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How Evil is Seen in Shakespeare s Othello

- A Character Study of Iago -

By Amber Santos

In Othello, one can see the battle between the deceitful forces of evil and the innocence of good mixing like watercolors that are too wet. The characters themselves can be viewed as a mix of both good and evil,* with the exception of two; Desdemona who is spotless and Iago, who has no good in him. They are our two extremes, and the walls between which the rest of the characters, all a mix of good and evil, will interact with one another.

What is Iago? “I am not what I am,” he says. Iago is fully aware of and confident in his ability to manipulate and improvise situations and people to his benefit, and does so frequently and cleverly. Iago is smart. He is an expert judge of people s characters and weaknesses, and uses this to his advantage. His ultimate motivation is this: defeat of good by the wrath of evil.

The first to fall victim to Iago’s manipulation is foolish Roderigo. Roderigo is in lust with Desdemona and would go to almost any length to have her reciprocate these feelings. Iago tells Roderigo that the only way to win Desdemona’s love is to take all of his land, sell it for cash, and follow Desdemona to Cyprus. “…put money in thy purse…” (1.3.382-423). We see that Iago can get a substantial profit from this in his soliloquy, which begins, “Thus do I ever make my fool my purse” (1.3.426). Roderigo eventually starts to question Iago’s honesty. When faced with an accusation, Iago simply offers that killing Cassio will aid his pursuit of Desdemona, and foolish Roderigo unquestioningly falls for it, shown by his reaction to the proposed murder, “I have no great devotion to the deed / And yet he hath given me satisfying reasons. Tis but a man gone. Forth, my sword! He dies.” (5.1.9-11). If this were modern times, one might wonder if Shakespeare would have included an apathetic Oh, well! at the end of this phrase. Iago uses Roderigo as someone to do his “dirty” work, and Roderigo is naively unsuspecting. In this same scene, Iago convinces Roderigo to wake up Barbantio, Desdemona’s father, by screaming to him in the middle of the night from the street telling him about Othello and Desdemona’s elopement. After Roderigo tells Barbantio what happened to Desdemona, Iago (who is hiding in the shadows so that it appears that Roderigo is speaking) releases a tirade filled with slurs about Othello, referring to him as various animals and speaking in perverted sexual terms.

Act 1, Scene 1 also introduces us to the hostility of Iago against Othello. Iago has been appointed the position of servant to Othello instead of the more esteemed position of Lieutenant, which he coveted. A man called Cassio has been appointed this position, and Iago feels betrayed because he considers himself more qualified than Cassio, claiming he has no war experience, except from books. Iago is enraged and wants to destroy Cassio. He gets his chance in Act 2, Scene 3. After a war victory, there is partying, and Othello appoints the new Lieutenant Cassio to keep watch. Iago asks Cassio to have some wine, and although at first Cassio refuses Not tonight, good Iago. I have very poor and unhappy brains for drinking. (2.3.34-35) he eventually is talked into having some. Cassio then gets into a drunken brawl because of something that another soldier named Montano had said, and ends up disgracing himself. When Montano asks Iago Is he often thus? (2.3.133), Iago lies and tells him that every night Cassio gets drunk before he goes to sleep. He then convinces Montano to inform Othello of Cassio s weakness for alcohol, hoping this would produce disapproval for Cassio from Othello. Iago pretends that he does not want to be the one to disgrace Cassio, and again gets someone to do his dirty work. As Iago secretly had hoped, Cassio is discharged of his duty as Lieutenant, and Iago is put into his position. This gives Iago the opportunity to more effectively interact with and manipulate Othello.

Iago desires to have Desdemona for his own, but to reach Desdemona directly is impossible for Iago because not only is she married, she is married to his superior. It is for this reason that Iago decides to exploit Othello. If Iago can turn Othello against his own wife, he may not win Desdemona, but will cause Othello to despise her. Iago uses the weaknesses that he sees in Othello, (jealousy, his devotion to accepting things as they seem, and his military instinct to make decisions quickly) to turn him against Desdemona. By implying that Cassio and Desdemona are having an affair, he throws Othello into an irrational fit of jealously. Iago thinks, I’ll pour this pestilence into his ear (2.3.376). Indeed, his accusations are like poison, distorting Othello s rational thinking process gradually, eventually consuming him totally, and bringing him to murder Desdemona in jealousy.

One example of how he does this is when Iago asks Cassio about his sexual relationship with Bianca, a whore. Othello (who had actually passed out in a fit of madness, due to Iago s pestilence ) wakes up in a position to see, but not hear, their conversation, and assumes that it is a sexual relationship between Cassio and Desdemona that is being discussed (probably because he can see hand motions or gestures and can catch certain words that imply sexual activity).

Unfortunately for the mulatto marriage, Othello regards Iago as noble and just, and accepts what he says (and implies) as the gospel truth. The phrase Honest Iago appears many times in the play, and Othello sincerely believes that Iago has his best interests in mind.

Act 3, Scene 3, is very important because it is the point in the play where Iago earnestly begins to establish his manipulation of Othello. Upset at his loss of position, Cassio turns to the kind-hearted Desdemona and asks her to intercede with Othello on his behalf. He meets with her face to face to discuss this in a platonic meeting. Iago and Othello enter and Cassio, uneager to face Othello after his disgrace, leaves as they arrive. Iago, very casually, mentions how it looks slightly suspicious, as if Cassio and Desdemona were engaged in a romantic encounter, or that Cassio might be wooing Desdemona. Cassio, my lord? No, sure, I cannot think it/ That he would steal away so guilty-like, / Seeing your coming. (3.3.41-43) Othello s jealous, quick-decision mind takes this small piece of evidence and renders it legitimate adultery. He even strikes Desdemona across the face (a gesture that is, essentially, an attack on the personality of another human) when she mentions that perhaps Cassio s position should be restored. This is in sharp contrast to his joy the night before when she arrived in Venice from Cyprus, and his anger when his precious wife had been woken from her sleep.

These are some of the best examples of how Iago was able to poison Othello s mind, destroy the marriage between, and cause the murder/suicide of Othello and Desdemona.

If one examines Iago s lines carefully, they will notice that he does not lie outright more than a few times, and yet is involved, directly or indirectly, in the misguided murders of Othello, Desdemona, Emilia, Cassio, and Roderigo; all of the main characters.

I believe that Shakespeare wanted Iago to be a symbolic caricature of evil, like the devil is. At the end of the play, Othello says, I look down towards his feet; but that s a fable. – / If that thou be st a devil, I cannot kill thee. (5.2.336-337) and stabs Iago. The devil is shown in biblical terms as the personification of evil, and Iago (like a spirit who cannot be killed by mortal weapons) does not die when stabbed by Othello, even though everyone else who is stabbed or otherwise fatally attacked in the final scene actually died. Also, like the devil, Iago is incapable of doing good things and did not do one noble deed in the entire play, although ironically, he appeared to be noble, Honest Iago .


Bloom, Harold Modern Critical Interpretation of William Shakespeare s Othello, Chelsea House Publishers, New Haven, copyright 1987

Elliot, G.R. Flaming Minister: A Study of Othello. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1953

Matteo, Gino J. Shakespeare s Othello: The Study and the Stage, 1604-1904. Salzburg, Austria, 1974

Neely, Carol Thomas Women and Men in Othello from Broken Nuptials in Shakespeare s Plays by Carol Thomas Neely, copyright 1985 by Yale University.

Nevo, Ruth Tragic Form in Shakespeare. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972

Rosenberg, Marvin The Mask of Othello. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1961

Rossiter, A.P. Angel with Horns. New York: Theater Arts Books, 1961

Mowat, Barbara A. and Werstine, Paul, ed.s Othello, The Folger Shakespeare Library, copyrite 1993

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