Shakespeare’s villain Iago, within the play Othello is created as one of the most malicious, devilish characters within his works; possibly the worst as his machinations exceed those of many other Shakespearean villains. Iago appears to have very little reason to perform his notoriously villainous acts. His motive and reasoning is his joy of destruction, which seems to magnify into a passion by the final climatic scenes. Destruction is Iago’s goal as well as sport. The motives behind his aim for destruction are too petty and minute to be able to make any justification in his attempts to destroy the lives of everyone around him.
It is his lack of significant motive that forms him into the true devil. Iago is the evil force behind the plot, leading Othello into a tragic chain of disaster resulting in the murder of his own innocent wife. For all companionship that Iago offers his nai?? ve fellow characters, he intentionally defies their trust. William Robertson Turnbull, the critic, describes, “Iago is an unbeliever in, and denier of, all things spiritual, who only acknowledges God, like Satan, to defy him.
There are many levels within the play in which Iago is referred to as ‘The Devil,’ therefore, the play is heavy in hellish and satanic imagery, particularly in the final scene. Shakespeare creates a successful villain who manipulates both audience and characters, seemingly narrating the events as if the story was his own. Iago tampers with the events and evidence, effectively playing the hand of God to create the intellectual masterpiece of his intrigue.
As Leavis argues, ‘It was the external evil, the malice of the demi-devil that turned a happy story about romantic love into a tragedy. It is debatable whether the play should have been titled after Iago’s name rather than the hero that Shakespeare creates in Othello. It is illogical to argue that the outcome was fatalistic as Iago’s plotting is so clear and blatant within his asides and monologues that the unfolding events rely on his actions and intellect to generate the outcome. Iago cleverly manipulates events throughout the entire play, until the end when the villainous character gets his comeuppance and is found out.
He is put into a living hell, suggesting the idea that a punishment must fit the crime- the end of his speech will end all manipulation. Shakespearean audiences demanded morals and values to be displayed and therefore a punishment had to be undertaken by the playwright. The play ends on a damned Iago who will never speak again, entrapping himself into his hell, unable to manipulate with words again. This final scene is where the audience can truly see the villain as the devil; Iago has sealed his own fate.
Iago’s evil attributes are intensified as the play progresses as the audience are shown ruthlessness and revenge; he will not let anything disrupt his path to success. His motives are entirely self-orientated, it is clear that Iago does not have any compassion for any character, not even his own wife who he murders in the final scene as a last attempt to avoid discovery. ‘Fie! Your sword upon a woman? ‘ This is a pivotal point within the final scene where the villainous ‘demi-devil’ becomes apparent to the other characters on the stage.
The audience is informed at the start of the play that he does in fact, ‘hate the moor’ and this is reiterated frequently within the play. From Roderigo all he wants is his money; ‘put money is thy purse’ is repeated eight times in one conversation with this particular victim, cleverly used to apparently persuade him to refrain from committing suicide. He tells Roderigo to avoid being a slave to morality and live for himself and act upon his own will, this highlights the distinct difference between Iago’s actions and the actions of the other characters within the play, distinguishing a factor separating good from evil.
Iago supposedly has the answers to everyone’s problems; he presents himself as an advisor, disguising his true intentions and creating a trustee and confidant for the other characters. While their lives fall apart around them, Iago immediately arrives on the scene to give a word of advice, which is why so many times he is referred to as ‘Honest Iago’. He toys with their emotions, changes their priorities to fit his own and works his black magic on them all. He lulls them into a false sense of hope and security that everything will be alright, even though it is clear to the audience that there is sinister meaning in it.
Not only does he not care for their situations, but he in fact put them there and in addition he will immediately use their misfortune to his advantage, ‘Thus I do ever make my fool my purse’ he says quite fittingly. He has tamed the situation so that every way meets his advantage, ‘Whether he kill Cassio, or Cassio him, or each do kill the other, everyway makes my gain. ‘ Shakespeare uses Iago’s asides to demonstrate his scheming and plotting. Iago’s plans derive from an intense intellect and ability to manipulate a situation.
In Act 2 Scene 3 Iago explores his own presentation as the devil. Not only does he describe how he will ‘pour this pestilence into his ear’, relating his words to venom dripping into the ears of his victims. He also describes his actions as, ‘When devils will the blackest sin put on, They do suggest at first with heavenly shows’. He suggests that he himself is the devil, performing his cunning and masterful scheme behind the mask of ‘heavenly shows’.
He seems to relish in his manifesting ideas and evil intentions, ‘pleasure and action make the hours seem short. Iago can be compared to a pantomime villain as the omniscient audience watch him twist the outcome, reveal his malicious intentions directly within his soliloquies and relish in an opportunity to accommodate other peoples actions to benefit his own fate, it almost feels appropriate to heckle Iago as he enters the stage. Shakespearean audiences would most likely have done so because his presentation as an evil character is so incontestable. Iago can be seen therefore as the epitome of evil; Shakespeare creates him as a liar, a murderer, selfish, lustful avenger and intellectual puppeteer.
His captivation over the other characters ensures that he shall not be found out. Unfortunately before Roderigo, apparently the wisest of the characters by the end, is killed by his hand before he can deliver the truth, ‘Here is a letter found in the pocket of the slain Roderigo… Roderigo meant t’ have sent this damned villain. ‘ It could be interpreted however that Iago is not as evil as he is portrayed. Iago has the intelligence to sculpt the outcome as he wishes, seizing all opportunity he can to do so.
Othello appears to be in contrast, a highly unintelligent character, ridden with jealousy and gullibility. Othello is a fool to base all his evidence on the ‘ocular proof’ of the handkerchief. The word in itself mocks him as he obsesses over it. His quick judgments to blame his wife who previously he loved so intensely shows his stupidity and fickleness. Iago may not be such a villain, and perhaps more of a man seeking revenge on the one who he thinks to have slept with his wife, ‘I hate the Moor, and it is thought that twixt my sheets, he’s done my office.
Just as Othello seeks revenge on his own wife for the same reason, and yet Othello is entitled as the tragic hero. Iago is a murderer, however we cannot overlook the fact that so is Othello. Iago kills only his wife and Roderigo. All other killings were not by his own hand, but through the hand of others. Othello, the supposed ‘hero’ of the play, also kills his own wife, without any concrete proof, only with Iago’s suggestions that he often claims could be ‘uncleanly apprehensions’. The initial suggestion of Desdemona’s infidelity is almost forced out of him.
Iago kills Emilia as she betrays him as a wife; Othello was not forced to kill Desdemona by Iago. It is true that Iago does play a part in Othello’s motive but Othello ultimately does have his own mind, although obviously his will power is not as strong as the average hero. However it is the lack of conscience and morals that Shakespeare highlights in Iago through murder, deception and robbery that distinguishes Othello as the hero, and Iago as the villain. Desdemona’s murder occurs over 126 lines of Act 5 Scene 2.
Othello justifies his reasons with his wife and the audience can view the tragedy through Othello’s own emotional breakdown within this scene as he tries to come to terms with the justice that Iago has created for the reasoning behind killing Desdemona. In contrast, the murders undertaken by the hand of Iago are merciless, spontaneous and without moral reasoning or emotional effect on Iago. Like many other villains, Iago carries a strong, witty personality which makes some people identify with him as a character more strongly than with the hero.
Every other character within the play could be viewed as insipid, feeble characters, without a real presence and likeability. It could be the lack of other strong characters that emphasises the opposing villainy in Iago. Iago in essence is just ‘the brightest of the bunch’, who mocks all others’ ignorance. As Iago dominates the majority of the play, using soliloquies and entering all but one scene, effectively taking the role of protagonist, he gives the audience an insight to his future machinations, thus making the audience omniscient and could therefore become more involved with his evil plans.
The play ‘Othello’ reflects the turn of a noble man into a monster through the temptations and machinations of the devil. Iago seems to have such a hold over his victim that Othello seems almost mindless or hypnotised. Shakespeare presents Iago as his villain with a cunning wit and the immense ability to manipulate any situation or person, ‘thus ensnared my body and soul’, as Othello describes. Iago seizes Othello and uses him as his puppet and tool for the composition of his plan.
Iago acts as the inner voice, the tempting of the devil, towards his puppets, yet he remains discreet to make them his fools. ‘Oh the more angel she and you the blacker devil’ Emilia addresses her husband at the end of the play, highlighting the roles in which her husband plays in contrast to her mistress. Emilia knows that Iago is the cause and reveals the inner evil within her husband and does not hold back to display it. She does not attempt to save any of his dignity despite the role as his wife and a subservient woman, which contrasts to Desdemona’s forgiveness of his sins previously.
The final scene is where the animal imagery is cut and the imagery of hellish pits and demons take over, creating a diabolical ending where the devil is trapped within a living hell and the heavenly characters are spared in death. Shakespeare uses strong imagery of hell, ‘roast me in sulphur, wash me in steep-down gulfs of liquid fire’ to emphasise the transition from a man with cruel intentions and intellectual plotting to a pure demonic character, overtaken with sin and murderous intent.
Shakespeare does not allow Othello to kill Iago as proof. Othello says, ‘if thou be’st a devil, I cannot kill thee’. The final image upon the stage separates the good from the evil, as the three lay on the bed in tranquil death, and Iago watches them from a forcedly silent sideline, in his own personal hell. Shakespeare does not spare the characters representing heaven and goodness in life because if he did so, the true devil within Iago could not break out and be recognised, therefore there would be no tragedy.
Shakespeare takes his character to the next level of villainy, comparing Iago with the ultimate evil: The Devil. Iago is an anti-hero, working alongside those who he is conspiring against. He has a complete lack of morals, which never seem to have been present, even at the outset he is presented as a thief. This absence of conscience creates the frequent associations with the Devil. Shakespeare’s thick use of satanic imagery reinforces the extent of his villainy.