“Othello” is one of the most successful plays in Shakespeare’s collection. One of the subjects the tragedy addresses is betrayal which is a crucial part of the play that helps the author develop events to bring it to its climax. Iago’s character symbolizes disloyalty, but what are the motives of his treachery? It seems like there is not enough reason for his actions. By creating Iago in “Othello” as perhaps a masterpiece villain comparing to all his other plays, Shakespeare introduces to the audience and reader an evil type of person who unfortunately exists in society, and he suggests that disloyalty is just part of such person’s nature, so one could betray for the sake of betrayal itself.
Iago is one of the main characters in “Othello”. Being perhaps the most monstrous villain in Shakespeare, Iago is intriguing for his most awful attribute: disloyalty. From the beginning of the play, Iago is introduced as a deceiving character. As E. A. J. Honigmann, the editor of the Arden Shakespeare, points out, Iago expresses his anger towards Othello not merely for passing lieutenancy over to Cassio instead of giving it to him, but he is mad because he is not considered to be good enough for being an officer (37).
People who have self esteem and virtues, would probably leave Othello instead of serving him, but for Iago that would not be a wise step to make, “I follow him to serve my turn upon him”, (Act 1. scene 1. 41). It is perhaps not a surprise for a sly person like Iago to think higher of himself, “By the faith of man I know my price, I am worth no worse a place” (Act 1. Scene 1. 8). Since Iago was expecting to get the position himself and did not get it, he is holding a grudge and wants revenge from both Othello and Cassio. In order to achieve his goal, Iago is working with an ally whom he manipulates and uses just like he does with everyone else in the play.
Like Honigmann notices, Iago does this under the disguise of loyalty and friendship by which he convinces others to take the path of his schemed plan(37); thus, making others fall into his trap. Knowing that Roderigo is very fond of Desdemona and will do anything to get her heart, Iago uses Roderigo’s feelings to extort money from him, “Thus do I ever make my fool my purse” (Act 1. Scene 3. 382). Meanwhile, by mixing up things in Othello’s life, Iago is able to punish the Moor and his lieutenant Casio. It seems like he can win in both ways by gaining financially from Roderigo and enjoying the implementation of his treacherous plan.
At first, he raises Desdemona’s father Brabantio against Othello. Interestingly, Iago does not directly participate in accomplishment of his deceiving plans; he uses others to do it by “poisoning” their minds to raise against each other. For informing Brabantio about Desdemona’s marriage to Othello, Iago uses Roderigo whom he recognizes as a “sick fool” (Act 2. Scene 3. 48). He pairs with Roderigo since they both have common enemies—Othello and Casio whom they plot to destroy together.
Editors Craig and Bevington notice that Iago naturally takes pleasure in his malicious actions; his maneuverings give him both “sport” and ”profit” (945). In Cypress, at first Roderigo is being used to make a fight with Cassio to get Othello disapprove his lieutenant. When Othello orders Iago to kill Cassio, what better tool could Iago find for the murder if not using Roderigo? Besides being deceiving, Iago also is a coward, “For I fear Cassio with my night-cap too” (Act 2. Scene 1. 305). He knows he might get killed in the fight with Cassio, so instead he puts his ally Roderigo in danger.
When Roderigo is injured during the fight, Iago kills him to make sure the treachery is not revealed by Roderigo. Cassio is another character appearing in Iago’s playground. Although Iago hates Cassio, he never shows any dislike; rather, he is friendly with him. As professor Zender notices in his research, Iago suggests clear segregation between what he says and what he means, “I am not, what I am” (323). The first direct plot against Cassio is built when Iago gets him drunk.
Then he uses Roderigo to engage Cassio into a fight to destroy his reputation. The disturbance displeases Othello who is questioning the cause of the fight. The following long speech that explains this incident, as Honigmann notices, reveals more of Iago’s cunning talent (37). As if he does not want to harm Cassio by his words, Iago gladly tells what happened since it was his own plan staged to destroy Cassio, yet he shows like it is his duty to be honest and present the truth to his general, “I had rather have this tongue cut from my mouth / Than it should do offence to Michael Cassio, / Yet I persuade myself to speak the truth / Shall nothing wrong him” (Act 2. Scene 3. 218-220). In whatever Iago does, he wins in two or even three fronts.
Cassio is no longer a lieutenant, and Iago gains the trust of Othello even more while meantime Roderigo benefits from this. After this incident, Iago advises Cassio to ask Desdemona to speak with Othello convincing to reinstate the lieutenant. Then by hinting Othello about the possible betrayal of Desdemona with Cassio, Iago takes latter by his nose right into a trap. The masterpiece of Iago’s betrayal is the use of Desdemona’s handkerchief which he places in Cassio’s room. By this one action Iago betrays almost everyone in the play including his own wife. This is why the use of handkerchief in the tragedy plays a crucial role. It is the proof to Othello that his wife is not faithful to him.
Then Iago, after getting an order to kill Cassio, plots the stage for an assault. From this point his plans start going sour since he fails in killing of Cassio. Iago’s main goal is focused on taking a revenge from Othello. To be able to accomplish his plan, first Iago provides his “loyal” service to Othello, “In following him I follow but myself” (Act 1. Scene 1. 57). Drama theorist Ferguson notices that Iago is a type of person who knows how to control his emotions when he is told so by his motive in order to present himself as a reliable man (222).
Once he gains the trust of Othello, he starts planting the evil seeds “Hell and night/ Must bring this monstrous birth to the world’s light”(Act 2. Scene 1. 402-403). After staging the drunk riot and getting Cassio fired from his lieutenancy, Iago starts poisoning Othello’s mind with a suspicion that Cassio and Desdemona have a love affair. Iago’s perfect plan develops when Desdemona keeps pleading Othello to reinstate Cassio which makes Othello both mad and jealous, “The Moor already changes with my poison” (Act 3. Scene 3. 329).
To secure his strong footing before Othello, Iago makes him go mad because of jealousy from one side, and warns him to take a heed against jealousy from the other side, “O beware my lord of jealousy; / It is the green-eyed monster, which doth mock / The meat it feeds on” (Act 3. scene 3. 167). Ferguson analyzes that Iago carefully continues wearing his most compassionate mask, and meantime by gathering any false facts needed, he warns Othello not to jump into any conclusion (223). Further, Ferguson compares Iago and Othello with each other saying they are bound together “in the blind passion of envy and hatred which can only destroy them” (225).
According to Craig and Bevington, sometimes Iago’s motives are senseless; although in his soliloquy Iago charges Othello with accusation of sleeping with Emilia (Iago’s wife), he is not sure of that, “I know not if ‘t be true; But I, for mere suspicion of that kind, Will do as if for surety” (945). So Iago is suffering with the plague of jealousy as well. Dr. Magill calls it “an even flimsier fabrication” purpose of which is to conceal the indispensable dishonesty of his soul (4433). Later, to prove Desdemona’s “betrayal”, Iago fabricates a scene before Othello to show Cassio and Desdemona together talking to insinuate their “secret” relationship.
Then he lies Othello about Desdemona’s handkerchief being under Cassio’s possession. All the doubts vanish when Iago engineers his conversation with Cassio having Othello hide and listen to Cassio’s love affair which is presumed to be with Desdemona while, in fact, it is with Bianca who accidentally comes in during the conversation and gives the handkerchief back to Cassio refusing to copy it. Iago’s trap works perfectly well, and now Othello is completely convinced and determined to kill his wife. Each time Desdemona pleads Othello to reinstate Cassio, she loses her trust more and more, “And by how much she strives to do him good / She shall undo her credit with the Moor” (Act 2. scene 3. 353).
Ferguson notices that Iago has a great mind which unfortunately serves to the enthusiasm of abhorrence (222). While describing Iago, Craig and Bevington state that there is nothing else in which Iago looks as evil as in his desires to find Othello ruin the purity and integrity upon which the general’s gladness relies (946). By enforcing his wicked plan, Iago betrays his friendship and loyalty to Othello. Ferguson points out that Shakespeare likes to introduce evil as a puzzlement which we are unable to solve (Ferguson 222). Perhaps the best explanation to Iago’s actions is given by Dr.
Magill who says that Iago accepts people as merely a prey and instruments to play with, and “He believes that all can be duped and destroyed—and there is no further purpose to his life” (4433). Truly, does it really make sense to fight and seek to plot against everyone just because you did not get a promotion? Is it really worthy to kill so many people because of having doubt that your wife might be betraying you? Iago doesn’t even hesitate when plotting the killing of such an innocent person like Desdemona.
Knowing how jealousy can blind the General, Iago pushes him into the murder trap which leads to strangulation of most loyal Desdemona for disloyalty she never committed. Although Ferguson suggests that Iago does not have a comprehensible plan for annihilation of Othello, and by no means he wonders what positive outcome he could possibly get from destroying lives (222), one could argue that Iago is capable of creating a very painstaking plan to make others do what he wants them to do. Although Professor Zender finds Iago lacking verbal fluency towards females which is displayed when Desdemona asks Iago to praise women (324), his capabilities are not limited in betraying them.
Zender mentions that the humiliation Iago gets himself into when he is not able to praise women creates a grudge against Desdemona, and this is the cause of wishing her death at the end (324). Even if it is true, is it a strong reason to wish someone die especially knowing that the humiliation was not done on purpose? Desdemona sincerely loved and respected Iago as well. Zender points out that, “In the final analysis, Iago, like all of us, does what he does because he is what he is”(321). Not only Iago betrays Desdemona, but also he betrays his own wife Emilia. Although he did not say to Emilia why he pleaded her many times to steal the handkerchief from Desdemona, the purpose was to make Cassio have it and Othello look for it.
By making Emilia a participant of his treacherous plan without her knowledge is a betrayal against Emilia. The most wicked action of Iago is perhaps the killing of his own wife. It shows that his treachery does not have any limits; he is a self ego man who does not care about people. As Honigman puts it, “He has neither felt nor understood the spiritual impulses that bind ordinary human beings together, loyalty, friendship, respect, compassion – in a word, love” (40). Although betrayal is not the nature of many people, it is somewhat common these days too.
Many politicians have shown an example of betrayal in our times. A Los Angeles Times article mentions how lately former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger “joined the club” of governmental officials like Bill Clinton, JFK, FDR, John Edwards, Newt Gingrich and others by betraying his wife (Farley). Not surprisingly, they all lost their reputation and trust among millions of Americans. Governor Schwarzenegger who had a loyal and a charming wife (for some reason she reminds me of Desdemona) is not with him any longer.
This separation could be an unbearable loss for a loyal husband, yet it might not be so for Arnold because he, on his part, reminds me of Iago. During the election, people were deceived by his image and trusted him the State. He was the hero, the charming superman, and a role model for so many, yet he turned out to be just a rogue. It is interesting that Iago type of people are attractive and compelling to many of us. In “Othello”, the Lawrence Fishburne film produced by Oliver Parker, the role of Iago is played by Kenneth Branagh who does an amazing job by illuminating the true nature of the villain.
It was surprising to see a somewhat good looking guy presenting a wicked character since usually the villain has an evil face in movies. By choosing to show Branagh’s honest face, Director Parker perhaps wanted to convey that in reality dishonest people have very sincere looks. This is why they go unnoticed, gain trust, and when their true face of a betrayer is revealed, it is too late, for the harm is done, and sometimes the recovery is impossible like it was in “Othello”. A movie review article in New York Times noticed, “Thanks to Mr. Branagh’s seductively colloquial performance, this time the character’s poisonous nature is revealed in full” (Maslin).
Truly, sometimes we are unfortunate enough to meet an “Iago” in our lives. “Othello”, besides being an entertaining play, gives us a good description of a deceitful person warning us about the possibility of having a “friend” like Iago around us. The educational significance of “Othello” is very valuable. By showing the dire consequences of disloyalty, the tragedy cautions us to stay away from wicked acts. Friendship is worth more than anything you might gain from betraying. The lesson to learn is very simple; do not betray!
Craig, Hardin, and Bevington, David, eds. The Complete Works Of Shakespeare. Glenview, Illinois: Scott, Foresman and Company, 1973. Print.
Farley, Frank. “What makes politicians stray?”. Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times. Web. May 22, 2011. May 25, 2011. Fergusson, Francis. Shakespeare: The Pattern In His Carpet. New York, NY: Delacorte Press. 1970. Print. Honigman, E. A. J, ed. Othello. Croatia: Arden Shakespeare, 2001. Print. Magill, Frank, ed. Masterplots. Vol. 8. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Salem Press, 1976. Print. 12 vols. Maslin, Janet. “Othello (1995): Film Review; Fishburne and Branagh Meet Their Fate in Venice”. New York Times. New York Times. Web. Dec. 14, 1995. May 25, 2011. Othello. Dir. Oliver Parker. Perf. Laurence Fishburne, Kenneth Branagh, and Irene Jacob. Castle Rock Entertainment, 1995. Film.
Zender, Karl F. “The humiliation of Iago.” Studies in English Literature (Rice) 34.2 (1994): 323. Academic Search Elite. EBSCO. Web. 27 May 2011.