Among Shakespeare’s four great tragedies, Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello and King Lear, two of the protagonists are defective in thought and the other two are defective in action. Hamlet and Lear is the people of thought and philosophy whereas Othello and Macbeth are both men of actions (Greenblatt and Christ 2012). Othello is a Moorish general, a skilled warrior but he is easily manipulated by his trusted subordinate Iago, who played with his mind and made him suspicious about his wife’s relation with his trusted captain Cassio. Shakespeare draws various layers in each of his characters. In this play, Othello is a strong headed Venetian army chief, but weak at heart, thought and judgement. His failure to trust his wife is the core to the formation of the Shakespeare’s great tragedy. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, one of the greatest Shakespeare scholars once stated that Iago’s hatred for Othello can be defined as “motiveless malignity” (Gale 2016). There are various versions and studies conducted on the motive of Iago in the play. William Shakespeare deliberately constructs Iago (a white man) in a dark character in order to showcase the contrast between the inner self and outer self of a person.
Iago as a character has the most philosophical lines in the play. He is inherently poetic, but strives to be an overreacher. According to the Norton Anthology, the Renaissance literature across all European literature of different languages had a predominant presence of Machiavellian overreachers (Greenblatt and Christ 2012). The period Renaissance observed a shift from the Theo-centric world view to the anthropocentric world view. Man wanted to achieve more, experiment, explore and advance in the society and in life. The morals were reconstructed, reformed and redeveloped and this instantly reflected literature. The major works of Elizabethan tragedies including Macbeth, Doctor Faustus, Richard III and Othello comprised of such characters. Iago is a character whose motives are not clear, however jealousy of Cassio’s achievements have been interpreted as one of the major reasons behind the tragic outcomes in the play by major experts. Raatzsch (2009) stated in his journal that Shakespeare has a long tradition of naming his characters in a metaphoric pattern. The name Iago itself has a resemblance with the term ‘ego’ which defines the core characteristic of the character. Despite the fact that Iago has more depth to his character and is diverse in his action, the name of the play is Othello. Bloom (2014) stated in his work that Iago fits the criteria of the protagonist in Shakespeare’s tragedy more than Othello. Bradley states in his work that Othello remains the title of the play because Othello carries an inherent tragic flaw of suspicion. As a general, Othello should have been more self dependent and thinking individual. He should not have relied on Iago in making up his mind. However, the Moorish general is a misfit in the role and is unable in decision making.
Bloom (2014) stated in his essay that Iago is perhaps a predecessor to Milton’s Satan in “Paradise Lost” and Judge Holden of “Bloom Meridian” written by McCarthy. Iago is also very similar to Edmund in “King Lear”. He strategizes to create rift between two parties not only in order to gain power but also for his own happiness and joy. Despite the fact that the sheer pain and disgust which Othello faces in the end of the play is unmatchable, the twentieth century critics like Leavis and Eliot did not categorise him as a tragic hero. Foakes (1986) states in his essay “The Descent of Iago” that the character of Iago is a predecessor to Ben Johnson’s “Volpone”. Iago speeches are ironical and full of metaphors and paradoxes. He influences and pushes Othello towards his downfall and the protagonist falls for him. According to Sinha (2016), Shakespeare deliberately constructs paradoxes in order to determine the fact that the outer self or the physical self of a human being has nothing to do with the inner self. Othello is a Moor, his skin colour is not white, yet his heart is full of passion and love for Desdemona (Siegel 2009). He is gullible at his heart and is entangled into a game of suspicion and madness in such a way that it outlasts into a domestic disaster for the protagonist. Shakespeare’s tragedies can be primarily interpreted into four different ways; personal, domestic, cosmic and political. According to Bloom, Iago is nothing but a fallen angel in the life of Othello. Iago is the flag bearer of Othello’s army; a position which is quite respectable however, the symbol he carries in his flag is a mark of respect of the wellbeing of Othello and his army (Dobson et al. 2015). However, Shakespeare breeds a sense of irony by constructing Iago as ‘a villain’ in the play who not only misdirects Othello in his personal life but becomes instrumental in destroying him.
Calderwood (1989) identifies Othello as one of the most impactful theatrical villains of all times. A common feature of theatrical villain lies in his trait of sharing his crudity, plans and shrewdness along with the audience. Calderwood (1989) claimed that Iago is an artist who performs his villainy through a prep-planned notion and a higher craft. Iago is a unique round character who shares his pleasure but not his motive along with the audience. He uses and incorporates truths which are unknown to Othello is a specific way to achieve the goals he wants to. Hyman states in his book that Iago’s motives are not clear because he does not possess any motive but inherent curse to cause sin and destroy the lives of other characters in the play. The dependency of Othello on Iago displays that the antagonism can be hidden on anything and everything and blinded trust can result into tragedy. Iago’s strength lies in his deceiving nature rather than clear lies and he instrumentally utilises his skills for the fact that he was not considered for the promotion and Cassio was.
Iago is a white man, yet he performs such heinous crimes in order to create a misunderstanding between the protagonist and his wife and in the process he manipulates his wife to steal the handkerchief from Desdemona and Cassio in his plan. His shrewd intelligence cannot be undermined, despite the fact that he was perhaps unknown to the ending consequences of the play (Belsey 2014). The situation or the circumstances that Iago faces are quite indifferent in such a time period. Iago is flag bearer of Othello. Iago is a white man who is leaded by a Moor in an army. In the medieval setting of the play it is quite a different situation. A white man working under a black skinned fellow was considered to be very uncommon in Europe. The existence of cultural snobbery among the population of the country was a t rue fact in that period (Beck 2016). This form of snobbery might have played a huge role to make Iago instigate such a situation and play with others minds. Iago’s activities are examples of his racist behaviour. Melville (2017) states that Iago repeatedly calls Othello not by his name but by acronyms like “the Moor” or “the devil”. Shakespeare draws a clear picture of the society in the play. Shakespeare showcases the snobbery of the society that the blacks possess the features of Satan. However, Iago is himself the carrier of devilish traits and makes the other characters suffer because of those traits (Sinha 2016).
Shakespeare deliberately uses the dark traits in a white man to develop a picture of the society which generalises the features and traits of a person according to the culture or religion he belongs to. In contrast to such a common traditional vision Shakespeare showcases that good or evil in a person lies in his belief, deeds and thought process. Iago is a white, who are considered as civilised but his deeds are dark and devilish in contrast. Iago is misleads other characters like Othello and Emilia not by misleading facts but by showcasing a disruptive version of a truth. Iago’s character is perhaps a foil to Othello as one has a dark skin whereas another comprises of a devilish and dark inner self.
Alexandra Melville, 2017. “Character analysis: Iago in Othello”,British library article.
Beck, E.E., 2016. Shakespeare’s Iago and Antisocial Personality Disorder.
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Lee Siegel, 2009. “How Iago Explains the World”, New York Times.
Richard Raatzsch, 2009. “The Apologetics of Evil: The Case of Iago”, Princeton, UP, by Colin Mc Ginn University of Miami, University of Notre Dame website.
Sinha, G., 2016. The nature of Evil in Shakespeare. nature.