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The Plague 3 Essay, Research Paper
The Villain, Iago
Perhaps the most interesting and exotic character in the
tragic play Othello, by William Shakespeare, is “Honest” Iago.
Iago, through some carefully thought-out words and actions, is
able to manipulate others to do things in a way that benefits him
and moves him closer toward his goals. Still, for us to question
the instrumentality of the justice, or the wisdom of the
justicer (as Othello calls himself), is to underestimate the
power of the true engineer of the plot, namely Iago, who is such
a brilliant agitator of human behavior that his influence on
Othello amounts to hypnotic suggestion. 1 It seems as though
wherever there is trouble stirring, Iago will not be far. Iago s
power is at the beginning of the action, where he appears as a
free agent of mischief, creating his plot out of whatever comes
to hand. 2 He is the character in Shakespeare s novel that has
the evil side to him, his inner and outer side as well is
revealed throughout the play which suprises the audience. In one
slightly altered form or another, What s the matter? springs to
the lips of all the chief characters in the play- Othello, Iago,
Desdemona, Brabantio, Cassio, Emilia- but only Iago, masterly
improviser of evil deeds, doesn t need to ask the question; that
is because he already knows the answer and rarely takes the
trouble to pretend otherwise. 3 He appears to be the shrewd
character which thinks himself to be wonderful and all-knowing.
Iago is the main driving force in this play, pushing Othello and
many others towards their tragic end.
Iago is not your ordinary villain. The role he plays is
rather unique and complex. …Iago seems the living type of
honesty: a bluff, gallant, outspoken fellow, no conjurer and no
saint, coarse of speech and cynical of humor, but true and tried
as steel. 4 The reader does not expect the character of Iago to
be so complicated at the beginning of the play, and is surprised
to discover Iago s true side. Iago is the man of action in this
play, incapable of contemplation and wholly insusceptible to the
holiness of fact. 5 Iago is smart and deceitful. He is monstrous
because, faced with the manifold richness of experience, his only
reaction is calculation and the desire to manipulate. 6 He is an
expert judge of people and their characters and uses this to his
advantage. The world and other people exist for him only to be
used. 7 For example, he knows Roderigo is in love with Desdemona
and figures that he [Roderigo] would do anything to have her as
his own. By playing on his hopes, Iago is able to swindle money
and jewels from Roderigo, making himself a substantial profit
while using Roderigo to forward his other goals. His [Iago]
immediate motives for embarking on the whole scheme are
financial, the need to keep Roderigo sweet, and his desire for
the lieutenancy. 8 Iago has a problem dealing with the success of
others and feels the need for revenge because of this jealousy.
He also thinks quick on his feet and is able to improvise
whenever something unexpected occurs. One example of this is his
betrayal of Roderigo. …he [Iago] manipulates Roderigo for
financial advantage. 9 When Cassio takes hold of Desdemona’s hand
before the arrival of the Moor Othello, Iago says, With as
little a web as this will I ensnare as great a fly as Cassio.”
(II,iii,163) His cleverness and craftiness make him a truly
hateful villain indeed.
Being as smart as he is, Iago is quick to recognize
the advantages of trust and uses it as a tool to forward his
purposes. Throughout the story he is commonly known as, and
commonly called, “Honest Iago.” He even says of himself, “I
am an honest man….” (II,iii,245) Trust is a very powerful
emotion that is easily abused. Iago is a master of abuse, in this
case turning people’s trust in him into a factor towards his own
goals. Iago slowly poisons people’s thoughts, creating ideas in
their heads without implicating himself. “And what’s he then
that says I play the villain, when this advice is free I give,
and honest,” (II,iii,299) says Iago, the master of deception.
And thus, people rarely stop to consider the possibility that old
Iago could be deceiving them or manipulating them, after all, he
is “Honest Iago.”
Iago makes a fool out of Roderigo. In fact, the play starts
out with Iago having already taken advantage of him. What we
[the readers] are shown in the inner Iago is a bottomless,
consuming passion that feeds on all life around him. 10
Throughout the play, Iago leads Roderigo by the collar professing
that he hates the Moor and telling Roderigo to make money so that
he can give gifts to Desdemona to win her over. During the whole
play however, Iago is just taking those gifts that Roderigo
intends for Desdemona and keeps them for himself. Roderigo
eventually starts to question Iago’s honesty. Iago convinces
Roderigo that Desdemona actually loves Cassio and urges Roderigo
to pick a fight with the lieutenant that night. 11 When faced
with this accusation, Iago simply offers that killing Cassio will
aid his cause and Roderigo blindly falls for it, hook, line, and
sinker. “I have no great devotion to the deed, and yet he has
given me satisfying reason,” (V,i,8) says the fool Roderigo. And
with this deed, Roderigo is lead to his death by the hands of
none other than, “Honest Iago.”
Cassio, like Roderigo, follows Iago blindly, thinking the
whole time that Iago is trying to help him. And during this whole
time, Iago is planning the death of Cassio, his supposed friend.
In doing this, Iago is forcing Cassio to his death by starting up
trouble. Iago is a terrific actor whose intelligence extends
only to immediate effects, not to long-range scheming, a
pragmatist who gets his way through histrionics, a hollow man who
is all show. 12 On the night of Cassio’s watch, Iago convinces
him to take another drink, knowing very well that it will make
him very drunk. Cassio just follows along, though he says, “I’ll
do’t, but it dislikes me.” (II,iii,37). Iago is able to make him
defy his own reasoning to take another drink! Crafty, is this
Iago. When Roderigo follows through with the plan Iago has set
on him, Cassio is made to look like an irresponsible fool,
resulting in his termination as lieutenant. After this incident,
Iago sets another of his plans in motion by telling Cassio to beg
Desdemona to help his cause. …Iago persuades him [Cassio] that
perhaps he can regain Othello s favor again- with Desdemona s
help 13 And thus, Cassio is set on a dark path which leads to
trouble and mischief. Yet, Cassio follows it blindly telling
Iago that he advised him well. With this, Cassio is eventually
led into a trap where Roderigo maims him, and all that time, Iago
- his friend – is behind it all.
Lowly Iago, is capable of anything – not even Othello is
safe from this villain. Othello holds Iago to be his close friend
and advisor. He believes Iago to be a person, “of exceeding
honesty, [who] knows all qualities, with learned spirit of human
dealings.” (III,iii,257). He does know all about human dealings,
but no he is not honest. What Iago injects into Othello s mind,
the poison with which he charges him, is either false deductions
from isolated facts- she deceived her father- and from dubious
generalizations-Venetian women deceive their husbands-or
flatlies. 14 He uses the trust Othello puts in him to turn
Othello eventually into a jealous man, looking everywhere. The
tragic experience with which this play is concerned is loss of
faith, and Iago is the instrument to bring Othello to this crisis
of his being. 15 It is this lost faith that brings Othello to
make his tragic error of killing his wife and bringing great
suffering upon himself.
Iago is an extremely complicated person who seems to have
difficulty dealing with his emotions and his jealousy of other
characters. He succeeds in bringing down all of the people around
him by using his betrayal and back-stabbing methods. He brings a
tragic end in Shakespeare s Othello to Othello, Desdemona,
Emilia, Cassio, and Roderigo. He somehow manages to form a plot
or scheme against one of these characters only to gain something
from them in doing so. He is the antagonist in this play and uses
this power to override the possibilities of compromise between
himself and any character.
Works Cited :
Bloom, Harold. Modern Critical Interpretations: William
Shakespeare s Othello. New York: Chelsea HP, 1987.
Brustein, Robert. Terror in the Bedroom. The New Republic
12 Aug. 1891: 29-30.
Elliott, G.R. Flaming Minister. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1953.
Gilbert, Allan. The Principles and Practice of Criticism.
Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1959.
Gill, Brendan. The Theatre: Happy Bachelor Jet 15 Feb 1982:
Michener, Charles. A Triumphant Iago. Newsweek 15 Feb. 1982:
Matteo, Gino J. Shakespeare s Othello: The Study and the
Stage. Austria: U of Saizburg P, 1974.
Mikesell, Margaret Lael, and Virginia Mason Vaughan. Othello:
An Annotated Bibliography. New York: Garland
Publishing, Inc., 1990.
Moulton, Richard G. Shakespeare as a Dramatic Artist. Oxford:
Oxford UP, 1892.
Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Othello, The Moor of
Venice. New York: Washington Square Press, 1993.
Snyder, Susan. Othello: Critical Essays. New York: Garland
Publishing, Inc., 1988.
Swinburne, Algernon Charles. Othello. Harper s Monthly
Magazine Oct 1904: 658+.
Velz, John W. Shakespeare and the Classical Tradition.
Minneapolis, U of Minnesota P, 1968.
1 Brustein, Robert. Terror in the Bedroom. The New Republic
(12 Aug. 1891): 29.
2 Elliott, G.R. Flaming Minister. (Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1953):
3 Gill, Brendan. The Theatre: Happy Bachelor Jet (15 Feb
4 Swinburne, Algernon Charles. Othello. Harper s Monthly
Magazine (Oct 1904): 662.
5 Moulton, Richard G. Shakespeare as a Dramatic Artist.
(Oxford: Oxford UP, 1892): 264.
6 Mikesell, Margaret Lael, and Virginia Mason Vaughan.
Othello: An Annotated Bibliography. (New York: Garland
Publishing, Inc., 1990): 185.
7 Velz, John W. Shakespeare and the Classical Tradition.
(Minneapolis, U of Minnesota P, 1968): 68.
8 Bloom, Harold. Modern Critical Interpretations: William
Shakespeare s Othello. (New York: Chelsea HP, 1987): 148.
9 Brustein 29.
12Michener, Charles. A Triumphant Iago. Newsweek (15 Feb.
13Gilbert, Allan. The Principles and Practice of Criticism.
(Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1959): 343.
14Snyder, Susan. Othello: Critical Essays. (New York: Garland
Publishing, Inc., 1988): 358.
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