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The play Othello by William Shakespeare is based on an Italian story in Giraldi Cinthio’s Hecatommithi (Grolier). In Othello we encounter Iago, one of Shakespeare s most evil characters. Iago is an officer in Othello’s army and is jealous of Cassio’s promotion to Lieutenant. Through deception and appearance, we see unfolded many lies and clever schemes. The astonishing thing about Iago is that he seems to make up his malicious schemes as he goes along without any forethought. Noted writer Samuel Taylor Coleridge describes Iago’s plan as motive-hunting of a motiveless malignity (Scott 413). Iago seizes every opportunity to further advance his plan to his advantage. Greed plays a major role as a motive for his various schemes and lies.
Throughout the story, Iago portrays himself as a Satan figure. In many ways, Iago can compare with Satan. Iago, like Satan, has proved himself to be a master of deception. He lies to everyone taking great care to disguise his own thoughts. For example, in Act 1 scene 2, when he is speaking to Othello about his feelings toward Cassio, he uses very strong language, while at the same time, he lies throughout the whole speech faking loyalty to a fellow soldier and all the while implying that he is reluctantly holding back the full truth: I had rather have this tongue cut from my mouth. Than it should do offense to Michael Cassio (I.ii.21-22). This deception impresses and convinces Othello that his officer is a good and loyal soldier. Iago also succeeds in deceiving Cassio. After Cassio’s drunken fight, Iago counsels him to speak to Desdemona about trying to convince Othello to reinstate him as lieutenant, all the while knowing that this will only prove helpful to his plan of having Othello see him with Desdemona. Cassio answers him: You advise me well . . . Goodnight, honest Iago (II.iii.332/340). Thus, even Cassio is capable of being deceived by Iago. With all of this deception, it is a wonder that Iago is not Satan himself. He even gives an account to his plan of deception, in a soliloquy, in Act II. In comparing himself with Satan, he says:
When devils will the blackest sins put on. They do suggest at first with heavenly shows.
As I do now: for whiles this honest fool. Plies Desdemona to repair his fortunes. And
she for him pleads strongly to the Moor, I’ll pour this pestilence into his ear. . .
Iago describes how Satan uses the appearance of something good to disguise the various temptations that we know are evil. He tells how he will do the same while Cassio is begging Desdemona to tell Othello to take him back, Iago then will start his destructive scheme. Satan also deceives by lying and twisting the truth. When he told Eve in the Garden of Eden surely you will not die (Gen.3: 4), he twisted the truth to deceive her. The
Apostle John calls him the father of liars: . . . for he is a liar, and the father of lies (John 8:44). As you can see, Iago and Satan both use deception to further benefit themselves.
Through deception, Iago creates the appearance of good, which is what ultimately fools the people around him into thinking that he is loyal and honest. Being an officer is an honorable rank. Historically, an officer carried the company’s banner, which he was never to desert. In battle, if the company’s banner were threatened, all the soldiers had to fight to defend it and also its bearer. So by tradition and definition, he had to be well liked, brave, and trustful. Iago already has the appearance of being a good and honest man so he has an advantage when it comes to keeping that honest look about him throughout the story. Othello, it would seem, has fallen for this appearance when he tells Iago: I am bound to thee forever (III.iii.214). Othello relates this to Iago because he trusts him. Satan works in much the same way as Iago does. He creates something pleasant out of something totally evil by making it appear glorious. The apostle Paul makes a comparison between the appearance of men and Satan in II Corinthians: For such men are false apostles, deceitful workers, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light (II Cor. 11:13-14). Iago deceitfully organizes his plan so as to appear trustworthy to everyone.
Iago also uses appearances to create deception. When Cassio had finished asking Desdemona, in the garden, if she would talk to Othello for him, he left her presence. Iago and Othello were standing off in the distance observing them. When Othello asks him if it was indeed Cassio that he saw, Iago replies: Cassio, my lord! No, sure, I cannot think it, That he would steal away so guilty-like, Seeing you coming (III.iii.37-39).
He uses that scene to convince Othello that Cassio looked mighty guilty when he left Desdemona. This shows that not only can deception be used to create appearance, but that appearance can also be used to create deception. Othello proves this fact further, later on in the play, when he, himself, asks for appearance as proof of Desdemona’s fraudulent behavior, too much to the point that he threatens Iago by telling him:
Villain, be sure thou prove my love a whore. Be sure of it; give me the ocular proof. Or, by the worth of mine eternal soul. Thou hadst been better have been born a dog. Than answer my wak’d wrath! (III.iii.359-363)
Othello demands to see it with his own eyes in order for it to be convincing. Iago then changes the subject and lies to Othello outright by telling him that he heard Cassio talking in his sleep. He then goes so far as to say that Cassio was making sexual implications to him while sleeping:
And then, sir, would he grip and wring my hand. Cry O sweet creature! and then kiss me hard. As if he pluck’d up kisses by the roots. That grew upon my lips: then laid his leg. Over my thigh, and sigh’d, and kiss’d; and then/ Cried Cursed fate that gave thee to the Moor! (III.iii.421-426).
This undoubtedly upsets Othello, thus showing that Iago’s craftiness knows no bounds. He made Cassio appear dishonest by lying to Othello. Satan also uses appearance to create deception. We see an example of this when he tempts Eve in the garden. He uses the pleasing appearance of the fruit to deceive her. When the woman saw that the tree was good for food, that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desirable to make one wise, she took from it’s fruit and ate . . . Then the Lord God said to the woman, What is this you have done? And the woman said, The serpent deceived me, and I ate. (Gen. 3: 6,13). The appearance of the fruit, to the eyes of Eve, deceives her into taking it and eating of it. Satan also uses the woman to tempt Adam into eating the fruit as well. Satan and Iago, both, have a unique way of twisting appearances into looking like truths. This, sometimes, makes it hard to distinguish between the two evils.
Iago and Satan have been compared in many ways. He is called a viper just as Satan is called a serpent. Lodovico asks: Where is that viper? Bring the villain forth (V.ii.285). When Satan is in the garden, he is referred to as the serpent. And the serpent said to the woman . . . (Gen. 3:4). As we have seen, metaphorically and by example, Iago has proven to be the epitome of evil in that he uses the same tactics that Satan does to get what he wants.
Holy Bible. New American Bible. Oral Roberts Association. Philadelphia, The National Publishing Company, 1970
The New Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia. Rel. 6. CD-ROM. Online Computer Systems Incorperated. 1993.
Scott, Mark. Critical Interpretation of Othello. Shakespeare for Students. Detroit, Michigan: Gale Research Incorporated, 1992. 411-457.
Shakespeare, William. Othello, The Moor of Venice. Literature and the Writing Process. McMahon, Day,
Funk. Prentice-Hall Publishers: New Jersey, 1996. 864-947.
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