The Triumphant Villain of Iago
In analysis of Shakespeare’s classic tragedy of “Othello,” famed 20th century literary critic W. H. Auden suggests that all the dastardly deeds are of Iago’s doing, and that “everything he sets out to do, he accomplishes”. I personally agree with this stance, as well as Auden’s proclamation that Iago is a “triumphant villain”. To fully understand how Iago fits the role of the “triumphant villain,” however, one must understand that there are two parts to this claim. The first claim that Auden makes is that Iago is a villain.
Shakespeare has only once in his literary career ever applied the term of “villain,” to a character, and that, fittingly, was to Iago. However, to further qualify Iago’s character to be a villain, one must go beyond simply the author’s intentions, but to the deeply rooted qualities that a villain must have. The Oxford English Dictionary defines a villain as an “unprincipled or depraved scoundrel; a man naturally disposed to base or criminal actions, or deeply involved in the commission of disgraceful crimes”.
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In close reading of the tragedy of Othello, it is very easy to infer that Iago does indeed fall into all of these categories quite gratifyingly. The actions that Iago commits certainly do qualify as unprincipled and depraved. It also does most definitely seem that Iago is naturally disposed to these crimes, seeing that he doesn’t feel any remorse from his actions, nor does he relinquish any sort of actions that would infer that he is attempting to stop all the despicable deeds he has planted the seeds for from being committed.
The second claim implied by Auden is that Iago is triumphant in his villainous acts. The Oxford English Dictionary defines “triumphant” as “that has achieved victory or success; conquering; ‘victorious; graced with conquest”. Seeing that Iago succeeded in tricking Othello into believing that his wife was unfaithful, along with leading both of them to an unfortunate death, it would be extremely safe to assume that Iago achieved much victory in success. By simply referring to the textbook definitions of the words, the pieces fall together very easily.
Iago’s actions are the next step in truly understanding what a triumphant villain really is. Iago would be considered by literary minds to be a “flat character”. Once again, the Oxford English Dictionary defines “flat” as “the absolute, undeniable truth; a defiant expression of one’s final resolve or determination”. As the play describes his actions, Iago magnificently qualifies for these positions. All of his actions pay off in the end, at least for him, which quite possibly can be described as his final resolve or determination.
Iago does not change over the course of time, and stays true to his motives from the beginning of the story he carries them out until the very end. He remains locked in his megalomania, obsessed with the unearthing of justifications for his twisted vision of himself; constantly acting out and searching for a plausible rationalization of what he’s doing; preying on the reader’s own thoughts while simultaneously digging himself deeper and deeper into his own masochistic hole.
In the beginning of the play, Iago begins by planting seeds of doubt in Othello’s mind about Desdemona’s faithfulness to him. This creates an inner struggle within Othello that begins to eat away inside of him, and causes him to further doubt Desdemona. Iago continues to spin a web of lies that entangles Othello to the point of no return. After Iago’s constant prodding, Othello becomes so filled with doubt that he does not even believe the denial of his own wife.
This causes mayhem to be wreaked in the household, and Iago to get his way once again. Othello admits “O brave Iago, honest and just/Thou has such noble sense of thy friend’s wrong! ” which proudly proclaims that he has completely submitted himself to Iago’s lies and is completely entranced by all the lies that Iago has sprung on him” Iago’s character is shown as being of pure evil in ways other than simply deception. Iago deceives not only his friends and colleagues, but even his own wife.
Richard Grant White, in an essay regarding the acting of Iago, brings forth a point that “now it is plain that Iago had no particular reason or occasion to deceive his wife on this point. He merely showed to her what he showed to everybody, a readiness to sympathize with the joys and sorrows and wishes of those around him. Emilia, a woman of the world, a woman of experiences, who knew her husband better than many wives know theirs, is yet imposed upon by this skin-deep warmth and surface glow of his character. It is not until the climax of the tragedy that even she is undeceived. Once his own wife, Emilia, tells Othello of Iago’s wrongdoing, Iago takes her life in order to seek vengeance; the ultimate display of evil and deceit. From readings of the text, analyzing the words, and seeking out commentary regarding the characters and story of Othello, much new information is brought to light regarding Iago’s actions and what really causes him to act out with such malicious content. Though many things can ultimately be said about him as a character, only one need’s to: Iago is the portrait of the triumphant villain; one of literature’s most definitive villains.