In life, those who may wound us most deeply are not our open rivals, but rather are those in whom we place our trust. William Shakespeare’s tragedy Othello utilizes this concept to great extent in the development of its devious villain, Iago. While Iago clearly feels no allegiance to even one other character in the play, he makes each feel as if he is his or her personal confidant and most trustworthy friend and advisor. Additionally, he continually places himself in a dominant role, as one who knows more or is more capable than his peers, and can therefore execute their affairs for them, or at least advise them most aptly on what best to do. In these ways, Iago is able to manipulate the lives of all those around him with ease. The other characters’ trust of Iago is apparent through both their actions and their words. Othello not only entrusts Iago with his affairs, such as repeatedly relying on him to be a truthful witness (II.iii.180, 220) but openly proclaims this trust, calling him “most honest” (II.iii.7). Ultimately, it is upon Iago’s exaggerated reports that Othello, misunderstanding Iago’s treachery, bases his painfully ironic decision, which he announces to all those in attendance, “I know, Iago/ Thy honesty and love doth mince this matter,/ Making it light to Cassio. Cassio, I love thee;/ But never more be officer of mine.” (II.iii.251-254) This statement alone not only shows how Iago’s ability to endear himself to others directly allows him to influence their decisions, but it also demonstrates his deviousness in such influences. Rather than directly say to Othello that Cassio ought to be dismissed from his position, Iago defends Cassio in a rather weak way, in order to alienate no one while still ensuring Cassio’s dismissal, an occurrence necessary to his most carefully calculated plot. Despite such wrongs that Iago has, in reality, committed against Cassio, his apparent sincerity and friendliness blinds Cassio to his true nature. For instance, it is Iago’s calculated amiability that convinces Cassio to drink in the first place, prompting a series of disgraces that ultimately ruin him. When Cassio repeatedly refuses to drink, it is Iago’s friendly, “But one cup! I’ll drink/ For you” (II.iii.34-35) that allows him to control and still not estrange himself from the useful Cassio. It is this ability of Iago’s to stay on good terms with Cassio that is proven most useful to him later, as Cassio accepts Iago’s advice of what best to do in order to restore his good name after his drunken brawl. In advising Cassio, Iago constantly plays himself up as truthful, loving and steadfast. He claims bluntly that all his advice is merely because he is a true friend, saying “I protest, in the sincerity of love and honest/ kindne ss.” (II.iii.330) In planting even these small suggestions, Iago makes great headway in his ability to influence Cassio, proven when Cassio later says, regarding Iago, “I never knew/ A Florentine more kind and honest.” (III.i.42-43) This statement is especially rich in irony, taking into consideration that it was Iago’s subtle deception that first landed Cassio in trouble. Friendliness is not the only means, however, by which Iago wins the favor of those around him. Part of what makes him such an appealing character, both to those in the play and to the audience or reader, is his incredibly magnetic personality. He has an impeccably sharp wit and a presentation that, while varying from flirtatious to charming to near clownish, never wavers from this charming spectrum (except for his moments of soliloquy, at which point his true wickedness becomes patent). His charms can be seen as he greets Desdemona with a clever round of couplets upon her arrival in Cyprus. (II.i.134-193) While he is biting in his verse, it is a calculated meanness, intended to delight Desdemona and consequently win her favor. While this scene entertains both those in the scene and in the audience, it also allows Iago to assert himself as the dominant party. This position fulfills his personal desire for power as well as lends his advice to those around him the authoritative pull it would otherwise lack.
This dominant nature of Iago’s becomes most apparent in his scenes with Roderigo. In their conversations, Iago demonstrates most clearly the characteristics that make him an extraordinary villain; not only is he charming and extremely clever, he is also deeply persuasive, able to dominate Roderigo and control his actions while continuing to appear friendly. Iago establishes this dominance over Roderigo not only by elevating his own position in their relationship, but also by subtly belittling Roderigo, such as when he first presents his plan to hurt Michael Cassio. “If thou be’st valiant (as they say base men being in love have a nobility in their natures more than is native to them), list me.” (II.i.247-249) Such challenges to Roderigo’s character make him bound to prove himself, at which point he becomes easy fodder for Iago’s manipulations. Roderigo is not the only character whose integrity Iago challenges. When Othello enters to see Montano and Cassio fighting, he chides them, only to be loudly echoed by Iago. Oth. Hold for your lives!
Iago. Hold, hold! Lieutenant—sir—Montano—gentlemen! Have you forgot all sense of place and duty?
Hold! The General speaks to you. Hold, hold, for shame! (II.iii.166-170)
In saying this, Iago succeeds in both ingratiating himself to Othello, a condition necessary in order to gain his trust, and establishing his dominance over the other characters in the scene because of his acting as Othello’s “right hand man.” In saying these few lines, Iago has highlighted his quickness to act, his sense of duty, and his high morals, and has most likely impressed all those present. While Iago is incredibly careful to always remain friendly when those he needs are present, it is when they leave that his backstabbing nature is revealed. Despite all the camaraderie Iago puts on when speaking with Cassio, in his absence Iago makes no attempts at false allegiance. This is made clear in the scene in which Montano and Iago discuss Cassio behind his back and Iago lies, “’Tis evermore the prologue to his sleep./ He’ll watch the horologue a double set/ If drink rock not his cradle.” (II.iii.124-126) This lie is made doubly frustrating to hear by the fact that it was Iago himself who coerced Cassio into drinking heavily, something he would not have otherwise done. Every move that Iago makes is utterly calculated, every word a lie to guide others to his own ends. This fact becomes fully apparent only in Iago’s moments of soliloquy, when no other characters are present to be deceived. It is during these times that Iago speaks his mind freely and lets the audience see that all his civilities are merely stepping stones in his quest to undo Othello. After divulging his plan in soliloquy, Iago states, “When devils will the blackest sins put on/ They do suggest at first with heavenly shows/ As I do now.” (II.iii.353-354) This precisely encapsulates the nature of his manipulative powers; Iago suggests with heavenly shows, but is truly a devil just waiting for the right moment.