How peculiar we humans are – while striving for happiness and positive feelings we extract arguably the strongest emotions from the genre of tragedy. But I believe this is not a contradiction because the main concern of man is another human being and few of us could witness suffering of our fellows without deep condolence. Constituting an eternal and essential part of human life, tragedy as a genre has its all-time grandees among which William Shakespeare is probably the most widely acknowledged master. His heroes have been known for centuries but still they do not lose realism even in our time.
What makes Shakespeare`s heroes so unforgettable? I guess it is their accented human qualities, both positive and negative, as Shakespeare shows the intricacy of human soul and so complex emotional experiences that a reader is glued to his works. In this regard, Shakespearean “Othello” is one of the most vivid examples of a powerful talent of the author in creation of characters whose personalities concentrate in them the essence of different human virtues and vices, as if serving as magnifying lenses through which we can better recognise different human qualities. Othello and Iago, the main heroes of the play, represent respectively the human vices of blind jealousy and human wickedness, the roots of which is hard to fully explain.
But of course Othello and Iago are much more complex personages who entwine the mentioned qualities into a rich and complex canvas of the human soul. For instance, Iago, as the exemplification of evil working around us, is ever more frightening as a personage because of his apparent omniscience and omnipotence in terms of his ability to intrude into lives of people and manipulate them according to his vicious plans. In this regard, let us overview the character of Iago more closely and try to find out whether and to what degree he manipulates the plot of Shakespeare’s “Othello”.
Of course, the main protagonist of the play is Moor Othello, the eloquent and respected army general, and the main action of the play is concentrated on a terrible manipulation from the side of Iago, who manages to take control of Othello`s mind, and transform the love of Othello for his wife Desdemona into a deadly jealousy. For the most part of the play Othello is absent from the action that revolves around him, and such a position of Othello as a kind of outsider in the play, even despite his honoured position, is one of the causes why he is so easily manipulated by Iago. The disconnection of Othello from the surrounding goings-on makes him unable to understand what is really happening around, and thus blind to the things which are evident for the audience, for example that between Cassio and Desdemona no affection is present.
On the contrary, Iago possesses the full control of the stage, and therefore of Othello and other characters of the play. His ability to manipulate events and moods of people is so great that Othello cannot see things in other perspective except the one created by Iago. Indeed, Iago effectively arranges the interaction between characters, and deprives Othello of the chance to learn the truth. He uses such intricate tricks as rousing Othello from the wedding chamber with the pretence that the dispute between Montano and Cassio has to be settled, and in reality only aiming to discredit Cassio and to cunningly increase the trust of Othello to himself. Surely, in the end he succeeds in both tasks as Othello says:
“. . . Iago,
Thy honesty and love doth mince this matter,
Making it light to Cassio. Cassio, I love thee
But never more be officer of mine” (2, 3, 248-251).
However, from the same episode we can judge the extent and intricacy of Iago`s manipulative calculations, because in addition to discrediting Cassio and gaining personal weight in the eyes of Othello, by disturbing Othello he intervenes into the intimacy between him and Desdemona, thus worsening the connection between them. And at any favourable moment he tries to inject more of the poisonous ideas about the alleged unfaithfulness of Desdemona to the mind of Othello, for example when he wonders if a private kiss is a sign of infidelity, or whether it is possible “. . . to be naked with her friend in bed . . . not meaning any harm?” (4, 1, 4-8).
All these elaborated contrivances of Iago lay ground for his further manipulations, and establish what can be perceived as invisible strings of influence over his victims. The image of Iago as an evil magician is reinforced by his usage as the chief instrument of his plot of the handkerchief, which is often associated with tools of magicians, and which in the play embodies the attempts of Iago to control not only minds of people but to subjugate material objects to his will as well. He does all that it takes to attract the attention of Othello to the handkerchief and to relate Cassio to this innocent object, in this way completely assuring Othello of the reality of his doubts about Desdemona. Again, the fact that the trick with the handkerchief destructs several people testifies that Iago tries to plan his actions to hurt not only Othello, but to procure numerous casualties.
Besides, Othello, the main target of Iago, is himself a relatively easy prey because, realising that he is somewhat exotic due to his ethnicity, he, quite strangely, despite his definite eloquence demotes himself, saying for example: “Rude am I in my speech” (1, 3, 91). However, it seems that this statement will become true as in the process of being influenced by Iago Othello is losing his eloquence, which we can equate with the adequacy of his knowledge of the truth. It will be in the closing moments of the play that equanimity will return to Othello again, and his words before his death will impress his audience. In this way, Othello in the last moments of his life becomes liberated from the factors that spoiled his life – Othello’s internal controversy as of a man who confronts a foreign culture, and his propensity for self-torturing. These qualities of Othello which at some point we begin to clearly see make him a tragic figure of his own, and not just a prey of Iago.
This observation already gives us some food for thought about the extent of the Iago`s manipulative reach as it seems that Iago can have only a limited influence on people that exploits their individual traits and just to a certain degree helps them manifest their own qualities, although negative ones. For example, Iago manages to manipulate Cassio due to his desperate state, Desdemona due to her psychological weakness and her increasing despair, and Roderigo due to his striving for love. In every of those instances, Iago exploits vulnerabilities of those personages by pretending to be able to satisfy their needs. When Iago aims to replace Cassio in his officer position, he persuades Roderigo that it should be done by claiming that Cassio is the obstacle to the love of Roderigo to Desdemona. And while for Desdemona Roderigo is of no significance, Iago arranges things in such a way that Roderigo believes him despite any contrary evidences and the suspicious behaviour of Iago, who only offers explanations to Roderigo why things are developing so slowly.
Such episodes clearly manifest Iago’s manipulative talents, and his self-satisfaction with them. So, it is the ability of Iago to feel and manipulate aspirations of people that turns him into a mighty personage, who throughout almost the whole play correctly predicts human behaviour, and at the same time is able to look like clown to audience at moments when that becomes warranted. What makes this possible is the trust that Othello has towards him, which is a quite ironic and instructive lesson that Shakespeare teaches us with his tragedy. By the way, the fact that Iago is perceived by Othello as his sincere friend suggests another fine point that for an ill-disposed person the possibilities for manipulation can be found everywhere, and even such forms of relationships as friendship and love offer opportunities for it.
Thus, the ways Iago chooses for his extensive manipulations turn him into the chief evildoer of the play, and probably the most depraved personage of Shakespeare. What makes him so terrible is the fact that it is hard to justify his actions that we may tend to view as evil for the sake of evil. While in the beginning of the play Iago voices his irritation at Othello because he was not given the lieutenant position, and later he suspects that Othello had had an affair with his wife Emilia, it is not convincing that such motives are sufficient to justify the diabolical plan of Iago, and it may even seem that the mentioned circumstances are only an excuse for his actions.
Thus, the fundamental voluntariness of deeds of Iago and his incapacity or lack of desire to reveal his real motivation add horror to his behaviour, and can be seen as the reflection of Shakespeare over the origin of evil and its constituents. In his particular situation, it seems that Iago is striving to take revenge on any person on the slightest reason, so that the list of his targets is too large to consider him normal. After all, he apparently enjoys the process of causing human suffering. We may even ask a question whether Iago aims to harm people because of his hate, or maybe he hates as the consequence of his need to justify the striving for destruction in the first place?
But in any case, whatever reasons for the destructive behaviour of Iago are, in his job he excels. At the same time, in some episodes we can also witness cowardice of Iago, which blossoms in the closing scene, when Iago stabs Emilia. This act of Iago may be construed as his ultimate fear of being laid bare in the eyes of those who were the objects of his manipulations, and also as exposition of his hidden maniacal striving to control other people but not allow others to control himself. At the same time, the murder of Emilia also exemplifies the hatred that Iago has for women. One might even suspect him of hidden homosexual attraction to Othello, which would to a certain degree explain his attempts to destroy the happiness of Othello and Desdemona.
Shakespeare did not only excel in crafting of appropriate plots and characters but reinforced them with vivid imagery without which his works surely would lose much of their appeal. In particular, we may trace throughout the play the concrete approaches that Iago uses to control the behaviour of people. Indeed, the play has patterns of images, recurring words and phrases which reinforce its main points and additionally provide subtle commentary on heroes and action. This is possible due to extensive use of metaphors in “Othello”. For example, when Iago says “Thus do I ever make my fool my purse” (1, 3, 404) this does not exclusively mean that he profits in terms of money from foolishness of others but this line also equals human qualities with material ones.
This is the way metaphors can work and it is only fitting that their suggestive and ambiguous qualities are employed in the play where familiar notions are being transformed – like liar Iago taken for an honest man and honest Desdemona taken for unfaithful wife. Interestingly, the role of word ‘honest’ in the play is very complex. Iago often uses this word to describe himself like when he says to Cassio “As I am an honest man…” (2, 3, 269) which is in fact a joke for a reader but not for Cassio. But by the same very word Iago later condemns those who value truth more than self-interest. With so many repetitions the word takes on a very complex meaning and irony of this word spreads throughout the play so that it becomes a tool to be employed in Iago`s manipulations.
Othello`s ultimate confusion about the word is when he says: “I think my wife be honest and think she is not” (3, 3, 427) At this point the word `honest` has double meaning – not only truthful but sexually chaste as well. This motif of honesty and dishonesty is closely related to another metaphoric theme of distinction between being and seeming. Othello several times proclaims himself to be the one who is what he appears to be while Iago enjoys concealing his true nature as he himself says: “I am not what I am” (1, 1, 67). The whole play seems to move between poles of truth and deception but characters involved do not see this in terrifying accordance with Iago statement. And only in the end all ways of seeming are shown as they are and Iago utters his last sentence: “From this time forth I never will speak word” (5, 2, 345).
All those interconnections between meanings and appearances provide powerful emotional imagery of numerous oppositions – love and hate, heaven and hell, life and death, black and white, guilt and innocence. An example of such actual opposition is given in Othello`s soliloquy (5, 2, 3-24) when he is in painful conflict – he is deeply in love with Desdemona but jealous doubts ignited and maintained by Iago consume him. Through murder Othello makes sure his wife will not betray him anymore, but to kill her is to lose the very thing he values most. “Yet she must die, else she’ll betray more men… When I have pluck’d the rose, I cannot give it vital growth again…” (5, 2, 8-16) Othello is in a human condition of facing self-destruction but the internal conflict is unbearable for him and he is irresistibly drawn to it. This is the example of the psychological processes that only wait to be initiated, which in this case was done by Iago, and after that they go out of control, and even Iago, if we could imagine him intervening later in order to relieve the anxiety of Othello, would most likely fail to reinstate the previous state of affairs.
On the ground of the mentioned observations, we can see that Othello and Iago are very different characters, but it is the contrast between them that may help us better understand the motives and psychology of Iago`s obsession with manipulation and control over people. Othello, being a respected men, is too bounded by the constraints of his nature, and so becomes isolated from the real course of events and turns into the victim of Iago, who creates a kind of an artificial reality for Moor that is full of deceit.
At the same time, being filled and tortured with internal controversy, Othello to a large degree represents a dark side of the human condition as such, when a person is unconsciously drawn to suffering and self-destruction. Therefore, for Iago the best route for the destruction of Othello is to ignite his internal fire and keep it burning with the help of Othello`s desperation. In his turn, Iago seems to be perfectly conscious of his villainous actions, and actually enjoys them. Yes, he is fully aware of the consequences of the methods that he uses to control people, but what makes his character truly evil and problematic is the absence of the visible motivation for his actions and the simultaneous apparent devotion of Iago to evil-doing for its own sake. Therefore, the concrete manipulative schemes of Iago may be viewed as secondary to the vagueness of his primary motivation. Still, while I clearly agree that Iago manipulates most of the events that the plot of the play contains, it would be erroneous to suppose that he is a god-like figure who may exercise over people whatever control he wants.
In fact, his evil-doing behaviour equally assumes the controlling role over his own life, and Iago, if me may say so, in the end also loses his ability to direct his life and manipulates himself to the infamous finale. In this respect, because of his unwillingness, or most probably his inability, to leave the vicious circle of wicked actions, and due to the fact that such a clever villain as Iago was could hardly really believe that he would never be revealed, Iago comes close to the tragedy of Othello who cannot help but to surrender to the emotional overload after the shattering realisation of the truth about Desdemona. In a similar fashion, Iago after all falls prey to the dark forces that took a complete control of his life. But his incapacity and even the lack of desire to confront those forces deprive him of any chance of our compassion to his own terrible tragedy.
Shakespeare, W. Othello. Shakespeare Online, 2003. Retrieved 27 March, 2006,