top-rated free essay

The Character Og Iago

By Timplshved Mar 22, 2005 4252 Words
The character of Iago is crucial for the play, and its essence has often been presented as ‘the evil taking a human form.' What is important to any attempt to understand this play is the mechanism that makes the action moving forward. If this is ‘the force of evil', represented in the character of Iago, this gives him the most relevant role, the power to forward the entire course of the play in certain direction. A number of fortunate circumstances helps his plot, and even in the most dangerous moments everything seems to fit his plans. From the beginning the readers (or the audience) are fascinated by this character of ‘a villain' ; they are, in some way, participating in his plot, being the only spectators of his famous soliloquies in which he reveals (if he ever does) his true face, or at least, the bitter content of his thoughts. He is tormented by hate, jealousy and lust, he creates the self-deception about his own magnitude, his fantasies are lascivious and immature, and yet he is observed with the mixed feelings of repulsion and admiration. Why is this so? In Othello, as opposed to many other great Shakespeare's plays, there is no clear indication of a supernatural guiding force directing the course of action. ‘The Fate' doesn't seem to be the ally of the positive characters – what's more, the circumstances are certainly convenient for Iago and his plans. The favorable drop of a handkerchief, the situations in which one word would be enough to destroy the entire ‘construction' he built; all this was resolved into his advantage. It can almost appear that this is a display of how even those who are in our eyes the most distinguished and noble, must subdue to the irresistible power of ‘the dark fatality', ruling the world and corrupting the human nature. At the end of the dramatic events there is no feeling of peace descending after the storm, but instead a bitter awareness of how fragile our mind is when facing such utter evil. As Bradley says, it seems ‘as if the Fate has taken sides with the villainy.' There are no divine forces getting in the way of the course of the play directed by Iago, and this makes the tragedy to follow, inevitably, even more terrible. Pure malice he displays is not being controlled, and it prays on the ‘good' characters, causing even the downfall of The Noble Moor, Othello.

But how does he succeeds in this – how does Iago makes a man such as Othello , who 'can never be angry', who is fool of wisdom and experience, and very gentle to his wife, to become a person who hits her, calls her whore, and finally smothers her? What is in Iago's character that makes him so plausible? The answer to this would require an analysis of Othello's character as well, but the most important question to be answered is that of an image of Iago in his, as well as in everyone else's mind, except maybe Emilia and Rodrigo, who are, nevertheless, also deceived, but in some other way. Othello trusts Iago not only because of his trusting nature – the strong reason is also the face Iago shows to his surroundings. He is ‘above all thing, honest.' When he first gives Othello a hint of warning, he pretends to gives it with great reluctance, out of duty- he is Othello's ‘companion in arms', even considered to be ‘excessive in honesty.' Because Iago knows him very well, he is manipulating Othello's mistrust in his own power of perception – Iago knows that Othello is not familiar with the Venetian customs concerning marriage and adultery, and he uses this insecurity to guide his actions. This elaborate plan Iago made functions not only because of his power of persuasion but also because of the awareness of his opponent's weaknesses. This is one of Iago's admirable qualities- his power of perception and tactical skills. Iago has studied Othello's nature, and he gives him one blow after another, expecting him to react at once, as he indeed does. Compared to the character of Hamlet, who behaves in the exactly opposite way, Othello is a man of action – he does not contemplates over the situation, his passions, once awaken, are intense and uncontrollable.

The character of Iago himself was interpreted in many ways, many of them misconceiving his role in the play, or mistaking about the character's true purpose and motivation. He was interpreted as a ‘common villain'- he was either a jealous man who truly believes that he has been wronged and revenges, or an ambitious man, just looking for a way to take his commander's place. Clearly, he is more than this. Sometimes, on the other hand, he becomes a pure motiveless evil force driven by his ‘motiveless malignity', reduced to a symbol rather than a human being. This interpretation is connected with the theory that Iago is based on the old Vice character from medieval theater traditions. He was claimed to be a devil himself; this, however, deprives of his obvious authenticity. This would be a serious problem and a huge mistake in the structure of the play as ‘human' as Othello. There were even attempts to observe the entire play at the level of an abstract battle of good and evil inside a man's soul, where we see Othello, Iago and Desdemona as the Man, the Devil and the Divine. This concept was even attempted to be put on stage, and was completely unsuccessful. A cold, essentially evil Iago that shows absolutely no human emotions works no better than Iago represented as a clown who makes faces behind Othello's face and gestures to the crowd. There is no doubt, and the theatre performances have proven it, that it is essential to make Iago worthy of his powerful opponent, so that Othello himself and his downfall would be taken seriously. But, is he then a great villainous character, a force of evil in the play, or just a mere selfish, rather insignificant man, who finally tries to act towards greater crime and put something to risk, and is at once destroyed? Where do we see that greatness of his, and how can we justify the often pronounced claims of him being ‘the evil mastermind'? The already mentioned strength of will, quick mind, insight into the human nature, sharp, though not complete because of his inability to perceive and understand the true meaning and nature of good, marking it simply as stupidity or naivety, a weakness he can exploit; those are the qualities that make him different from other Shakespeare's villains. He considers himself to be free of any scruples and therefore in advantage , even intellectually superior over those inhibited by moral codes – his victims. This makes him high opinioned about himself and contemptuous towards others – in the system of values he created for himself, he is the role model, the ideal- any characteristic he doesn't posses, he declares worthless. Iago is also highly sensitive about the maintaining of this great image of himself –this is the reason of his jealousy towards Cassio and Othello, as well as his doubts whether Emilia is being faithful – it would be a humiliation to him to be cuckolded, but he doesn't really care about her. In fact, another interesting point of his philosophy is his misogyny, a despise towards women, and the notion of their virtue (as well as any other human virtue). When analyzing Iago, many critics take into consideration his background and nationality. The fact is that he is an Italian, although his name is of Spanish origin, quite common even today. This contradiction is in fact connected with the political atmosphere of Shakespeare's time, where Spaniards were considered to be the main treat to English supremacy. In this way, Shakespeare wants to indicate the negative role of him as well as Rodrigo, at the very beginning. The symbolism of Italy in Elizabethan age is already known- the country of plots, murders, and passion, which was considered to be too diabolical for the high sense of morality of an average Englishman. Iago's speech is full of obscenities, sexual allusions joined with animal imagery, which is later transferred to Othello when he falls under his influence (at he very beginning he compares Othello to a ram, and Desdemona to a sheep). Also, in many occasions, trough his speech he displays utter cynicism. He has chosen a wife that is obviously not very intelligent or noble, and he treats her sadistically and with obvious contempt. This contemptuous attitude is directed to women in general, who are all in his eyes lecherous and vane, and have little or no value: ‘you are pictures out of doors, bells in your parlours, wild-cats in your kitchen, saints in your injuries, devils being offended, players in your housewifery, and housewives in your bed' (II, i, v. 108-111, p. 95.) Yet, his behavior is socially excepted. It is important to note that he is not gloom or unpleasant by nature, and therefore his words are not taken too seriously. In his soliloquies and conversations with Rodrigo, he also shows his racial prejudices towards Othello, calling him ‘the thick lips' and ‘lusty Moor', which should imply that the dark color of skin is connected with immorality and sexual promiscuity. Further, as it is known, Iago is a soldier, Othello's officer and his friend, probably not of a noble origin or great education either, but highly respected among his fellow soldiers. There is no reason to doubt his military skills, which he of course thinks very highly of, but his malicious comments about Cassio are probably exaggerated. He is ‘jovial by nature, often hearty', but also cynical and rough. He lacks refinement, but not a sense of humor, and in serious matters he shows his compassion and care for his comrades, the very thing he was ridiculing the minute before. Therefore he is loved by them, and is considered to be the previously mentioned ‘honest Iago.' This is the face he chooses to show to his surrounding , his mask, elaborated to perfection. It is much more difficult to reveal what lies underneath it, and there is even a question of whether we ever really, explicitly see his true personality? About himself Iago says that he is a vindictive man, but is there any real reason, any motivation for vindictiveness? The reasons he introduces to the reader (‘he has done my office'), seem quite weak and unconvincing, not being based on any evidence. The best explanation of his actions that is made explicit in the play itself is the line of Cassio's daily beauty, which is also applicable to Othello. But this would certainly mean that Iago has a conscience, that he is, under his cynical surface, tormented by his own ugliness. By this, the assumptions of him being a mere symbol of evil would be proven wrong. In fact, the compelling thing about Iago is the level of ‘collaboration' between him and the reader/audience. At an unconscious level, it does exists, because he represents the characteristics that are present, up to some extent, in every man or woman, but inhibited by the moral codes respected. This is probably what makes him such an appealing character, and also what makes us except him as a real person, not a lifeless metaphor. With Iago, at least from the outside, the moral ‘obstacles' are breached, and we are impressed by his freedom, and at the same time horrified by it. Also, Iago appears to be strong because of his flawless behavior in front of his opponent. All his energy seems to be directed towards this one cause – to, by any means possible, destroy Othello, his chosen enemy. This is, of course, morally condemnable, but one must admire his superior skill, especially after we see him discussing his plans with Rodrigo, and then transform completely when addressing Othello. There is a distinct need in Iago to observe everything around him as degraded, brought to some animal level. He interprets every action as lead by some lower urge, by selfishness or lust. He perceives the existence of honor and honesty, but to him they have absolutely no value. In his introductory speech made to Rodrigo, we can see what sort of people he admires- the servants who: ‘trimmed in forms and visages of duty, keep yet their hearts attending to themselves.' ( I, i, v.50-51, p.57-58) But, as Bradley notes, he is not a real cynic. He has a philosophy and this is it: ‘Virtue? A fig! ‘Tis in ourselves that we are thus or thus. Our bodies are our gardens, to the which our wills are gardeners.' (I, iii, v.313-314, p. 81.) All socially defined human values, endeavors in achieving them, activities and relationships directed towards them, are absurd to Iago. A man is just a creature of animal passion- where others see love he sees only lust, instead of a harmony between two people in love he visualizes the images of brute sexuality: ‘I take this, that you call love, to be a sect or scion.' (I, iii, v. 323-324, p. 82.), or: ‘It is merely a lust of the blood and a permission of the will.'(I, iii, v. 326, p. 82.) With his egoistic philosophy he, in a way, usurps the natural order of things, the hierarchy commonly recognized and accepted among the rest of the Elizabethan world. It is as if he dares the rest of them to prove some usefulness of their morality. He states, rightfully to a certain point, that goodness often receives no reward, while those, who look after themselves, may yet have some profit. But, he is not a mere philosopher; he acts upon his theories, whatever be the real reasons that drive him to commit such villainous actions, he remains true to himself. But how successfully he can get rid of his own conscience? For he does have one, or at least there is a good reason to claim so, exactly because he is so committed to destroy others who, unlike him, have chosen to follow whatever moral principle. So, to claim Iago to be completely cold-blooded all the time is to simplify him – it is more a matter of self-control, his strength of will. These elements of his personality make him so convincing in front of Othello. He never once show a sign of insecurity or fear – his act is perfect, perhaps because he wears his mask for such a long time. He is a hypocrite, but not weak or repulsive. He wants to prove his superiority over good trough a power to manipulate it and devastate it, because he chooses to do so, because he can. The intensity of his hatred is, obviously, caused by some sort of frustration; in his speech, behavior towards Emilia, the language and metaphors he uses, we can feel the suffering that this constant hate imposes on Iago- he is tortured by it.

Iago is also a jealous husband, and as we later see from Emilia's attitude towards adultery, probably not without a reason. Therefore, he knows about the pains and destructiveness of those feelings, and wishes to torment Othello by it, and at the same time to degrade him:

‘For that I suspect the lusty Moor
Hath leaped in my seat, the thought whereof
Like a poisonous mineral gnaw my inwards;
And nothing can or shall content my soul
Till I am evened with him, wife for wife;
Or failing so, yet that I put the Moor
At least in a jealousy so strong
That judgment cannot cure.' (II, I, v. 276-283, p.96.)
The degradation of Othello, the symbol of virtue, despite his black skin, which should symbolically stand for the darkness of heart, is to his greatest satisfaction. His feelings about Cassio are similar. The line about the daily beauty is of a crucial importance, an indicator of existence of at least some sort of awareness in Iago that his philosophy is incomplete. This does bother him to a great extent – in comparison with Cassio, he looks monstrous; but, in the light of this, his self-control is even more notable.

Iago's character is active and dynamic throughout the whole play, another one of his positive features. As full of hate as he is, he always appears to be in control, never nervous, and he never jeopardizes his role of a simple, hearty soldier who speaks his mind openly but cares deeply of his friends. This is almost the exact opposite of his true nature. He has an almost inhuman power to maintain the permanent state of firm decisiveness to control his feelings, to play his role to the end:

‘When devils will the blackest sins put on,
They do suggest at first with heavenly shows
As I do now.' (II, iii, v.318-320, p. 110.)
Some critics introduce a question is this feature, in fact, caused by Iago not having a character passionate enough to put him trough too much trouble controlling himself. Even if this rather doubtful point is accepted, yet his firmness in the moments when facing death is impressive. His egoism is not blind, or random – it is an elaborate system; he ‘believes' in egoism as if in science or religion. Here, however, lies the problem of taking his own definitions of himself as ‘the true face of Iago'. The person free of any regard toward all other interests but its own, and never troubled by that would be a psychological impossibility. That kind of Iago would indeed be a badly made motiveless evil character. So, Iago is not so utterly cynical as he wishes to appear. But, he wishes to convince himself that he lives out his philosophy, by acting as well as by words. Of course, it is hard to establish the truth about Iago's inner life, and not to simplify him, because he is a rather complex character, even more so if analyzed from the point of view of Freudian psychoanalysis.

When this method was broadly introduced to literature and criticism, the number of various interpretations of all classical Shakespearian characters significantly increased. The greater complexity of Iago's character became more obvious, and he even gets his ‘diagnosis'. The number of traditional interpretations was rejected in order to create new ones, more corresponding to this new point of view. According to this method, Iago at he very end becomes the antipode of Othello as we see him before his downfall, his dark side, becoming once more a personification of a certain mental concept rather than a complete personality. Again deprived of his human quality, Iago is made ‘flat' and simplified. Shakespeare probably had some concept of introducing the abstract categories of good vs. evil, adding a certain universal dimension to Othello as a play, but to say that this symbolism is the main point of the characterization is clearly a mistake. Othello is even marked as ‘the most realistic of all Shakespeare's plays'

There is one more attempt to explain the motivation of Iago's actions, trough the concept of him as a homosexual (‘I am your own forever' line), as well as the Oedipus complex was used for the explanation of Hamlet's behavior. This is rather questionable and lacks proper argumentation. Imagists and symbolists also presented their vision of Iago , similar to the Freudian, but all of these views do not offer enough explanation of a leading force beneath Iago's actions. If he is a ‘real' character, than he is also a subject to certain human weaknesses and needs.

The attempts of granting him motivation, sometimes even went so far as to became apologetic, so he was considered to be wronged by Othello's choice to promote Cassio, or even right about his suspicions of Othello's affair with Emilia. This creates an awkward picture of Iago as ‘a victim of unfortunate circumstances, a just man who has wronged for the first time'. Of course, this completely illogical interpretation was rejected from the start. Iago is obviously cruel by habit- it is shown in his relationship with Rodrigo and Emilia; being himself cold and calculated, he always suspects evil, judging people (especially women) according to himself as a model, as for ex. in:

‘That Cassio loves her, I do well believe't;
That she loves him, ‘tis apt and of great credit.'(II, i, v. 267-268, p. 96);
‘For I fear Cassio with my night cap too'(II, i, v. 288, p. 96) He clearly elaborated his system of values over a long period of time, and the face he shows to Rodrigo and in his soliloquies, the closest to his true one, seems sadistic:

‘Look where he comes! Not poppy nor mandragora,
Nor all the drowsy syrups of the world,
Shall ever medicine you to that sweet sleep
Which thou owed'st yesterday.' (III, iii, v. 331-334, p. 128) He applies it mostly to the weaker beings, inferior to his intellect- they are too insignificant to him to treat them tactically.
The critics have also dealt with the question of whether he ever shows some form of hesitating when he realizes how great will be the consequences of his plot. Some of his apologists find him reconsidering his actions after Emilia's statement of how ‘some eternal villain' has made Othello jealous, or after realizing the force of Othello's anger he provoked. This is hardly caused by his awaking conscience, but rather just him being careful not to expose himself.

So, the successful way to study Iago is to observe his behavior from the point of view of his actual activities, and the basics of what he himself has to say, mainly in soliloquies. As mentioned before, the most striking one of his qualities is the self-control and the strength of will. He displays his suppressed anger only on rare occasions, when he finds the appropriate victim. On the other hand, he is full of ‘sympathy' towards Othello, which is almost a perfect act. This superior skill is maybe the explanation of why he is, in spite of all of his negative features, almost likeable. In the play itself, the importance of soliloquies is emphasized by the fact that they are actually not too essential for the developing of action. In fact, the course of the events would be much faster, and the element of surprise would contribute to the overall feeling of suspense if it weren't for them- so, the logical conclusion would be that they are introduced to clarify something about the problematic of Iago's character- chiefly, his motivation. There is a need of explaining the resentment he feels. An opportunity to give vent to his ‘fury' helps him to relieve the psychological pressure of constant life of pretending. The contempt he feels for almost everyone in his surroundings is a need of enforcing himself as superior; the desire to destroy others may be interpreted as a product of envy, which Iago turns into absolute contempt for everything they represent. According to some psychoanalytical researches, there are some basis to claim that he is actually contemptuous about himself, which he projects to those who he subconsciously perceives as having the greater qualities than his own and oppose his malignancy with their inner purity. The indications to support this view exist in the play (the mentioned daily beauty line etc.) As opposed to his qualities, he is a man of many inabilities as well. He has a general lack of ability to fell compassion; he also has an inability to love. If he cannot understand what would motivate anyone to do good just for the sake of good itself, he is naturally very insecure, especially about his wife, and doubts just about anyone. Analyzing the lines he pronounces, he has very little good to say about anyone. In his attitude towards Othello, this is further intensified by the envy he feels. It is clear that Iago is, as he is often attributed, a villain. The problem of finding the strong foundation from which it emerges is still unsolved. The two possible, quite opposite interpretation seem the most probable: he is either a pathetic, paranoid man tormented by his many complexes he tries to turn into his own advantage over those better than him, or simply one of those majestic Machiavellian villains who compensate the condemnable nature of their actions by a certain grandeur, even charisma, they posses. Whatever may be the answer, and the opinions on this are rather diverse, it stands as the fact that he is one of those curiously appealing Shakespeare's characters that, from the first line capture the readers attention. This is a strong argument to reject the approach of imagists and symbolists, and it reinforces the claims of the certain level of identification with Iago's frustration. He does not choose the ‘socially accepted forms of behavior', he dares to cross the line of what is acceptable, and maybe that is a form of courage. It is fair to say that, if we cannot justify Iago, in a way we can understand him and thus he obtains the much needed authenticity that can correspond with the reader.

Cite This Document

Related Documents

  • Character of Iago

    ...Shakespeare employs a variety of language, dramatic and theatrical techniques in shaping my understanding of the rather enigmatic yet definitely Machiavellian, character of Iago. Shakespeare reveals him to be a cunning and conniving exploiter and manipulator of other characters who become caught in his web of lies, deceit and evil schemes. Iago ...

    Read More
  • Iago Character Analysis

    ...successful story without a villain. A villain helps to create conflict and a plot between characters, this is what builds a successful story. In the play Othello by William Shakespeare, Iago is the ultimate villain. He will do whatever it takes to ruin Othello’s life. Without Iago, Othello would not be the tragedy it is today, but just an empt...

    Read More
  • Othello and Iago Character Study

    ...Othello Study ------------------------------------------------- Othello (The Character) * The character of Othello is in many ways a paradox. * He simultaneously experiences deep and passionate love as well as terrible and violent hatred; he is a rootless “stranger/Of here and everywhere” who the world defines by his ethnicity, ...

    Read More
  • Iago Character and Motives

    ...Iago character and motives In the play Othello, the character Iago proves to be one of the most interesting and mysterious character of any Shakespearian play. In Othello, Iago attempts to ruin the high ranking military officer, Othello, and Othello's wife through a series of manipulation and cruelty. However, throughout the play, Iago never co...

    Read More
  • Othello - Iago Character Analysis

    ...Iago, in Shakespeare's Othello, is a deceiving character because he tells lies in order to get what he wants. He interacts with people only to manipulate them, but most importantly he never reveals his true feelings or motives. Iago might say things that suggest what his motive is, but he soon contradicts himself with another suggestion making i...

    Read More
  • Character Analysis for Othello's Iago

    ...Character Analysis “Iago” Shakespeare's Iago is one of the best examples of a villain to this day. Such a villain would distract from the impact of the play. Shakespeare added depth to his villain making him Amoral, as opposed to the typical immoral villain. Iago's entire scheme begins when the "ignorant, ill-suited" Cassio is given the p...

    Read More
  • Iago Character Analysis

    ...plays, evil characters are not uncommon, but in my own opinion, Iago has to be one of – if not the most - interesting. Even though Iago might be described by some as being just "pure evil" or even "intolerable", the truth still remains that people will read deeper into the play just to see what Iago will do next. Through his words and actions, ...

    Read More
  • Othello Character Analysis- Iago

    ... Othello Character Analysis In Othello, Shakespeare tells the story of the soldier Othello, a noble and respected man, whose insecurities enable him to fall prey to the overwhelming power of jealousy. Through manipulation and lies, Othello changes from a kind and faithful husband into a man completely taken over by jealousy, resulting in his...

    Read More

Discover the Best Free Essays on StudyMode

Conquer writer's block once and for all.

High Quality Essays

Our library contains thousands of carefully selected free research papers and essays.

Popular Topics

No matter the topic you're researching, chances are we have it covered.