Is Iago The Perfect Villain?
Few Shakespearian villains radiate evilness and jealously quite as much as Iago, the unbeknown nemesis of the play’s title character, Othello. In other plays written by the bard of Avon the villains can come across as one-dimensional- weak, personified by a flaw in their genetic make-up or unattainable ambition yet Iago is a far more complex and compelling character. True, he has the power to both betray and murder those he once worked alongside, but Iago isn’t the complete cold-blooded murderer in the same sense of Macbeth or King Claudius from Hamlet.
True, he meticulously plans the death of Cassio but he plans it to be by hands of Rodrigo, his puppet. In the end opportunity presents itself to Iago and he seizes the moment to stab Cassio in the back but the blow fails to kill him. Iago also reveals a moral conscience through his three soliloquy’s which I will explore in more detail later. In short Iago is like no other of Shakespeare’s villains which makes him an utterly compelling and absorbing character.
And like the other characters in the play, Iago delights in absorbing us, the viewer…
The tragedy of Othello was believed to have been first performed in the early 1600’s and is one of Shakespeare’s more famous plays. The play is also rich in historical context and features the Moorish race heavily, leading many to believe it was influenced by a visit to the capital of the Empire by the Moorish ambassador, who is said to have met with the ruling monarch. In the play, only Iago voiced an explicitly stereotypical view on Othello and his race and, the fact that Iago is the main villain of the play, means most scholars view the play as Shakespeare’s statement on society, notably that people are the same, regardless of skin colour- a message many would do well to remember in this current day and age. The fact that Iago is the only character to mention Othello’s skin colour is also signs of one of his weakness- the fact that he is blinded by stereotypes. This character trait is explored further by Shakespeare in Iago’s soliloquies.
The play Othello is one of Shakespeare’s tragedy’s, ending in a dramatic, breathtaking climax. The proud, noble and trustworthy character of Othello promotes his young solder Cassio ahead of his more experienced ally Iago, setting off a chain of events which eventually ends with the demise of Othello, his young wife Desdemona and Iago himself.
Twisted with jealously and rage Iago sets out to manipulate and exploit Othello’s trustworthy nature, instead revealing him to be slightly naїve and gullible. After a series of Iago-inspired mis-understandings, Othello believes his wife to be sleeping with his new lieutenant, Cassio and thus commences to kill his wife. However not long after he fatally wounds his wife, he learns the truth from Iago’s wife and, after apologising to Cassio, kills himself.
Othello is one of Shakespeare’s only plays where the villain of the piece speaks more lines then the title character or protagonist. This fact reflects Iago’s incredible contribution to the play and also sets the tone for the story- for the most part we see things from Iago’s perspective as, after the audience, Iago has the most knowledge on what is going on in the play. You could even argue that, at times, Iago knows even more than the audience, which is a trait of a true, compelling villain. We never know what face Iago is going to show next, never know what move he is going to make, partly helped by the fact that for long stretches of the play Iago is in “good” mode. He is seemingly kind, loyal and truthful to Othello, all signs of a true friend. It is only through the intimate soliloquies that the real Iago comes to the fore.
Othello’s race is particularly important in the play, despite the fact that only one character slurs his race in the play: Iago. Othello is frequently called “The Moor” in the play, implying he is either of African descent or simply just a Muslim. The fact that Shakespeare does not allot Othello a specific race could be due to the fact that he wanted his audience to see that race isn’t crucial in understanding a person or character and only the narrow minded (or evil, like Iago) would see race as a barrier. The fact that Othello is not native to Italy is especially important to the play and it’s affect on it’s audience: it makes Othello’s demise more saddening and guilt tinged as Iago has manipulated a man of a different culture and robbed the only person who he felt a real, strong connection with and, who in turn, respected him back- Desdemona.
In many of Shakespeare’s other plays, the phrase: “actions speak louder then words”, could be applied to the villain of the play. Many of the villain’s true characters are revealed when they are committing their piece of true evil however with Iago, it is the opposite way around. He keeps up a false face when around Othello; “pouring pestilence into his ear” with his “heavenly shows” and this is arguably the greatest of Iago’s many evil deeds. He is manipulating Othello, influencing him. This is one of the many factors that could be seen as making Iago into the “perfect villain”. Unlike other villains of plays from the same age, Iago isn’t a butcherer, a thug. He is cold, calculative- a sadist. Yet he is also intelligent, which would have frightened the Elizabethan audience watching. His intelligence and sadism are revealed in his three soliloquies, which I will explore in this essay.
“Thus do I ever make my fool my purse:” Iago’s first soliloquy, included in Act one Scene 3 opens on a sinister, malicious note. This is the first line he speaks to the audience and the audience alone and Shakespeare has made it as twisted and warped as possible. Shakespeare knows that in the soliloquies he will try to gain Iago some empathy but, he is still the villain, and with a line like this opening his first soliloquy, Shakespeare doesn’t let us, the audience, forget it. Iago is commenting on how he is able to make money from fools, from manipulating them. He shows instantly that he exploits people and revels in it. He is boasting to the audience, proud of his achievements.
The words “my fool” also imply that he is in complete control of the people he decides to manipulate, suggesting that he is in a “Godly” sort of position. He is also inferring that the latest fool that is “making his purse” is Othello, a man revered by others for his honest and noble nature. Shakespeare is contrasting Othello’s just nature with Iago’s snide, evil nature, juxtaposing their characters and personalities. Iago could also be referring to his accomplice Rodrigo. Despite working closely with him, Iago is only using Rodrigo as a puppet. In an ironic twist, Iago is doing to Rodrigo what made him so angry in the first place. He is overlooking Rodrigo and instead totally committed to the demise of Othello. Similarly, Othello overlooked Iago and instead lavished his praise, and a promotion, on Michael Cassio.
The line: “I hate the Moor, And it is thought abroad that ‘twixt my sheets” is the first real example of Iago’s moral conscience struggling to break through in the soliloquy. On first glance, the line seems as malevolent as ever, Iago calls Othello not by his name, but by his race: Moor. Iago is also commenting on how some “abroad” (possibly referring to when he was away fighting with Othello) suspect that Othello has slept with Emilia, Iago’s wife. Indeed, it seems on first glance that the line is meant to make Iago even more evil, as it sounds like he has a solid motive for wanting to ruin the life of Othello. But when one reads between the lines one can begin to see Iago’s inner moral dilemma. After all the lines dedicated to describing how fair and just Othello is, it is highly unlikely that Shakespeare wrote this line as truth. Indeed, he is more likely to be hinting at Iago’s more sensitive nature. Iago was once a great friend of Othello’s and popular with the rest of the men.
Many former solders comment on the bond shared between men on the battlefield, a love and commitment so strong that many would willingly lay down their lives for their comrades, fully aware of the possible consequences. Iago and Othello would have most likely have shared this connection, and it would have been impossible for Iago to lose it overnight. Iago is simply trying to justify his actions, in a perverse way he is almost pleading with them to accept why he is angry, and to not see him as a villain. This shows Iago’s morality and makes his character progression in the play all the more startling. Throughout the play, we see the small amount of morality Iago possesses diminish whereas in some of Shakespeare’s other plays, the villains are evil from the start, leaving them more detached from the audience and making it incredibly hard for the audience to direct any empathy towards them.
The final two lines of Iago’s first soliloquy: “I have’t. It is engendered. Hell and night, Must bring this monstrous birth to the world’s light,” show once more that Iago knows what he is doing is wrong, but also hint at the fact that he has forgave any chance of redemption, and knows that his future will end in the death of his former friend, and the loss of his soul to evil. Whether this pains him, however, is never fully explored or revealed by Shakespeare.
The quotation also compares Iago to the Devil, which would have shocked the Jacobean audience. People of this time would have been devoutly religious and the devil would have frightened them, as he was seen as the ultimate evil. The phrase “hell and night” implies that evil often materialises during the night, during the darkness, which juxtaposes the image of heaven and light, which could be associated to Othello. This is slightly ironic as the character of Othello is black, yet he is the “light” character being manipulated by the “black” Iago.
The adjective “monstrous” proves that Iago is aware of his wrongdoing. Yet when used in his soliloquy, used after he passionately describes his plan, the word sounds very ominous and sinister. One gets the impression that Shakespeare wanted the actor portraying Iago to spit the word to the audience. The word “birth” also suggests that Iago is comparing the manifestation of his evil plan to a newborn baby. This links in with the idea of Iago hating women as he has a rather shallow relationship with Emilia and mentions in the play how he thinks women are good only for sex. In the soliloquy, by describing his plan has having a “birth” he is slurring females, as his plan is one of evil and vindictiveness.
Iago’s second soliloquy continues where the first left off and provides us with a number of reasons for why Iago is so hell-bent on Othello’s destruction. Throughout this second soliloquy the possible motives of Iago progress from the rumour that Othello slept with Emilia, to the more disturbing and disconcerting motive of Iago desiring Othello’s love before destroying him, the idea of Iago being thrust into a “Godly” position.
The first possible motive Iago mentions for wanting to destroy Othello is jealously. “I do suspect the lustful Moor hath leaped into my seat…like a poisonous mineral doth gnaw my inwards,” is evidence of this possible motive. All other evidence in the play categorically proves that it is incredibly unlikely that Othello would have slept with Emilia and it is possible that Iago too understands that Othello wound never cheat on Desdemona. However Iago finds that he has to lie to himself to keep strong and to help justify his actions to the audience, proving that he must feel some guilt. Iago is also comparing the jealously he feels to an animal or a monster “gnawing away at his inwards”. This comparison links with another line Iago speaks, however this time it is directed to Othello, not the audience. In Act 3 Scene 3 Iago tells Othello to: “Beware…the green eyed monster which doth mock the meat it feeds on.” In this case Shakespeare is being extremely ironic, as it is Iago who has succumbed to jealously and let it change his character forever, not Othello who loses his better judgement momentarily and then repents in the final scene.
Iago shows in his second soliloquy that he sees people as tools, ready to be manipulated, hinting at the sense of detachment he feels. The lines: “Which thing to do, If this poor trash of Venice, whom I trash,” show this aptly. After becoming so consumed with jealously, greed or whatever is driving him on, Iago now feels no real emotional connection with ordinary people. In fact the only true relationship he has with another person is the perverse relationship he shares with Othello. Despite hating Othello, he still desires his love and praise. Iago is extremely confused and, after recoiling away from Emilia’s love the only person he feels any connection with is Othello. This makes him an extremely perverse and sadistic character, which could go some way to making him the “perfect villain”.
Unlike other evil characters, who want their foes dead so they can achieve power or peace Iago has despised Othello so much that his hatred has gone full circle, and he has ended up now desiring Othello’s love again, as proved by the line: “Make the Moor thank me, love me and reward me”. This kind of relationship makes Iago seem slightly unstable thus making putting the audience one step behind Iago. Iago could commit nearly any possible action after this statement and it would still seem believable to the audience, as they recognise him as slightly un-hinged. Whereas other villains, such as Macbeth, are limited in what they can do before the story becomes too unbelievable, Iago can do just about anything as he harbours a wide range of emotions for Othello- love, respect and, ultimately, hatred. This ultimately contributes to him being the perfect villain, he is unrestricted, Shakespeare can take his character anywhere and the audience will never be able to second-guess him.
This is proved in perfect fashion in the last scene of the play, where Othello and the guards confront Iago. When pushed for a reason for destroying the lives of so many people, Iago simply says: “Demand me nothing. What you know, you know. From this time forth I will never speak word.” This epitomises the character of Iago. Throughout the play, Iago evidences his love of talking and communicating and, when presented with no other characters to interact with, he instead communicates with the audience in his soliloquies. Therefore many would be forgiven for thinking Iago’s final stand involves a hail of angry metaphors and lies, as he finally lays into Othello. Yet instead he remains cool and hideously restrained. He doesn’t fulfil what people think he will do, making him unpredictable, compelling and, ultimately, the perfect villain.
Iago’s third and final soliloquy reveals just how evil Iago can be. He loses most, if not all, of the empathy the audience have gained from him in the space of nearly 30 lines, in preparation for the plays finale where Shakespeare presumably wanted all of the initial, spontaneous empathy to be directed towards Desdemona, Emilia and Othello.
Iago slightly sarcastically plays on the title “Honest Iago” in his third soliloquy, after many of the characters start addressing him by this title. “And what’s he then that says I play the villain, When this advice is free I give, and honest,” are the two lines that open his final soliloquy. Whilst some people feel that Iago us trying to gain some empathy by implying he is not totally in the wrong I personally don’t believe Shakespeare wanted these two lines to be spoken seriously by the actor portraying Iago. I get the impression that Shakespeare wanted these two lines to be spoken slightly sarcastically, as Iago is boasting in this sequence. By having Iago boast so close to the dramatic and disastrous finale, I believe that Shakespeare is showing that, despite being extremely clever and in many cases the perfect villain, Iago is still only human. He is mistaken here, as Othello and the guards eventually find him out and it is Emilia who reveals his deceit, which is very ironic as Iago isn’t quiet in his contempt of women and believes all women to be stupid.
Iago carefully maintains a veneer of “honesty and trust” but like many people, his outward appearance belies a inner deception. Iago is commonly referred to as Machiavellian, a term coined for Prince Machiavelli. Machiavelli is famous for his political treatise, “The Prince” which espouses, among other things, that the ends to power always justify the means. Machiavelli was a well known villain in the Jacobean era but, importantly, he was also renowned for his intelligence. By comparing the two men, Shakespeare is making an important statement: Iago is no fool. In many of Shakespeare’s other plays, the villain of the piece is foolish and slow, but in this play, the villain is arguably the smartest of all the characters. This keeps the audience on the edge of their seats, making Othello one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays.
The lines: “Divinity of Hell” When Devils do their blackest sins put on, They do suggest at first with heavenly shows,” show how Shakespeare compares Iago to the Devil, implying that Iago is the physical manifestation of evil. Contrary to popular belief, the Devil, or Lucifer, is or was not a fire-spitting, all-powerful behemoth. He was instead a fallen angel, once a trusted servant of God who eventually fell to Earth after letting ambition and greed cloud his judgement. The Devil also influences others by tempting them, in a similar fashion to Iago. Whilst prone to fits of rage, such as when he kills Emilia and wounds Cassio, Iago does the majority of his work through the spoken word. He is a master of language in a similar way that the Devil is the master of temptation. Shakespeare also uses an oxymoron, “Divinity of Hell!” to represent Iago’s conflicting personality. The phrase also somewhat represents Iago, as he is the slick, controlled face of evil, able to deceive and manipulate others, making him such an affective villain.
Iago ends his final soliloquy with the two lines: “And out of her own goodness make the net, That shall enmesh them all.” Here, Iago is fantasizing about putting his plan into action. He is also once again revealing the sense of detachment he feels, he is planning on manipulating Desdemona’s innocence and purity into a weapon, thus highlighting the ruthless nature of his character. The fact that Iago sees these qualities as factors to be exploited sum up his nature in perfect fashion. Iago is an opportunist, a speculator. He is extremely apt in finding a gap in someone’s character and using it to fulfil his own needs. Whilst most would see this as a weakness, Iago sees it as strength and it serves him well until he is caught.
The fact that Shakespeare compares Iago manipulating everyone around him to “enmeshing people” suggests that Iago is in a higher position than everybody else. He is rounding up the other characters, and delighting in the fact that it is Desdemona’s innocence that is luring people in. He is doing the dirty work whilst using another character o take the blame.
In conclusion, I do see Iago as the perfect villain. He is opportunistic, ruthless and compelling, a perfect villain in so many ways. An Elizabethan audience would most likely have at first reacted very negatively to Iago, but such is the strength of his character that his motives for destroying Othello begin to be understood long after the play has been performed. Whilst at first he seems purely evil, upon further reflection you begin to see Iago as a victim, a victim of what ambition can do to a man.
The soliloquies also help Iago gain, and lose empathy. Shakespeare uses them as a tool, an instrument in engaging the audience. First the audience feel sorry for Iago, before Shakespeare turns the story on it’s head and makes Iago utterly evil once more. This all contributes to making Iago the perfect villain; he is unreadable and unpredictable, unlike other Shakespearean characters that remain the same character throughout. Iago is constantly changing, evolving and developing.
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