Shakespeare’s Othello is a tale of misplaced jealousy, deception, and tragedy. Iago, the main antagonist of the play, masterfully weaves a plan to bring down Othello, a general in the Venetian army and target of his manipulative schemes, by using his good reputation to mask his deceit and keep him close enough to Othello to maintain his trust until the very end. However, his arrogance and cowardice become his undoing, as even though he fulfills his goal to bring down Othello, he is not able to escape justice and is caught at the end of the play. Shakespeare uses other character’s description of Iago, his improvised actions, and dialogue to build Iago as reputable and clever yet arrogant and cowardly.
Iago’s motivation to destroy Othello is rooted in his ambition, jealousy, and sadism. In the first scene of the play, Iago reveals to Roderigo that Othello has promoted Cassio to lieutenant over him, even though Iago has more field experience, wounding Iago’s self-worth as he states, “I know my price; I am worth no worse a place” (I.i.11). This is enough for Iago to want to manipulate Cassio out of his position and to hate Othello for this insult. To add to this injury, Iago also suspects Othello has had an affair with his wife, Emilia, “And it is thought abroad that ‘twixt my sheets/ H’as done my office” (I.iii.365-366). Even though Iago has never confirmed it, he treats it as true and his malicious plans for revenge on Othello extend into destroying his new marriage to Desdemona, “nothing can or shall content my soul/ Till I am evened with him, wife for wife;” (II.i.271-272). However, what really pushes Iago to torture Othello to the length that he does, is the pleasure he takes in controlling and torturing people. This is apparent when he tells Roderigo, “If thou canst cuckold him, thou dost thyself a pleasure, me a sport” (I.iii.348-349), he enjoys bringing pain to others so much he considers it a game. His bruised ego and jealousy for his wife caused Iago’s hatred for Othello and is fueled by his sadistic streak.
To fulfill his destruction of Othello, Iago relies on his strengths in intelligence, eloquence, and in being a reputable man. Although Iago is a villain through and through, his villainy succeeds in large part due to his intelligence as he is quick to identify one’s weaknesses and skillfully use it against him. With Cassio, he appeals to his low tolerance of liquor to get him to drink and become his own undoing. Once Cassio falls from Othello’s good graces, Iago turns him into a pawn, using his shame as the seed to plant the web of adulterous fantasies he builds in Othello’s mind, “That he [Cassio] would steal away so guilty-like/ Seeing your coming” (III.iii. 38-39). Then he promptly uses Othello’s insecurities as an outsider and an old man to make him doubt Desdemona’s faithful and love for him, pointing out the oddity that she rejected many proposals “Of her own clime, complexion, and degree,/ Whereto we see in all things nature tends—” (III.iii.230-231). With all his lies, Iago knows he needs something to hide his true intentions, so he leverages his reputation and eloquence. Iago has a reputation for being honest, as his name is often preceded with “honest” by Othello and Cassio. Whether Iago is a morally good guy corrupted by jealousy, or just false from the beginning, his reputation puts him in a position of trust with his enemies, allowing his lies to be readily accepted as truthful. Iago’s way with words also allows him to remain in the favor of others. When Othello asks who started the brawl in act two Iago says, “I had rather have this tongue cut from my mouth/ Than it should do offense to Michael Cassio” (II.iii.198-199), giving away Cassio as the initiator while maintaining the mask of loyal friend. His eloquence allows Iago to lie and manipulate smoothly under a near perfect guise of friendship. When paired with his intelligence and reputation, there is almost nothing to ruin his plans for revenge.
For all his strengths, ultimately Iago’s downfall is caused by his jealousy, cowardice, and arrogance. If not for his jealousy of Cassio and for his wife Emilia, Iago may never have begun his malicious schemes. Perhaps that is why he chooses to inspire jealousy in Othello, to mask his own weakness and because he is so familiar with it, “O, beware, my lord, of jealousy!/It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock/The meat it feeds on” (III.iii. 165-167). Furthermore, Iago’s plans start to unravel as in his cowardice, he enlists Roderigo to kill Cassio for him. When Roderigo fails, he is forced to kill Cassio himself, and then Roderigo as well, to escape any suspicion of his involvement. Due to this, Iago’s plans start to slip from his control as he must make quick, rash decisions to maintain the mask of his good reputation, yet another sign of his cowardice, as he is fearful to be himself around others. Even in the end when Iago is finally caught, he chooses the cowards way out and hides himself with silence, “Demand me nothing. What you know, you know./ From this time forth I never will speak word” (V.ii.302-303). However, the biggest weakness in Iago is his arrogance which leads him to underestimate his wife who ultimately reveals him as the villain. He thinks so lowly of her that even when she begins to suspect someone is orchestrating Othello’s jealousy, he simply dismisses her, “You are a fool. Go to” (IV.ii.148), not expecting her to connect all the dots and expose him. When he realizes her threat too late, Iago is so surprised that he is at a loss for words to save himself from suspicion and he kills her, confirming his guilt. Ultimately, when Iago’s control starts to slip, so does his mask of honesty and in his panic, Iago forgets his strengths and reveals his weaknesses.
Iago is considered by many to be the greatest villain of all time. This is not without merit as throughout most of the play he seemingly has complete control over others and almost manages to escape all suspicion. He expertly plays his intelligence, eloquence, and good reputation to their fullest potential to spin a near perfect web to trap his enemies while going unsuspected. The sheer pleasure he takes in torturing others gives him a degree of sinister above the average evil human being, however his character is grounded in the jealousy and ambition motivating him and the arrogance that ruins him. The genius and skill of his villainy and his true character are all revealed through his dialogue, his description, and his actions.
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