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Though scholars may have said it before, it is important to emphasize that the beauty of Shakespeare’s writing lies in his characters’ pretenses. This becomes evident in Shakespeare’s Othello; specifically, within the dialogue of the play’s antagonist, Iago. Othello is a tragedy that revolves around Iago’s jealousy towards Othello. In its beginning, their relationship seems wholesome yet constructive, like a successful president and their vice president. After being pushed over the edge — when Iago isn’t promoted to lieutenant and a rumor speculates that Othello has slept with Iago’s wife — Iago devotes his life to ruining Othello’s. Iago uses his adept speaking skills and clever intuition in order to manipulate every character in the play; in doing so, he is able to subtly command whomever he’d like. The result is a grand scheme that decimates a whole society. As relationships are torn apart and lives are lost, Iago’s confidence in his abilities strengthens. After Iago’s scheme is complete, Othello asks him why he has “damned his soul”. Iago responds astutely: with silence. But, after creating an abundance of noise, he is finally silent not because he is comfortable with his plan being complete, rather because he wants a final act of superiority. By leaving his plan unresolved, he doesn’t allow the people of this society to rest, as his actions will haunt them indefinitely. Accordingly, Iago shifts his strategy from the use of speech to the use of silence in order to displease those who want his answers, leaving them unable to rest.
From the beginning, Iago specializes in using persuasive speech: nobody seems to need visual or physical proof when he assures them of something. One manifestation of this is his ability to befriend both parties of a rivalry. By playing them against each other, he is able to trick both people and maneuver himself into a situation where he always wins. This becomes evident in the first two scenes in the play. The play begins with a dialogue between Iago and Roderigo, the second antagonist of the play. Iago assures that he hates Othello, saying to Roderigo, “Despise me/If I do not. Three great ones of the city,/In personal suit to make me his lieutenant,/Off-capped to him, and by the faith of man/I know my price, I am worth no worse a place”. Iago tells Roderigo that three great men of the city are asking Othello to become lieutenant, but Iago thinks that he deserves the position. The real essence of the quote is in the beginning, “Despise me, if I do not”, which translates to hate me if I don’t hate him. By clearly stating that he hates the man who he should love the most, Iago is showing the reader that he is willing to play for both teams. Later, Iago further slanders Othello by telling Brabantio, Desdemona’s father, that Othello has slept with his daughter, saying, “I am one, sir, that comes to tell you your daughter and the Moor are now making the beast with two backs”. By doing so, Iago is putting Othello under scrutiny, and planting the seed of Brabantio’s madness over his daughter’s relationship with a “moor”. To Brabantio and Roderigo, this small act further clarifies Iago’s hatred towards Othello and both now feel as though Iago is on their side. This is shown to be untrue at the beginning of the second scene. The scene starts with Iago meeting up with Othello to inform him that Brabantio is coming for him. He then tells Othello that he was about to kill Brabantio due to him “speaking such scurvy and provoking term/Against your honor”. Othello then assures Iago that he made a good decision, “’Tis better as it is”. Iago is able to persuade Othello that he is on his side by completely lying to him, acting as if he wasn’t the one that tipped Brabantio off. This puts Iago in a prime position: both parties, Othello and Brabantio, think that he is on their side. This shows just how adept Iago is with his words. He continues to use this strategy to implement his plan and further his own agenda. Later, in the first scene of the second act, he plants the first seeds of doubt into Othello’s mind, saying, “The lieutenant tonight watches on the court of the guard. First, I must tell thee this: Desdemona is directly in love with him.” Iago starts his plan by promising Othello that his new wife, Desdemona, is in love with one of his best friends, Cassio. Othello falls prey to this argument because Iago promises on his love for Othello (which later becomes ironic due to his desire to remove all of Othello’s love). Later, Iago uses speech to manipulate Cassio into getting drunk, an act that would later result in Cassio getting himself into a lot of trouble. He says to Cassio, “If I can fasten but one cup upon him, / With that which he hath drunk tonight already, / He’ll be as full of quarrel and offense / As my young mistress’ dog.”Essentially, he wants Cassio to act so that Desdemona will try to intervene on his behalf, making Othello suspicious of Cassio and Desdemona’s relationship. This is yet another instance where Iago’s verbal skills put him in the driver’s seat. He is able to rely on making people believe whatever he wants. The acts that follow magnify Iago’s plan and show the reader just how well Iago can dodge, manipulate and create chaos using his words.
This comes to a climax after the plan falls apart: Desdemona and Emilia have been killed. In agony, Othello asks Iago why he has done it, questioning, “I do believe it, and I ask your pardon./Will you, I pray, demand that demi-devil/Why he hath thus ensnared my soul and body?”. Here, by saying “Why he hath thus ensnared my soul and body?”, Othello gives Iago a chance to take responsibility for everything that he’s done. Instead of proudly boasting that he’s ruined Othello’s life, he takes a more measured approach and stays silent. To elucidate his silence, Iago says, “Demand me nothing. What you know, you know / From this time forth I never will speak word”. In this quote, Iago tells Othello that he will no longer speak of his act. By using the phrase, “What you know, you know”, Iago is keeping Othello, and all of Cyprus, unaware of the reasoning behind his scheme. By doing so, he is ultimately winning, perpetuating a sense of hopelessness that will haunt all of these characters indefinitely.
Regarding Iago, his words have always symbolized power. He knows that his words made him what he is, a villain. By choosing not to say anything, he is, therefore, choosing to move away from manipulation to cruelty. Therefore, his words, or rather his silence, retain power. Up until this point, the audience has known exactly what Iago planned on doing, just not how it was going to play out. As the reader, we are therefore left with the question as to ‘why’ Iago would do this. We are given an escape route out of the twisted world that Iago has created and once again join together as helpless members of society, left to wonder how someone could ever so cruel. Shakespeare is trying to show that although one man’s cruelty does not have to last forever, there is no on/off switch, so to speak. Even though Iago regrets all that he has done, the fact that he has done it cannot simply disappear. The Venetian society will forever wonder why Iago chose to destroy the people who trusted him – for it is clear that something far deeper than jealousy is propelling his anger. Shakespeare is showing that Iago is still considered a threat against society because his true motives were never really explained. Therefore you are forced to ask yourself: is Iago evil?
Iago kills Roderigo as soon as he becomes an inconvenience, and he does stab his own wife to death when he’s given the chance, so he’s certainly not a good person. He is clearly responsible for the death of Desdemona, which he both arranges and actively encourages. Probably what strikes people as the most evil thing about Iago is that he’s not only witty but also the cause of wit in other men. Likewise, Iago is not only wicked, but he’s also the cause of wickedness in other men who are not themselves wicked – he convinces Roderigo to murder Cassio, and he incites Othello to murder innocence personified, Desdemona. In that way, he’s like the literary figure of Satan, who tempts the good to do evil things. Part of what makes him challenging to understand is the fact that he can simultaneously be quite charming and appealing, a characteristic of a narcissist. Therefore, empathy felt towards him is entirely appropriate, and essential to any successful staging of the play. An audience should enjoy the ride Iago takes them on to some degree, questionable though it may be. It is with the murders of Roderigo and most importantly, Emilia, that we as an audience should understand the truer and darker natures of Iago and our own complicity in following him through the story to its horrific end.
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