The Role Iago Played in Othello’s Downfall
Othello is a tragedy by William Shakespeare set in Venice. Othello is a highly respected general and Iago is his ambitious comrade. Othello promotes Michael Cassio to the position of lieutenant and Iago becomes extremely jealous. Iago begins plotting against Othello, the eponymous hero, and turns him against his wife, Desdemona, daughter of the senator of Venice, Brabantio, by telling him of her supposed infidelity with his lieutenant, Cassio. In a fit of jealous rage, Othello smothers Desdemona to death. Emilia, Iago’s wife, then speaks the truth of Iago’s plan to Othello and Othello lashes out in his anger by wounding Iago. He then kills himself out of grief for the loss of Desdemona and of guilt. Iago kills Emilia out of anger at her betrayal and is arrested for his crimes. Iago is the tragic villain of the play as he works opposite to the hero and provokes the eponymous hero’s own fatal flaws, which leads to the tragic conclusion. Iago is regarded as a powerful, Machiavellian villain and antagonist as he holds the majority of the lines, almost double to that of the protagonist and tragic hero, Othello, giving him power over Othello as well as the space to use the maximum amount of words to manipulate the hero into participating in his crimes. Iago plays the role of the smart villain as he is both cunning and manipulative. With regards to how Iago manipulates and deceives the six key characters, Roderigo, Brabantio, Desdemona, Emilia, Cassio and Othello, Iago comes across as the most significant contributor to Othello’s downfall.
Iago makes use of Roderigo’s idiocy to use him as the key in starting his campaign against Othello. Roderigo is considered the fool of the play and is also hopelessly in love with Desdemona. Iago identifies that Roderigo is indeed an easy mark and realises that Roderigo will do anything to be with his beloved Desdemona and begins to use him as a paw. Iago states to Roderigo that he too hates the Moor, “Roderigo – Thou told’st me thou didst hold him in thy hate. Iago – Despise me if I do not.” (1.1.7-8). He also hints to Roderigo of how he plans to thwart Othello, “Iago – Whether I am in any just term am affined/To love the Moor. Roderigo – I would not follow him then. Iago – O sir, content you./I follow him to serve my turn upon him.” (1.1.38-42) and therefore telling Iago of Othello’s wrongs in choosing Cassio over him, adding to Roderigo’s reasons for hating Othello. Iago convinces Roderigo to speak to Desdemona’s father and tell him of the secret marriage between Othello and his daughter knowing this will lead to tension between Brabantio and Othello. Iago tricks Roderigo out of his money as well by telling him to “put money in thy/purse,” (1.3.333-334) and to put his trust in him. In his soliloquy Iago speaks to the audience acknowledging Roderigo as a “fool” (1.3.365). Using the knowledge of his love for Desdemona, Iago manages to turn Roderigo against Cassio by telling him that “Desdemona is directly in love with him.” (2.1.210). Roderigo is talked into angering and fighting Cassio by Iago during Act 2.1. 250-260 stating that by doing this Roderigo will “have a shorter journey to your/desires” (2.1.259-260) namely Desdemona. By provoking Cassio, Roderigo manages to get him stripped from his rank of lieutenant. Roderigo, however, begins to suspect Iago, and Iago has to think on his feet and persuades Roderigo into entering another duel with Cassio; “Why, by making him incapable of Othello’s place – knocking out/his brains.” (4.2.222-223) this time with the aim to end with Roderigo, Cassio or both dead. Both however survive and Iago acknowledges Roderigo as a loose cannon and therefore kills him, knowing the Roderigo could jeopardise his cunning plan, such as in Shakespeare’s play, Richard II, where Richard II hired Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk, to kill his uncle, then persecuted Mowbray for doing so to eliminate his chance of being caught himself. The influence that Iago poses on Roderigo leads him into bringing down Cassio from his ranks, which as will be explored later on, leads to Othello’s downfall. Thus Iago is indirectly responsible for Othello’s downfall through his exploitations of Roderigo.
Brabantio, Desdemona’s father, is possibly Iago’s most crucial victim. He is an important man in Venice; a Venetian senator, a well-known citizen and landowner. Like many Venetian men of the time, his reputation is the upholder of his honour. Iago assumes this as Brabantio’s weakness and he and Roderigo remove Brabantio’s honour by telling him of how his daughter has been stolen from him by the Moor. He compares Othello’s actions to that of a thief, stealing Brabantio’s daughters virginity and virtue. Iago uses double entendre in animal imagery “Even now, now, very now, an old black ram/Is tupping your white ewe.” (1.1.89-90) eferring to sexual imagery of Othello and Desdemona to provoke Bradantio’s anger and embarrassment. By referring to Othello as no more than an animal, “an old black ram (1.1.89)” “a Barbary/horse” (1.1.111) Iago also reminds Brabantio “You are a senator” (1.1.118) highlighting of how this marriage of the Moor and Desdemona would affect Brabantio’s honour and pride as his daughter is a reflection of him and in the Venetian society of those times the daughter was property of her father, which Desdemona acknowledges “You are lord of all my duty;/I am hitherto your daughter.” (1.3.182-183), and it was her fathers duty to pass her off to a suitable man who was worthy of the daughter, same social class and same race. This defiance on Desdemona’s part would negatively affect her fathers honour as it appears he has lost control. The fundamental point spoken by Brabantio is “Look to her, Moor, if thou hast eyes to see:/She has deceived her father and may thee.” (1.3.188-189), this creates a subconscious element of doubt in Othello’s mind and Iago couldn’t have planned it better than if he’d said it himself. This could be seen as the point where Othello’s downfall began.
Iago also makes use of Cassio, Othello’s appointed lieutenant, by suggesting that Desdemona has a sexual relationship with Cassio therefore stirring Othello’s jealousy. He was chosen over Iago who resents him now for this. Iago’s motive for including Cassio into his plot is jealousy. We see Iago’s anger at being passed over for the promotion in the opening act, “A fellow almost damn’d in a fair wife … He, in good time, must his lieutenant be,/And I, God bless the mark, his Moorship’s ancient.” (1.1.21-33) It is also supposed that Iago is jealous of Cassio over his looks and charm to which Desdemona may find appealing, “Besides, the knave is handsome, young, and hath/all those requisites in him that folly and green minds look after./A pestilent complete knave; and the woman hath found him/already.” (2.1.232-235) Iago comes to realize that Cassio is just the man that most men (green minds) would be jealous of and decides to use this against Othello’s weakness. Another motive for Iago’s jealousy is that he believes his wife to have slept with Cassio, too. “For I fear Cassio with my night-cap too” (2.1.288) Iago then identifies Cassio’s weakness as having low tolerance for alcohol, “I have drunk but one cup tonight, and that was craftily/qualified too; and behold what innovation it makes here. I am/unfortunate in the infirmity and dare not task my weakness with/any more.” (2.3.32-35) and convinces the imprudent Cassio to have yet another drink, blindly taking the bait. Iago uses this to lure Cassio into the drunken brawl with Roderigo, which would lead to his expulsion which as Iago knows that the reckless behaviour will insult Othello, “Am I to put our Cassio in some action/That may offend the isle.” (2.3.53-54). By convincing Cassio to go seek help into restoring his position from Desdemona, Iago can begin manipulating Othello into believing that Desdemona’s reasons of showing preference over Cassio are less than honourable, leaving Iago free to strengthen the sense of doubt and jealousy in Othello. Iago reveals this plan in his soliloquy, “For whiles this honest fool/Plies Desdemona to repair his fortunes,/And she for him pleads strongly to the Moor,/I’ll pour this pestilence into his ear:/That she repeals him for her body’s lust.” (2.3.320-324). Iago also plants the token that Othello gave to his wife, the handkerchief in Cassio’s lodgings and when Othello sees this, he takes it as proof of his wife’s infidelity. As the final straw of Othello’s tolerance grows shorter, Iago uses Cassio for the last time into tricking him into speaking of Bianca, his mistress, whilst Othello thinks he speaks of Desdemona. “And his unbookish jealousy must construe/Poor Cassio’s smiles, gestures, and light behaviours/Quite in the wrong.” (4.1.99-101). Iago makes use of Cassio throughout the play to give proof to Othello and to heighten his already present weakness of rash temper and jealousy, spurring on the process of Othello’s disgrace and once again circuitously leading to Othello’s demise as was done with Roderigo.
The two main women of the play are made use of by Iago during his campaign against Othello as well and this is where the significance of the handkerchief comes in. Iago asks his wife, Emilia, to steal the handkerchief for him, which she does. She reveals of what importance this handkerchief is to the Moor as it was Desdemona’s “first remembrance from the Moor.” (3.3.293) With the handkerchief in his possession, Iago speaks of how he has poisoned the Moor’s mind already with jealousy and words of betrayal and that this handkerchief, which he will place in Cassio’s lodgings, will be seen as proof of betrayal by the Moor. He acknowledges that Othello is already under the influence of his manipulation in a metaphor referring to his manipulations as poison, “I will in Cassio’s lodging lose this napkin … As proofs of holy writ …The Moor already changes with my poison:/Dangerous conceits are in their nature poisons …like the mines of sulphur.” (3.3.322-330) In the final scene when Emilia discovers Iago’s intention, she speaks them to Othello and as Othello comes to realise her truths, he breaks down completely out of grief and guilt and commits suicide. Iago also plays around with Desdemona, abusing her vulnerability and naivety of mind to frustrate Othello, “So I will turn her virtue into pitch,/And out of her own goodness make the net/That shall enmesh them all.” Iago reveals that he shall use Desdemona as the key to Othello’s downfall. He knows that Desdemona’s naivety will not let her understand her husband’s jealousy or anger and he counts on this by forcing Othello to confront Desdemona regarding the handkerchief. Knowing that Desdemona will deny losing it, Iago believes that Othello will see this avoidance of topic as guilt: “Is’t lost? Is’t gone? Speak; is’t this out of th’way? … Zounds!” (3.4.76-93) therefore this would confirm, in Othello’s eyes, that Desdemona is having an affair with Cassio which would lead him to agree to Iago’s plots of their deaths out of jealousy and rage. This would be the point of no return in the play, where Desdemona and Othello’s fates are decided.
Perhaps Iago’s most sorrowful victim of all is Othello himself. Through strong imagery and language, Iago manages to manipulate Othello into believing that Desdemona has indeed deceived him. Iago begins his manipulation by means of an outburst which he then tries to take back, “Ha! I like not that!” (3.3.34) referring to Othello and him seeing Desdemona and Cassio speaking alone. This outburst guarantees Othello’s attention and Iago can begin passing out his “medicine.” Iago identifies Othello’s weaknesses being jealousy and temper. He uses multiple tactics to draw these emotions out into the open. Iago begins to lodge bits of doubt into Othello, asking why Cassio steals away from them looking guilty. (3.3.48) Iago replays Brabantio’s initial warning reminding Othello that “She did deceive her father, marrying you; And when she seemed to shake and fear your looks/She loved them most.” (3.3.207-208). Their secret marriage links to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet where Juliet eloped with her Romeo, therefore deceiving her father. Their marriage went against the society of their time and ended in both of their deaths. In a way the secret marriage of Desdemona and Othello foreshadows a fatal outcome when compared to the fates of Romeo and Juliet. When Othello asks for proof, Iago tells him of how Cassio once lay next to him and in the night spoke of entering into adultery with Desdemona. “I lay with Cassio lately … fate that gave thee to the Moor.’” (3.3.414-427) He uses sexual imagery of how Cassio tried to kiss him and give himself to Iago. This further angers Othello. Iago also mentions seeing Cassio wipe his beard with the handkerchief that Othello had given to Desdemona. When Desdemona cannot produce the handkerchief (as Iago has stolen it) Othello’s suspicions become greater, as does his jealousy. In Act 4 Scene 1 Othello is in hiding and sees Bianca approach Cassio with his handkerchief, in Othello’s eye’s this confirms his suspicion. Hearing Iago and Cassio speak of Bianca in such derogatory terms, by referring to as “poor rogue” “monkey”, and referring to her actions of how she threw herself at him (4.1.128-131),he believes that they speak of Desdemona, angering him further. Iago convinces Othello that Desdemona needs to be killed. “If you are so fond over her iniquity, give her patent to offend;/for if it touch not you, it comes near nobody.” (4.1.186-187)
Seeing the way that Iago has managed to manipulate and deceive each and every character in Othello by recognizing their vulnerability and weaknesses, we see how each deception played a part in Othello’s downfall through the exploitation of their weaknesses. Iago played on their weaknesses and used them to heighten Othello’s jealousy and temper which ultimately led to his downfall. So although it was the hero’s own flaws that in the end did lead to his end, it was indeed Iago who initiated the coming out of these flaws and had done everything he possibly could to bring Othello down as we see in the final scene where Othello’s anger and jealousy set off by Iago, lead to him killing his wife and himself. As Iago’s role of being the clever villain leads to Othello’s demise, we can therefore say that it was indeed achieved out of cunning the other characters into trusting him, deceiving Othello into believing that Iago was indeed “honest” , hatred towards Cassio and Othello which bloomed out of jealousy; and good fortune.
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