Tragic Villain Definition

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Shakespeare’s Iago is the antagonist of Othello but what makes him tragic is an enigma as he is reticent and seems motiveless. However, Shakespeare prints three possible motives into the play that present him as tragic. Iago is a Machiavellian villain as was Macbeth in Macbeth, written two years after Othello, and A.

C. Bradley notes how ‘Italian villainy was prevalent in Shakespeare’s time’1. Machiavelli was an Italian philosopher and political adviser. One of his most famous works is The Prince that outlines how a monarch should gain control by deceiving his opponent as an ally.

Iago says he will follow Othello only ‘to serve my turn upon him’2 in that he may achieve his revenge. He is also a character built on amorality. A.C. Bradley says that he is a ‘psychological impossibility’ and ‘a product of imperfect observation’3 but if he were to be perceived as amoral then his behaviour and scheming may be explained due to him being psychotic – there was little knowledge of psychotic behaviour in the 16th century and insanity was diagnosed by religious leaders as being influenced by the devil which Iago is realized to be in Act five, scene two by the other characters:

Why Should Iago Go Free

‘I look down towards his feet; but that’s a fable.

If that you be’st a devil, I cannot kill thee.

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’ ‘I bleed, sir; but not killed.’ The feet signify the devils hooves and the mere wound Othello deals Iago acts as evidence that Iago is the devil. The word ‘fable’ also recognises the story that Iago has conjured up that has hid his true identity. The first motive is that he wants revenge on Othello and Cassio for preventing his promotion as he is ‘worth no worse a place’ – the first indication that he sees himself as above others. He is snide about how Cassio is an ‘arithmetician’ that ‘never set a squadron in the field’, which illustrates how better equipped he is for the position and how Cassio is:

‘A fellow almost damned in a fair wife.’ The word ‘damned’ indicates how malevolent an act he sees making a man into a cuckold which may insinuate a tragic past. Secondly, Iago’s villainy may sprout from racial prejudice, as it was unusual to have a black hero in Shakespeare’s time. When shouting at Brabantio’s window he distinguishes between Desdemona and Othello’s colour and denotes how primitive he finds their sexual relationship using animal imagery: ‘an old black ram Is tupping your white ewe.’ In his soliloquy at the end of act one, scene three, he accuses Desdemona of only being interested with Othello’s body: ‘when she is sated with his body, she will find the error of her choice.’

The rationale behind Iago’s disdain for Othello is that he sees him as an animal. Iago’s egoistic personality insists his dislike towards animals, as they are seen as inferior in intelligence and will as they rely on primitive, innate drives:

‘Drown thyself? Drown cats and blind puppies.’

This line is spoken in reference to when Roderigo expresses how he wishes to ‘drown’ himself and Iago can only insist that an inferior being is more worth death. The word ‘blind’ also suggests the idea that they are useless, thus pointless, which makes them eligible for death in preservation of his self. He also, already, has a preconceived view of Othello as he claims that ‘These Moors are changeable in their will’ implying that all Moors are the same just as animals are and so the comparison to animals is the source of Iago’s racism. What is also notable about Iago is that he speaks to Othello in verse but prose to Roderigo, which shows how he is a sycophant but also – as his rhetoric usage is superseded by Othello’s – he feels he is forever in Othello’s shadow. Another source for his hate.

Lastly, and most importantly, Iago’s third possible motive for delivering vengeance upon Othello is that Othello made a cuckold of him by sleeping with Emilia. Iago proclaims this in Act one, scene three: ‘I hate the Moor, And it is thought abroad that ‘twixt my sheets He’s done my office.’ He is even unsure of whether it is true but the thought infuriates him so much that he decides that the idea is as worthy of being revenged as if it were true: ‘I know not if’t be true But I, for mere suspicion in that kind, Will do as if for surety.’

The idea of Emila having an affair with Othello may be what prompted him to assume that Desdemona’s interest in him was purely sexual and so we begin to see how Shakespeare has created a tragic villain as he is drawing from his own misfortune and jealousy to fulfil his prophesy of revenge. It may even be a misconception that Emilia and Othello have had an affair as there is no further evidence that this is ‘true’ and we, the audience, do not know what has stirred this possibility in Iago’s mind – another aspect of him that creates the villainous image as we do not know what he is thinking:

‘It is absolutely certain that Othello appointed Cassio his Lieutenant, and nothing else is absolutely certain.’ If what he says is ‘true’, however, and if the audience could understand the possibility of this truth, then this would evoke a strong sense of pity as we could then see that he is almost the victim of the play and a victim from his own thoughts – ‘our raging motions, our carnal strings’, ‘raging’ and ‘carnal’ suggest how angry and disturbed he is. Through the possibility of this motive we can understand the volume of his jealousy that makes him tragic:

‘It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock The meat it feeds on.’ In Act three, scene three, Iago speaks this line as advice to Othello but it is possible that Shakespeare uses this technique to express Iago’s pain in a safe way without damaging his ego by disguising it as advising another’s pain; guidance as opposed to confession. The ‘meat it feeds on’ could quite literally be his meat and sense of self, which has now reduced him to insecurity.

More likely than him feeling hurt by the betrayal of his wife is his sense of self through ownership and possession of Emilia that has been stolen from him. On the other hand, when he stabs Emilia he exclaims ‘Villainous whore!’ This display of passion shows how it has tormented him. In Act five, scene two, Iago’s insecurities remain sheathed by his reticent nature as he says:

‘What you know, you Know. From this time forth I never will speak word.’ He chooses these words because he is unsure to what extent he has been right about Emilia and Othello. In the first act Iago places a large emphasis on being a ‘cuckold’ so for him to become one is the greatest insult of all. He kills Emilia without hesitation but the possibility that she had not made a cuckold of him would of truly damaged his great pride, his self assurance; it would challenge many of his amoral beliefs.

To express his claims and be wrong would completely destroy his mind so he remains silent which suggests his insecurity and inner turmoil. Iago’s phrase ‘defeat thy favour with a usurped beard’ means to reinstall manly hood, which may be another means of defining him as tragic as his fragile mind in a patriarchal world leads him to the assumption that maybe this is how he should react, to be a ‘man’ by domineering the situation: a possible way of Shakespeare illustrating men’s true powerlessness from a demanding patriarchy in terms of what makes ‘manly’ behaviour.

From this, we can see that Iago wanted to make Othello suffer the same strength of jealousy as he has done to him. This may not fit Hegel’s idea of tragic collision but each character certainly has been ‘negating and damaging… [the] power of the other’5. They may not be suffering each other’s guilt but they do cause one another to suffer jealousy. Othello’s (possible) misdeed negates the power Iago has over his mind and Iago avenges this by reciprocating.

Iago is a tragic villain in that he has had to suffer and through his amoral conscience and egoistic nature he has become consumed by the loss of trust in his love. The line ’tis in ourselves’ suggests that he accepts who he has become and the line ‘permission of the will’ validates that he is amoral and that he recognises he is significantly different from others in the way that he thinks: ‘I never found a man who knew how to love himself’ This implies that he is this man and Aristotle would agree that he is ‘true to life and yet more beautiful’.

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Tragic Villain Definition
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