Othello: Coleridge said that Iago was a "motiveless malignity" - Othello Essay Example

In light of this comment explore the character of Iago using other critics’ ideas.

Coleridge’s intended meaning in this statement was that, when Iago began his scheme-making, he had no idea of what he aimed to achieve by them - Othello: Coleridge said that Iago was a "motiveless malignity" introduction. It is obvious to anyone who has seen the play that Iago is a malignity: badly intentioned. What is less obvious is why.


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In Iago’s first soliloquy he says of the suspicion he has about Othello having had an affair with his wife that:

“I know not if’t be true;

Yet I will do as if for surety”

This is the usual basis for the argument that Iago is pure evil and sets out only to do general harm and cause chaos. In this soliloquy he proves that his given “motives” or aims are frail. The suggested reasons for Iago’s actions range from the idea that Emilia has been adulterous with Othello, to the idea that she has been adulterous with Cassio; it is sometimes hinted at that he has a lustful eye for Desdemona. The critic A.C. Bradley dismisses these suggestions as “the usual lunacies”. This makes sense to me as there is as little evidence to support any of these ideas.

I think that out of all Iago’s given motives, . It is early on in Act One Scene One where this is the most apparent, perhaps because it is at this point that his emotions are at their most raw- his attention has yet to become diverted by his increasingly elaborate scheme. In modern, post-Freud times we might have a greater understanding of these psychological factors which drove Iago to committing his crimes. By gaining promotion over Iago, it is Cassio who feels the most of his wrath:

Preferment goes by letter and affection”.

In present-day, we may well feel more sympathetic towards Iago, in light of this. In Elizabethan times

Although any further criticisms of Cassio are only derived from Iago’s resentment at being superseded, the fact that the promotion has taken place is one of the rare pieces of information that Iago delivers to us that can be substantiated. Short of this the only truths we will find of Iago come from his soliloquised streams of consciousness- if Iago possesses one positive attribute it is an accurate perception of others, beyond the prosaic:

He hath a daily beauty in his life that makes me ugly”

This moment of direct self-reflection shows that Iago possesses human traits (albeit negative ones) that in my mind eliminate the idea that he is some sort of manifestation of evil. He often shows signs of enjoying the misery he puts other characters through:

“Pleasure and action make the hours seem short”

The admission that he wishes to make Othello “thank me, love me and reward me” can be traced again to his jealousy. Iago is often honoured in being called resourceful in his scheme making but in my mind his mysteriousness and cynicism is often mistaken for shrewdness. Iago can and is credited with being “an excellent actor”-the proof of this is best expressed by Othello who credits him with having “exceeding honesty”. John Goodwin says “Iago is an enigma; his motives seem inadequate to the tragic conclusion yet watching, one is seldom conscious of this”.

On the contrary I think many of his reactions are ill thought-out and impulsive- for example in killing Emilia he proves at least one of three points. The first is that he is, after all is said, the thoroughly cold, detached character he is painted as. The second and third possibilities are that his scheme is flawed (his main plan of action at least by the end of the play seems to be to eliminate those who ‘know too much’)

or that he is in a completely loveless marriage. This must be viewed through an Elizabethan rather than a modern perspective. It seems to me that, as often was the case that Iago and Emilia’s marriage acts only to serve a physical and practical purpose. This seems to be mutually acknowledged between the couple. In a Royal Exchange production of the play Emilia is portrayed as a womanly, worldly-wise character that shows signs of being the only character in the play that is not blind to Iago’s schemes.

In response to this the Royal Exchange Iago seems nervous around his wife and appears rather pathetic in his cries of “filth thou liest”, when she reveals his lies in the last scene. Emilia may not have realised until this point in the play what Iago is planning to do, and in some critics’ eyes this paints her as foolish and short-sighted. However she shows a type of knowing wisdom that Desdemona lacks on the subject of marriage-“let husbands know their wives have sense like them”. This suggests that her experience of married life has been possibly one of submissiveness, “playing the fool” while perhaps knowing more of what is going on than she lets on to her husband.

Iago shows signs of misogyny throughout the play and in one of the couple’s scenes together he calls her a “good wench”, indicating how little respect he has for her.

When deciding whether Iago is motiveless or not it is important to look at the actual crimes he stands accused of. Essentially Iago is the agitator- all events that occur as a result of his “meddling” could be said to be only other characters’ reactions to ideas that Iago has falsely implied. To this extent I think it is better to describe him as a “catalyst” than as a puppet master. It could be argued for example that Othello and Desdemona’s’ marriage was founded on shallow grounds and therefore had the potential for difficulty regardless of Iago’s interference. The following quote from Othello is the usual basis for this argument:

“She loved me for the dangers I had passed and I loved her that she did pity them.”

However I think that it would be hard to come to the conclusion that Iago is blameless in light of this. It goes without doubt that he makes a concerted effort to sabotage the course of Othello’s marriage. In his “how am I then a villain” soliloquy he sarcastically feigns innocence in relaying how he is “counselling Cassio to a parallel course”. It seems to me that he himself realises that he can play this ‘plausible deniability’ card in the event that he is found to be at fault.

It is in this soliloquy that Iago’s language incriminates him as depraved, not just by intention but by nature. He shows a certain cynicism, if not disregard for religion-“her (Desdemona’s) appetite shall play the God”. He also seems to pride himself on the wickedness of his actions by way of comparing them to that of demonic beings- “When devils will their blackest sins put on they do suggest with heavenly sins as I do now”. By this I feel it is not Shakespeare’s intention to implicate Iago as a symbol or personification of the devil, but to portray, what the critic Bloom calls a “nihilistic personality”- definitely ill-intentioned, but still nevertheless human.

“So-called motives are merely justifications for his actions (which he sadistically enjoys)”.

Still, we can see how an alternative meaning can be extrapolated when Iago rephrases St.Paul’s “By the grace of God I am what I am” into his decidedly elusive “I’m not what I am” it is easy to see how to be non-religious, especially in more religion based societies of previous centuries, was something to keep to yourself. I think that this in itself could be a reason why Iago was driven to the secretive and begrudging behaviour he demonstrates. For anyone to renounce religion and God even so subtly was seen as evil in itself- they would be instantly labelled a ‘malignity’

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