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In both the tragedies of King Lear and Othello, the plot is affected by one character’s malicious actions, which exacerbate any tensions that are already inherent in the relationships between the characters. Iago in Othello and Edmund in King Lear both feel as though they have been passed over in favor of someone whom they see as less deserving, and so their actions are driven by bitter resentment. With similar motivations, the two men also use similar techniques in their attempts to gain power by earning the trust of the other characters and using that trust as a tool in their exploits. Once their treachery is revealed at the end of the respective plays, however, Iago and Edmund display vastly different reactions, which will be examined later. Shakespeare’s two villains demonstrate how evil exploits the weaknesses of human psychology, especially trust, and their actions sow seeds of destruction that inevitably result in death. Shakespeare also illustrates the different sources of evil as Iago and Edmund, after being unmasked, display two different reactions that reveal the complexities of motivated malignity.
Iago and Edmund profess their desire for revenge and power in their initial speeches. In the opening scene of Othello, Iago explains to Roderigo that Cassio who, “never set a squadron in the field,” (Othello: I.i.22) was given the rank of Othello’s lieutenant while Iago, who mentions his exploits at Rhodes and Cyprus, was given the meager position of Othello’s ancient. From his first appearance, Iago has already established the fact that he feels cheated, which provides a motive for his insidious actions throughout the play. Roderigo understands Iago’s being upset and states that if he were in the same position that he “would not follow (Othello),” (O: I.i.40) but Iago is more cunning than Roderigo and sees a chance to turn his position as ancient to his own advantage as he says, “I follow him to serve my turn upon him,” (O: I.i.42). As Othello’s ancient, Iago can gain the man’s trust, and if Othello believes in Iago’s honesty, then the villain’s deceit can be all the more devastating. Iago comes right out and reveals the facade that he will hide behind for the rest of the play, “I am not what I am,” (O: I2Ei.65). Edmund indicates his intention to follow a path similar to Iago’s in his first speech.
After being insulted by his father in the first scene of the play, Edmund’s precarious social standing as a bastard son is made evident, and the idea that he is not “legitimate” torments the young man. As he considers the social stigma associated with bastard children, Edmund loses control of his speech for a moment as he reiterates the first syllable of the ominous word, “Why brand they us/ With base? with baseness? bastardy? base, base?” (Lear: I.ii.10). While Iago’s resentment stems from his lack of military promotion, Edmund’s bitterness runs much deeper, because it is the product of his birth and social law. Edmund therefore decides that if society is against him, then he will obey the more fundamental laws of nature as he tells the abstract mother, “to thy law/ My services are bound,” (L: I.ii.2). It is from this standpoint that Edmund launches his malicious campaign to pit his father against his legitimate brother Edgar.
The episode following Edmund’s speech in Act I, Scene ii parallels almost directly the beginning of Act III, Scene iii in Othello. In Edmund’s case, the object of importance is the concocted letter that implicates Edgar in a plot to kill his father, whereas the point of interest in Iago’s case is Cassio’s hasty parting from Desdemona. Both antagonists manipulate their situations in a similar manner. Edmund quickly pockets the letter in plain view of his father, while Iago calls Othello’s attention to Cassio indirectly, “Hah? I like not that,” (O: III.iii.34). When questioned as to the contents of the letter, Edmund simply states, “Nothing, my lord,” (L: I.ii.31) just as Iago responds to Othello’s questioning with the same response, “Nothing, my lord,” (O: III.iii.36). These two men are smart enough to know that by trying to dismiss the respective inquiries they only peak the interest of their intended victim. Edmund and Iago are simply manipulating basic human curiosity while feigning disinterest.
Another parallel in the beginnings of their psychological manipulation lies in the fact that they claim to not want to implicate Cassio and Edgar. When Othello tells Iago to recount what happened between Cassio and Roderigo, Iago poses as the Lieutenant’s friend as he says, “I had rather had this tongue cut from my mouth/ Than it should do offense to Michael Cassio,” (O: II.iii.221). Edmund uses a similar ploy when Gloucester asks about the rebellious letter, “You know the character to be your brother’s?” and he replies, “If the matter were good my lord, I durst say it were his; but in respect of that, I would fain think it were not… I hope his heart is not in the contents,” (L: I.ii.62-68). By acting as reluctant accusers, Edmund and Iago add layers to their masks of honest morality, which they use as effective weapons. Othello sees “Honest Iago” as a loyal servant who is reluctant to denigrate his close associates, and Gloucester sees Edmund as a pious son who wishes to protect his father’s safety but also does not have a vindictive desire to implicate his brother.
Behind a moral facade, Iago and Edmund take advantage of the trust that others place in them. Shakespeare’s characterizations of Othello and Desdemona reveal them as being two honest individuals who share a mutual sense of compassion. Iago’s keen mind perceives the natural morality of the two and exploits it as a weakness. In telling Cassio to plead to Desdemona for Othello’s mercy, Iago is actually giving the Lieutenant good advice, because Desdemona is sympathetic and has influence over her husband, but the villain maliciously manipulates the situation,
“When devils will the blackest sins put on,
They do suggest at first with heavenly shows,
As I do now; for while this honest fool
Plies Desdemona to repair his fortune…
So will I turn her virtue into pitch.” (O: II.iii.351-360)
Shakespeare also sets up Edgar and Gloucester as honorable characters. Gloucester’s only indiscretion is his callous treatment of Edmund when he speaks to Kent in the first scene of the play, but he proves himself later with his steadfast support of Lear. Edmund is just as perceptive as Iago and is all too ready to exploit a human weakness when he sees it. After playing off of Edgar’s trust in his fraternal loyalty, Edmund privately reflects on his real intentions,
“A credulous father and a brother noble,
Whose nature is so far from doing harms
That he suspects none; on whose foolish honesty
My practices ride easy.” (L: I.ii.179-182)
Having already established themselves as innocent bystanders who are merely revealing the truth, Iago and Edmund use their facade of honesty to exploit the trust that others place in them. Both men have an uncanny knack for manipulating others, and they are both able to incite violence in their victims. Aside from ultimately driving Othello to violence, Iago is also able to goad Roderigo into a fight with Cassio. Similarly, Edmund sparks his father’s wrath against Edgar as well as convincing Edgar to draw his sword in a mock fraternal duel in the first scene of Act II. While the malignity of these two men follows the same path through the majority of their respective plays, their very different personalities are revealed once their treachery is unveiled.
As soon as Iago’s scheme is brought to light by Emilia’s testimony, he immediately turns to violence as he first makes an attempt at killing his wife and then commits the murder. Iago shows absolutely no remorse for his malicious actions that resulted in at least five unnecessary deaths as his only response to Othello’s questioning his motives is “Demand me nothing; what you know, you know: From this time forth I never will speak word,” (O: V.ii.302). This callous response in the face of tragedy is what has earned Iago the concept of “motiveless malignity,” but his motives have already been revealed at the beginning of the play. Iago is a hateful man, because he unconsciously questions his own worth after being passed over for promotion and having to serve under a person whom he considers to be inherently inferior. While his reasoning is irrational and immoral, it is not motiveless. Shakespeare has presented in the character of Iago a type of malignant person whose motives lie in what is essentially non-intellectual (Iago has a very sharp wit) ignorance as he is entirely conscienceless and cares for no one but himself. Edmund is another face of malignity that is more difficult to decipher.
After Edgar defeats Edmund in their final duel, Albany questions Goneril as to whether or not she knew of his deceit that is outlined in Edgar’s letter. Goneril gives the Iago answer, “Ask me not what I know,” (L: V.iii.162) but Edmund proves himself to be a more honorable man than Iago as he willingly confesses to the accusations as well as what he has not yet been accused of, “What you have charged me with, that I have done,/ And more, much more, the time will bring it out,” (L: V.iii.164). Even though Edmund’s actions throughout the play have been morally reprehensible, he demonstrates at the end that he does have a conscience and is able to consider others when he is not blinded by his own lust for power. Although his change of heart comes too late, Edmund is so moved by the tragedy that surrounds him that he reneges on his orders to have Lear and Cordelia executed, “I pant for life. Some good I mean to do,/ Despite of mine own nature,” (L: V.iii.244). His mention of his “own nature” leads to the question of Edmund’s motivations. It would be easy to simply say that Edmund was a victim of circumstance, who was plagued by the fact that he was born into a negative social stigma, which bred resentment within him, but that is only part of the answer. The notion of his inevitable bitterness runs contrary to Edmund’s own examination of himself earlier in the play. Edmund harbors resentment for the stigma of his birthright, but he takes responsibility for his own actions and believes that others should as well,
“…when we are sick in fortune- often the surfeits of our own behavior- we make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon, the stars, as if we were villains on necessity, fools by heavenly compulsion…Fut, I should have been that I am, had the maidenl’est star in the firmament twinkled on my bastardizing.” (L: I.ii.119-133)
With Edmund then, Shakespeare has created a character whose actions are as deplorable as Iago’s, but who is capable of remorse and has a sense of responsibility. Iago remains hateful and silent, while Edmund seeks forgiveness. Although motivated by a sense of resentment and bitterness similar to Iago’s, when faced with the tragic consequences of his actions, Edmund sees the error of his ways, albeit too late to save Lear and Cordelia.
Malignance and malicious intent has always been a presence in human interactions, but it can manifest itself in many forms. As many of Shakespeare’s works do, Othello and King Lear explore the human experience and delve deeply into the darker side of human nature. By placing the two antagonists Iago and Edmund side by side, Shakespeare presents what are essentially the two sides of evil. One is almost entirely inhuman and monstrous with no explanation for itself, while the other is equally destructive, but is capable of empathy once confronted with the results of its destructive behavior. Taken on its own, Othello provides a grim picture of human relations, but the final scene of Lear provides a balance to despair. Edmund’s malicious actions inevitably resulted in tragedy, but the fact that he remained alive and demonstrated genuine remorse provides a small ray of hope in King Lear’s bleak kingdom. Evil is ubiquitous and relentless, but it does not always maintain a tone of finality.
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