Iago’s Metadrama: Villain, Director, Playwright

July 16, 2021 by Essay Writer

In William Shakespeare’s Othello, the deceptive Iago weaves an intricate web of lies with which he enmeshes Othello alongside his many other victims. His manipulation of other characters, machinations that serve as the driving force behind the plot, and sly staging of various scenes in the play not only establish him as the play’s beguiling villain, but also reveal that he performs the roles of the play’s surrogate playwright, director, and prompter. Whereas Shakespeare’s use of theatrical language highlights Iago’s multiple theatrical roles and influence in the play, the resulting dramatic self-reference provides him with an avenue by which he can step outside the play’s realm and deceive the audience just as he dupes Othello, Cassio, and himself; thus, Iago reaffirms himself as the play’s villain. At the same time, it undermines the appearance of power that Iago possesses because it reinforces that Iago is merely another fictional character in the play that lacks the volition to be able to control his future just like all the other characters. A character who rebels against authority, Iago refuses to subjugate himself to another and tries, even when all hope is lost, to reassert his power through silence.

Frequently in the play, Iago employs the language characteristic of a playwright as he plots out what will happen next in the play’s action of events. As he stands alone in front of the Cyprian castle, Iago soliloquizes: “Now, ‘mongst this flock of drunkards / Am I to put our Cassio in some action / That may offend the isle” (II.iii.55-57). Since “action” can refer to an exciting flurry of events, Iago’s statement can mean that he will set Cassio up so that a lively, action-packed scene will ensue; however, “action” can also refer to the unfolding events of a drama. That Iago specifically states that he will “put… Cassio in some action,” coupled with his uncanny knowledge that he is a character in a play and the fact that only the playwright has the privilege of contriving the plot and putting characters in it, suggests that he is a surrogate playwright. Moreover, Iago scripts out future scenes throughout the play and is able to foretell future events and to predict the reactions of the other characters with an uncanny accuracy and confidence. For example, Iago plans what will happen when he will question Cassio about Bianca: “As he [Cassio] shall smile, Othello shall go mad, / And his unbookish jealousy must conster / Poor Cassio’s smiles, gestures, and light behaviors / Quite in the wrong” (IV.i.100-103). “Shall” expresses inevitability and thereby conveys Iago’s confidence in his prediction, making it unlikely that this is merely a conjecture by one of the characters in the play of how the plot will unfold. His ability to predict future events and the assurance with which he makes these predictions suggest that he is a surrogate writer of the play, for only the playwright has the knowledge of what will happen in the future. Since one can interpret “shall” as a directive as well, it may be somewhat strange that Iago uses the word while he speaks to himself, but with this word, Iago plots out his own actions which will determine the course of future events. His predictions have such accuracy that one can use them as a script of what will happen in the scenes that will follow. Thus, his language, ability to foretell events confidently, and machinations that drive the plot forward all function to depict Iago as a surrogate playwright.

Even as he directs the actions of the other characters, the other characters also direct him, thus placing him in a position where he plays both the part of an actor and director at the same time. When Desdemona and Cassio talk with each other aboard the ship on the way to Cyprus, Iago watches them and remarks: “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!” (II.i.173-176). In the play that he has planned out in his mind, Iago has cast Cassio – although Cassio doesn’t know it – as Desdemona’s courtier and secret lover with whom she is having an affair. Praising and criticizing Cassio’s actions as if he were an actor in his play, Iago carefully observes the scene and comments as a director supervising rehearsals would. However, it is Cassio’s initial action of taking Desdemona by the palm that initiates Iago’s commentary; thus, in a way, Cassio ironically directs Iago’s actions even as Iago directs his. Therefore, as he casts people in parts of his play and supervises rehearsals, Iago simultaneously plays both the part of the director and actor.

Helping other actors with their roles, Iago also acts as a surrogate prompter. When Barbantio orders the attendants to seize Othello and to get him under their control through force if necessary, Othello remarks: “Were it my cue to fight, I should have known it / Without a prompter,” thereby informing Barbantio that he will not resist since it is not the time for him to fight in the play (I.ii.83-84). It is significant that he specifies that he does not need a cue to fight in particular, for this shows that he knows his role as a military general; in fact, he is so comfortable with it that he is confident that he does not need the assistance of a prompter to play the part flawlessly. The use of theatre language makes the drama briefly self-referential to call attention to the fact that every play has a prompter, helping one to recognize that Iago has slipped into this role, which he does early on. In contrast to the confidence he had in his acting ability as a military general, Othello finds himself at a loss for what action to take next after he finds himself in the role of the envious husband. After forcing Othello into the part of the jealous, suspicious husband by driving him to question Desdemona’s fidelity, Iago takes on the duty of a surrogate prompter now that Othello needs assistance with his part, for only an actor who needs help would need the assistance of a prompter. For instance, when Othello still questions Desdemona’s faithfulness, Iago urges him to “Look to your wife; observe her well with Cassio; / Wear your eyes thus, not jealous nor secure” (III.iii.197-198). With his cues to “look” and “observe,” Iago not only advises the audience, but he also instructs Othello to assume the role of the audience, even modeling how he should act. By introducing doubt in Othello’s mind and then suggesting and demonstrating how he should act, Iago incites Othello to act as a jealous husband would just as a prompter would help an actor to learn his lines and perform his part effectively. Iago takes on this role as surrogate prompter to get himself into a position whereby he can manipulate the actions and minds of others, leading them to their downfall through deception under the guise of friendship and concern.

Shakespeare uses theatrical language not only to highlight Iago’s multiple theatrical roles, but also to thereby convey the helplessness of the characters that Iago manipulates. In act I, scene 1, Iago says to Roderigo, “I am not what I am” (64). This phrase resounds strongly of God’s description of himself to Moses as “I AM WHO I AM” in Exodus 3:13 of The Bible, except that Iago substitutes “what” in the place of “who.” Interestingly, Iago’s statement may seem awkward since “who” – not “what” – is the proper pronoun one should use to describe a person; however, this pronoun substitution may be deliberate, for with this modification, Iago expresses that he is not merely a character and asserts that he exists beyond the play. The way in which Iago phrases this self-description portrays him as a sort of anti-God who has the opposite effect that a dues ex machina does. Just as God controls the world, Iago similarly controls the events and characters of the play. Iago’s constant promptings of how the characters should act, his scripting and staging of scenes yet to come, and comments about the actions of the other characters foster a weird sense that the other characters in the play are fictional characters in Iago’s play. This effect portrays the actors’ loss of personal willpower and inability to control what will happen to them during the course of the play, for Iago’s psychological and physical manipulation of them controls their actions. Moreover, that Iago depicts himself as godlike further emphasizes their vulnerability to his whims. Ludovico’s description of Othello in the last scene of Act V demonstrates the general’s helplessness when he states: “O thou Othello that was once so good, / Fall’n in the practice of a damned slave, / What shall be said to thee?” (291-293). That Ludovico describes Iago as having fallen into a performance of a slave implies that Othello assumed that role involuntarily and lacked the agency to be able to control the events around himself. Furthermore, that Roderigo describes Othello as a slave brings into question who the master is; in this case, it is Iago. This relationship between master and slave also raises an interesting parallel relationship between an actor and director, for both actor and slave are similarly subservient to a dominating director or master. Thus, because the language of the theatre shows how Iago controls the production of the play, it depicts the passivity and helplessness of the characters since Iago controls their thoughts, action, and fate.

While his machinations and actions make it easy for the audience to mark him the villain of the play, Iago uses theatrical language to challenge their characterization of him. After coaching Cassio on how to get back into Othello’s good graces, Iago soliloquizes: “And what’s he then that says I play the villain, / When this advice is free I give and honest, / Probal to thinking, and indeed the course / To win the Moor again?” (II.iii.324-327). There is an ambiguity regarding to whom Iago refers with the pronoun “he.” At this point in the play, none of the characters suspects Iago of his deceitful plotting; the character who knows the most about Iago’s true intentions and nature is Roderigo, but at this point, even he trusts Iago to help him win Desdemona for his own, not knowing that Iago will kill him in the end. While this soliloquy may merely be a rhetorical statement, Iago can be addressing the one group of people who know of his deceit – the audience. Throughout the play, Iago shares his treacherous plans in soliloquies and thus reveals his genuinely evil nature to the audience. By demonstrating awareness that he is performing a part in a play, he steps out of the play’s realm and calls attention to the play’s artificiality just for a moment so that he can address the audience and challenge their characterization of him as the villain with an unnerving accuracy as he uncannily presumes that they have done so, which they have.

Stepping out of the play, Iago uses this opportunity to manipulate the audience’s thoughts just as he manipulates the thoughts and actions of the characters in the play. Still addressing the audience, Iago continues with the previous soliloquy: “How am I then a villain / To counsel Cassio to this parallel course, / Directly to his good?” (II.iii.336-338). By bringing up the valid claim that he is doing a good deed by advising Cassio on how to get what he wants, Iago forces the audience to question their designation of him as the play’s villain. With this statement, Iago leads the audience to play with the idea that he may not be the villain, since what he says is true. However, this uncertainty only lasts for a moment, for he continues: “Divinity of hell! / When devils with the blackest sins put on, / They do suggest with heavenly shows, / As I do now” (II.iii.338-340). By directing the ending line “As I do now” to the audience, Iago reveals that he has just tricked the audience in the same manner that devils do and more importantly, just as he dupes his victims in the play, thereby reaffirming the audience’s judgment of him as the villain. Furthermore, the duped audience despises Iago even more for his lack of shame and awareness of his evil nature. In this manner, Iago’s use of theatre language gives him an opportunity to address the audience and manipulate their thoughts as he does his victims in the play so that his villainy extends beyond the play’s realm.

As this scene empowers Iago with the ability to extend his realm of deceit, it also strips him of power because it calls attention to the fact that he too is merely another one of the play’s fictional characters. By the end of his soliloquy, Iago has led the audience to the conclusion that he does indeed “play the villain” in the play by duping them as well (II.iii.324). By reinforcing his audience’s characterization of him as the villain, Iago inadvertently emphasizes that he plays a role in the play Othello, and thus, he is a fictional character. Because fictional characters have a determined fate since the playwright and his script have already determined their future, they lack control of their future. No matter how cunning and powerful Iago may appear to be, Iago will always end up in the hands of the authorities at the end of every production of the play. Thus, while the theatrical language gives Iago a chance to extend his reign of terror to the audience, it simultaneously weakens the audience’s perception of him as wielding so much power, for it reminds them that he is merely a fictional character like the other characters and thus has no more control than they do over his future.

When Iago fails in his attempt to control the other characters with his speech, he turns to action and then to silence. When Emilia first begins to reveal Iago’s deceit, Iago orders her to “charm…[her] tongue,” but when she fails to heed his command, he alters his order, telling her instead: “I charge you get you home” (V.ii.184, 195). With the verb “charge,” Iago not only imposes a task upon her, but he also draws upon his authority as her husband as he commands her. As Emilia challenges his authority by disregarding his directions, Iago draws his sword and stabs her, thereby reasserting his power over her. Shortly thereafter, Othello tells Cassio to demand Iago to explain why he plotted against him, and Iago answers: “Demand me nothing. What you know, you know. / From this time forth I never will speak word” (V.ii.303-304). A demand calls for another to do something based upon authority and thereby implies that one wields power over the other. Iago refuses to comply with the demand not only because he wants to frustrate their attempts in figuring out the truth, but also more importantly, he refuses to acknowledge that they control him. His silence is his last attempt to try to reestablish his power, although it is a feeble attempt considering that he is now physically under their control. Thus, Iago’s silence shows his refusal to let anyone subjugate him, even though it is clear that he no longer wields any power over the other characters or himself.

While Iago is clearly the villain of the play based upon his treachery and deceit, metadrama complicates this characterization by not only challenging and reaffirming this designation, but also by amplifying and diminishing the appearance of Iago’s possession of power. He may be Othello’s servant, but his theatrical functions in the play as director, prompter, and playwright distance him from the plot and thereby give him an apparent control over the other characters. However, while his theatrical roles delude him into thinking that he is in control, they also reveal that the other characters influence and direct his actions just as he directs them. The thought of living under subjugation repulses Iago so much that he expresses his refusal to submit to the authorities by taking an oath of silence although there is no hope of escaping their control. He ironically does not realize that his character exists throughout the play under the direction of others, such as the other characters in the play and Shakespeare himself. It is possible for Iago to live under authority – even though he may not think so – just as long as he is not aware of it. Unfortunately, his very nature as a fictitious character automatically places him under the control of the playwright; thus, his hatred of authority dooms him to a life of unhappiness and dissatisfaction.

Works Cited

  1. Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Othello the Moor of Venice. The Complete Pelican Shakespeare. Ed. Stephan Orgel and A. R. Braunmuller. New York: Penguin Group, 2002. 1402-1444.
  2. The Holy Bible: New International Version. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1986.
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