Villains in literature play an important role in plot development. While villains initiate actions, they simultaneously illuminate the good qualities of heroes in the play. William Shakespeare’s play Othello is no exception. In Othello, Iago is a complex character that plays a major role in determining the events and fate of several characters in the play. He manages to deceive and manipulate them by gaining their trust and exploiting their weaknesses to fulfill his ambitions. Furthermore, his appalling pursuit of revenge is fueled by his views on several issues including social status, race, and women. A close observation of Iago’s soliloquies and interactions with other characters reveal his perception of the world. He prepares the audience to witness one of Shakespeare’s only domestic tragedies. While Iago’s views and qualities may be personal, his views reflect those of the Venetian society during that era, including relations among people of different races and women’s status in society. Iago’s views dictate his choices and methods in his plans for revenge throughout the play.
Political ambitions and greed for social status in the Venetian society fuel Iago’s desire for revenge. Iago is full of envy and hatred towards Othello and Cassio because he believes he deserves to be promoted to lieutenant instead of Cassio. Iago views manipulation as the only way to get his revenge. Early in the play, Iago reveals his manipulative nature. His first soliloquy reveals that he uses people’s good intentions against them. For instance, Iago believes that Othello “is of a free and open nature That thinks men honest that but seem to be so, And will as tenderly be led by th’ nose As asses are.” Iago describes how Othello is easy to manipulate due to his trusting nature. Iago does not only manipulate and destroy his rivals, he also manipulates his allies, including Roderigo. After convincing Roderigo to sell all of his land, Iago mentions, “Thus do I ever make my fool my purse. For I mine own gained knowledge should profane If I would time expend with such a snipe But for my sport and profit.” Iago explains how he only uses Roderigo because he is aware he can get something useful out of it. In order to carry out his revenge, Iago capitalizes on his rivals’ weak points and insecurity. He carefully observes those around him, analyzing possible weaknesses that he can use to manipulate them. In Act 2, Iago observes Cassio and discovers that “With as little a web as this will I ensnare as great a fly as Cassio. Ay, smile upon her, do, I will gyve thee in thine own courtship.” Iago plans to convince Othello that Cassio is flirting with his wife Desdemona. There is a great possibility that Othello will believe him because of Cassio’s reputation as a womanizer. Iago is able to effectively recognize the weaknesses of several characters to manipulate them to get revenge for not obtaining what he thinks he deserves.
Throughout the play, Iago reveals his intrinsic evil nature where he expresses no remorse for hurting others. He is proud of being able to manipulate his rivals, friends or even his wife regardless of the harm he bestows upon them. In a soliloquy in Act 3, Iago believes that “natures poisons at the first are scarce found to distaste, But with a little act upon the blood Burn like the mines of sulfur.” Iago finds pleasure in other’s pain. His influence is behind the death of multiple characters, including his own wife. Iago kills Emilia when she attempts to expose his plan. While killing his wife, Iago proceeds to call her a “Villainous whore” Iago also kills Roderigo to protect his plan. If Rodrigo would have survived his injury, he would have revealed his plans. Iago is also the cause of Desdemona’s death. So he murders Roderigo after which Casio cries out “A murder!” and Othello goes on to kill Desdemona thus completing Iago’s plan. Iago’s plan to convince him of Desdemona’s infidelity was successful. This eventually leads to the death of Othello who kills himself after his injustice to his beloved wife.
Besides his manipulative nature, Iago displays his racist view throughout the play. He is aware that Othello suffers from his insecurity as a black man in the Venetian society. When Othello suspects Desdemona is cheating on him he believes his reputation “is now begrimed and black As mine own face.” (3.3, 387-389) Othello feels his wife’s supposed infidelity has soiled his reputation. He associates the blackness of his skin with something dirty or stained. At this moment of the play, it is evident that Othello seems to have internalized the racist ideologies of other characters. Iago uses racial slurs when addressing Desdemona’s father calling Othello an “old black ram” and Desdemona a “white ewe.” By referring to Othello as an old black Ram, Iago is mirrors the prevailing Elizabethan perception of black men in that era. Furthermore, Iago manipulates Othello’s insecurity regarding his race by mentioning he fears “ Her will, recoiling to her better judgment, May fall to match you with her country forms, And happily repent.” and she could have got any man “Of her own clime, complexion, and degree” Iago explains how Desdemona might regret marrying a black man because with her skin color and social status, she turned down her own nature. With a racist view of the world, Iago is able to use racism to trigger Othello’s insecurity to advance his plan for revenge throughout the plot.
Several tragic events in the play emerge from Iago’s view on women. He uses women to fulfill his goals throughout the play, including his own wife, Emilia. Iago does not refrain from voicing his harsh opinion about women’s inferiority in society. In a conversation with Emilia and Desdemona, Iago describes women as ‘pictures out of doors, bells in your parlors, wild cats in your kitchens, saints in your injuries, devils being offended, players in your housewifery, and house wife’s in your beds.’ Iago believes that it is “A common thing […] To have a foolish wife” To him women are useless creatures and are only useful when they serve his goals. When Emilia steals the handkerchief for Iago’s plan, she claims she does it “to please his fantasy.” Iago takes advantage of Emilia and appreciates her only when she serves him. Thus, Iago’s view on women influences other characters in the play into degrading women. For instance, Othello uses Iago’s spiteful vocabulary against women and refers to both Emilia and Desdemona as whores. When Othello confronts Desdemona, he calls her an “Impudent strumpet” Furthermore, Iago sees women as controlling. In a conversation with Cassio, Iago reveals that he thinks Othello’s “soul is so enfettered to her love, That she may make, unmake, do what she list, Even as her appetite shall play the god With his weak function.” and that “ Our general’s wife is now the general.” Iago believes Desdemona can make Othello do whatever she wants.
Shakespeare’s Othello is a domestic tragedy where the whole play revolves around a network of complex personal relations. In spite of the fact that Othello represents views of the Venetian society during the Elizabethan era, love, hate, jealousy and revenge are timeless and universal emotions that govern people’s lives in different societies. Othello is a story that could still be relevant in our modern society, where people use others for their own benefits. In this play Iago’s inhumanity is limitless, his lack of remorse for his harmful actions allows him to effortlessly continue with his evil plans that drive the events in the play. Othello is clearly the protagonist of Shakespeare’s most problematic tragedy, yet it is Iago who incites the tragic action and pushes it through to conclusion. He has more lines than Othello, including more soliloquies. (Richard Hornby. The Hudson Review) The question remains whether Iago is a Shakespearean villain or a hero that the whole events of the play deviate around.
Frequently Asked Questions
How Does Iago Manipulate Othello?
Iago is successful in manipulating Othello through his clever use of language. He is able to convince Othello of Desdemona’s infidelity and Cassio’s supposed duplicity, even though there is no evidence to support these claims. Iago’s convincing words and false assurances eventually lead to Othello’s downfall.
How Does Iago Manipulate Desdemona?
Iago takes advantage of Desdemona’s good nature after Cassio is no longer Othello’s favorite.
How Does Iago Manipulate Roderigo?
Iago tells Rodrigo that if he wants to keep Othello in Cyprus and prevent him from taking Desdemona with him, he will need to kill Cassio.
How Does Iago Manipulate Cassio?
Iago is able to control Cassio by making use of Cassio’s good character and his lack of tolerance for alcohol. Cassio’s excessive drinking causes a fight between Montano and Cassio, which in turn causes Othello to remove him from his position as lieutenant.
How Does Iago Manipulate Emilia?
Iago is rude to Emilia. He asks her what she is doing by herself, as if she should only be doing what he tells her to do. He also calls her a ‘foolish wife’ (III. 3.308), but when he sees that she has the handkerchief, he speaks to her more kindly, calling her a ‘good wench.’