serve my turn upon him.”
Iago states that the lieutenancy was given to, “a Florentine,” and I think that he resents a ‘foreigner’ taking a job that he sought. Therefore, this leads me to believe that Iago must also resent Othello, who is in charge of the Venetian army, but like Cassio is not from Venice. I also think that to some extent Iago is racist, although quite clearly he never states this, he seems to have a strong dislike to Othello for no apparent reason.
Secondly, Iago is under the impression that Othello has been having an affair with his wife, Emilia,
“I hate the Moor,
And it is thought abroad that ‘twixt my sheets
He’s done my office.”
However, in this extract from Act I, Iago implies that he already disliked Othello before information of his so-called affair became publicised. Iago wants to punish Othello like the way he has been punished,
“Nothing can, nor shall content my soul
Till I am evened with him, wife for wife.”
Thirdly, Iago’s motives for destroying Othello’s happiness are driven by negative impulses. I believe that Iago is jealous of Othello because of his love for Desdemona, and Iago wants to damage this,
“Now I love her too;
Not out of absolute lust, though peradventure
I stand accountant for as great a sin.”
It is has been suggested that Iago does not push aside his conscience to commit these acts, but that he lacks a conscience to begin with and this is evident throughout the play.
Shakespeare has presented Iago as a villain who is adept at quick-witted improvisation and like so many other Shakespearean characters, fashions out his plots with the material he has at hand,
“This may do something.
The Moor already changes with my poison.”
Even Iago himself distinguishes his words as poison, and this is something that the audience could relate too.
Every Shakespearean hero has a tragic flaw, which is brought about by circumstance. Othello’s fatal flaw is his jealousy, which is intensified by Iago’s evil and deceitfulness. Iago manages to turn a man who loves his wife dearly into a paranoid and cold-blooded murderer. However, it is vital for us, the reader, to see the extent of their opposite characteristics, to help us to redeem Othello’s character at the end of the play, and to sympathise with him.
Shakespeare’s main role for Iago is to move the plot along and keep the audience’s attention. At the end of nearly every act the plot is revealed through Iago’s soliloquies and this creates a dramatic climax for the reader. Iago is successful because he can play a number of roles convincingly, and is able to adapt his tone and style to suit every occasion. I think this is clearly evident in Act IV when Iago is talking to Cassio about Bianca and he makes Othello misinterpret this, therefore creating a double entendre,
“Do but encave yourself,
And mark the fleers, the gibes, and notable scorns
That dwell in every region of his face.”
Iago uses his verbal skills to convince each character that he has their best interests at heart. Although there is clearly a lot of dramatic irony between the audience and the characters of ‘Othello’, Iago manages to appear to be everyone’s supporter.
Iago’s language includes many references to bestial content, for example when he explains to Brabantio that,
“an old black ram
Is tupping your white ewe.”
There are many more references to bestial imagery, and I believe that Shakespeare has added these in to shock the audience, and for us to feel sympathy towards Othello.
We find this play very difficult to understand as ‘Othello’ is supposed to be performed and not read.
Iago’s initial appearance on stage would immediately have a dramatic effect on the Shakespearean audience and they would take an instant dislike towards him. This would therefore make the audience feel sympathy towards the other characters that have been fooled by Iago and his evilness.
Iago manages to manipulate many characters in ‘Othello’, but mainly Desdemona, Othello and Roderigo. He manipulates Desdemona by requesting that she convinces Othello to give Cassio back his employment, knowing that she will oblige,
“For whiles this honest fool
Plies Desdemona to repair his fortunes,
And she for him pleads strongly to the Moor,”
Iago knows that when he starts spreading rumours about Desdemona’s infidelity, Othello will remember her pleas for Cassio’s reemployment,
“I’ll pour this pestilence into his ear,
That she repeals him for her body’s lust;
And by how much she strives to do him good.”
Iago also manipulates Othello into thinking that Desdemona has been having an affair with Cassio. Iago convincingly manages to do this by leaving several clues, which come together successfully. Firstly, there is Desdemona pleading for Cassio’s employment, which I have already mentioned above. Secondly, Iago gives Emilia a chance to prove herself worthy of his presence when he asks her to steal Desdemona’s handkerchief. This may seem insignificant, but this handkerchief was a special gift from Othello and has sentimental meaning to it,
Why, that the Moor first gave to Desdemona,
That which so often you did bid me steal.”
Thirdly, Iago plays around the idea that Cassio has boasted of his affair with Desdemona while sleeping,
“In sleep I heard him say, ‘Sweet Desdemona,
Let us be wary, let us hide our loves’;
And then, sir, would he gripe and wring my hand,
Cry ‘O, sweet creature,’ then kiss me hard,”
This is obviously a lie by Iago in order for Othello to believe that his wife has been unfaithful and to portray him as a friend in Othello’s hour of need.
Iago also manipulates Roderigo, whose only crime is falling in love with Desdemona, which he takes full advantage off. Iago tries to con Roderigo out of his money and plays him against the other characters,
“Tush, never tell me, I take it much unkindly
That thou, Iago, who hast had my purse
As if the strings were thine, shouldst know of this.”
Roderigo soon discovers what Iago is doing, but this is soon forgotten when he is presented with some fanciful plot in order to capture Desdemona’s heart.
There are many references in the play to light and dark, which are based on Desdemona being innocent and pure while Iago is evil and conniving. Shakespeare wants us to see the opposite characteristics between someone like Desdemona compared to that of Iago. It is apparent that Iago has a dark and devious side especially when he plots against the other characters in ‘Othello’,
“Thus do I ever make my fool my purse;
For I mine own gained knowledge should profane,
If I would time expend with such a snipe,
But for my sport and profit.”
Iago is an extremely evil individual who is described as an “inhuman dog” by the other characters in the play. How could any one man create so much misery and pain for everyone around him? He revels in the idea of everyone turning against one another and for him to take centre stage and become a hero within.
To conclude, I believe that Iago is only a fictional character and could not possibly survive outside of this play. Iago’s keen intellect is what intrigues the reader the most, his ability to say the right thing at the right time is what makes him a successful villain.