The manipulative puppetmaster
Motives: Iago is particularly evil because he does not appear to have a clear, obvious or strong motive to explain his hatred of Othello. Although he appears to be insulted because he did not get the lieutenant’s position, Iago does lack a convincing motive. He also states that he feels that the Moor has cuckolded him and slept with Emilia, “it is thought abroad that ‘twixt my sheets/ He has done my office”.
Iago: Iago also seems motivated by jealousy towards Desdemona’s and Othello’s sexual passion and the fact that they are “well tuned”. Owing to his strong sexual attraction towards both these protagonists, Iago shows signs of frustrated love. Shakespeare uses many sexual innuendos to show this frustration. For example, Othello is the “beast with two backs”, the “Barbary horse”. When Iago finally gains the position of lieutenant, he seems to cherish the intimacy with Othello. Othello at times fears his happiness; he fears that his relationship brings “too much joy”.
Because there is no very clear overriding motive, Shakespeare focuses the audience’s attention on Iago’s evil nature. He is shamefully calculating and manipulative. He is purposeful and intent on wreaking damage through his playacting skills. He is able to adapt his tone and style to different situations and encounters to great effect. Iago’s evil and manipulative side becomes particularly apparent in his soliloquys and asides to the audience. From his first soliloquy the audience learns that “I am not what I seem”. When Iago is finally set to provide proof to Othello, he states in an aside to the audience after dismissing his wife, “This is the night that either makes me, or fordoes me quite.” (v.1) This reveals to the audience that Iago is doing everything with a purpose and a design, which makes the audience shudder.
Kiernan Ryan notes, “into the figure of Iago is condensed all the mindless fear, hostility and malice which, in a more naturalistic play, would be focused on the couple by society at large. Iago’s warped response to Othello is not an idiosyncratic aberration, but the attitude shared by Brabantio and Venice in general: Othello is contemptuously cartooned by Roderigo (‘thicklips’)”. (88).
Iago reflects the racial views of Venetian society when he typecasts Othello as an animal, a ram, a horse, an ass. By marrying Desdemona, he “thus triggers in Iago the racist compulsion to reduce him to a gibbering beast in order to sustain belief in his own superiority, in order to rebuild the pyramid of difference which the couple have demolished at a stroke.”
For some critics, Othello reveals the “beautiful and terrifying nakedness, the primitive energies that are the substance of our own erotic lives” (Arthur Kirsch)
But Kiernan also believes that “Othello is the exposure of a white barbarian who tries to turn an infinitely more civilised black man into his image of the kind of creature a Moor should be.” (89)
Because of his destructive nature, Iago is associated with metaphors of corruption, disease and poison throughout the play. Most importantly, he poisons Othello’s mind in a very insidious manner and he relishes the pain he inflicts and causes. “Dangerous conceits are in their natures poison Which art the first are scarce found to distance…” (iii.3.329) The metaphors of poison is indicative of his manipulative and deceitful character. Also, he is often in darkness which reflects his disruptive tendencies.
Iago manipulates the characters by winning and abusing their trust and by pretending (dissembling) often for the sake of it. He manipulates the women, Desdemona, Emilia and Bianca, which reveals his misogynist streak. The women become victims of Iago’s scheming. Iago says he can only stand a quiet woman, “never loud”, who will “ne’er disclose her mind”. He has a low opinion of women but also wants to degrade them. His reference to “clyster-pipes” is crude; he refers to Desdemona as “land carrack” (1.2.50) and one who is “full of game” (II.3.19) Iago exploits Emilia’s position with Desdemona, and skilfully uses the handkerchief to provide the necessary proof that O seeks; he pesters Emilia for the handkerchief and unknowingly she betrays her mistress when this handkerchief is planted in Cassio’s room. Iago also changes Roderigo from a love-torn person into a possible murderer. He takes advantage of Brabantio’s ignorance to insult and offend him. The word “robbed” relating to his daughter’s marriage to Othello suggests that Desdemona is like physical goods.
Iago also skilfully takes advantage of each character’s weaknesses so as to undermine their peace of mind and sews the seeds of distrust between them. He separates and divides them so that he breaks the carefully “tuned” nature of their relationships. To this end, Shakespeare positions Othello as a fine, innocent and trusting character, (he is of “free and open nature”) who naively believes that Iago is protecting his best interests. He presents himself as Othello’s trusted advisor and Othello states “O brave Iago, honest and just”. That has such noble sense of thy friend’s wrong. Thou teachest me!” . He sends out a “sign of love” which is but a camouflage for his hatred. Specifically, he takes advantage of the fact that Othello is an outsider and is insecure. Othello obtained Desdemona’s love against the wishes of her father, (who was “robbed”) and this makes him vulnerable to Iago’s pressure. Despite Iago’s sexual fascination for Othello, Iago cannot conceal his contempt for Othello as the outsider. Iago also knows that the Moor is “defective” in terms of manners, beauty and “loveliness”. He lacks the sophistication of Viennese society and often suggests to Othello that he does not understand the ways of Venetian women (Act 3/3)… “Look to your wife”… If such women have a reputation for sophistication and beauty, Othello is made to feel raw and uncouth. Also because Desdemona has isolated herself by loving the Moor, she too is vulnerable. At the same time, Iago also belittles Othello’s fine qualities. Iago is depicted as a racist when he states, “Make the Moor thank me, love me and reward me. For making him egregiously an ass.” He knows he is easily led by the “nose”, “as asses are”. Eventually Othello becomes the “cruel Moor”.
If the Moor appears to be an unreliable judge of character, then Iago is the opposite and is particularly poisonous because he anticipates and rejoices in each character’s downfall. He senses Othello’s vulnerabilities and knows a small amount of proof will set Othello’s jealousy on fire.
OTHELLO: Iago plays on his role as a an outsider – both racially, culturally and socially.
Racially: He is vulnerable to racist stereotyping and taunts about his colour disadvantage.
Traditionally white is associated with honour and innocence and black with guilt and wickedness. The Duke says that Othello is “far more fair than black”, which is a reference to his nobility which undermines his skin colour. Because of his colour disadvantage he is easily incited to sexual jealousy.
Iago and friends talk in very disparaging terms, using pejorative language, towards Othello. He calls Othello an “old black ram” and “barbery horse”.
His racial difference also places him at a social disadvantage.
Othello concedes that because he is a negro and an outsider he lacks “the soft parts of conversation that chamberers have”. He also professes that “rude am I in my speech”. He believes he lacks the subtleties and therefore needs guidance from Iago. Iago insinuates that he does not understand the ways of Venetian women (Act 3 / 3) “Look to your wife”…
Iago refers to the fact that he is “defective” when it comes to manners.
Othello is respected. He is honourable and takes pride in his military achievements. He is introduced in Act 1 as someone who is urgently in demand to lead the army. The Duke sends for Othello to lead them into battle. The imagery constantly associated with the noble Othello is suggestive of power and bravery. Images of the sea and military heroism are common. As A.C.Bradley, critic at the beginning of the 20th century notes, Othello is one of the most romantic figures of Shakespeare’s heroes. “He does not belong to our world, and he seems to enter it we do not know whence – almost as if from wonderland. There is something mysterious in his descent from men of royal siege; in his wanderings in vast deserts and among marvellous peoples; in his tales of magic handkerchiefs and prophetic sibyls; in the sudden vague glimpses we get of numberless battles and sieges”.
Othello places such importance upon his honour and reputation as a soldier that Iago’s suggestion of him being cuckolded, leads him to fury. (Again his racial disadvantage perhaps exacerbates the emphasis he places on honour and bravery.)
Iago plays on his pride, as well as his nagging doubt about his role as lover.
Jealousy: Because of sense of inferiority and cultural uneasiness, he is easily duped by Iago. Othello alludes to the fact that once his jealousy was stimulated he became “perplexed in the extreme”. This refers to the fact that he misjudged and underestimated both Cassio, his trusted lieutenant, and his wife Desdemona who he thinks he loved “too well”. Othello is simply too nice, naïve and too trusting. He places his faith in Iago and a handkerchief.
Iago refers to him as someone of “a free and open nature ….” which alludes to Othello’s tendency to trust him.
Othello defers to Iago and believes that he shows “exceeding honesty”… …
Othello misinterprets Iago’s apparent goodwill. Othello is more willing to place faith in Iago than Desd. and dismisses her objections, whilst always believing Iago’s. “O brave Iago, honest and just. That has such noble sense of thy friend’s wrong. Though teachest me!”
Love: and relationship with Desd: He fails to recognize Des’ purity. Othello does not value his assets highly enough and this leads to his downfall. He does not listen to her when she tries to defend and explain her actions; he dismisses her protestations of innocence. He only realizes when it is too late that he has misjudged her innocence and purity. In his final self-assessment, he states that “he loved not wisely, but too well”. He compares himself with the “base Indian” who carelessly “threw a pearl away Richer than all his tribe”. He laments the fact that he did not truly appreciate Desdemona’s true and honest love. He was too quick to presume that she was a cheap harlot as Iago wanted him to believe.
Othello is quick to distrust her because:
- Their relationship is built on deceit (they deceived the father).
- Brabantio’s reaction to the elopement is that black magic and drugs were used to take Desdemona against her will. He assumes that she could not have fallen in love with Othello, because he is a Moor. This makes Othello uneasy.
- Othello is uneasy about the fact that he has married Desdemona in secret and this sits uneasily with his protestations of honour and openness.
- Iago makes him think that he misunderstands the ways of “venetian women”. For example he tells the Moor, “she did deceive her father, marrying you,
- And when she seemed to shake, and fear your looks, She loved them most.” (3/3)
- He also tells the Moor that the father thought that Othello had bewitched her. “He thought ‘twas witchcraft” which is likely to anger the Moor and quickly make him incensed against Desdemona and her father.