Imagine that you are an evil person. Do you have a reason for being evil? Is there always a logical motivation for villainous behavior? Most of us, even if we were to imagine ourselves as evil would probably also imagine a motivation for being so: a lust for power, greed for money, for revenge, or just anger about our painful or disappointing experiences. However, Shakespeare’s perennially favorite love-to-hate bad-guy, Iago, seems to defy simple interpretation when it comes to dramatic motive.
In some ways, Iago’s behavior is so despicable it seems unlikely that any single motivation could be reasoned out from the play’s content that would adequately explain the causes of his villainy. He appears rather as what modern-day psychologists might call a sociopath, which is a person who demonstrates no acknowledgment of moral or ethical responsibility for their actions. Although a motive of sorts is ascribed in the play’s dialogue for Iago’s plot to undo Othello, the basis of revenge is slight.
in fact, in order to make Iago a completely unsympathetic character, Shakespeare was careful not to ascribe any viable motive for his desiring revenge against Othello. If the audience perceived that Iago was truly “wronged, and has cause for vengeance, then he must certainly draw warm sympathy” and this would create a digression from the play’s theme of pride as a tragic flaw. (Rosenberg, 1961, p. 168) Also contrary to the idea that Othello gave Iago genuine provocation for revenge is the fact that Othello is consistently portrayed as virtuous, almost single-mindedly so.
This fact is made clear by Iago’s own soliloquy when he reasons out that he is superior to the Moor because he is not susceptible to faith in goodness or virtue: “the Moor is of a free and open nature / That thinks men honest that but seem to be so”; by contrasting himself with Othello, Iago makes it clear that he, himself, is not given to faith in men or their presumed virtues and he views Othello’s faith as a shortcoming: “the remark is not a compliment but a contemptuous acknowledgment of Othello’s naivete and foolishness.
(Sadowski, 2003, p. 171) Despite Iago’s intentionally devised unsympathetic character, the complexity of Iago is adequate enough to create more than a simple cardboard villain. Though his motives for revenge against Othello may be slight or even ambiguous, the complete realization of Iago as a believable, multifaceted individual is accomplished by Shakespeare in brilliant fashion.
An actor playing Iago would have to be careful not to personify Iago as a demonic or outright malicious person, but as a more cleverly masked and complicated person. Instead of acting like a “thug” or a typical evil-doer, Iago would be more effectively portrayed as a sociopath who is familiar with social mores and laws and moral codes, and in fact uses them to attain his self-interests, but has absolutely no sense of personal ethics or morality whatsoever.
If an actor “tried to portray him purely as a symbol of evil[… ] he would have had to ignore parts of Shakespeare’s complex characterization” because Iago is more than a cardboard villain, he represents Shakespeare’s exploration of a criminally insane personality, a person who is “all the more sinister for choosing evil rather than simply representing it. Arguably, some of his motives remain unstated, offshoots of a warped and paranoid nature seething with jealousy and envy. ” (Hall, 1999, p. 72).
Arguing that Iago has chosen to become malicious and evil may sound strange at first, but even the opening of the playsuggests that iago is himself aware of his own dual nature: one side which preceives and udnerstands the laws and moral parameters of the world, what is right and wrong, and another side which is wilfully evil and out to serve only self-interest and revenge. Iago says of himself :”I am not what I am. ” This points to a psychologically unstable condition, but a self-aware condition. In this way it is possible to see “Honest Iago and Villainous Iago are obverse and reverse of the same coin.
On the one side, the pure gold of human concern: ‘Sblood, but you’ll not hear me. If ever I did dream of such a matter, Abhor me. (1. 1. 4) (Calderwood, 1989, p. 94) Despite Iago’s complexities of character and the viability of viewing his character as a manifestation of a sociopath , another, less complimentary interpretation for Shakespeare’s complex villain is possible: that Iago functions as “not much more than a necessary piece of dramatic mechanism;” however, this “provocative judgment runs counter to most people’s impressions of Iago as a fascinating, multifaceted study in evil.
(Hall, 1999, p. 71) That said, it is still a viable criticism of the play that Iago’s multifaceted evil is so dynamic and so all-ecompassing as to go beyond the purely psychological character study nad into actual plot-resolution technical trickery which Shakespeare found necessary to give his play movement and dramatic action. This is a fascinating interpretation, but it seems unlikely in the final analysis because Iago is immediately “recognizable” to audiences, as though he is somebody we all already know.
In fact, he does represent an aspect of ourselves that we all do know and know well, which is the side of us which bases its motives on self-interest and has no feeling for moral obligation or ethical restraint. of course this “dark side” exists in all of us and must be mastered; when we fail to master our dark side we are sometimes called villains, sometimes “sociopaths.
” Shakespeare’s great genius in the creation of Iago was to produce a character whose immersion in the “dark side’ was so deep as to create great tragedy, but so realistically rendered that it was universally recognizable as a constant aspect of and threat to human social order. References Calderwood, J. L. (1989). The Properties of Othello. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press.
Hall, J. L. (1999). Othello A Guide to the Play. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press. Rosenberg, M. (1961). The Masks of Othello The Search for the Identity of Othello, Iago, and Desdemona by Three Centuries of Actors and Critics. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. Sadowski, P. (2003). Dynamism of Character in Shakespeare’s Mature Tragedies. Newark, DE: University of Delaware Press.