From the very outset of “Othello” we are made aware that Iago is the villain of the play. In fact Iago is not only one of the most well-recognised villains, he is also the one character who is given the most dialogue out of all of Shakespeare’s work. One of the many reasons why the character of Iago is still appreciated and celebrated could possibly be because of the way that he was the embodiment of Elizabethan views of Italian politics at the time. This can be seen by the way in which Iago’s ideology is heavily influenced by the work of Niccolò Machiavelli, therefore the historical context of the play can be said to play a part in the characterisation of Iago as he clearly demonstrates the Elizabethan view of a Machiavellian character as he uses explicit means as a way of gaining power and status, which can be seen in the way that he relishes in the downfall of the characters as a result of his own devilish actions.
In order to distinguish Iago as being a tragic villain we must first understand the definition of a tragic villain. A tragic villain is described as being a character that is either not in full control of their actions or emotions as a result of being a victim of circumstance. Tragic villains are also stated to face a crisis of conscience in which they submit to doing evil and often confused morals and as a result they believe that they are doing moral when in fact they are doing evil. Therefore it is clear that Shakespeare does not present Iago to be that of a typical tragic villain because it is evident that Iago does not possess a conscience and appears to be inherently evil like that of Shakespeare’s Richard III. Unlike the description of the classic tragic villain, Iago is completely aware of his actions as seen in his soliloquy in Act 2 Scene I where he expresses that “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 into a jealousy so strong that judgement cannot cure”. Although it could be suggested that Shakespeare presents Iago in the way that he does in order to create the ultimate cathartic experience for this audience. This can be seen in the way the play evokes fear into the audience’s heads when Iago forewarns the audience of “the green-eyed monster” and by the end of the play, even though we feel sorrow because of the death of the protagonist, we also feel that justice has been served because at long last the devilish deceiver Iago has been caught. Also the final events of the play fully highlight to the audience the consequences of jealousy and gullibility and the importance of ocular proof and seeing in comparison to the concept of seeming, which of course is the reason for Othello’s demise. However it can be said that Iago does possess certain factors of which a typical character in character is said to possess, which can be seen by the way in which Iago suffers from hubris. But again this does not help to underpin the idea that Shakespeare presents Iago to be a characteristic tragic villain because it usually the protagonist who suffers from hubris which subsequently brings down the divine punishment upon their head. Whereas in “Othello” Iago suffers from excessive pride seen by the way which is constantly wallows in his own intellectual superiority over the other characters, which results in his downfall in the concluding act. Another lesson learnt by audience from the cathartic experience would possibly be to improve the treatment of women because of the way in which Iago mistreats his wife Emilia from the very beginning of the play and sets up the precedent for how all women in the play will be treated and as a consequence he is unmasked by Emilia at the end of the play. This is both appropriate and ironic for Iago’s true interests to be revealed to the authorities by his wife, the one person whose silence and powers of speech he underestimated and did not take into account. It is also rather tragic for the audience to see his plot begin to fall apart right at the very last hurdle by the one person he ever came close to loving, thus one can sympathise with critic Fintan O’Toole’s idea that Iago is as much of a tragic figure as any of Shakespeare’s protagonists.
Throughout the play it is made evident to the audience that language is the source of Iago’s power, this point can be supported in a number of ways including the way in which Iago constantly oscillates between prose and poetic language. This can be seen in the way that when in the presence of those who are socially and/or professionally superior to him we see a lack of ego, whereas when he is within the company of those who are inferior to him Iago can afford to be less circumspect. The shift to prose with his exchanges with Roderigo helps to convey Iago’s base nature, for example in Act 1 Scene iii when Iago explains that “’tis in ourselves that we are thus or thus. Our bodies are our gardens, to which our wills are the gardeners” we see the return of Iago’s use of crass language which totally denounces love to lust and exposes Iago’s absent sense of romance. The majority of Iago’s dialogue in the play is saturated with bestial and sexual imagery which is shown early on in “Othello” when Iago exclaims to Brabantio in the opening scene of the play that “an old black ram is tupping your white ewe” and from here on in he continues to speak explicitly. In Act 2 Scene iii Iago explains his plans to “pout this pestilence into his ear” and henceforth we begin to see the implications of his actions and how Othello’s ear is muted from hearing the words of anyone but Iago. This can be seen in the way that towards the final moments of the play in Act 5 Scene ii we see Othello tragically ostracised from his former self and instead echoing Iago. The once beautiful “Othello music” seen in his earlier dialogue has been completely detuned like Iago said he would do in Act 2 Scene i, when he expressed his plans to “set down the pegs that make this music” and what remains of Othello’s dialogue has complete resonance of the words of Iago seen by his use of sensationalised metaphors such as when he exclaims “Roast me in sulphur! Wash me in steep-down gulfs of liquid fire!” which echoes the words of Iago’s soliloquy in Act 3 Scene iii when he mentions “with a little act upon the blood, burn like the mines of sulphur.”
It could be said that some of Iago’s qualities are seen by the audience to be redeeming, for example the sheer intricacy of his plot which is fulfilled because at the end of the play he does indeed “emmesh them all”. In Act 2 scene iii we see the true extent of Iago’s abilities and his acute eye for his victim’s weaknesses which he ruthlessly exploits up until the death of his victims. This can be seen by the way he distinguishes the fact that Othello’s “soul is so enfettered to her love” and how he is irrevocably in love with Desdemona and thus he realises that the slightest insinuation of someone who threatens to damage their relationship will create a self-consuming jealousy. Additionally in Iago’s soliloquy we see the way in which Iago recognises the virtues of others but instead he perceives them to be faults. This can be seen by the way in which Iago plots to turn Desdemona’s “virtue into pitch”, which links to the constant referral to the motif of colour throughout the play and the idea that Iago tarnishes every character who he communicates with. Therefore one could say that Iago’s magnificent villainy which is presented by Shakespeare in the way that Iago appears to have a total deficiency of anything that can be considered to be “good”, could be said to be redeeming because, as critic Hazlitt states, Iago is the true “aesthete of evil” and thus the audience admires him.
In conclusion it is rather evident that in “Othello” Shakespeare presents more of a Machiavellian villain rather than that of a tragic villain. This seen by the way in which Iago appears to be propelled by frustration and loathing of the people that have wounded him personally and professionally over the years and plots against them in order to raise his professional status and gain power, which of course is the sole purpose of Machiavellian politics. This therefore conflicts with the Coleridge’s assessment of Iago which depicts him as having “motiveless malignity” as it is clear that he has motives. However for many the Iago’s redeeming feature is his superb application of stagecraft and use of asides makes the audience just as much a part of the plotting as Iago and therefore we learn to appreciate the genius of his plan. Thus many could say the way in which his plan succeeds by the end of the play redeems him because he brings upon the downfall of Othello like he intended, yet he is still a tragic character because he is unmasked as the villain by his very own wife during the final moments of “Othello”.