Just what is “evil” in Shakespeare’s play? Iagos will for “revenge” on Cassio, who has been promoted to a higher army rank than himself? Is Iago evil? Essentially, Iago could be described as the central trouble-making, ill-willed character of the play; he leads a lot of the characters into a state of confusion, convincing them to think poorly and wrong of other figures in ‘Othello’ that are in fact innocent of their accused crimes.
But does this make him an “evil” individual? Let us begin by defining the word “evil”. An evil person may be considered as somebody who condones bad or morally wrong activities that cause ruin, injury, misfortune or destruction.
From this definition, it becomes clear to us that Iago could very well be taken on as an evil character in Shakespeare’s play. But where does this evil happen? It is important to note a significant symbolic difference that the playwright used to highlight good and bad in his play. It would appear that before Othello is sent off to Cyprus on a mission the characters live more or less in harmony with each other; i.e. without any sexual jealousy, the main theme of the play. This implies that Venice is the good scenario, where everyone lives in peace, and Cyprus where the characters are constantly challenging each other led on of course, by Iago.
Perhaps it would be useful to highlight the timeline of Iago’s evil activities throughout the play, in view of the general plot:
At the beginning, in Act I Scene 1 we see Iago and Roderigo talking about Roderigos “unrequited” love for Brabantio’s daughter, Desdemona. Because of this, Iago persuades Roderigo to inform Brabantio that his daughter has married the moor of the play, Othello. In this way, we can see how Iago uses Rodrigo to incite trouble between Brabantio and Othello, an example complying with the aforementioned definition of evil. There are many more examples of Iago’s demeaning activities: when Iago accompanies Othello and Desdemona to Cyprus in order to defend Cyprus from the Turks should war outbreak, Iago swears revenge on Othello as he has announced Cassio’s promotion to lieutenant, and not to himself.
Cassio is plied with drink while on duty and is challenged by Roderigo in his intoxicated state of mind, leading to a fight. Cassio is thus disgraced and a dismissal from his post is inevitable. Iagos tomfoolery does not end here; he goes on to persuade Othello that Desdemona is in love with Cassio, thus having committed adultery on her husband. Iago receives a handkerchief from Emilia that was dropped by Desdemona for false proof of Desdemona’s invented relationship with Cassio, maintaining it was found in Cassio’s chamber.
This move by Iago leads Othello to think Desdemona a whore, escorting him to jealousy, shattering the love and pride he showed for Desdemona. Shakespeare uses this to create a foreseeable but delicately ironic situation: Othello now seeks revenge on Desdemona and Cassio, who in fact are innocent and haven’t performed a single thing to harm the other characters; all arisen complications are the result of Iago’s treachery and manipulation of the individual characters.
Othello requests Iago to kill Cassio, where Iago persuades Roderigo to assist him. As Roderigo strikes an unsuccessful attempt on Cassio’s life, yet more complications arise; Iago stabs Roderigo as a consequence of his sloppy, incomplete work, and while this is going on, Othello smothers Desdemona in bed.
When Emilia informs Othello of the attack on Cassio, she finds her mistress (Desdemona) dead and screams for help. It is at this point of the play that Iago’s plot is revealed by his wife, who is, perhaps unmercifully and flabbergastingly, killed by her husband in return for letting the truth out.
Othello realises the mistakes he has made in being gullible enough to believe Iago’s tall stories and kills himself. Iago, in return, receives the punishment of torture.
From the above, it becomes clear of the role appointed to Iago by his author. But what does Iago seek out in performing such evil and malicious activities and telling such ruthless lies? True, he seeks revenge, but was it his original intentions that people were killed for the pursuit of his vengeance on Othello and Cassio? It is doubtful. At any given point in the play, Iago does what he thinks best to climb out of the current situation he stands in. Naturally in doing so, he digs his own grave deeper and deeper, not achieving the desired task, but only causing more confusion from the point of view of the other characters and thus leading to bleak suffering of all the persons mentioned in the character list of the play.
From my point of view, Iago lacks any type of solid, convincing ground for his “evil” activities on the characters; he simply never backs up his actions with proper reasoning, clearly taking advantage of the vulnerable and uneasy atmosphere following the threat of invasion Cyprus finds itself in. For example, in the first scene he makes a claim to being angry at Othello for not having considered him worthy of promotion to lieutenant. (Act I Scene 1, lines 7-32) Additionally, at the end of Act I, Scene 3, Iago is under suspicion Othello has slept with his wife, Emilia: “It is thought abroad that ‘twixt my sheets, he has done my office”. (Act I Scene 3, lines 369-370)
This suspicion comes up again at the end of Act II, Scene 1 when we learn that he lusts after Desdemona purely because of his desire to get even with Othello, “wife after wife” (Act II Scene 1, line 286). These claims do not seem to show any proper motivation for his deep hatred of Othello; it is the fact he is unwilling himself to say why he shows so much contempt for his general that chills the spine and emphasizes his actions, making him seem even more terrifying for the audience of the play.
What makes Iago such a powerfully coercing figure, if not the most wicked figure ever to be created by Shakespeare, is his talent for manipulating yet at the same time understanding the desires and wishes of the other characters in the play, making them show absolute faith and trust in his suggestions and ideas. He showed the ability to take the symbolic handkerchief from Emilia and sidetrack her questions; afterwards convincing Othello about the fictitious nature of the handkerchief, knowing Othello would never doubt and question him. In this instance he even comments on his scheming action:
“And what’s he then that says I play the villain?” Shakespeare’s idea behind this being that Iago is made to look comical; i.e. the audience laugh at him.
Iago is therefore furthermore shown in the play as being an object of amusement, for example in the scenes with Roderigo, which could possibly be considered nothing more than a showcase of Iagos manipulative skills. In these scenes, Iago seems to wink at the audience as he gloats and brags about his abilities to change his tone and style to suit any social occasion to his liking. Something else is also revealed about Iago at this point of the play; we see his cowardice progressively build up to become clear and out in the open by the end of the performance, where he kills his wife out of spite and false, unknown hatred. A good example of Iagos skills can be seen in the second half of the play, when Othello begins to speak and act the same way as his ensign, not putting forward his own suggestions and merely doing what everybody else does with little imagination; this forces the audience to accept that the “hero” of the play is in fact not wholly noble, as he is capable of savagery and crudeness.
Othello also develops a trust in Iago that is superior to that of the faith in his wife; he even thinks poorly of his trusted friend and colleague, Cassio. This is due mostly to his weak personality, as becomes evident in Act IV Scene 1, lines 65-73, where Iago tells him he is an outsider, addressing him as a “foolish cuckold”. The naïvety and stupidity of Othello is revealed, due to the fact he appears to believe in everything Iago says. This is partly what gives Iago his nickname: “honest Iago”; he can convince other characters of his false honesty.
Iago also shows bloodcurdling evilness to the other figures in the play, for instance he sees Cassio as bluff, coarse and genial, who he gives a lot of practical advice to during the presentation (in his own interest of course). Desdemona is approached in a similar manner in Act IV, Scene 2. Interestingly, Iago stresses to the soldiers Montano and Lodovico that he has Othello’s and the Venetian states’ interests best at heart; it is crucial to note that when Iago handles with characters who are socially and professionally superior to himself, there is a certain absence of ego he commonly has in his manner. No doubt this is one of his numerous methods to twist people around his finger.
To look at the most despicable activity led on by Iago: the murder of his wife. What is the motivation behind this ghastly event? It would appear that his wife isn’t the only woman he shows neglect towards in the play; Iago generally has an unexplained prejudice towards woman. The only reasonable suggestion would be to question the sexuality of Iago. Perhaps he is a homosexual whose motive for persecuting Othello is purely out of gay love and lust for the general. This rather radical theory is backed by the fact that Iago seemingly takes a lot of pleasure in preventing Othello from the blissfulness of having a female partner, or in the case of this play, being married to one.
While researching the play I came across a particularly sinister aspect of Iagos speech; he is often preoccupied with plants, many involving poison. Perhaps Iago uses this metaphor to refer to his conceits with the various other characters of the play, seeing his evil as a force of nature that plants the seeds of the poisonous vegetation in their heads. Monsters are used in a similar way; when Iago tells Othello to beware of jealousy, he expresses it in a somewhat mysterious manner: the “green eyed monster which doth mock, the meat it feeds on” (Act III Scene 3, lines 170-171). This metaphor is also used when Iagos evil is out in the open and Othello in the know of his ways; he refers him several times as to being a “devil” and a “demon”.
In the plot, Iago strives to destruct all that is good and therefore promotes the rise of evil. This icon itself could be seen as an extremist right-wing leaders road to power (examples are Hitler and Gorbatschov), which, naturally, Shakespeare wasn’t around to see lying diseased in his grave. This proves that the philosophical, moral and human issues Shakespeare brings up in his plays and sonnets are still, perhaps miraculously, around today. This proves the writer of ‘Othello’ as being one of the best human psychological analycists in all time literature. The main reason I feel his writing is so beloved is that despite today’s English language being at a higher level than that of the authors’, his work still captures and stimulates the imaginations of people all over the world; being appreciated in hundreds of different cultures and languages.
Othello is an example of one of these pieces of art; the battle of good and evil is a theme that will always exist in human society, in all cultures and religions no matter how distant from one another. Shakespeare is showing us the truly bizarre nature of the human species, emphasizing our multi-dimensional nature of behaving towards each other in everyday life.
Perhaps this is the reason why no other 17th century playwrights have become as widespread as Shakespeare; people simply cannot relate to any other 17th century artist as well as Shakespeare himself.