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Why is Iago’s manipulation of Othello successful?

Shakespeare’s ‘Othello’, at first, seems to be centred around a black man in a position of power in a white European society. ‘Othello’ therefore would seem the obvious and most suitable title. He is the tragic hero; it is the change in him and the aspects of his nature that bring about the fatal consequences. However, by studying the play in more detail you become increasingly aware of Iago being the main focal point throughout the play. Shakespeare gives more lines to Iago than Othello and allows us into his thoughts using soliloquies. He does not do this with any other character even the main one, Othello.

However, saying this, Othello still contributes to the overall tragic end. Othello’s character is used by Iago to make him vulnerable to his manipulative tactics. Various parts of Othello’s character are shown through the play both to the audience and Iago which then get used against him.

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One characteristic that is an example of this is his attitude to having either all or nothing. He shows this when talking about Desdemona ‘When I love thee, not chaos is come’ explaining that if he does not love her it would be a total disaster. He consolidates this idea later on in the scene saying, ‘Away at once with love or jealousy’ that there is only room for complete love or complete jealousy, he cannot compromise. Iago, knowing this would want to turn him to complete jealousy so as not to love Desdemona, therefore ultimately causing chaos.

Othello being a soldier also contributes to Iago’s successful manipulation of him, as soldiers are used to fighting, a thing Othello is very good at, he will be a man of action and once told of his wife’s supposed adultery, will have to act on it. This also coincides with his Christian beliefs believing he is an agent of justice in killing Desdemona he is a respectable person and believes he has a duty to do it.

Othello’s good qualities are turned against him, one of these being his ability to trust and believe that honesty is important in a person. He shows this to Iago questioning Cassio’s honesty with ‘Is he not honest?’ Iago then uses this to make sure Othello believes he is honest and trustworthy so that Othello tells Iago he is ‘full of love and honesty

Iago also uses Othello’s bad qualities including his temper. This is used to make Othello become more vulnerable and lose control of himself. Iago does this by avoiding Othello’s questions and posing more of his own, suggesting to Othello that maybe Iago is hiding something.

Iago also uses the differences between Othello and Desdemona to persuade him that it is possible that his wife has cheated on him. The fact that he is black and she is white, as well as the large age difference, comes up when he suggests that she would go for someone ‘of her own clime, complexion and degree’ which of course Othello does not match but of which Cassio does.

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As well as using Othello’s characteristics in his manipulation he also manages to use aspects of his own character to make his manipulation successful. The most obvious of these is his ability to lie to the other characters and think on his feet. An example of this is when Roderigo holds Iago at knifepoint, Iago manages to calm Roderigo down quickly making him believe he is still trying to help him be with Desdemona.

Another thing Iago uses a lot during the play is imagery. He uses this to create moods and influence the thoughts of others. In particular, we see in him an adolescent fascination with crudity. When he talks to Othello about his wife had cheated on her, he uses a great deal of imagery expressing ideas about Desdemona being ‘topped’ and of her with Cassio, ‘Were they as prime as goats, as hot as monkeys’ prime and hot meaning sexually rampant and ‘as salt as wolves in pride’ in pride meaning on heat. Iago uses animals in this imagery maybe to suggest they were acting like dirty animals themselves or, to describe to Othello how inhumane they have acted. Iago also brings up the idea of ‘monstrous’ and describes it as ‘As if there were some monster in thy thought too hideous to be shown’ This will have made Othello worry and have the ideas of being evil and monstrous in his head making him more likely to believe Iago when he comes out with an idea which is both of those things.

Act 3 scene 3 shows the point where Iago is able to manipulate Othello into believing his wife has had an affair with Cassio. This makes it a very important scene in terms of how Iago was successful in manipulating Othello. As soon as Iago enters the scene he gets the attention of Othello, calling for him ‘my noble lord’ This mode of address that Iago uses lets Othello think he is in control and has the power so as not to back off from Iago or be defensive. Othello is pulled into the conversation already and shows curiosity, which Iago obviously wants.

Iago links Desdemona and Cassio straight away ‘Did Michael Cassio, when you wooed my lady, Know of your love?’ Turning this reply into a question shows how he is keeping control of the conversation. When asked why he does not give a direct answer, Iago carries the conversation on, which Othello then follows, showing again how Iago leads the conversation. Throughout he manages to links Desdemona and Cassio in the same pieces of dialogue ‘He had been acquainted with her.’ After this, Iago continues to questions everything Othello says, instead of answering.

When Othello asks whether Cassio is honest, Iago simply repeats the word honest with a question mark as if he does not really believe it. He does this again when Othello asks what he thinks, he replies ‘think, my lord?’ Iago is successful here in building up Othello’s temper and making him suspicious that there is something bad in Iago’s mind. We can tell that he has been successful in winding him up and worrying him when Othello replies to him, ‘Alas, thou echoest me, As if there were some monster in thy thought’ Iago may have been echoing the words of Othello, but has managed to shift his own bad thoughts into Othello’s mind as he starts using language with imagery such as ‘Monster’.

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Iago controls the conversation throughout and as it goes on Othello has less and less power at one point Othello says to Iago ‘I prythee speak to me’ almost begging him to tell him. This you would expect to be the other way round but Iago manipulates Othello so that he is at his every word. Iago also puts in many horrible words ‘vile’ ‘false’ ‘uncleanly’ and ‘foul’ these could be words that he is trying to associate with Desdemona.

Several times during the scene Iago tries to show Othello how loyal and honest he is, telling him, ‘My lord, you know I love you.’ And talking about how ‘men should be what they seem’ so to Othello Iago seems trustworthy and honest. This sheds a good light on Iago and would make it easier for Othello to trust his words. He also tells Othello he is ‘bound to every act of duty’ is a soldier, this shows Othello he is a good loyal soldier that will do anything for him. Highlighting the fact that he is a soldier will remind Othello he is a hard-working man and under Othello’s command. This suggests he is trying to do what is best for Othello. Iago also apologises for telling him of this, explaining that it was only because of ‘too much loving’ for ‘you’ and furthermore promising to be ‘bound to thee for ever’. Iago uses the idea of love a great deal, perhaps to try to replace the love Othello feels for Desdemona, for the love between Iago and Othello. Expressing wild feelings of everlasting love, he may be trying to outdo Desdemona and show that she must not love him, as she does not express herself as Iago has.

Later on in the scene, Iago brings up the topic of jealousy, at first referring to Othello as a ‘lord of jealousy’. Even if by now Othello was not jealous, Iago has put the idea in his head that there is something to be jealous about, which would no doubt turn him towards jealousy. We can tell Othello has picked up on this idea as he himself starts to talk about it saying ‘Think’st thou I’d make a life of jealousy,’ this again shows how Iago has used his own thoughts to influence those of Othello. By putting the idea of jealousy into Othello’s head, Iago is aware that it will grow like cancer, quickly taking over all other thoughts. He also encourages the idea to grow after having planted the seed by providing proof to Othello in the form of Desdemona’s handkerchief.

Iago also uses Othello’s own characteristic to turn him away from love. Othello expresses how he is only capable of having all or nothing and so unsurprisingly Iago uses this trait to try and get rid of his love completely by revealing that he is not getting all of Desdemona to himself. Stating, ‘what damned minutes tells he o’er, Who dotes, yet doubts, suspects, yet fondly loves.’ Reminding him what a hellish time the man has when he loves her but doubts her at the same time, that he will be in great pain if he does not decide between one or the other. At the end of this scene, Iago has been successful and has managed to turn Othello from being blissfully in love with Desdemona, to devising a plan by which to kill her in this pivotal scene of the play. It is clear this manipulation has been very successful and influenced Othello throughout the remainder of the play. This is clearly shown when Othello continues to believe Iago, in spite of hearing Desdemona’s pleas of innocence. Othello still goes ahead to murder his lover.

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As well as being able to manipulate Othello, there are several circumstances throughout the play where actions of the other characters, and coincidental events, aid Iago’s manipulation. He is able to exploit what would seem to be harmless and insignificant moments, adjusting them to his advantage. The most obvious of these is the handkerchief that is primarily given to Desdemona from Othello. It is taken by Emilia, when by chance it is left available, and subsequently given to Iago. The otherwise innocent object is then planted in Cassio’s room, giving Othello what he thinks is strong proof that Desdemona has slept with Cassio. Although it was a coincidence Emilia got it for her husband, Iago then went on to exploit it further.

Another incident that works in Iago’s favour happens in the play after he had already started to interfere. Iago had managed to get Cassio drunk and start a fight, which evidently got him fired, as Iago had planned. After this however Cassio does not want Othello to forget him, so he asks Desdemona to speak for him to Othello. Out of the goodness of her heart, she does so with all of her energy. Cassio then exits as Othello enters, not wanting Othello to see him out of an understandable sense of shame. Othello is provoked by Iago to see this as a guilty departure and convinces him that Desdemona’s protests on Cassio’s behalf are a sign of her attraction to him.

It is very clear, especially at the end of Act 3 scene 3 that Iago has been successful in manipulating Othello from completely loving his wife to complete ‘Chaos’ At the end of At 3 scene 3 Othello, a professed Christian, swears ‘by yond marble heaven’ that his ‘bloody thoughts’ will never turn back until a ‘wide revenge’ has been accomplished. Christian judgement has by this point been perverted so totally by powerful emotions, Iago has been able to work so efficiently through vulnerable emotions and an insecure character to successfully and completely manipulate Othello. This play seems to ask the question that if this can really happen, how secure is any belief or any sense of good?

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Why is Iago's manipulation of Othello successful?. (2021, Apr 09). Retrieved September 30, 2022, from