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Iago is the epitome of a conniving and evil character in a play. He is sly and quick witted, untrustworthy, and sexist (which is a counterproductive characteristic). He shows no sympathy after he blackmails people that trust him, and he spends the entirety of the play planning and executing their demise. He plays a crucial role in the play as the antagonist, and without him, there would be no conflict.
First and foremost, Iago’s most useful and perhaps most important attribute is his ability to think quickly and calmly. Iago’s nerves of steel allow him to think quickly and delicately, without boxing himself in to his own trap. This is key to his scheming because he is frequently put on the spot by Othello, and if Iago fails to respond in a timely and witty fashion, his plan will be either foiled or, worse, revealed to Othello and others. A fine example of Iago’s quick wit is found in Act III, Scene III. Othello asks Iago to provide proof that Desdemona is having an affair, and Iago responds,
“There are a kind of men so loose of soul that in their sleeps will mutter their affairs. One of this kind is Cassio. In sleep I heard him say “Sweet Desdemona, let us be wary, let us hide our loves.” (Act III, Scene III, 413-417)
So far, Iago’s only proof that Desdemona was cheating on Othello is the handkerchief Iago plans on planting in Cassio’s room. Iago had not yet thought of any other ideas he could use against Cassio prior to Othello asking him to prove what was going on, so Iago quickly formulated this story in order to keep Othello angered and jealous until Iago had time to plant the handkerchief. This is a fine example of how Iago thinks on his feet. Another defining example of Iago’s cunning is in Act III when Othello and Iago enter the scene when Cassio is trying to convince Desdemona to speak in his name. Upon Othello’s entrance, Cassio quickly departs, not because he is trying to sneak away undetected, but because he doesn’t want to confront Othello just yet. Othello asks Iago if it was Cassio who he saw leave, and Iago responds,
“Cassio, my lord? No, sure, I cannot think it that he would steal away so guilty-like seeing you coming.” (Act III, Scene III, 38-39)
Iago immediately arouses suspicion of Cassio in Othello. This is the ignition of Iago’s scheme against the other characters.
While quick critical decision making is an attribute that can be admired, although not in Iago, the trait that makes Iago a true rapscallion is his untrustworthiness to those who think they have befriended him. All of the characters in the play start on great terms with Iago. They trust him, especially since he is a military man. The most obvious event that reveals how untrustworthy Iago is is his plot to blackmail all of his so-called friends and colleagues. His intentions sadistic, Iago reveals his plot to extort his first victim, Cassio, in Act II. Cassio takes Desdemona’s hand to greet her, and in an aside, Iago says,
“He takes her by the palm. Ay, well said, whisper! With as little a web as this will I ensnare as great a fly as Cassio. Ay, smile upon her, do, I will gyve thee in thine own courtship. You say true, ‘Tis so, indeed. If such tricks as these strip you out of your lieutenantry, it had been better you had not kissed your three fingers so oft, which now again you are most apt to play the sir in. Very good, well kissed, and excellent courtesy! ’tis so, indeed. Yet again your fingers to your lips? Would they were clyster-pipes for your sake!” (Act II, Scene I, 162-170 )
One might wonder how someone who is supposed to be honorable and trustworthy can really be the root of all evil. There are many examples throughout the play that only support Iago’s untrustworthiness. Iago uses Emilia to take possession of Desdemona’s prized handkerchief, and as if that isn’t enough to send him to hell, Iago also plans to use it as blackmail against Cassio. Throughout the play, characters place their trust in him when they need it most, and they are blind to his treachery. Iago plays Cassio and Othello and they both mistakably name him an honorable man. It is important that Iago is an agile thinker in the play because without it Shakespeare wouldn’t be able to create suspense in the moments in which Iago’s scheme is challenged.
In addition to these attributes, Iago also has a distinct animosity towards women. This is peculiar because Iago’s entire scheme to extort his “friends” seems to be based around his goal to have Desdemona. Iago is sexist, and even displays it to Desdemona,
“Come on, come on. You are pictures out of door, bells in your parlors, wild-cats in your kitchens, saints in your injuries, devils being offended, players in your housewifery, and housewives in your beds.” (Act II, Scene I, 109-111)
Desdemona is offended by Iago’s sexist jokes, accordingly. Iago basically states that women are good for nothing but sex, ironically he believes that even at sex, women aren’t up to par with his standards. Iago states that if a woman is attractive, she will use her looks to get what she wants, if the woman is ugly and smart, then she will be intelligent enough to find a man to sleep with, and that no “fair” woman is “foolish” because all women like this simply seems intelligent to men blinded by the woman’s looks. Again speaking of women, Iago says,
“There’s none so foul and foolish thereunto, but does foul pranks which fair and wise ones do.” (Act II, Scene I, 138-139)
This is confusing because if Iago plans to have Desdemona fall for him, why would he expect her to come for a man that has absolutely no respect for females? Iago’s sexist tendencies are pivotal because they press they fact that marriages didn’t mean as much as they do in modern society. Iago’s wife Emilia has virtually no place in Iago’s heart, yet they sewn by marriage. Iago’s personality is complicated because of his attraction to Desdemona combined with his hatred towards women.
Simply put, Iago is all that is considered unholy. Whatever higher power he believes in will send him straight to whatever hell he believes in upon his death. He is sly and quick witted, untrustworthy, and sexist, and does everything within his power to manipulate the other characters in a play. In a way, Iago is the perfect villain, however odd it may seem to call Iago perfect in any context. Shakespeare caused Iago to be the most fascinating character in the play because of his paradoxical characteristics.
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