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Steven Austin

Dr. Scott Curtis

Shakespeare II

15 August 00

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William Shakespeare’s Othello is a tragedy that takes place in Venice, Italy. The play is set in the late sixteenth century, during the wars between Venice and Turkey. Othello and Desdemona, despite their differences in age and race marry and attempt to build a life together. Their marriage is sabotaged when the envious Iago, convinces Othello that Desdemona is unfaithful. Othello would not be as well known without possibly the most heinous villain in Shakespeare, Iago. Iago is an extremely complex and far from ordinary character. His utter lack of convincing motivation for his actions makes him a difficult character to understand. It is Iago’s views of human nature that let he be manipulative, cunning, and cowardly towards others. His complexity and uniqueness make him one of Shakespeares greatest villains.

Iago sees human nature in the from of brutish base desires with no redeeming features. Iago is unlike any other character in Othello. He is devoid of all positive human emotion and is not subject to the common human passions. Iago says, “I am not what I am.”(1.1.65). This implies a difference between the name of “Iago” and the creature by that name. Iago demonstrates all the evils of which humans can conceive, the horrible union of the worst in men and women. Iago’s position yields him powerful insight, but his “insight is of the sort which reduces all impulse and motive to baseness…” (Bayley 10). Iago understands others because he understands himself “...knowing what I am, I know what she [Desdemona] shall be.” (4.1.74). Iago is more than “a bit of dramatic mechanism” (105), as J. I. M. Stewart describes him; he is a full character, enriched all the more by his lack of self. Iago’s outlook on life is based on his non-comprehension of love. He has a very animalistic attitude towards love and life. The constant metaphoric association of animals and humans in this way portrays Iagos bestial attitude towards sex. He sees love as evidence of the lesser nature of human beings. Iago says, “It is merely a lust of the blood and a permission of the will.”(1..7-8). Iago intimately understands the nature of gender as a masque behind which each of us plays a role. “The self-portrait everyone paints of themselves, the well-guarded persona by which they live.” (Bayley 176). Iago does not merely exist to “label others and so get them in his power” (Bayley 180); he knows they have already labeled themselves, and so uses their own labels against them. He is driven to compel others to behave in accordance with their expected gender roles. Iago treats the women close to him despicably, using them as a means to promote his own evil. He is also a very individualistic person, concerned with only himself and what he wants. Iago sees people as objects rather than real human beings.

Iago’s manipulative character can be seen throughout the play. He takes joy in being able to control others. It is his views about human beings that let Iago manipulate others as he does. Iagos entire plan begins when Cassio is promoted to the position of lieutenant, a position that Iago believed he rightfully deserved. Iago comes up with numerous ideas to steal the position of lieutenant away from Cassio. The first to fall victim to Iagos manipulation is the half-witted Roderigo. Iago knows Roderigo is consumed by lust for Desdemona, and would do anything to make her his own. Iago tells Roderigo that the only way to win Desdemonas love is to make money to procure gifts for her. Iago says, “… Put money in thy purse, it cannot be that Desdemona should long continue her love to the Moor - put money in thy purse…” (1..46-8). However, Iago is just taking the gifts intended for Desdemona and keeping them for himself. Roderigo eventually starts to question Iagos honesty. When faced with the accusations, Iago simply offers that the killing of Cassio will aid in his cause, and Roderigo falls for it. In doing this, Iago keeps Roderigo in the dark and continues to profit from him monetarily. Roderigo is also used as a device in both Cassio and Othellos downfall. Like Roderigo, Cassio follows Iago blindly, thinking the whole time that Iago is trying to aid him, when in fact Iago, motivated by his lust for power, is attempting to remove Cassio of his position as lieutenant. With Roderigos help, Iago causes Cassio to forfeit his position as Othellos second-in-command. Iago’s plan is to make Cassio commit an act that would forfeit his position as lieutenant. During a party in the castle, Iago says, “If I can fasten but one cup upon him, With that which he hath drunk tonight already he’ll be as full of quarrel and offense as my young mistress’ dog…” (..50-5). A fight between Cassio and Roderigo ensues in the castle shortly after Cassio becomes drunk. Cassio stabs Roderigo while yelling, “Zounds! You rogue! You rascal!” (..14). Othello re-enters with guards and stops the fighting. Othello looks at the scene and asks for a description of what has happened. Both Cassio and Montano cannot speak which leaves Iago to give the description of the brawl to Othello. Iago makes it sounds like Cassio was only minorly at fault for his actions, but Othello notices that Iago is going easy on Cassio. Othello says, “Cassio, I love thee, but never more be officer of mine.” (..48-4). Iago succeeds in his plan, and Cassio is removed from his position as lieutenant. Cassio is also used to bring out the monster inside of Othello. He uses Cassio to support his master plan the destruction of Othello. Cassio was unfortunate enough to be chosen ahead of Iago as Othellos second-in-command and was reduced to a deteriorated state due to Iago’s manipulation. Iago ruins the lives of many people during the play and does not feel one bit remorseful due do his disturbing and skewed views of human nature.

Cunning is defined as skill in deception and Iago is a master of this. Iago is without a doubt clever in the way he toys with Othello, introducing doubt into his mind in a way that is so compelling that even the audience marvels at his cunning. His hesitancy, his pretence of friendship, his gradual temptation of Othello into his trap, his perfect sense of timing, his exploitation of the insecurities in an aged, emotional outsider, would be convincing to all but the least trustful. With all the evidence Iago has presented to Othello, Othello still does not doubt his wife. Othello says

No, Iago, Ill see before I doubt, when I doubt, prove, and on the proof, there is no more but this away at once with love or jealousy! (..18-1).

Othellos belief is not caused by jealousy; it is forced upon him by Iago. Iago, with great skill, frames Cassio and Desdemona with a collection of circumstantial evidence, from the misleading conversation with Cassio that Othello is made to overhear to the planting of the handkerchief on Cassio. After such cunning on the part of Iago, it is quite understandable that Othello should be convinced of his wifes guilt, despite her protests of innocence. It is Iago, who uses “smoke and mirrors” to lure and convince Othello into his own cunning hell. Iago is able to play so well on Othellos insecurities. Iago knows just when to feed Othello more information to push him closer to the breaking point. In his childlike simplicity, Othello falls victim to Iago. By the end of the play Iagos cunning has transformed a noble man into a pitiless, emotional wreck. Iago breaks Othello down into a self-questioning fool who is too enraged to take notice of his own actions. Othello becomes enraged and seeks to destroy those who have made him feel the way he feels. Othello says, “Oh, blood, blood, blood!” (..451). In the course of one scene, the calm, gentle Othello has moved beyond demands for ocular proof to those for blood and vengeance alone. The character of our patient, slow moving and thinking hero becomes an accelerated persona whose anger, jealousy, and activity turn the wheels of his destruction. Here a madness envelops Othello so that his judgment is not his own, but Iago’s and his ocular proof is nothing more than the finely-painted dramas Iago creates for him. Iagos cunning plot is eventually exposed by Emilia and Iago runs out, pursued by soldiers. Then Othello, realizing and repenting his injustice to Desdemona, stabs himself, kisses her again, and falls dead.

Iago is a coward who persuades others to act for him. He repeatedly convinces others to complete his tasks for him, because he is afraid of endangering himself. Iago has admitted to being afraid of Cassio, the man to whom he sarcastically refers to as ‘a proper man’ in the first of his soliloquies. There is now no doubt that Iago is a coward, as he says that he must be careful how he tells Othello of Cassio’s ‘crimes’ for fear that he be found out by Cassio. Instead of doing his dirty work himself he persuades others to do it for him. Iago does get Cassio to drink enough wine to become drunk, but he plans to discredit Cassio by persuading Roderigo to have a fight with him. Iago says to Roderigo, “Sir, he is rash and very sudden in choler, and haply may strike at you. Provoke him…” (.1.78-7). Roderigo is manipulated into doing Iago’s bidding and agrees to provoke Cassio. Cassio is easily angered and gets into a fight with Roderigo, which must be broken up by Othello. The plan works and Othello takes away Cassio’s rank of lieutenant. He then persuades Roderigo that things are looking better for him because Cassio has been dismissed. He orders Roderigo to go to his lodging. Iago tries to stay out of the action by taking advantage of anyone possible. He even uses his own wife as a pawn in his plan to bring down Othello. The next day Iago ensures that his wife Emilia persuades Desdemona to speak to Cassio, and when this meeting takes place Othello must witness it. The meeting between Cassio and Desdemona is the key to this part of the plot. Iago gets his pleasure in advancing his wicked plans. As the scene between Cassio and Desdemona folds out, Iago stays in the back while he has his wife [Emilia] sets up the meeting. Iago enters and Cassio advises him what he has done and he volunteers to assist Cassio by ensuring that Othello is kept out of the way so that he can pursue his reinstatement. Cassio is confident that he will be able to reinstate his position, not suspecting for one moment that he is being manipulated by Iago. It is clear that they have discussed Cassio’s position and she is persuaded to make representations to Othello to reinstate him. Emilia is also with them and her belief is that her husband, Iago, is truly upset concerning Cassio’s disgrace. Desdemona is confident that her petition will be successful. Emilia, Cassio, and Desdemona have no idea that Iago is masterminding the entire plot that will eventually bring everyone’s downfall. Iago is such a weakling that he is only present when he feels that he can find someone else who will do his actions for him so he can stay behind and protect his good reputation.

Iago, as a representation of evil, has one major motivational factor that leads him to lie, cheat, and commit crimes on other characters. His views of human nature motivate his destruction of all that is good and the rise of evil. This contrast between good and evil is made with Iago and Desdemona. Desdemona is described frequently by other characters as she is divine, the grace of heaven (.1.lines), while Iago in contrast is described as hellish after his plot is uncovered. Iago uses the other characters in the play to work specifically towards his goal. In this way, he can maintain his supposed unknowingness about the events going on and still work his scheming ways. Iagos schemes however at times seem to work unrealistically well which may or may not be a case of witchcraft or magic. Iagos major mistake, ironically, comes from his wife Emilia. Iago believed that everyone acts in their own interest, but his wife does not. Emilia cares for Desdemona and puts her life on the line for her. Although not completely victorious at the conclusion of the play, Iago does successfully eliminate the one character representative of heaven, innocence, and honesty. Yet remains the censure of this hellish villain (5..lines). Iagos views of human beings not only caused him to loose everything it also cost the people affected by him to loose their life.

Works Cited

Bayley, John. The Characters of Love A Study in the Literature of Personality. New York Basic Books, Inc., 160.

Shakespeare, William. Othello. Shakespeare The Complete Works Ed. G.B. Harrison. New York Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 15. PAGENUMBERS

Stewart, J.I.M. Character and Motive in Shakespeare Some Recent Appraisals Examined. New York Barnes & Noble, Inc., 166.

Pierce, Kevin. “The Manipulation of Gender Roles in Othello.” GET PUBLISHER. Online, Internet. 1 March. 00.

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