Iago himself offers many explanations for his behaviour during the play, none of them entirely convincing
Iago himself offers many explanations for his behaviour during the play, none of them entirely convincing - Iago himself offers many explanations for his behaviour during the play, none of them entirely convincing introduction. Coleridge famously argued that in Iago we see the ‘motive hunting of motiveless malignity’. How do you explain Iago?
In Shakespeare’s ‘Othello’, the character of Iago is both key and complex. His role in the corruption and downfall of Othello and the destruction of Desdemona is the central theme in Shakespeare’s tragedy. However, critical analysis of Iago’s role and motivation, or lack of it, has resulted in some diversity of opinion.
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Coleridge’s argument that in Iago we see the ‘motive hunting of motiveless malignity’ implies that the evil that is Iago is not truly motivated but seeks such a motive for self justification. A.C Bradley also argues that in Othello we see the downfall of a noble hero through the force of external evil that is Iago. However, F.R Leavis refutes this interpretation by, arguing that the tragedy is ‘Othello’s character in action’ and that ‘Iago is subordinate and merely ancillary’.
These are very different interpretations of such a central character illustrating the difficulty in definitively defining and ‘explaining’ Iago. The character of Iago must also be seen in the context of when the play was written and the audience towards which it was directed. Juliet Mc Lauchlan makes a significant argument that Elizabethan audiences ‘would have been less puzzled. They expected him (Iago) a villain to be a villain.’ Elizabethan audiences would not have required clear motives for Iago’s actions in order to believe in him since acceptance of the vile actions of a play’s villain was expected. In this case the devilish actions of Iago provide the perfect counterpoint to the noble Othello.
My interpretation and explanation of Iago’s character has some similarities with that of Coleridge and Bradley, but where they interpret Iago’s actions as being intrinsically evil, I believe that some motivation exists for his actions at least in the initial phases of his plot.
At the very start of the play we are presented with the key motive for Iago’s hatred towards Cassio. We also gain insight into the character of Iago.
When Roderigo asks of Iago:
‘Thou didst hold him (Othello) in thy hate’ (Act I, Scene i, Line 6),
‘despise me if I do not’ (AI, Si, L7).
The strength of Iago’s feelings is summed up in this response. Iago feels slighted since Othello has promoted Cassio to be his lieutenant in preference to him. It is this grievance that provides the earliest and most substantial of Iago’s many motives for the villainy that is to follow. This initial motive does not seem to be adequate for the extent of hatred Iago feels but we can see from this exchange with Roderigo that he is an arrogant man entirely convinced of and obsessed with his own worth. He states:
‘I know my price, I am worth no worse a place’ (A1, Si, L10).
Iago feels his experience in the field of war, as observed by Othello in previous campaigns, should set him above Cassio who’s knowledge of war is theoretical. He describes Cassio as someone
‘that never set a squadron in the field,
Nor the division of a battle knows’. (A1, Si, L19)
In this exchange with Roderigo we also learn of the devious nature of Iago since he is prepared to give the outward appearance of following Othello merely to suit his own ends. He explains to Roderigo
‘In following him, I follow but myself.
Heaven is my judge, not I for love and duty,
But seeming so for my own peculiar end’ (AI, Si, L6).
Iago is presented as a character that regards his own worth very highly and is fiercely proud of his practical skills in battle. This is combined with a duplicitous nature. To such a character the grievance felt by being overlooked for promotion is real and significant and I believe this acts as the initial catalyst which causes Iago to plot the downfall of Othello and Cassio and ultimately the destruction of Desdemona.
The initial plan of Iago is to awaken Brabantio (father of Desdemona) and inform him that Othello and Desdemona are married without his consent. Iago’s cunning nature is evident in that he has Roderigo take the lead and then leaves so as not to be seen as acting against Othello
‘Farewell for I must leave you.
It seems not meet, nor wholesome to my place,
to be produced-as, if I stay, I shall-
Against the Moor.’ (AI, Si, L140).
This theme of Iago manipulating others to do his bidding continues throughout the play. It is clear that he has the intellect and the understanding of the character of others to bend them to his will. He is a ‘puppet master’, plotting the downfall of his adversaries using others as mere tools to serve his ends. Indeed, the fact that Iago has so little regard for other souls has caused some critics to consider him a devil with diabolical intent. Leach Scragg notes that Iago ‘has been variously regarded as a devil on a metaphysical level, as a devil incarnate, as a man possessed and as a man in the process of becoming a devil by denial of the basic of humanity. ` Iago’s cunning can be seen in Act I Scene iii when he convinces Roderigo to raise money and to pursue his courtship of Desdemona (now Othello’s wife) in Cyprus. He tells Roderigo
‘Thou art sure of me. Go, make money. I have told thee
often, and I retell thee again and again, I hate the Moor.
My cause is hearted; thine hath no less reason. Let us be
conjunctive in our revenge against him. If thou canst
cuckold him, thou dost thyself a pleasure, me a sport’. (AI, Siii, L355). In Iago’s treatment of Roderigo we see possibly the clearest example of his willingness to treat others as mere pawns to meet his own ends. Having convinced Roderigo to sell his land to finance his venture and to join him in his plan to discredit Cassio. Iago finally persuades Roderigo to be party to the ambush and the murder of Cassio. When this goes badly wrong and Roderigo is wounded, it is Iago who stabs and kills him to prevent his plot being revealed. Roderigo’s final words:
‘O damned Iago! O inhuman dog!’ (AV,Si,L62)
are a fitting farewell to the man who mercilessly manipulated him and finally took his life. The treatment and disposal of Roderigo is an insight into the inhuman, conscienceless side of Iago’s character, which allows him to treat other human being as disposable tools. This lends weight to the argument that Iago is indeed in the process of becoming a devil by the denial of the basics of humanity.
Other motives exist within the play for Iago’s actions, but these seem to be secondary to his initial grievance over Cassio’s promotion. He states his belief that he may have been cuckolded by Othello, and possibly Cassio as well. Iago proclaims his concerns:
‘For that I do suspect the lusty Moor
Hath leaped into my seat; the thought whereof
Doth, like a poisonous mineral, gnaw my inwards
And nothing can or shall content my soul
Till I am evened with him, wife for wife.’ (AII, Si, L286)
The strength with which Iago expresses these feelings is at odds with the timing of events and it almost as if he is looking to justify his actions. This is consistent with the Coleridge view of Iago as a motiveless malignity hunting a motive.
Iago’s hatred of Othello can also be seen as a consequence of his racial prejudice against the Moor. At the outset of the play when Iago is informing Brabantio of Desdemona’s marriage to Othello he says:
‘Even now, now, very now, an old black ram
is tupping your white ewe. Arise, arise!
Awake the snorting citizens with the bell,
Or else the devil will make a grandsire of you
Arise I say!’ (Act 1, S i, L 85)
The insulting references to Othello as the devil and the imagery of the black ram with the white ewe are evidence of Iago’s prejudice. To Elizabethian audiences the concept of the devil being twinned with the colour black was normal and accepted. Thus, Iago’s prejudice against Othello would have been a more convincing motive for his actions than for current day audiences.
Further subsidiary motives for Iago’s actions are suggested by his proclamation of love for Desdemona
‘Now I do love her too;
Not out of absolute lust, though peradventure
I stand accountant for as a great sin,
But partly led to diet my revenge’ (AII, SI, L282).
Iago accepts that Othello’s love for Desdemona is selfless, noble and similarly that the affection that Cassio and Desdemona feel for each other is appropriate and creditworthy. In Act II, Scene i, Line 277, Iago confirms his views.
‘That Cassio loves her, I do well believe’t;
That she loves him, ’tis apt and of great credit.
The Moor, howbeit that I endure him not,
Is of a constant, loving, noble nature,
And I dare think he’ll prove to Desdemona
A most dear husband.’
and in Act V, Scene I, line 19 Iago says of Cassio:
‘He hath a daily beauty in his life
that makes me ugly.’
Iago’s own nature is governed by self-interest with no regard for others. In Othello, Desdemona and Cassio, he is confronted with evidence of love, loyalty and devotion which is not self-serving and he is driven to destroy that which shows his own character in so sordid a light.
Many critics have proposed various interpretations for the actions of Iago. What is certain is that Iago is a complex and powerful character driven by self-interest. I do not believe that either the S.T Coleridge or A.C Bradley interpretations of Iago as an evil malignancy, even one seeking motives, adequately explains Iago.
Iago has numerous motives within the play. His jealousy over the promotion of Cassio, his racial prejudice against the Moor, his beliefs that he may have been cuckolded, his love for Desdemona and even his hatred of the nobility and selfless nature of the relationships between Othello, Desdemona and Cassio, all provide a wealth of possible motives for his actions. The fact that the consequences of his actions are so cataclysmic leads Iago to seek to justify his position as the play progresses It seems that, as the plot unfolds, the consequences go beyond that which even Iago intended!
Iago’s disregard for human life and willingness and ability to bend others to his own will gives him an aura of ‘devil incarnate’. However, I believe that his denial of basic humanity leads him to assume the characteristics of a devil rather than he becomes a supernatural presence within the play.
Any explanation of Iago must also take into account the audience for which the play was written. An Elizabethan audience would have readily accepted the machiavellian actions of the play’s villain and would have shared a prejudice against Othello, who was both a moor (black) and an outsider.
Iago presents a face to the world that is at odds with his true nature and intent. His motives sometimes appear real and are sometimes proclaimed after the event as self-justification. He is a professional soldier, driven by self interest and deeply wounded by what he believes are the slights of others.He has an almost inhuman capacity to manipulate and use others to achieve his aims at whatever cost to themselves.
The character of Iago is both fascinating and horrifying and defies full explanation, as he himself confesses:
‘But I will wear my heart upon my sleeve
For daws to peck at; I am not what I am.’ (A I, Si, L 62)