Othello - The motivation of Iago within the play is a matter that has divided critics ever since it was first performed
The motivation of Iago within the play is a matter that has divided critics ever since it was first performed - Othello - The motivation of Iago within the play is a matter that has divided critics ever since it was first performed introduction. There can be no doubt that there is at least a degree of evil in the actions of Iago. However, the view of S.T Coleridge is one that may be a little too extreme. In 1813, Coleridge stated that he perceived Iago to be “artful” in his manipulation of Othello and that Iago was a man whose intentions were “close to those of the devil”.
This view however conflicts with those of the majority, including those of F.R Leavis and W.H Auden. The thesis of Auden is one that is particularly worthy of further analysis. He appears to suggest that Iago is motivated to carry out his devious plots by his enjoyment of the consequences that they have on others. Following this line of argument, it could well be that Iago is somewhat akin to a child who pulls the wings of a fly. A child would carry out such an act, not because they necessarily wish to harm the creature, but due to the feeling of power that they feel they have over their victims.
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William Empson expanded on this point during his 1951 essay “Honesty in Othello”. Empson asserted that Iago is motivated by events that take place during the play. For example, when Iago is passed over for his desired military role, to the benefit of Cassio, Iago realises that Cassio is seen to be of a greater standing in society then himself. It is likely that Othello enlisted the help of Cassio to help him capture the attention of Desdemona for this very reason. Cassio, a noted mathematician, is also widely believed to be of a superior intellect to Iago.
These points are likely to have been a primary consideration in Othello affording Cassio the post of Deputy. Early in proceedings, Iago expresses his jealousy towards Cassio to Roderigo when he states that the skills of Cassio in battle are “mere prattle without practice”. Here, Iago indicates that he feels unduly dismissed by Othello for the post, as he believes that Cassio has little more than a good tactical mind for battle, and does not possess the physical prowess to be a real factor during battle. This is most certainly one source of motivation for Iago.
The point discussed above demonstrates that Iago does not encompass a premeditated desire to commit acts of evil, but rather finds himself manipulated by circumstances that arise within the play itself. The criticism by F.R. Leavis, who contends that the power of Iago is “representative of something inside of Othello”, is most interesting when considering the topic of manipulation.
Othello is undoubtedly a character with many noticeable flaws. One of these is his acute insecurity. This is highlighted in any situation in which Othello feels he is being challenged or undermined, such as that where he suspects Desdemona of being unfaithful. Iago perhaps feels similarly undermined and challenged by the fact that Othello rejects him for promotion in favour of Cassio. Iago therefore possess a strong motive for revenge against Othello and appears to realise that the area he is most insecure about is his relationship with his wife.
Iago then targets Desdemona. He comments that “the Moor is defective” in all the qualities that he will require in order to keep Desdemona. Indeed, critic Kenneth Muir has even surmised that the motivation for Iago to decimate the marriage of Othello is that he himself is lustful for Desdemona. However, others have dismissed this notion, claiming that Iago actually harbours a great resentment for all women. The latter is emphasised by the marriage of Iago to his wife, Emilia.
Emilia is very aware of the real strength of her own marriage and states to Desdemona that there are rewards for adultery that would outweigh the loss of trust between a husband and wife. She continues her argument by asking “who would not cuckold her husband in order to make him a king”. Quite clearly she places material benefits above the value of fidelity. This illustrates that the value of her marriage is not all that great to her, a view perhaps brought on by the indifference of Iago to her.
Those who preceded him also dispute the view of Coleridge of Iago as a man “close to the devil”. A Gentleman of Exeter argued in his 1790 essay entitled “Apology” that Iago did not demonstrate any of these evil traits at any other time in his long military career, hence why he is so implicitly trusted by many at the start of the play.
I believe that Iago is a character drawn to deviousness by an inherent desire for power. It could very well be suggested that his original motives become lost within the web of deceit that he creates. This is perhaps highlighted by his reaction to the request of Othello for a reason to explain his actions. Iago simply replies that they should “demand from him nothing” and should accept that “what they know, they know” and should not pursue him further. Although there might be a number of explanations for this refusal to part with information; i.e. the stubborn nature of Iago, it could simply be that Iago is unable to fathom exactly why he was motivated to pursue his objectives with such vigour.
Aside from the reasons given above as to why Iago is not solely an agent of evil, I would cite his number of open soliloquies as a manner in which to prove that he does indeed possess a human aspect to his actions. I perceive Iago as a man who is driven to great lengths of evil by circumstances, and not as a cold-hearted villain.