Tuesday, January 3, 2012


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 Iago – Beyond the realms of villainy and diving into hell

It has been highly debated among scholars for years on the intentions and malice behind the character of Iago in Othello. As one of Shakespeare’s villains he ignites the downfall of the noble characters surrounding him, but to extreme measures that not even the most vicious ones could execute. Although on the surface, Iago’s character is filled with deviance and malicious deceits similar to any other Shakespearean villain, his intentions behind his actions are what lead to the parallel with the devil. Iago as Satan brings a great deal of both clarity and dispute to the underlying word placement and religious implications throughout the play.

Critics have long contested his role in literary progeny leaving findings that indebt his character to the Devil more so than to vice. There is a wealth of evidence that points Iago to the dark side that reaches beyond the mere confines of amorality. For example, the following words from Iago suggest inspiration from hell and the Devil. “Hell and night  Must bring this monstrous birth to the world’s light”. “Divinity of hell! When devils will the blackest sins put on, They do suggest at first with heavenly shows, As I do now”. These quotes support the notion that Iago is consumed by Satanic thoughts throughout the progress of the play beginning from the very opening hell and the Devil are continuously seeping through his mouth where the familiarity with the pain he speaks of is brought to the forefront. He expresses himself with a confidence that would only be applicable when spoken from first hand experience. According to Stanley Hyman, Iago “is motivated by the fact that he is Satan or a figuration of Satan, eternally fixed in a posture of hatred of God and envy of man” (Hyman ). Iago is undeniably engaged in the seduction of the moral mankind with the destruction of the values that he neglects to represent.

He appears to attack Othello with evil joy in his pursuit of the downfall of him as the victim as well as his hatred of him. His intensity is evident

“I follow him to serve my turn upon him”. “Divinity of hell!/ When devils will the blackest sins put on,/ They do suggest at first with heavenly shows/ As I do now” . “So will I turn her virtue into pitch;/ And out of her own goodness make the net/ That shall enmesh them all”.

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These words are not simply from an amoral character but rather hold such vicious implications that demonstrating his true nature of the Devil. His plan to crucify Othello is one of the main supporting examples of his connections to Satan. We see him tear into Othello time and again, pulling him to the side of the anti-Christ, thus forcing him to commit the final sin that ends the play. Iago’s influence on Othello is one that reaches beyond any other villain I have seen in Shakespeare’s play. When compared to Edmund in King Lear, I have noticed that the soliloquies given by Iago are far more malicious, showing the reader the true heartlessness in his actions. While Edmund’s actions were simply a rebellion against social hierarchy that led him to a raw nature filled with hatred and revenge, Iago’s motives are clearly fueled by something darker and stronger than that.

Iago further manipulates Othello with his fraudulent powers that lead Othello to believe that he could not be deceiving him, while turning it around for Othello to assume that Desdemona and Cassio live as evil betrayers instead. In Iago’s soliloquy in the end of the first scene, the insight to his lack of loyalty and deception are shown to the audience. “Though I do hate him as I do hell’s pains, / Yet, for necessity of present life, / I must show out a flag and sign of love, / Which is indeed but sign”. He admits his fallacy with such confidence in the reference to hell, it leads the reader to see that he had prior experience with those pains. Stoll criticized this thrust that Othello has placed on Iago. “A trust in a subordinate which immediately bears fruit in murderous distrust of wife and friend, an inclination to think not good but evil, a love which surrenders to calumny and embraces it, knows no difference between the claims of ‘honest’ acquaintance and those of the dearest one has in the world, and is in utter darkness as to the acter of either what virtues, what trust and love, are these”? He also points out that this was a technique used by Shakespeare to exemplify how the loyal unsuspicious friend would interpret it. In this sense, Iago is the most intelligent person in the play, as one would assume, knowing the capabilities of the Devil.

Iago’s Satanic influences stem farther from his words, winning the souls of men by promising to gratify their desires. He uses Othello’s guilt to further play on his power in the downfall and inescapable death. In the final scene when Iago is fighting with Othello and the truth of his character is most closely revealed, Othello almost acts as if he sees through the character Iago tries to portray. However, it was moments before his death, leaving insufficient time to reveal any solid evidence of a discovery. Emilia also proves to acknowledge some type of sadistic motive when she accuses Iago of his hidden character. In her response, “By heaven I do not” , she highlights the difference between their motives, hers are fueled by heaven while his are fueled by hell.

Aside from those moments of identification, however, Iago appears to drop clues to the root of his motivations in several different encounters. In his speech with Brabantio, he says, “Awake the snorting citizens with the bell, / Or else the devil will make a grandsire of you”. “Sir; you are one of those that will not serve God if the / devil bid you”. When Brabantio responds to his call, “What profane wretch art thou” it is ironic in the sense that Iago is that profane wretch and the antithesis of the sacred. His intention of speaking in third person fails him or perhaps he said it deliberately to further prove his intelligence in disguise.

Additionally, Iago also holds a great influence over Cassio’s actions. In the third scene of the second act, Cassio falls as a result of Iago’s temptation to get him drunk, which leaves him sobered and repentant. “O thou invisible spirit of wine, if thou hast no name to be known by, / let us call thee devil”! “It hath pleased the devil / wrath; one unperfectness shows me another, to make me frankly /despise myself”. Iago’s plan to strip the confidence from Cassio worked to destroy his character and reputation. The irony behind this is that Cassio continues to refer to the devil as the force behind his dreadful actions when he was drunk. Iago coerced him to drink the wine and the cries to the Devil are essentially cries to Iago.

In the third scene of the first act, Iago’s encounter with Roderigo shows signs of his role as a Machiavellian. This is also a concept literary critics debate as reason for his motivations. In this scene, however, I find a parallel between Machiavellian and the Devil. Machiaveli has a place in history that will forever hold the birth of evil rule. He defined sadistic actions and lived through deceit and vicious acts. Iago as Machiaveli is Iago as Satan. He admits his greed in response to Roderigo’s self-proclaiming morality. “I never found a man that knew how to love himself. Ere / I would say I would drown myself for the love of a guinea-hen,/ I would change my humanity with a baboon”. This self-absorption is something that strays from all ideas of Christian agape, which leads straight to satanic temptation. Furthermore, his couplet that ends the scene brings the image of hell full-circle. “Hell and night / Must bring this monstrous birth to the world’s light. He emphasizes that he hates the Moor several times in this soliloquy and continues to feed off the image of hell.

Coleridge referred to Iago as “a being next to devil, and only not quite devil” (Scragg 61). This idea is something that will continue to be disputed by modern critics until each mind can take in the play to have the same reading. In retrospect, it is clear that Iago’s characteristics were indeed derived from the Devil rather than vice or villainous intents. The nature of his actions with the other characters reinforces the emphasis on the sadistic undertones in his intentions. His role is justified in the text through the understanding that he is a descendant of the Devil and is entirely an amoral being. Through Othello and Cassio, we see his manipulation taken to extremes and through Emilia; we see the revelation of Iago’s corruption and perhaps a glimpse at his vulnerability. Through all of the text, one can see the true malicious gown he wears to paint the influential chaos that destroys the lives of those around him.

Works Cited

Hyman, Stanley Edgar. Iago Some Approaches to the Illusion of His Motivation. New York Atheneum.

Scragg, Leah. “Iago - Vice or Devil?” Shakespeare Survey An Annual Survey of Shakespearian Study and Production. Vol. 1. Ed. Kenneth Muir. Cambridge University Press.

Shakespeare, William. Othello. Ed. Norman Sanders. Cambridge University Press.

Stoll, Elmer Edgar. Othello An Historical and Comparative Study. New York Maskell House.

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