Iago is one of the most central and many-layered of Shakespeare’s villains, though he is also the subject of some controversy. Has Shakespeare created a “motiveless malignity,” as Coleridge suggested (Shakespearean Criticism, 1960), or is Iago deeper and more destructively sharp and vindictive? Shakespeare presents a deep-rooted paradox within Iago – his single-minded conviction and confidence alongside an uncertainty of motive. Iago’s importance and his role as Othello’s ‘poisoner’ is perhaps the first thing to consider. Is he simply a catalyst, aiding the inevitable, or does he deliberately orchestrate Othello’s end on his own?
The duality of Iago is also a vital device used by Shakespeare to illustrate his character – Iago is such a gifted actor that no other character even has the opportunity to suspect that he is dishonest. The juxtapositioning of honesty and lies, good and evil, jealousy and trust, are also key techniques employed by Shakespeare to demonstrate Iago’s power. The depth of both Shakespeare’s and Iago’s language and use of imagery and extended metaphor is also suggestive of how layered the character is. It is difficult, perhaps impossible, to fathom Shakespeare’s original intentions for Iago.
What must be noted is how different he is from the character in the tale by Cinthio from which Othello was drawn. The ‘Ensign’ is given a name and much more subtlety than in the original story. The motives and reasoning behind Iago’s actions are also key to the movement of the plot. His role as a many-faceted representation of the evils in humanity makes him a fascinating device vital to the sense of tragedy and inevitability that surrounds the play. The importance of Iago is something that must first be examined when considering his character.
All of Shakespeare’s characters are constructs, but there is some question as to what Iago’s role actually is, and how important he is to the storyline. It has been suggested that Iago merely induces what would have happened to Othello anyway. Brabantio’s ominous words in I. 3 are a herald to what may come, and have nothing whatsoever to do with Iago. He warns Othello that Desdemona ‘has deceived her father, and may you’. Perhaps it was such comments that drove Othello to his demise, and would have done so even in Iago’s absence.
However, Shakespeare’s emphasis on Iago and the thick irony surrounding him suggest that he is much more that just a catalyst. Several times in the first act he is called ‘honest Iago’, and then referred to by Othello as ‘a man… of honesty and trust’ (I. 3). This use of dramatic irony draws attention to the character, as the audience already know that Iago harbours a strong hatred for Othello. Emphasis is placed on this by way of Iago’s soliloquies. He is the only character to have several asides, which is unusual as it is usually the central character that requires these.
They are necessary in Iago’s case because the audience needs an insight into the workings of Iago’s mind. Shakespeare could be showing Iago’s vital role – if it were not for his complete skills in deceiving the other characters, Othello would not believe that his wife could be adulterous. Iago himself says that because Othello trusts him so well, ‘the better shall [his] purpose work on him. ‘ He also says that the ‘Moor is of a free and open nature’, suggesting that without Iago, Othello would have no reason to doubt Desdemona’s faithfulness as he takes things at face value. Iago’s relationship with Roderigo must also be noted.
Roderigo clearly would not have attempted to pursue Desdemona without Iago suggesting this. However, whether this is the case with Othello is under some doubt. Iago’s importance largely depends on the audience’s perception of Othello. If the audience sympathises with the Moor and believes him to have been cruelly deceived through no fault of his own, then Iago is clearly to blame for his downfall. If, however, the audience believes that Othello’s undoubted faith in Iago is foolish, then they might choose to think that it was Othello’s character flaw, not Iago’s deception, which is at fault.
The duality of Iago’s character is what makes Othello’s downfall possible and all the more poignant. He is a complete deceiver – an actor who manipulates everyone around him entirely so that the truth is hidden beneath many layers of different lies. Even the audience, who have a particularly close relationship with Iago through his soliloquies, may be unsure as to exactly what the truth is and what simply suits Iago at the moment he says it. His obscurity and rapidly changing fai?? ades mean that Iago’s ‘real self’ is difficult to discern.
The fact that no one even suspects that Iago is dishonest, and even believe him over other characters, is vital to the plot. Usually, Iago does not simple push other characters into courses of action they would have taken anyway, but reshapes their perceptions so that they believe things that are not remotely true. He swears to Roderigo that he will ‘enjoy’ Desdemona ‘the next night following’ (IV. 2), even though Desdemona has no interest in him. This is an example of Iago’s absolute manipulation skills. Iago is the closest character to the audience, and this in itself represents how two-sided he is.
Shakespeare, as a dramatist, would clearly be closely involved in the production of a play, and may have been alluding to the lie of an actor through Iago – playing different roles, forever switching between performances and displaying another facet that is at once separate to and at one with them. It also should be noted, from a dramatic point of view, that the character of Desdemona must be played to perfection for the deception of Iago to succeed. If Desdemona appears to be flawed and unchaste, as Iago suggests, the real tragic power of the play may be lost.
The move to Cyprus also presents another side of Iago. In Venice, he was skulking in shadows and calling up at windows, while in Cyprus, he seems free to observe and destroy without hindrance. Shakespeare presents a kind of uncertainty within Iago, and the playwright’s motives for him are unclear. Is it true that Othello has ‘done [Iago’s] office ‘twixt [his] sheets’, or has Iago convinced himself of this to give himself a motive? It could be that Shakespeare intends Iago to be motiveless – no more than a construct to represent the unfathomable evil that is inside every human.
Although Iago proclaims ‘I do hate [Othello] as I do hell-pains’, we are never given a clear reason why. If Shakespeare is using him as a general symbol of evil, it may be that he did not want him to have a reason; it does not matter why, only that his hatred is so strong, so powerful, and so extreme, that it is all that is driving him. In some ways, a motiveless evil is more frightening and more powerful than one with a reason. However, it is also possible that Iago is a many-layered creation, and as such has multiple motives.
Primarily, it could be said that Iago is driven by jealousy – stronger and more general jealousy than Othello’s, and perhaps this helps him to feed the Moor’s obsession. At first, Iago is a typical stage villain, delighting in the destruction of character he is bringing about simply ‘for… sport and profit’. Later, though, he demonstrates his envy of something he believes he can never attain – the ‘daily beauty’ that Cassio possesses. He believes himself to be ‘ugly’, and it is possible that something primitive and instinctive inside him is transforming his shame into vindictive malice.
Anger about his low position could also drive him – he feels he has been denied his right to lieutenancy by ‘a Florentine… almost damned in fair wife. ‘ The way that Shakespeare provides many different motives for Iago could be a technique to confuse the audience and demonstrate that Iago’s deception extends to everyone, possibly even himself. Metaphors and imagery run deep in Othello, and some would say the characters themselves are nothing but metaphors for aspects of the human condition.
Taking this view, Iago would be the selfishness and spite that most people possess but usually do not act upon. Interesting, then, are Roderigo’s final words: ‘O inhuman dog! ‘ Is Roderigo wrong in calling Iago inhuman, when surely all humans possess the characteristics Iago displays? Perhaps what makes us human, and better than animals, is that we possess these feelings and flaws but do not act upon them – we have restraint. This presents a sharp paradox – what makes us human is restraint, but by suppressing ourselves we are denying the very emotions that make us different from animals.
In Iago’s speeches, the imagery he uses often involves animals – ‘beast’, ‘old black ram’, ‘hot as goats, prime as monkeys’ – and this technique could be employed to demonstrate Iago’s carnal side. He does not behave civilly and reasonably as a human would, but acts on primal instinct to get what he wants without thinking of others, like an animal. He also refers to plants when speaking, using the analogy of roots to describe how Cassio supposedly kissed him, he speaks of how neither ‘poppy nor mandragora’ will cure Othello, and uses a continued metaphor of a garden when talking to Roderigo (I. ).
This choice of words conjures up images of crawling roots and plants spreading out among the characters of the play. These roots could symbolise the influence of Iago – how he has managed to affect everyone around him. He changes the way others speak – for example, when he talks to Othello, the Moor’s response is simple ‘Ha, I like not that. ‘ Iago’s intelligence and sharpness of wit cannot be matched by the other characters, except perhaps Desdemona. A further motif used throughout the play is that of perception, eyes and seeing.
This could be linked to the stereotypes Iago seems to so enjoy fuelling. Prejudices and stereotypes are representative of the common eyes that people use to look at someone or something. In the play, the common prejudice is that Othello, as a Moor, is evil and animalistic. Iago feeds this, but it is then shown to be untrue. Iago then seems to reintroduce the stereotype and play on the judgements people make. Iago himself is an exercise in contradiction and juxtaposition. He says one thing and means another, appears one way and then shows he is not at all like that.
In Act II. 1, Shakespeare presents an exchange between Desdemona and Iago that serves to create a paradox – Desdemona is the epitome of all that is good in humanity, while Iago is a device employed to display all the more undesirable characteristics. Desdemona plays a truly innocent and faithful wife while Iago claims that all women are ‘Saints in [their] injuries, devils being offended. ‘ And yet, Iago is still deferential and still addresses her as ‘gentle lady. ‘ Desdemona calls him fool, but his behaviour elsewhere would suggest that he is anything but.
His marriage to Emilia is also worthy of analysis. Although he feels that she obeys him – he speaks harshly and cruelly to her, calling her ‘a good wench’, snapping at her while she only tries to please him – at the end, when she realises his true nature, she refuses to defend him. It is possible that Iago cannot manipulate women as well as he would like to. In this play, women are seen as the only honest creatures, and it is Emilia who finally reveals Iago’s deception, and Desdemona who dies without defending herself, still deeply in love with her husband.
The fact that Iago does not truly understand all the facets of women is really his downfall. The final scene also presents us with new contradictions. Previously, Iago’s power was in his well-chosen words. Now, however, he says nothing, claiming that ‘from this time forth, I never will speak word. ‘ Despite this, he still seems to dominate the exchange; he is the only one who knows everything that has happened, and he is now almost the sole topic of conversation. He is referred to, strangely, as a ‘Spartan dog’ (V. 2), which seems to be a strange paradox.
The Spartans were a proud, brave and terrible people, while ‘dog’ implies a lowly, fearful, evil creature. It is possible that his bravery, cunning and maliciousness matches the Spartans, while he darker, subtler side is that of a dog. Iago is possibly what makes Othello so different from other Shakespearean tragedies. While every other tragic hero inevitably falls because of one fatal flaw, in Othello there is still a ‘what if? ‘ remaining. What if Iago is taken out of the picture? Would the General’s demise have been so sudden and striking?
Would it have happened at all? Iago is an instrumental plot device, the key to the poignancy of the tragedy. In Iago, Shakespeare has created an absolute villain, one that the audience perhaps cannot feel sympathy for. In some ways, this is because he is so utterly callous and inhuman that the audience cannot comprehend his motives. And yet, there is always the dark uncertainty that the reason Iago is so powerfully evil is because he represents all the envy, desire and malignity that every human possesses.