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According to the great English essayist and scholar William Hazlitt, the character of Iago from William Shakespeare’s masterpiece Othello “is one of the supererogations of Shakespeare’s genius,” due the fact that Iago’s “villainy is without a sufficient motive” (345). Othello is one of the four great tragedies written during Shakespeare’s period of despair when the bard seemed to be concerned with the struggle of good over evil. Iago, the villain in Othello, is perhaps the most sadistic and consummately evil character in all English literature and his eventual downfall illustrates the triumph of love over hate, a key theme in many of Shakespeare’s plays.
Iago, an ensign serving under Othello, the Moorish commander of the armed forces of Venice, is undoubtedly the most interesting and perplexing character in Othello. This is supported not only by what he says in the play but also through his actions, both of which enable him to skillfully manipulate those in his orbit in order to boost his huge ego and propel him closer to his personal, evil goals. As the consummate villain, Iago serves as the primary driving force in the play which inevitably directs the other characters towards their tragic ends via numerous fatal flaws.
As shown in Act One of Othello, Iago is not a typical literary villain; he is complex, intelligent and persevering. His innate ability to delve into the very souls of his antagonists is utilized to its full advantage. The beginning of Act One demonstrates this with Iago making a complete fool out of his loyal follower Roderigo whom he has deftlytaken advantage of via Roderigo’s remark “That thou, Iago, who hast had my purse as if the strings were thine” (1.1.21), a sign that Iago has managed to manipulate the monetary fortunes of Roderigo for his own benefit. This scenario is thickened when Iago demands that Roderigo “make money” (1.3.339) in order for him to buy expensive gifts for Desdemona, the daughter of Brabantio the senator of Venice, which Iago hopes will move her heart to love him.
Iago continues his shenanigans by confessing to Roderigo that he “hates the Moor” (1.3.344), a reference to being passed over for promotion by Othello, and through his knowledge that Roderigo is madly in love with Desdemona, a fact which Iago uses to his advantage in order to swindle money and jewels from Roderigo—“Thus do I ever make my fool my purse” (1.3.335).
In Act Two, Iago’s villainous nature is increased when Cassio, Othello’s chief of staff, is seen by Iago holding the hand of Desdemona which sets into motion another scheme highlighted by the line “With as little a web as this will I ensnare as great a fly as Cassio” (2.1.163). Like Roderigo, Cassio submits to Iago’s every whim while under the assumption that Iago is only attempting to assist him; but in reality, it is Cassio’s downfall that attracts Iago. In addition, since Iago is a very intelligent man, he quickly realizes the advantages that come with trust which he considers as a means to further his goals. As a symbol of his true arrogance, Iago says of himself “I am an honest man” (2.3.245) which is quickly deemed to be a false statement when he has Cassio terminated as Othello’s chief of staff. Following this, another scheme erupts in Iago’s mind via telling Cassio to beg Desdemona to assist him in his causes (“She holds it a vice in her goodness not to do more than she is requested” (2.3.287). This act places Cassio in dire straits and leads to more chicanery with Cassio, still under Iago’s villainous spell, saying “You advise me well” (2.3.292). Thus, Cassio is ensnared which inevitably leads to Roderigo doing great bodily harm to him with Iago, his “trusted” friend, as the instigator.
In Act Three, we discover that even Othello himself has been duped by the treachery of Iago. Othello sees his “close friend” as one of his trusted advisors, a man “of exceeding honesty, (who) knows all qualities, with learned spirit of human dealings” (3.3.257). In this case, Othello is quite correct with his assumption that Iago “knows all qualities,” but not in the way of being a trustworthy associate, for Iago uses his knowledge of these qualities to further his goals at the expense of others.
In Act Four, the character of Roderigo finally begins to suspect that Iago is far from an honest man, for he declares that “I think (Iago’s treachery). . . is scurvy, and begin to find myself fopped in it” (4.2.189), a reference to being trapped in Iago’s schemes of gaining riches and the hand of Desdemona. When Roderigo confronts his “honest friend” with his suspicions, Iago reveals his plans to have Cassio murdered, a suggestion which Roderigo, due to own love for Desdemona, finds attractive but with reservations—“I have no great devotion to the deed, and yet he (Iago) has given me satisfying reason” (5.1.8). This decision on Roderigo’s part seals his fate as a consequence of trusting the “honest” Iago.
Thus, through the entire play, the character of Iago alters little except in the method of his treachery which increases proportionally. As William Hazlitt explains, Iago is “an extreme instance (of) diseased intellectual activity, with the most perfect indifference to moral good or evil” (346).
Hazlitt, William. Characters of Shakespeare’s Plays. London: C.H. Reynell, 1817.
Spencer, T.J.B., ed. Othello, By William Shakespeare. New York: Penquin Classics, 1981.
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