Character of Iago in Othello by William Shakespeare
The character of Iago is the ultimate stroke of Shakespeare’s dramatic genius. Shakespeare has drawn the portrait of a consummate villain the character of Iago. Iago is the final shape that the long line of Elizabethan stage villains assumed starting from Lorenzo in The Spanish Tragedy and through Bosola of Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi and Claudius in Hamlet. The concept of the villain attained perfection in the character of Iago. He is a perfect Machiavellian, but he is much more than that. Like Hamlet, he is an enigma, a mystery that cannot be solved easily. His mind is as fathomless as his purpose seems dark and without motive.
In Iago, as in Hamlet, Shakespeare created a character which always defies all attempts to analyze it. After Othello has killed Desdemona and himself the Venetian authority seizes Iago and demands an explanation of his villainous acts. He replies, “Demand me nothing” and thus he shuts the door to his mind firmly and finally.
The fascinating things in the character of Iago are his outward commonness and his undetected inward villainy. Everyone refers to him as honest Iago. This means that Iago is a consummate artist who has successfully deluded all the observers of his real nature. Coleridge thinks that Iago’s actions spring from a “motionless malignity.” His evil acts are the result of his satanic nature, he gets devilish pleasure by destroying other people’s happiness. But A.C Bradley does not agree with Coleridge because Iago is not just a symbolic incarnation of evil. Iago is a flesh and blood human being, although his action moves on a plane that makes him an elusive character, a kind of psychological impossibility.
Iago’s evil machinations bring forth the tragic action; it is Iago who plants the seeds of jealousy in the mind of Othello; it is he who molds the ever-growing anger and passion of Othello and channelizes it in such a way that the action inexorably moves towards the tragic denouement. Beside him, even Othello seems to be a lackluster character. Othello plays as a puppet in the hands of Iago. Othello is a simple character but Iago is infinitely complex. In a sense, Iago is a dramatist within the drama. The tragic conflict of “To believe or not to believe” that consumes the heart of Othello and roasts him in the sulfurous fire of jealousy is entirely Iago’s creation. He is the dramatist, chief actor as well as the choreographer of this devilish drama. But along with his mental dexterity, Iago also has a weak point or hamartia. He has the human stupidity to forget the fact that the evil plan will destroy not only Othello but also himself. This is the stupidity which brings his nemesis upon him. The tragedian gets caught in the tragedy of his own making. Iago feels infallible and considers honest man to be foolish. This overconfidence in his own power undermines his cause. He thought that he had foreseen everything, but it never occurred to him that his wife might betray him. Iago did not understand the power of love and affection, out of love for the dead Desdemona, Emilia exposes the villainy of her husband to others. In this manner, Iago proves to be a tragic character himself, who gets caught in the web of fate and is destroyed.
The character of Iago is revealed in the very first scene of the play when he rouses rabble in order to vindicate his anger against Othello. He reveals to Roderigo his double nature and his evil purpose;
“It is as sure as you are Roderigo,
Who are either moor or I would not be Iago;
In following him, I follow but myself;
Heaven is my judge, not I for love and duty,
But seeming so, for my peculiar end.”
A few lines later Iago says,
“I am not what I am.”
He is a master dissembler, taking pride in his intellectual capacity to deceive others. But we find Iago in his full power in the so-called temptation scene. It is quite interesting to follow the tortuous path through which Iago leads Othello from calm self-confidence about love into a tempestuous mood of jealousy. Iago uses the weapons in his armory, insinuation, unfinished sentences, sly suggestion, and straight-forward lies to convince Othello about the possibilities of Desdemona’s being unfaithful to him. The temptation scene begins with Othello’s utterance as Desdemona going out in Act-III, scene-III.
“Excellent wretch! Perdition catch my soul
But I love thee; And when I love thee not,
Chaos comes again.”
These lines are pregnant with irony and perdition in the character of Iago. The temper of Iago moves very carefully inches by inches starting with the fact that he has just gathered from Othello that Cassio had been in the lovers’ confidence during their courtship. Iago throws out vague hints at Cassio’s probable affair with Desdemona. At one point, when Othello’s suspicion is still in embryo, Iago arranges a brawl in which Cassio is implicated and natural prosperity towards kindness pleads the care of Cassio. Iago makes use of them to sharpen his final weapon. Iago reminds Othello about Desdemona, “She did deceive her father-marrying you.”
The character of Iago also refers to the usual looseness of the Venetian women about whom Othello does not have much knowledge. Iago fashions the growing jealousy in Othello until Othello’s face is “eaten up with passion.” When Iago sees Othello in this turbulent mood; the devilish villain cries out in trumpet pointing at his victim
“Look where he comes!
Not poppy, nor mandragora
Nor all the drowsy syrups of the world,
Shall ever medicine thee to that sweet sleep
Which thou owedest yesterday.”
Malignity and villainous behavior in the character of Iago seem apparently to be motiveless although he, in his soliloquy comes up with one after another, the explanation for his behavior. He talks about Othello’s illicit relationship with Emilia, about his own lust for Desdemona, even Cassio’s supposed relationship with Emilia. But all these are false rationalizations having no evidence. A whole loss of psychological explanation can be supplied in the manner in which Iago acts. Still, he will remain unfathomable as a character.