The Character of Iago in Othello

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“Evil has nowhere in literature been portrayed with such vehemence as in the character of Iago,” contends Gale. The general line of criticism, opposing Iago the devil and Iago the human being, has made his character a pertinent disputable point.  It must be noted that the apparent impossibility of bridging the double aspect of this character for many years discouraged a wide treatment of his role. The main concern seems to come from misplaced emphasis that has distorted known facts from their exact meanings. As a result, most of the interpretations of Iago are not efficient not only to the author’s conception but also the overall satisfaction of most readers who are bewildered and confused by so many varying analyses.

One of the fallacies that can be used to interpret the character of Iago is by considering him as an ordinary, melodramatic villain with an ordinary intellect. Gale in his work “A Study Guide for William Shakespeare's Othello,’ “gives the basis for such a conception, for he read the work with the same agility of a medieval morality play and concluded that three morals might be drawn from the play:

“First, that it might be a warning to all maidens of quality not to run away with Blackmoors without their father’s consent; second, that it might be a warning to all good wives that they look well to their linen; third, that it might be a warning to husbands that they seek mathematical proofs of infidelity before they give in to their wrath” (23).

All or any one of the three conclusions can be justified by overemphasizing the moral issues in the play, but all of them ignore the significance of Iago who has a peculiar and dynamic personality. However, it is noteworthy that this idea is not completely antiquated. Gale considers the play as a love tragedy and that the dramatic conflict is between Desdemons and Othelo, which implies that Iago can be construed as a mere instrument employed to enhance this dramatic conflict.

Alkoli and Shi Ji in their work “An Analysis of Power Desire of Iago in Shakespeare’s Othello from Psychological Perspectives” are perhaps the clearest exponents of the perspective that consider Iago as an ordinary villain, be it a human agent driven by blind chance or fate or an instrument of a just God. For Alkoli and Shi Ji blind chance is the sole thing that governs the occurrences in the play. What is more, there is nothing extraordinary about the character of Iago nor is his exposition cleverly conceived. Accordingly, this is because a mere chance happening will lead to the collapse of the whole affair, which, in fact happens during the last showdown of the play. Furthermore, Alkoli and Shi Ji indicate,

“The notion that Shakespeare meant Iago to be an imperial force of evil, a monarch of the pit, an embodiment of masterly intelligence, subtle and powerful to destroy, or an artist in evil is not in the play. Not intellectual power, then, but the power of base cunning in a greedy nature, was of the essence of the man.” (419)

Nevertheless, his position in general is that the character is not an agent of intellect, nor is he who uses his mental abilities and mind to further his plot. As such, this is the main point of difference between Alkoli and Shi Ji’s position and that which will be presented in the present paper: Alkoli and Shi Ji contend that Iago is just an ordinary character with an evil twist. However, it would appear from textual evidence that he is more that what meets the eye; that he is indeed a clever character who plans, schemes and takes advantage of every little chance happening.

Van Duijn et al attempt to avoid the difficulty of explaining the character of Iago in their discussion “When narrative takes over: The representation of embedded mind states in Shakespeare’s Othello.” They would have us believe that at the beginning, Iago is an ordinary individual who is later possessed by the devil:

“Under a diabolism thrust upon him early in the play, when seeking to convince Roderigo of his hate for Othello he convinces himself likewise, and suddenly finds himself head and ears in the depths of his own egoism, vaguely conscious that he is being used for the devil’s purposes but incapable either of shaping the direction or checking the progress of his drift” (148).

Although the authors attempt to account for the alleged intentions of Iago, they still hold the thought that he acts from a motive of pure evil. Consequently, he reduces natural emotion and motive in Iago to mere occasions for introducing a significant part of the play that guides the actions.

Perhaps one of the best references that set Iago apart is Sinh in his work “The nature of Evil in Shakespeare”. He contends that the notion indicating that Iago is a mere personification of evil is not in the play. Moreover, to conclude that Iago does not have outstanding cleverness is not borne out by the evidence presented by the text.  Overall, Sinh would seem to be incoherent and inconsistent in his opinion, for several pages in his discussion he postulates:

“There are plenty of Iagos in the world but there are not many, fortunately, who comine with a loveless nature a base but keen intellect” (56).

A Brilliant Intellect

The character in question presents a difficult problem to the careful student and casual reader alike. He is a common type to some; an evil incarnate to others. In other instances, he is construed to possess a clever mind; sometimes he seems to be a mere tool of the devil or the pawn of a wrathful god. One no sooner realizes that Iago cannot be a loveable person when, suddenly, he portrays himself as a model of generosity and kindness and to be overflowing with sympathy for others. It can be argued that he is a complex character, an in the analysis of such an individual, we must start with incontestable facts.

There exists two pertinent facts about the character of Iago and they must be considered carefully. They include the effects of his emotions on his course of action and the relationship of his powers of intellect to the happenings in the play. By skillful dramatic characterizations, Shakespear brings out three traits that emphasize the intellect of Iago’s villainy. To begin with, by coupling the knowledge possessed by the audience on Iago and his soliloquies on the knowledge of the other characters on Iago, he emphasizes his unsurpassed and supreme ability to appear what he is not (Alkoli and Shi Ji 417). Moreover, by creating protagonists with ordinary intelligence, the author expresses Iago’s ability to take advantage of the weaknesses of other characters. Last but not least, through a realistic use of incident, the writer brings out Iago’s inept ability to seize up a situation without prior planning and use it to its own advantage.

Besides the front elements, Iago’s ability to be his best at every situation is all but perfect. It can be argued that in his own way, he was apparently a trusted and loveable individual; one who attracted most people to himself as well as one who could instill a sense of confidence that not every person could. For instance, Roderigo trusted him with the strings of his purse without question as though they actually belonged to him. It does not occur to Roderigo that the delay in making his suit could possibly be caused by Iago’s duplicity. What is more, Emelis, Iago’s wife saw a deep sense of sympathy for other people’s suffering. Accordingly, this can be elucidated by her sentiments when she speaks of Cassio’s disfavor where she indicates that the instance grieves her husband as though the case was his. In fact, when she is presented with enough proof of her husband’s role in arousing the rage of Othelo, she posits:

“Disapprove this villain (Othelo), if thou be’st a man.

He says though told’st him that his wife was false;

I know though didst not, thou’rt not such a villain.

Speak, for my heart is full”.

The character in question’s ability to deceive his wife about his capabilities for criminal activity, would, of itself, illustrate the fact that indeed, Iago has genius brilliance; but one could argue that no intelligence is needed to deceive an ordinary person (Van Duijn et al 150). Markedly, such an objection can be countered from textual evidence that suggests that it is not just Roderigo and Emelia who saw in Iago a trustworthy individual, a person would help anyone in the hour of need with an open heart.

Cassio, aid to the representative of the great Venetian state speaks highly of Iago. In fact, he indicates that he had never seen a man such honest and kind as Iago.  When he is displeased with the actions of Othello, Cassio goes to Iago for help; he believed that only the latter could give him the advice that could aid him get back his honor, his position and above all, his reputation. Another pertinent example is Desmona who, after experiencing a harsh tongue-lashing from Othello, thinks of an ideal counselor: Iago.

Iago’s ability to manipulate his appearance is a crucial part of his character. It can also be evident in his dealings with Othello and other secondary characters. Notably this last deception, perhaps more than the preceding ones proves Iago’s brilliance as a character in the play is presented to us as a careful student of nature and cautious general, as the person on whose judgment determines the fate of Venice (Gale, 67). Yet Othello sees in him only a man to be accorded all trust. Despite the fact that Othello does not choose Iago as his second in command of the military forces, the former still believes that the latter has the ability and qualification of a personal representative. When Othello travels to Cyprus, he appoints Iago to a position of implicit trust.  What is more, at Cyprus, when Roderico and Cassio interfered with the marriage celebrations, Othello seeks Iago’s definition of the disturbance and after the latter has delivered a good explanation, Othello concludes that indeed, and rightly, that some of the facts are true.

And then, sure of his affection towards Cassio and Cassio’s regard for Othello’s own respect and love, yet even surer of Iago’s honesty, Othello says: “—Cassio, I love thee; But never more be officer of mine…”. It can be argued that Othello, the hero in all campaigns, could not be so blinded by his regard of a man as to see trustworthiness and honesty where it is evident to the readers at least there is none unless Iago were an extremely intelligent character. However, his intelligence is not limited to being honest, loveable, and trustworthy before those around him while in reality he it is a deception that has nothing to do with helping them (Van Duijn et al 150). In his cleverness, Iago is also an opportunistic character who seizes upon the weaknesses of other characters and turns it to fulfill his own ends.

Iago is quick to notice Roderigo’s love for Desdemona and then evaluates it for the irresistible and shameful passion it is in order to change his course into extravagance. He observes Cassio’s courteous and kind attitude towards the ladies and instantly schemes a plan to make Othello jealous. What is more, when he wanted Cassio cashiered, he used his quick temper and inability to hold his wine to win his game. It is incontestably evident that Iago will take advantage of the slightest weakness in a person’s character and use it to its own advantage.

Besides, Iago is most clever (and almost diabolical and most base) when he sees a major weakness in Othelo’s love for Desdemona. By using this flaw to fulfill his ends, Iago stoops to a betrayal of the faith and trust that Othello had in him. It is important to note the scene in the garden of Othello’s house after Cassio had been cashiered. Following Iago’s advice, Cassio had gone to seek Desdemona’s intercession. As Desdemona promises to aid him, Iago and Othello enter the garden.  At that very moment, Cassio, unwilling to put his chances for reconciliation at stake by being seen by Othelo, decides to leave—but a little too late. The opportunistic Iago sees him and remarks “I like not that” (Alkoli and Shi Ji 420). It is noteworthy that he was brief but he accomplished his aim. These five words are enough to startle the mind of Othello who would certainly doubt “the sweet Desdemona” and believe “the honest Iago.”

Iago is cognizant of the fact that Othello trusts him fully and he is also aware that Othello, despite his age, is ignorant of his own wife’s conduct.  However, this is not a reflection on the person of Othello for he had a peculiarly different courtship and was fundamentally a man of action, an individual that spent most of his time on the field of battle. Although one can argue that this is not a culpable fault, it is a significant flaw in the character of Othello, which Iago spots quickly. He takes advantage of this weakness, and although he must betray the faith and trust of Othello, he uses his knowledge to fulfill his desires.

Besides the two significant intellectual powers indicated in previous paragraphs, Iago has a third intellectual capability.  To explain, it is based on a keen, analytical mind that has the ability to analyze, with the highest degree of accuracy, the weaknesses and strengths of his fellow characters. It is necessary to indicate that given such a type of analytic and critical mind, there automatically follows the character’s third outstanding mental ability. To say nothing of, he can judge the actions of a man and come up with an almost accurate judgment of their reactions, for every man’s action and the corresponding reaction to a particular situation is nothing more than the explicit expression of his character (Gale, 70). By and large, this ability to judge character is valueless but Iago employs it and governs his own actions in the sense that he takes advantage of any situation without prior planning. Accordingly, this ability to judge the reactions of mean and to act correspondingly substantiates Iago’s quick wit and manifests itself constantly in the play.

The audience first notices it before the house of Brabantio when Iago provokes Roderigo to arouse the family since the Moor has cheated Roderigo out of his prize by eloping with Brabantio’s fair daughter. Moreover, it expresses itself in his duplicity when the Duke’s soldiers and Brabantio’s men both meet to summon Othello the emergency meeting of the council. As a matter of fact, it becomes especially striking in the second and third acts when Iago is seen attempting to have Cassio fired from office. In this instance, he takes advantage of an unanticipated appearance of Othello to say the truth, yet to say it in such a way that no one would believe him (Sinh 60). As the play progresses, when Roderigo was supposed to have been murdered by Cassio, Iago uses his intellect to feign protection of the latter to mortally hurt Roderigo since Cassio failed in his mission.

Finally, it is necessary to mention two pertinent features of Iago’s plot; a particular explicitness; and yet a certain implicitness, which can be considered as a form of provision. With this in mind, a definite element of chance can be construed in the plot laid by Iago, yet the entire plot is entirely dependent on him, even when the instances are decidedly adverse. It can be argued that he finds an intellectual pleasure in having to pit his wits against changing situations and superior intellects. Markedly, it is this that prompts him to actualize his plan to its conclusion and at the same time causes him to underestimate the significance of a small and insignificant detail. Overall, it seems unfair to deny Iago the brilliance, which is his simply because it he underrated a mere factor.

In sum, Iago’s brilliance consistently stands out throughout his plot against Othello and other characters, not because he plots to do a noble and great deed or to conquer unbelievable odds. He does not. Instead, he schemes an ignoble and a very base course of action. It is noteworthy that he is brilliant in this that he knows what he exactly wants to accomplish, the exact flaw in his victim that he will use, and the means he will employ. What is more, he is wary not to become extremely detailed in showing his methods because he is aware of the eventualities that will arise. Shakespeare makes a point of expressing Iago’s intelligence as an innate, practical genius as well as pragmatic, cultivated, egotistical perception of life, coupled with a will to succeed in his schemes. Markedly, all are at work to protect him from failure and guide him to success. On the whole, although there exist a broad range of fallacies that explain the character of Iago, it can be agreed that it is his intelligence, not emotions that propels the actions in play.

Works Cited

ALKOLI, HIND ABDUALLAH, and Shi Ji. "An Analysis of Power Desire of Iago in Shakespeare’s Othello From Psychological Perspectives." Journal of Literature and Art Studies 8.3 (2018): 417-421.

Gale, Cengage Learning. A Study Guide for William Shakespeare's Othello. Gale, Cengage Learning, 2015.

Sinha, Gopal. "The nature of Evil in Shakespeare." nature(2016).

Van Duijn, Max J., Ineke Sluiter, and Arie Verhagen. "When narrative takes over: The representation of embedded mindstates in Shakespeare’s Othello." Language and Literature 24.2 (2015): 148-166.

August 01, 2023


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Book Review Othello

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