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Character of Iago in Shakespeare’s Othello

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    ‘Exceeding Honesty’

    Investigating the Heroic trait in the Character of Iago in Shakespeare’s Othello

    Talking about Iago in his introduction to the play ‘Othello’, A.L. Rowse is of the opinion:

    He (Iago) and Othello stand out as two protagonists in the simple and haunting tragedy, Desdemona their sacrificial victim. (Rowse 271)

    In the four and half centuries since it appeared on the Elizabethan stage, the character of Iago has traversed the long route from being condemned as a inhuman devil like character – the contemptible ‘villaine’ of the First Folio – to being appreciated as a complex study in psychotic behavior. From the very early days of his existence, Iago has divided opinions like few other characters in the Shakespearean oeuvre. He is also one of the most debated characters of the entire English literary canon. Iago was condemned by most throughout the course of critical history, from Coleridge to the more recent Bradley and Granville – Barker. At the same time, his apologists have also steadily grown in ranks. There have been apologists for Iago as early as in the eighteenth century. (Rosenberg 167)

    At a certain level, there remains little to choose between Othello and Iago. In fact, a great number of modern psychological criticism that have consistently maintained Iago to be a representation of the baser side of Othello’s character, do in an inverted way certify this essential similarity between the two characters. Orson Welles also repeats the same view when he talks about his own cinematic representation of the play. He shifted the focus from the relationship between Othello and Desdemona to what he calls the ‘perverse marriage of Othello and Iago’. Both are hardly sane – few true tragic characters are – and both are tremendous personalities with a penchant to take absolute control on the course of events that happen around them. Both fail as a result of their multiple faults. Othello’s jealousy and gullibility are his twin hamartia. He is naïve to a fault for a general. Iago, on the other hand, has many faults, any or all of which can be accounted for his actions and ultimate misfortune – envy, contempt, lust, hatred – the list seems to be endless. Coleridge rightly opined that the sheer number of Iago’s faults make him less human and less believable. However, this paper will try to bring out that all his faults emerge from the very same source, a philosophical disposition that is quite unlikely in a literary villain, and much closer to the heroic mindset.

    ‘Iago, In Search of a Motive’

    Critics and actors right from the beginning of the play’s history has devoted lots of time and imagination in searching for Iago’s motives. Coleridge has famously dubbed him as the ‘motiveless malignity’ in his celebrated study of Hamlet. To call this character motiveless, to place the actions outside the ambit of rational justification itself, is to place him outside the very range of morality. This exclusion renders Iago almost impossible to analyze, because then he remains almost outside the circumference of humanity – nearly super natural. Indeed, for a very long time Iago was considered to be a character outside the ambit of accepted humanity. He was considered the ‘devil’ incarnate, his evil doings were unaccounted for, it was believed to be evil for its own sake: Iago, by common consensus, was evil unqualified. This dehumanization was more akin to the characterizations of the early morality plays of the Tudor times, rather than high Elizabethan tragedy.

    One cannot truthfully deny the residual existence of Morality tradition in the Elizabethan drama, but Elizabethan drama was typically trying to break away from these accepted traditions. Consideration of Iago as the ‘Master Evil or a Machiavel or a Vice’ was thus ‘a limited view’ and ‘an injustice to the complexity of his character, since Shakespeare’s studies in personality are acclaimed by psychologists for their accuracy and profundity’. (West 27). There are two reasons to discard the view that Iago is a flat character, a study in unmitigated villainy. First, Iago continues to intrigue us and capture our interest. The amount of interest that Iago continues to harness among readers, scholars, critics and actors is equaled only by the interest generated by some of the most tremendous tragic characters of the age – Hamlet, Macbeth, Tamburlaine, or Richard III. Secondly, we know Shakespeare too well to believe that he will devote so much care to paint a character in black: a character who will act as a thematic pivot in one of his most ambitious tragedies. He developed the character a lot from the ‘handsome’ Iago of Cynthio’s original novel, which acted as his immediate source.

    One of the biggest problems in understanding Iago is to think of external factors as the sole defining impulses behind his actions. The search of motive is nevertheless necessary, if not central, for an understanding of Iago’s character. The immediate motive that we get at the very outset is the preference that Othello gave to Cassio in matters of military promotion. In the ranks and files of the army, such an act can itself be a reason enough to engender lasting bitterness. Cassio is typically bookish, as compared to Iago who comes across as something of a honest simpleton. He is no great example as a soldier, and Iago can have enough reasons to hate him because of that.

    Cassio has access to circles where Iago cannot even dream of reaching. Iago, however, is noted for his honesty. The very use of the word ‘honest’ is a case in the point over here. There is a degree of condescension in the semantic imports of the word ‘honest’. When Othello says, honest Iago, he is not praising Iago as much as he is patronizing the Ancient. (Babcock 297) To a fiercely individualistic character like Iago, this comes as an insult, added to injured pride.

    The second major motive that has been identified to account for Iago’s villainy is jealousy. Iago suspects an affair between Othello and Emilia. He hints about it to himself on two different occasions. Once in the first act:

    “And it is thought abroad that ‘twixt my sheets

    He has done my office.

                                                   (I. iii. 393 – 4)

    And then again in the second act:

    I do suspect the lusty Moor

    Hath leap’d into my seat; the thought whereof

    Doth like a poisonous mineral gnaw my inwards

    And nothing can or shall content my soul

    Till I have even’d with him wife for wife.”

                                                                           (II.i. 304-8)

    We can dwell on the second soliloquy a little longer, because it opens up a couple of other possibilities. The mention of ‘moor’ points at a certain racist thought that Iago may entertain. There is also an underlying motif of a lust for Desdemona.

    Other causes that have been forwarded as probable reasons to propel Iago’s compulsive villainy are his attitudes towards racism, and even a covert homosexual attraction for Othello. Laurence Olivier, who did import the issue of homosexuality in his film version of Othello, did maintain that although present, it is never one of the most dominant strands. He says he was simply inspired by Ernest Jones’ study of the character. However, he also conceded that it would be too narrowing a view to analyze Iago’s character, and single it out as a reason behind his activities. (Rosenberg 169 ) At the same time, it cannot be denied that Iago is slightly de-centered in sexual thoughts. The fact that his speeches, particularly early speeches dwell too much on the animal imagery and a kind of perverted sexuality cannot be denied. Bowman hints at it, when he says:

    Three times in badgering Brabantio he makes the transports of the eloped lovers analogous to those of animals in lustful disport. (Bowman 460)

    However, the search for motives itself can be quite a futile exercise in forwarding a cause or apology that attempts to account for Iago’s villainy. If one or a combination of the causes can be read as probable provocations for Iago to delve in the depths of caprice, then it is imperative that the audience would feel some kind of sympathy for Iago. However, that rarely happens. It is never highlighted in any of the major productions of the play. ‘His stated motifs are flimsy’ states West, ‘rationalizations that have little to do with wither fact or logic; they are flotsam tossed up from the depths that even his subtle intellect cannot plumb’. (West)

    On the other hand, the absolute absence of motives presents a problem of a different kind. It brings him closer to the devil or the demi-devil prototype, which renders the character with a degree of flatness, which is contrary to the general richness that Iago imports into the texture of the play. Rosenberg, in ‘A Mask of Iago’ makes a very important point. The play, read without the Iago soliloquies would make perfect sense, and would in fact be better and tighter in certain respects. The soliloquies were introduced by Shakespeare, who like most Elizabethan dramatists was interested in the working of evil in the mind. There has to be certain reasons and justifications behind why someone does evil. There has to be certain justification that someone, even a ‘champion of the absolute autonomy of the will’ like Iago, needs to present. (West) The introduction of the soliloquies brings an element of humanity within what would otherwise be abject bestiality.  Soliloquies were stock Elizabethan dramatic devices for the audience to peep into the mind of the character. During a soliloquy, at least, a character was expected to be honest. We can take this soliloquy as an example of this point of view:

    “I have rubb’d this young quat almost to the sense,

    And he grows angry. Now, whether he kill Cassio

    Or Cassio him, or each do kill the other,

    Every way makes my gain. Live Roderigo,

    He calls me to a restitution large

    Of gold and jewels that I bobb’d from him

    As gifts to Desdemona;

    It must not be. If Cassio do remain,

    He hath a daily beauty in his life

    That makes me ugly; and besides, the Moor

    May unfold me to him; there stand I in much peril.

    No, he must die…”

                                                               (V.i. 11 – 22)

    Almost Satanic in its import, we find Iago at this point trying to look for a motive. This is the evil Iago, the Iago of Coleridge, of Bradley: Iago who is evil incarnate. This view puts Iago forward as a consummate evil, who is desperately in search of a motive, by which he can support his dangerous cynicism and almost pathological hatred for everything considered good and virtuous by humankind. This is the Iago who resides outside the ambit of human morality – and thus outside the prerequisite for a heroic character as par Aristotle’s formulation.

    However, there are certain questions that immediately arise with this view. First, it proves that Iago has an active imagination: an imagination that is terrible and portentous, almost like Macbeth. At the same time, the fact that he tries to invent some motive behind his actions, at least for himself, makes him more human. Orson Welles, while questioned on the rather straightforward handling of Iago in his movie, commented: ‘nobody ever works in a big organization, whether it’s military, or business, or theatrical or anything else, without running into a few Iagos’. (Welles) This shows that Iago is not as out of the orbit of human activites as is often conceived, and can even invite identifications at some points. His view of humanity can be twisted, it may reside in the deep recesses of the human mind, to a depth that even the individual cannot possibly comprehend. But it is, nevertheless, present.

    Thus both the blind acceptance of motivations as well as the complete absence of motivations, both has their own share of problems when it comes to an analysis of Iago’s character. There has to be some inherent source of inspiration behind Iago’s actions that resides in the depths of his mind and cannot be fully accorded to external causes: his hubris, his own form of hamartia.

    The Three Voices of Iago

    In order to scale the depths of Iago’s psyche, one has to identify the three voices with which Iago speaks. Lynch has successfully unraveled the three strands that lead to a realization of Iago’s tragic potential.

    The first Iago is the moral Iago, an Iago who is genuinely concerned with the well being of the people around him. The scene where he shows some genuine concern about Cassio over the latter’s drunkenness, or the one who addresses the audience that he gives free and honest advice to people, like the one he gave to Othello, when he told him that men ‘should be what they seem’.

    The second Iago is the cool and calculative Iago. He is the one who gulls his wife Emilia and directs his avarice towards Roderigo. This Iago expresses, at least temporarily, a popular trait among Elizabethan characters, so much so that it became a common ‘humor’ among the Jacobeans – that of ‘self love’. It also shows some hope, in the sense that ‘self love’ is often the basic requisite that guards against melancholia, or the most dangerous type of cynicism. Lynch points out the Biblical adage ‘Love thy neighbor as thee love thyself’ as a point of departure to drive the point home. Self love is often the basic parameter from where the higher forms of love – universal love – emanates. However, more significantly, this move inscribes Iago within the ambit of morality in a Kanthian sense, as a moral being, however individual and warped that sense of morality be.

    However, it is above and beyond these two levels that the real Iago is to be found. The third Iago is present in the soliloquies and the asides, an Iago who is a far cry from the nonchalant and calculative villain of the previous two types, or the good, moral Iago. This Iago is all full of passion, ‘a raging torment’, according to Ketteridge. This Iago is destructive, not destructive of the present for the realization of a higher form of truth and reality, but destroyer of the truth and reality itself, in all its conceivable form.

    Apart from the accepted Aristotelian concept of the tragic hero, a new form of tragic hero emerged in the Elizabethan times, the ‘overreacher’. Othello in the very first scene of the play speaks highly of Iago’s ‘exceeding honesty’. Semantically, ‘exceeding’ can mean ‘exceptionally’- the sense in which Othello must have used the word; but it can also mean ‘going past’. And Iago indeed goes past the concept of ‘honesty’ itself.

    Iago’s mindset is almost existential in its tenor. All apparent binaries of love and hate, bad or good, wicked or benevolent, all differences are sublimated into this destructive rage that Iago unleashes. Even self love looses meaning for him. His unique condition lies in the fact that in his maddening rage of torment, Iago self destructs himself. His attempt to escape in the end is merely a formality. This denial, an almost self-denial, finally throws up an ‘honest’ Iago – honest in the highest possible sense. Honesty where his belief on transience and an innate suspicion on ‘being’ itself does not preclude his own being. Iago, early in the play, says with almost frightening honesty:

    “I am not what I am.” (I.i. 66)

    At this point Iago comes closer to Hamlet than to Vice: a person whose hamartia is his innate and unwavered belief in the ultimate transience and meaninglessness of worldly phenomena. Much like the tragic hero, the feelings he inspires at this point is not of disgust, but pity, and pity of the highest kind; as well as ‘wonder’: a sense that Bradley opines is central to the understanding of the Elizabethan tragic hero.

    Works Cited:

    Babcock, Weston. ‘Iago – An Extraordinary Honest Man’. Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 16, No. 4. (Autumn, 1965)

    Bowman, Thomas D. ‘A Further Study in the Characterization and Motivation of Iago’. College English, Vol. 4, No. 8 (May, 1943)

    Lynch, Tony. ‘Iago’s Evil’.

    Rosenberg, Marvin. ‘In Defense of Iago’. Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 6. No. 2 (Spring, 1955).

    Rowse, A.L. ‘Introduction to Othello’. Complete Works of William Shakespeare. Vol. II. Orbis Publication: London, 1978.

    Shakespeare, William. Othello. A.L. Rowse ed. Complete Works of William Shakespeare. Vol. II. Orbis Publication: London, 1978.

    Welles, Orson. Filming Othello. A Complete Transcription. (

    West, Fred. ‘Iago the Psychopath’. South Atlantic Bulletin. Vol. 43, No. 2, (March 1978).

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