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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

1982): 108.

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.

10Bloom 199.

11Mikesell 346.

12Michener, Charles. A Triumphant Iago. Newsweek (15 Feb.

1982): 92.

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.

15Gilbert 205.

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