“I am not what I am.” What is Iago? — as distinct from what he pretends to be — and what are his motives?
In Shakespeare’s, Othello, the reader has presented the classic battle between the deceitful forces of evil and the innocence of good.
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It is these forces of evil that ultimately lead to the breakdown of Othello, a noble Venetian moor, well-known by the people of Venice as an honourable soldier and a worthy leader. Othello’s breakdown results in the murder of his wife Desdemona. Desdemona is representative of the good in nature. Good can be defined as forgiving, honest, innocent and unsuspecting. The evil contained within Othello is by no means magical or mythical yet is represented by the character Iago.
Iago is cunning, untrustworthy, selfish, and plotting. He uses these traits to his advantage by slowly planning his own triumph while watching the demise of others. It is this that is Iago’s motivation. The ultimate defeat of good by the wrath of evil. Not only is it in his own nature of evil that he succeeds but also in the weaknesses of the other characters. Iago uses the weaknesses of Othello, specifically jealousy and his devotion to things as they seem, to conquer his opposite in Desdemona. From the start of the play, Iago’s scheming ability is shown when he convinces Roderigo to tell about Othello and Desdemonda’s elopement to Desdemona’s father, Brabantio.
Confidentially Iago continues his plot successfully, making fools of others, and himself being rewarded. Except for Roderigo, no one is aware of Iago’s plans. This is because Iago pretends to be an honest man loyal to his superiors. The fact that Othello himself views Iago as trustworthy and honest gives the evil within Iago a perfect unsuspecting victim for his schemes. The opportunity to get to Desdemona through Othello is one temptation that Iago cannot refuse. He creates the impression that Desdemona is having an affair with Cassio in order to stir the jealousy within Othello. It is this jealousy and the ignorance of Othello that lead to the downfall of Desdemona; the one truly good-natured character in the play.
As the play opens we are immediately introduced to the hostility of Iago against Othello. Iago has been appointed the position of servant to Othello instead of the more prestigious position of lieutenant. Michael Cassio has been appointed to this position. Iago feels betrayed because he considers himself more qualified than Cassio to serve as a lieutenant. Iago then foreshadows his plans for Othello to Roderigo, “O, sir, content you. / I follow him to serve my turn upon him (Act I, Scene I)”. Iago already realizes that Othello thinks about him as an honest man. Roderigo is used by Iago as an apprentence and someone to do his “dirty” work. Roderigo is naively unsuspecting. As the play shifts from Venice to Cyprus, there is an interesting contrast. Venice, a respectful and honourable town is overshadowed by the war-torn villages of Cyprus. It could be said that Venice represents good or specifically Desdemona and that Cyprus represents evil in Iago. Desdemona has been taken from her peacefullness and brought onto the grounds of evil. Iago commits his largest acts of deceit in Cyprus, fittingly considering the atmosphere.
Ironically, the Venetians feel the Turks are their only enemy while in fact, Iago is in hindsight the one man who destroys their stable state. Act II Scene III shows Iago’s willing ability to manipulate characters in the play. Iago convinces Montano to inform Othello of Cassio’s weakness for alcohol hoping this would rouse dissatisfaction with Othello. Iago when forced to tell the truth against another character does so very suspiciously. He pretends not to offend Cassio when telling Othello of the fight Cassio was involved in, but Iago secretly wants the worst to become of Cassio’s situation without seeming responsible. Cassio is relieved of his duty as a lieutenant. With Cassio no longer in the position of lieutenant, this gives Iago the opportunity to more effectively interact with and manipulate Othello. By controlling Othello, Iago would essentially control Desdemona.
To reach Desdemona directly is unforeseeable for Iago considering that Othello is superior to him. It is for this reason that Iago decides to exploit Othello. If Iago can turn Othello against his own wife he will have defeated his opposition. Act III Scene III, is very important because it is the point in the play where Iago begins to establish his manipulation of Othello. Cassio feels that it is necessary to seek the help of Desdemona in order to regain his position of lieutenant and therefore meets with her to discuss this possibility. Iago and Othello enter the scene just after Cassio leaves, and Iago witfully trys to make it look like Cassio left because he does not want to be seen in the courtship of Desdemona. Iago sarcastically remarks :
Cassio, my lord? No, sure, I cannot think it
That he would steal away so guilty-like,
Seeing your coming.
(Act III, Scene III)
When Desdemona leaves, Iago takes the opportunity to strengthen Othello’s views of honesty and trust towards him by saying ironically, “Men should be what they seem; / Or those that be not, would they might seem none! ” (Act III, Scene III). This cleverness by Iago works upon one of the tragic flaws of Othello. Othello has a tendency to take eveything he sees and everything he is told at face value without questioning the circumstances. Iago wonders why someone would pretend to be something they are not, while in fact that is the exact thing he represents. Finally, after hearing the exploits of Iago and witnessing the events surrounding Cassio, Othello for the first time is in conflict about what is the truth. This is the first stage of Iago’s scheme to control Othello. As Emilia becomes suspicious about Othello’s development of jealousy, Desdemona defends her husband by blaming herself for any harm done. This once again shows Desdemona’s compassion and willingness to sacrifice herself for her husband. Othello begins to show his difficulty in maintaining his composure :
Well, my good lady. O, hardness to dissemble —
How do you, Desdemona?
(Act III, Scene IV)
Act IV, Scene I is a continuation of the anxiety and indifference Othello is under going. Iago takes advantage of this by being blunt with Othello about his wife Desdemona. Iago suggests that she is having sexual relations with other men, possibly Cassio, and continues on as if nothing has happened. This suggestions put Othello into a state of such emotional turmoil that he is lost in a trance. Iago’s control over Othello is so strong now that he convinces him to consider getting rid of Desdemona and even suggests methods of killing her. Iago, so proud of his accomplishments of underhandedness :
My med’cine works! Thus credulous fools are caught,
And many worthy and chaste dames even thus,
All guiltless, meet reproach.
(Act IV, Scene I)
Othello in this state commits his first act of violence against Desdemona by hitting her. This as a result of Desdemona’s mention of Cassio. This shows now Othello’s other tragic flaw. He made himself susceptable to Iago and the jealousy within him begins to lead to the demise of others. By his actions, Othello has isolated himself from everyone except Iago. This gives Iago the perfect opportunity to complete his course of action. Iago does not tolerate any interference in his plans, and he first murders Roderigo before he can dispell the evil that Iago represents. Finally, Othello, so full of the lies told to him by Iago murders his wife. Desdemona, representative of goodness and heaven as a whole blames her death on herself and not Othello. Iago’s wife, Emilia, becomes the ultimate undoing of Iago. After revealing Iago’s plot to Othello, Iago kills her. This is yet another vicious act to show the true evil Iago represents. Othello finally realizes after being fooled into murder :
I look down towards his feet — but that’s a fable
If that thou be’st a devil, I cannot kill thee.
(Act V, Scene II)
Iago says “I bleed, sir, but not killed”, this is the final statement by Iago himself that truely shows his belief in evil and that he truely thinks he is the devil. That is the destruction of all that is good. Hell over heaven and black over white.
Iago, as a representation of evil, has one major motivational factor that leads him to lie, cheat, and commit crimes on other
characters. This motivation is the destruction of all that is good and the rise of evil. This contrast is represented between Iago and Desdemona. Desdemona is described frequently by other characters as “she is divine, the grace of heaven” (Act II, Scene I), 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. Iago’s schemes however at times seem to work unrealistically well which may or may not be a case of witchcraft or magic. Iago’s major mistake, ironically, is that he trusted his wife Emilia and found that she was not as trustworthy as he thought. 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 villian” (Act V, Scene II). Finally, everything Iago pretended to be led to his demise : Honesty, Innocence, and Love.
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