Othello and Coleridge
In his criticism of Shakespeare’s Othello, Coleridge claims that Iago acted from “motiveless malignity”, stating that Iago’s motives were not at all believable - Othello and Coleridge introduction. However he also states that Iago is constantly “motive hunting” to try and make his deeds seem less terrible. I believe that this is not the case. Although they are often weak, there are some clear motives that appear throughout the play, jealousy of the moor being the most important one. Coleridge claims that Iago is a passionless character. However, this can also be disproved as we also see that he finds considerable pleasure in ruining others, “for my sport and profit”.
He also seems to suffer from the same weaknesses that he accuses other characters of suffering from, as Coleridge suggests. Iago does suffer from jealousy. It was the initial motive that encouraged him to begin, although towards the end he may have lost sight of this. It was the promotion of Cassio over him for the Lieutenancy that was the catalyst for his deeds. Cassio is the only other character that Iago has a motive for ruining and is the only character embroiled in Iago’s plotting who lives to the end of the play.
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It was Iago’s main objective to ruin Cassio whilst ruining Othello. Ironically, his schemes result in Cassio becoming governor of Cyprus once it has been discovered what happened. Iago also appears to not believe in love but only in lust. He truly believes that Desdemona and Othello’s marriage would have eventually ended even without his help because he assumes that after a while they will no longer lust after one another. He believes that they are just fulfilling an animal instinct that has little to do with love.
However, Shakespeare is careful to show that Othello and Desdemona are in love and not just gratifying their basic desires, in Act 1 Scene 3 Desdemona reveals the depth of her love for Othello, “That I did love the moor to live with him… the rites of which I love him are bereft me, And I a heavy interim shall support by his dear absence. Let me go with him. ” Although he believes that Othello has slept with his wife, he is jealous not because he loves her, but because he believes that she is his possession. He does not mention this to anyone else as he is ashamed and embarrassed by her betrayal.
He may believe this to give himself another motive, or it could be because he believes all women to be governed just by their desires. It is an example of his misogyny. However, Iago contradicts himself when in one of his soliloquies he claims to loves Desdemona. Nevertheless he only mentions this once and this may just be Iago “motive hunting” as Coleridge suggests. He may even love her to “diet (his) revenge”. It is important to remember when studying Othello that the setting of Venice conjured up some very specific images for the audiences at the time. At the time, Venice was well renowned for its liberal policies.
It was called the “liberty of Venice”. Even respectable women had a reputation for adultery and their husbands were well known for their fits of jealousy. Keeping that in mind we can see that Iago is actually behaving like a typical Venetian husband in his jealousy of Emilia. We can also see that Othello is quite unusual for not acting in this way until he is pushed, as he lives in a climate of jealousy. Another reason for Iago’s jealousy is Othello’s position. Iago tries hard to be socially mobile, he is not content with his current position in life and wishes to be higher up.
This was virtually impossible in Shakespearian times- the class that you were born into was the class that you remained in. However, Othello seems to have done this through his army skills. He has no family, but he is still respected throughout Venice. Nevertheless, it is never forgotten that Othello has no background, and this is thrown back at him throughout the play by characters like Brabantio and Roderigo, “corrupted by spells and medicines bought of mountebanks. ” Brabantio says this of Desdemona after her and Othello have got married.
He assumes that because Othello has not come from the same background as him, he must be into witchcraft. A big motive for Iago is that he wishes to have power over others who are socially superior to him. He blames Othello and Cassio for being of a higher class than he is and so wants to get them back. There is a difference between Iago’s internal motives and his external motives. The external motives are the motives that he tells Roderigo and the internal motives are the ones portrayed in his soliloquies where he directly addresses the audience.
We see Iago’s real character through these, or at least the character that Iago thinks he is. Iago uses the soliloquies to plot his next action, which shows that he did not have a clear plan from the beginning but that he just rises to opportunity. We see this from lines such as “let me see now” and “how, how”. Iago provides us with most of his motives in his soliloquies. In the first he tells the audience of who he wishes to deceive by his schemes. By addressing the audience personally, we are placed in a privileged position and this helps us get drawn in to his plots.
His soliloquies often come after he has performed one of his deeds. His motives come after the actions as if he is forever trying to justify them. Coleridge also believed that Iago might have done this as a challenge for himself, “all will in intellect”. Iago is a very intelligent man, however he does underestimate his wife and her intellect when she works out what has happened- but too late. Fortunately it is enough to expose him for what he really is. Often it is a case of luck rather than intelligence that helps Iago to succeed.
The discovery of the handkerchief by chance is an example of just how fortunate Iago is. Without this, Iago’s plans may not have worked as he would have difficulty proving Desdemona’s disloyalty. Iago’s timing is also impeccable which helped him use various situations to his advantage. For example, he manipulates the conversation with Cassio in Act 4 Scene 1 so that it appears to Othello, who is watching, that they are talking about Desdemona when they are in fact talking about Bianca. This is extremely clever and shows how skilful he is at manipulating people.
Iago could have been found out if it was not for the high opinion that Othello had of him. He often refers to him as “Honest Iago” as do many other characters in the play. It is this blind faith in Iago that stops Othello reasoning properly- he even questions his own wife’s fidelity on Iago’s word. Great skill is shown on Iago part here as he builds up other peoples trust by never before giving them any reason to doubt him. A reason why Othello was more willing to trust Iago than Desdemona may be that Othello could believe he has some reason to distrust Desdemona.
She has already lied to her father and married Othello behind his back. Coleridge also argues that Iago’s only reason for his betrayal is for the fun of it and that it was not even for the money, ” However Iago’s repetition of the phrase “put money in thy purse” seems to disprove this. He does have a desire for money; not only for his own greed, but as he may believe that this will promote him socially. Nevertheless, money was probably not a strong motive, merely an incentive. He originally sets out to make money from Roderigo by promising him that he will make Desdemona fall in love with him.
This was even before he decides to ruin Othello. This shows that money was forever at the forefront of Iago’s mind. Another argument that Coleridge puts forward is that of Othello’s race. He believes that Othello is not necessarily black as this is only implied. He is frequently referred to as “the moor” but that does not necessarily mean that he is black. He suggests that it is Roderigo who has confused the term “moor” believing it to refer to Othello’s race. Therefore he sees Othello’s race as not being a believable motive for Iago.
He may have just come from a different background to the other characters, one that they are wary of. Brabantio accuses Othello of seducing Desdemona by witchcraft, which shows that many of the characters were ignorant of other cultures rather than were completely racist. However, when we look to scenes like Act one scene one, where Roderigo tells Brabantio that his daughter is “covered with the Barbary horse”, we may assume that Othello is black. Othello himself also refers to his race when in Act 3 Scene 3 he doubts whether he is good enough for Desdemona, “Haply for I am black”.
Difference performances of Othello may show Othello as black or white, depending on their interpretation of the play. In Elizabethan times, racism was not an issue. This shows that Iago may have been unaware of his own racism and so not listed it as one of his main motives. We can tell that Iago is prejudiced against Othello because of his race and background because of the frequent comments he makes concerning it, “an old black ram is tupping your white ewe”.
He uses Othello’s insecurities about his own race to his advantage when he insinuates that Desdemona would rather be with someone “Of her own clime, complexion and degree. This may reflects Iago’s own reservations about working with Othello. Othello may represent the unknown as he was from a part of the world that was unfamiliar at the time. Therefore, Iago may have done this through fear of him. Maybe he felt that by ruining Othello he had conquered his own fear. Black was often equalled with evil at the time, therefore it was quite controversial to have a black hero with great virtues like Othello. Therefore, Shakespeare’s decision must have been deliberate.
He may have wished to question the views about black people that many Elizabethans held he also might have wished to provide Iago with another motive. Although Iago does have a reason for wanting to ruin Othello, he also harms Desdemona, Bianca and Roderigo, all of whom are innocent characters. He may do this as a way of getting at Othello- through ruining Desdemona he has affected Othello, he was not thinking as Desdemona as a person, but merely as the way to get “even” with Othello. He does the same with the other characters. They are pawns in Iago’s game; he gets what he can from them and then disguards them.
Even though Iago uses innocent characters for his own benefit, I feel that this does not prove that Iago suffers from “motiveless malignity” but proves that he will do anything to get at Othello, even if it means hurting others. Another reason for this may be because he loves Desdemona, which he mentions in one of his soliloquies, and feels that as she does not love him in return then she should be punished. However, as Iago also seems to hate women and not believe in love, this doe not seem very likely. It is clear that Iago is malignant by his attempts to ruin completely innocent characters.
He also shows malignancy when he goads Othello into strangling Desdemona rather than killing her in a less violent way. He does this because he wishes to make Othello not be able to live with himself after he has done it. He may also wish Desdemona to be terrified before she died which would not be the case if Othello had poisoned her as he was originally going to do. However, it seems to me that Iago was not motiveless. He had his reasons even though they were not in proportion to his actions. Iago’s motives seem to have been a creation of his own mind. His jealousy is based on suspicion and ignorance rather than fact.