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Iago and Mosca – a Study in Evil

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    William Shakespeare, the greatest dramatist of his time, personifies evil through the character of Iago in his play ‘Othello’. The play was first performed around 1604-05 and printed in 1622. Whereas Ben Jonson, one of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, portrays a similar character through Mosca in his play ‘Volpone’ which was first performed in the year 1605. Iago has a mysterious character. He is quiet and yet alluring. “Shakespeare [himself] was obviously fascinated by the man-he gave Iago more lines than any other character in his work-more than Hamlet, King Lear, or Othello. [1] Mosca on the other hand portrays a different kind of evil. He is never quiet but always playing an active part in the game. Iago and Mosca are the devil incarnate. While the malevolence of these two men follows the same path through the majority of their respective plays, their very different personalities are revealed once their treachery is unveiled. The plots are affected mainly through their actions. They put thoughts into the brains of the rest of the characters, who become puppets in their hands.

    Some characters in Elizabethan drama are just infinitely bad; they were born that way. Keeping in view this point, we can say that Iago and Mosca need no motive. They just love to see people suffer and adore authority; therefore, they cannot even imagine any other individual commanding them. They both have almost the similar motivations, that is, they want to gain power and the one tactful weapon they have is the use of persuasive speech. They use their excellent rhetoric to exploit the human psychology. Iago is jealous of the people and their power around him.

    In the play he expresses openly his jealousy of Cassio and Othello. He is jealous of Cassio’s job and of Othello’s success as a soldier and with Desdemona. He only professes his desire for revenge and power in the initial speeches. In the opening scene of Othello, Iago explains to Roderigo that Cassio who, “never set a squadron in the field,” (I. i. 22) was given the rank of Othello’s lieutenant while Iago, who mentions his exploits at Rhodes and Cyprus, was given the small position of Othello’s ancient.

    From the very first scene of Iago we learn that he feels cheated, therefore, he might be plotting revenge later on. Roderigo, who tries to console Iago over his fallen state, becomes the first victim of Iago’s malice. Iago, from here, uses this position of ancient to his own convenience. Iago manipulates, he uses his position for personal gain. He says, “I follow him to serve my turn upon him,” (I. i. 42). By being the ancient, he can gain Othello’s trust and if he is successful in doing so, he can easily feed him with ideas that can become the cause of Othello’s own downfall.

    Here, Iago says, “I am not what I am,” This statement shows that Iago is now going to be behind a veil and plot, never revealing his true identity. This concealment of identity is present in Mosca’s character as well. Mosca, from the very beginning of the play, has been known as the ‘parasite’. He is feeding on Volpone’s wealth and would not separate himself from it unless he has taken all of it, under his possession. We are aware of Mosca’s intentions from the very beginning. He believes that, “riches are in fortune a greater good than wisdom is in nature. ” (I. ) He keeps maneuvering Volpone’s thoughts, flattering him for his great character who very easily falls a victim to Mosca’s false praise. He says, “You shall have some will swallow A melting heir as glibly as your Dutch Will pills of butter, and ne’er purge for it; Tear forth the fathers of poor families Out of their beds, and coffin them alive In some kind clasping prison, where their bones May be forth-coming, when the flesh is rotten: But your sweet nature doth abhor these courses; You lothe the widdow’s or the orphan’s tears Should wash your pavements, or their piteous cries

    Ring in your roofs, and beat the air for vengeance. ” Volpone is fully aware of his own actions and deeds, but Mosca blinds him with such praises that he forgets how corrupted he actually is. Mosca, so cleverly knits the trap for Volpone to gain his absolute trust that a person as cunning as Volpone, himself, cannot identify between truth and deceit. Here, Mosca reveals his motive and says, “You know the use of riches, and dare give now from that bright heap, to me, your poor observer. ” (I. i) This motive of gaining their master’s trust to gain power lies both in Mosca and in Iago.

    They want to psychologically manipulate their victims. From the very beginning their intentions are revealed and from here onwards they start plotting. They have no plans of using physical power against them, but very cleverly, they will make their victim use their own power against themselves. They are also successful in gaining that trust very soon; Volpone believes Mosca’s words and says, “Take of my hand; thou strik’st on truth in all” and Othello sees “Honest Iago” as a loyal servant who is reluctant to harm his close associates and therefore be of no harm to Othello.

    Iago and Mosca both take advantage of the trust that others place in them and then using this trust as a severe weapon against them. They both appear to be honest servants but it is this absolute trust in their honesty that becomes the cause of destruction in the plays. The difference between Mosca and Iago is that Iago’s plotting is against honest men, whereas, Mosca’s scheming against people who are already corrupt. He laughs at them and says, “Hood an ass with reverend purple, So you can hide his two ambitious ears, and he shall pass for a cathedral doctor. (I. iii) And even then he becomes ‘kind’ and ‘loving Mosca’. Iago and Mosca both share the quality of being excellent actors. Iago is a wonderful actor. For years, he has fooled everyone into thinking he’s honest. Even if Emilia suspects him of being a rascal, she has no idea that he’s truly evil. They have both been successful in pretending to be mere innocent bystanders who are working only as they are told. Mosca is pretending to be the loyal servant who merely conveys the legacy hunters’ messages to Volpone and translates Volpone’s thoughts to them.

    They both use this facade of honesty to exploit the other characters’ trust. They are both gradually gaining power to eventually take over completely. Iago and Mosca both have a strange way of manipulating the thoughts of their victims. Without actually saying anything they can easily influence Roderigo and the legacy hunters. It’s almost as if they put the thoughts into their brain and direct their actions according to their own convenience. They are both highly intelligent but amoral. When these two qualities join they form a deformed character whose cunning and wit becomes the cause of his downfall.

    They dwell so deeply into sin that the only way out for them is by giving in to evil completely so that it may take over their personalities and carry them to hell at a greater speed. They are both egotists. They laugh at others and think they are fools. Iago laughs at Othello’s trusting nature, thinks Roderigo is a gullible fool, treats Emilia as a shrew, and scorns Cassio’s honest virtues. In the same manner, Mosca makes fun of Volpone; he openly laughs at the legacy hunters and Lady Would-be and shows no remorse for Celia’s pious nature.

    When the legacy hunters and lady would-be fall prey to his schemes, he then openly reveals to them their sins and judging them like the devil sitting on his throne and passing sentence on all sinners when, he himself, is the greatest sinner of them all. But the only person he respects and loves is himself. He says, “I fear I shall begin to fall in love with myself” (III. I). His soliloquy shows his arrogant and biased nature. He thinks of no one as highly as himself. The same is held true for Iago. The only person he respects is himself, and everything he does in the play is for the satisfaction of his own ego.

    Through their actions we can say that they both take delight in dishonesty. They are both pessimist. They have no respect for the innocent. Iago knows that Desdemona is innocent but he, at no point, stops himself from humiliating her pious character. On the contrary, he goes all out and convinces Othello of her dishonesty to him, to gain personal satisfaction and content. He says, “When devils will the blackest sins put on, They do suggest at first with heavenly shows, As I do now; for while this honest fool Plies Desdemona to repair his fortune…

    So will I turn her virtue into pitch. ” (II. iii. 351-360) He is paving the way for his revenge and does not mind harming the innocent beings on his way. The same is the case with Mosca. He is the one who goes and puts the thought of letting Celia sleep with Volpone, in Corvino’s mind. Corvino, who at first cries ‘Death to my honor’ changes sides and at hearing that his opportunity of becoming Volpone’s heir is slipping, cries, ‘Death to my hopes’ and agrees on making his own wife sleep with Volpone. Iago and Mosca both use the word ‘cuckold’ for Othello and Corvino.

    A cuckold is a person whose wife has an affair with another man. But at the same time, what they do not realize is that it was their own actions and false reports that made the suspicion arise in Othello and Corvino’s minds. Even then, they are the ones who know about the loyalty of the two wives, but out of their own interest they do not reveal this information to their masters. This shows their shallow and weak character. Their opinion for the human race is very low and they do not consider people as living, breathing humans, but treat them as puppets, directing their every move.

    They both take action quickly and never think twice. They plunge into action quickly and taking the right step every time. It’s almost as if evil gives them leeway so that they may sin at an even greater level, as if evil gives them an opportunity to indulge to such an extent that later there is no way out for them. “Evil is ubiquitous and relentless, but it does not always maintain a tone of finality. ” [2] Iago is hateful and silent and when his evil plans are brought to light, he becomes violent as he first makes an attempt at killing his wife and then commits the murder. Villains in literature are always a source of scary fun. Shakespeare, fortunately, has created in Iago more than just a villain. We may get a vicarious thrill as we watch him operate, but feel a great sense of relief when justice is finally served. ” [3] And when Mosca enters dressed in the royal gown, he is the one who’s veil is taken down and the ‘ambitious [asses’] ears’ are exposed, which he laughed at when Volpone was putting on the gown. [I. iii] When both the villains are exposed and their true natures are revealed, they do not retaliate.

    He resorts to silence, “Demand me nothing. What you know, you know. From this time forth I never will speak word” and Mosca is punished for his manipulation and, perhaps, he too realizes the depth of his sin that he is left baffled and is not asked to say anything in his defense. In fact, the last words that Ben Jonson puts in his mouth are only curses for Volpone. The advocates then sentence him that “first, thou be whipt; then live perpetual prisoner in our gallies” (V. xii) and right after that he is carried away quietly. Malignance and malicious intent has always been a presence in human interactions, but it can manifest itself in many forms. ” [4] Through the portraits of the two antagonists one can see the different sides of evil and the many enticing ways in which evil corrupts the innocent minds and brings them to their doom. Through such literary characters, we are provided with an in-depth analysis of evil and its working.


    • The Illustrated Stratford Shakespeare [Chancellor Press 1993]

    • [1], [3] www. cliffsnotes. com • [2], [4] www. gradesaver. com

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