The Character of Iago in Shakespeare’s Othello
The antagonist in Shakespeare’s Othello is a demi-devil; unequalled in malice, proficient at con and dexterous at manipulation. He is a master of deceit and a servant of the devil. As his name suggests, he has a large ego. Throughout the play, he troubles others using his vicious techniques. Hell-bent on bringing down Othello, he uses Roderigo as his ally to achieve his clandestine motives. Othello, being unaware of Iago’s intentions loses everything, his confidence, his love, his relationships and his life. How manipulative Iago is gets clear right in the initial acts where he informs Barbantio of Desdemona’s elopement with Othello.
Even now, now, very now, an old black ram
Is tupping your white ewe. Arise, arise!
Awake the snorting citizens with the bell,
Or else the devil will make a grandsire of you.
Arise, I say! (1.1.97-101)
Iago never ceases to deceive others. He cannot help making Othello’s life miserable, whom he hates the most. At points he is quite comical which demonstrates his slyness. He shows the same lack of ethics like the dirty money lender Jew Shylock in the Merchant of Venice.
He is Emilia’s husband, whom he suspects to have slept with Othello.
But for my sport and profit. 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. (1.3.429-433)
Of all the Shakespeare’s villains, Iago can be considered to be the most cunning and venomous. The Moor has promoted Cassio to the position of Lieutenant which Iago had been targeting. He considers the position to be rightfully his. The result is that Iago now feels wronged and hates Othello more than ever. He will do anything to avenge himself. His evil character is demonstrated in his soliloquies and in his dialogues with his allies. He manipulates his allies cunningly to fulfill his selfish and cruel intentions.
It sometimes appears that he hates the Moor for being a black and sometimes for he cannot bear a negro being the general and his senior. It also sometimes appears that he does it out of pure evil and because he finds it fun. He himself is unsure about it, but that does not reduce his hatred for Othello. He swears that his emotions are clear and he does not hide his feelings, trying to prove his honesty before the others. As he himself claims, ‘he can wear his heart upon his sleeve’. Iago is clever enough to take others into trust easily. However, he is a demi-devil, a back stabber. The entire drama is full of his soliloquies where he talks to himself giving us a peep into his conscience and his heinous plan. He knows others’ weaknesses and deceitfully tricks and manipulates them. Not any other of the Shakespeare’s villains is as sadistic and villainous as Iago.
He is deceitful but even shrewd at planning. He is cunning enough to make absolutely unfailing plots. Iago is far deadlier and venomous than a cobra who is not at all ashamed of what he does. It is visible that how helpless he leaves Othello and his other victims. He plants Desdemona’s handkerchief in Cassio’s possession to prove her infidelity. He even kills his own wife Emilia for she is loyal to Desdemona and uncovers Iago’s mischief before Othello. However, by the time his truth has been uncovered, Iago has made Othello kill Desdemona. Othello cannot do anything except repent. By the time, Emilia told him the truth, it has been too late. Betrayal is Iago’s weapon that he uses skillfully against his victims.
Even a powerful general like Othello slowly falls prey to his evil plot. He has a reason to hate anyone but the most important characteristic of Iago is his self-love. The cruel intentions of Iago and his self love are dangerous for the others. Only Cassio luckily survives his machinations. Iago always hits where people’s vulnerabilities lie, so the victim is unable to survive the blow. Othello and Desdemona are targeted by him mercilessly. Particularly, he takes interest and pride in harassing the innocent. However, even if Othello is innocent in his own right, not so for Iago whom he has unknowingly hurt badly. Desdemona’s death is also the result of Iago’s vicious planning. Actually, it is not Othello or Cassio but Iago who has killed Desdemona and Roderigo.
The same is the case with Emilia who loves her husband but starts despising him once she gets to know of his villainy. Her assessment of Iago changes once she gets to know of his plan. Iago cannot afford to lose his secret and as a result Emilia has to court death. She dies at Iago’s hands and the reason is her innocence. Iago knows of the courage and the strengths of Othello, but also his weaknesses. He raised the most despised fear inside Othello and manages to manipulate his fear and suspicion to make him kill his own wife. Othello does not get to realize it until he has killed Desdemona.
The scary manipulative game started by Iago comes to an end only after everything is over. Throughout the play he manages to wear the masquerade of an ethical and true man. At every stage he is able to make Othello believe his story with skill, thus making him doubt Desdemona’s and Cassio’s loyalty. He plants Desdemona’s Handkerchief in the possession of Cassio to make the suspicion in Othello’s heart stronger. He cannot spare even his wife, neither his ally Roderigo and all of them are killed except Cassio. His technique is so powerful that no one can escape or survive.
Still, it is the power of Shakespeare’s prose that makes Iago a unique and interesting character. He is caught at the end because despite being skillful, he has left clues behind. At last his truth is found out and he has to meet his victims in hell. However, that does not justify the deaths of Desdemona, Othello and Emilia. Iago is the devil himself because a human heart cannot hold as much hatred and deceit.