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Shakespeare’s Othello is a story of betrayal, jealousy, and revenge. The antagonist in the play, Iago, is considered to be one of Shakespeare’s most evil characters. Such a title is given to this character by many critics who claim that Iago lacks a clear, justified motive for his actions. Without a solid motive, the only thing to trigger an act of evil would be the essence of evil embedded within the character himself. Thus, many see Iago’s character as demonic rather than human. However, Iago’s actions are products of clear motives. As the play starts, Iago introduces himself as a character who is prone to jealousy. Iago does not represent demonic evil, but rather a man who is driven to commit harmful actions as a result of being pushed beyond his limits.
The source of Iago’s motivation can be seen from the very beginning of the play. “Iago provides the audience with a number of clues to the motives for his actions. First he feels a certain rancor at not being chosen as Othello’s lieutenant” (Dominic 337). He is expecting to be promoted to lieutenant by Othello, however Cassio becomes lieutenant. “One Michael Cassio, a Florentine (A fellow almost damned in a fair wife) That never set a squadron in the field,… He, in good time, must his lieutenant be, And I- God bless the mark!- his Moorship’s ancient” (Shakespeare 3,4). Iago is thoroughly upset with Othello’s decision to promote Cassio instead of him, especially after years of loyal service. He also comments on Cassio’s inexperience with leadership on the battlefield. Iago essentially feels betrayed by Othello with Cassio’s promotion. “The lack of promotion has confronted him with a judgment of inadequacy in his profession” (Williams 97). In this simple action, Othello has made Iago feel that his career in military service and the warfare he has been put through have been in vain, since he cannot move up in ranking and is being replaced by a naive soldier. This provides Iago with a reasonable excuse to hold a grudge against Othello, based on betrayal. He is also given reason to become hostile toward Cassio, based on his jealousy.
The sense of betrayal that Iago feels toward Othello is reinforced when he suspects that his wife is having an affair with Othello. “I hate the Moor, And it is thought abroad that ‘twixt my sheets He has done my office. I know not if’t be true, But I for mere suspicion in that kind Will do as if for surety” (Shakespeare 28). In this statement he uses the word “hate” toward Othello. Clearly, the relationship between these two former friends has decayed as a result of Othello’s choice not to promote Iago. But in this statement, Iago addresses a new topic. He begins to believe his wife has slept with Othello, even though he does not have any physical evidence. However, the suspicion alone is enough to convince him. His trust for Othello had been greatly reduced after feeling betrayed, so he feels that his suspicion must be justified and have merit. “[Iago] suspects that Othello has engaged in adultery with his wife, Emilia… Apparently, Iago is so distressed by the thought of Emilia sleeping with Othello that he has accused Emilia of the act” (Dominic 337). His suspicion consumes him to the point where he begins to perceive his assumptions as unquestionable reality. He begins to accuse his wife of this act of adultery. With this, his lack of trust for Othello is spreading like a disease as he branches out his distrust to his own wife. This suspicion ends up becoming a main factor in Iago’s decision to take revenge, and adds a new victim to his list.
After these two events in the story, Iago begins to implement his well-developed and successful manipulative abilities. Iago proves to have a rather impressive talent in his deceptive ability. Iago shows that he is a man of fierce intelligence at this point in the story with his brilliant planning and deception. “He is a master manipulator and gets the other characters in the play to do just what he wants. He manipulates through a keen understanding he seems to have of what motivates them” (Dominic 336). His tactic is to exploit the wants or goals of the other characters in order to achieve his own wants. For example, he uses Roderigo and eventually ends up killing him solely to maximize his own personal benefit. Roderigo’s goal throughout the play is to win the heart of Desdemona. Iago, well aware of this, uses Roderigo to get back at Othello. “He begins Othello’s destruction by awakening Brabanito. Or, rather, he directs someone else to awaken Brabanito: he gets someone else to do his dirty work” (Williams 99). Iago makes Roderigo jealous of Othello’s relationship with Desdemona and provides Roderigo with a motive to assist him in his attempts to create chaos in Othello’s life. In this scene, he wakes Desdemona’s father and angers him with a story of her running off with Othello. “Iago… is not simply a man of action, he is an artist. His action is plot, the intricate plot of a drama, and in the conception and execution of it he experiences the tension and the joy of artistic creation (Bradley 440)”. This method of manipulation proves to be very effective up until the ending of the play. Iago is so careful in his scheming that it is considered an art. It provides him with a great sense of accomplishment, even though his actions are solely destructive. Such brilliance and success in his plotting makes him seem to be a perfect, deceptive evil, or the Father of Lies himself.
However, it is not correct give Iago demonic status as many critics do. Iago is associated with demons by Othello at the end of the story, however, even Othello is well aware that Iago is nothing more than human. “I look down towards his feet; but that’s a fable. If that thou be’st a devil, I cannot kill thee” (Shakespeare 124). This is said right before Othello stabs Iago. Othello is attempting to show that Iago’s demonic behavior does not mean he is in fact an immortal demon. “He is looking to see if Iago has cloven feet like the devil Othello now thinks him to be” (Dominic 337). Othello glances at Iago’s feet and confirms that Iago does indeed have human feet, and therefore must be human. “Will you, I pray, demand that demi-devil Why he hath thus ensnared my soul and body?” (Shakespeare 125) Here, Othello accuses Iago of being only half a devil. One half is the physical person of Iago. The other half is his behavior, which seems to resemble evil or demonic behavior. However, the fact remains that Iago is human and consciously made the decision to cause harm to these characters on his own free will.
Iago’s character makes a clear and dramatic transformation from stable to unstable as the play progresses. At the beginning of the play “There is no hint of any psychological unbalance in his character” (Williams 96). The character starts out mentally sound. This eliminates all questions concerning whether or not this character is normal. Any initial hint of abnormal behavior would be evidence to support the argument that Iago’s character is demonic, however he does not show any predisposition toward the evil behavior he exhibits later on in the play. “But at the beginning of the play we see a man of insatiable furry” (Williams 96). The fury the critic refers to is a result of the rapid changes and events Iago is presented with at the very start of the play. He becomes incredibly angry with the jealousy of Cassio’s promotion and Othello’s betrayal. The emotions he feels at this point are only the beginning stages of his rage. These emotions build upon each other over time into more intense feelings of anger and paranoia. Eventually, Iago becomes completely consumed by his fear and hate and acts on it the best way he can think to act. By the end of the play, this leads him to kill off those close to him without feeling the slightest guilt.
Iago was well set up to be so successful in his actions long before he began his scheming. Iago is an intellectually gifted man. He obviously possesses a strategic mentality, since he is a commanding officer in the military. He is able to use this gift for both good and evil. He first uses this talent to successfully fight for his country and to eventually get himself promoted to a commanding position. However, this same strategic way of thinking is put to use when he begins to plot his revenge against Othello. Another advantage lies in his personality. Iago comes across as a very trustworthy and honest character. Throughout the play it is reiterated that he has a reputation of being truthful. “It appears that he is and has been always an entirely reliable and trustworthy person… He was blunt and forthright, but he was truthful– always a direct, outspoken, but honest companion” (Williams 97). He is able to take advantage of his own reputation and use it as a tool against his victims. His reputation plays just as an important part in his successful manipulation as does his natural talent to scheme. Without being perceived as a trustworthy person, none of his lies, which account for the bulk of his plot, would have been bought by his victims and his efforts for revenge would be a failure.
Iago only appears to have a demonic character through his extremely successful and well-plotted manipulative actions, when really he represents the evil ability of man when assisted by intelligence, reputation, and talent. Iago is the perfect illustration of the fact that “evil is compatible, and even appears to ally itself easily, with exceptional powers of will and intellect” (Bradley 440). Iago’s evil intentions were of his own will and scheming, but were made possible with his unequaled ability to deceive. His motivation spurs from jealousy and betrayal, which he is not capable of tolerating well. He allows these emotions to eat away at him rather than seeking out a rational solution to his conflict. He becomes paranoid as a result of the betrayal and chooses to believe that his wife is guilty of committing adultery with Othello. All of this motivates Iago to start scheming, which eventually leads to the death of several of the plays main characters. His scheming appears to be of demonic power because it is so intricate, intelligent, and successful, however, Iago rather possesses a unique skill in his manipulative ability and takes pride and joy in his efforts to exploit those around him. Iago’s evil intent was amplified and made so devastating as a result of his own paranoia, exaggerated emotional stress, impressive talent to manipulate, and seemingly trustworthy personality rather than by a demonic presence.
Works Citedâ€¨Shakespeare, William. Othello. New York, NY. Bantam Books. Copyright 1988.â€¨Bradley, A.C. “Iago.” Shakespeare for Students. Gale Research Inc., copyright 1972. pp. 436-442.â€¨Dominic, Catherine C. “The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice.” Shakespeare Characters for Students. Gale Group, 1997. pp. 336-337.â€¨Williams, George W. “Iago the Poisoner.” Readings on Othello. Greenhaven Press, 2000. pp. 96-101.
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