Few characters, even in Shakespeare, consistently generate as much debate as Iago. Usually seen as the ultimate personification of evil, he devotes himself to the destruction of Othello, but far more interesting is how and why his plans consume himself in the end. Empson states that Iago’s plans actually overtake him, which goes to his ignorance of others and even of his own desires, and this then may be seen as the key to the character. Cunning, Iago makes mistakes; ruthless, he fails to appreciate the human realities crucial to his schemes, and in particular how Emilia may react in ways defying him. In the character of Iago, then, Shakespeare is presenting how there is weakness in any evil that is based on nothing but visceral hatred and is so focused, it is incapable of acknowledging the dimensions of others, which will likely then lead to self-destruction.
Before Iago’s inability to appreciate the true natures of those with whom he is involved may be seen as destructive to his own agenda, it is first necessary to comprehend the actual nature of Iago’s evil. Remarkably, Shakespeare presents this more as a kind of force of nature, rather than as a man’s dominant pursuit based on some sense of injustice suffered. Shakespeare never, in fact, gives any definitive reason for Iago’s hatred of Othello; rather, he simply presents this as a reality of the scenario, one which exists primarily because it does exist (Schapiro 482). This being the case, Iago himself cannot know his desires beyond the power they have over him. There are indications of jealousy regarding Desdemona, as well as envy for Othello’s status and Iago’s disgust that a moor would be so elevated. Nothing, however, drives Iago’s plotting to adequately explain it. The audience must trust to Iago’s own expression of a rationale that is no rationale, offered to the manipulated Roderigo: “I have told/ thee often, and I re-tell thee again and again, I/ hate the Moor” (I, iii). This is a hatred so powerful, despite the lack of foundation, it actually overshadows any possible basis for it, and no other motive beyond Othello’s destruction concerns Iago.
The implacable quality of this hatred then supports Empson’s perception, in that any emotion dominating a character to this extent must blind him to critical realities. Ironically, Iago’s evil works against itself, and because of its strength. It is too much and he is unable to recognize how his evil overtakes even himself, which in turn reinforces his own lack of true awareness of it. Iago is very much a study in abnormal psychology, if only because his own ambitions and view of himself are strangely contrary to the man he is. For example, Iago takes great pride in being guided by reason and intellect (Andretta). In his early conversation with Roderigo, whom he is confident of manipulating, he is supremely assured of his ability to direct matters to his satisfaction. With Roderigo, there is success: “Thus do I ever make my fool my purse” (I, iii). At the same time, however, Iago’s confidence in his knowledge of humanity is unsupported, and because he can only perceive others as motivated by baseness. He constructs his plans and is certain that all will fall into place, but his ignorance of other potential goals or motives will undermine him, and because he is essentially blinded by the ferocity of his own emotion.
As Othello unfolds, the evidence of how Iago’s monomania blinds him is presented in interestingly subtle ways, as his failure to comprehend the characters of his “pawns” is gradually suggested. For example, he misinterprets Desdemona completely, absolutely believing that she is with Othello only because of lust. Iago then employs this idea of Desdemona to torment Cassio, and fuel his desire for her: “What an eye she has! methinks it sounds a parley of/ provocation” (II, iii). Certainly, Cassio is attracted to Desdemona. Nonetheless, Iago seizes only upon these specific realities, and others of great meaning escape his interest or notice. In plain terms, he is incapable of believing that Desdemona loves Othello deeply, as he fails to account for Cassio’s personal sense of honor. Iago is, again, cunning, but this neglect must weaken any scheme because the potentials of decency in the others are dismissed, and these potentials have a force all their own. When Iago assesses the interaction between Desdemona and Cassio, he can see only desire: “Lechery, by this hand; an index and obscure prologue/ to the history of lust and foul thoughts” (II, i). So blinded by his own motives and emotion, he then virtually orchestrates his own downfall. Perhaps most importantly, this evil and scheming man, so confident in his plotting, fails to appreciate his wife’s devotion to Desdemona and her nature as moral. Iago trusts to her wifely obedience and the mistake is fatal, as when Emilia reveals the truth: “O thou dull Moor! that handkerchief thou speak’st of/ I found by fortune and did give my husband” (V, ii). At this point, in fact, Iago is unraveling, and to the extent of attempting to kill his wife. It is of course too late. He has succeeded in destroying Othello but, through his implacable hatred and his own nature as not allowing for virtue in others, he has assured his own doom as well.
Iago must always remain something of a conundrum; relentlessly evil, he embodies the craftiness of evil, yet he is weakened by the limitations of such feeling itself. He is in a sense a victim of his own hatred before his destruction, and because its strength defies even his understanding of it and eclipses his reasoning. This hatred firmly in place, Iago is then unable to recognize qualities in others essentially good, so he essentially brings about his own doom through blindness. Evil, in a sense, must then generate its own demise. Ultimately, Shakespeare’s character of Iago exists to reveal how there is an inherent weakness in any evil that is based on nothing but visceral hatred, and evil that is so focused, it is incapable of perceiving the dimensions and qualities of others, which will likely then lead to the evil-doer’s self-destruction.
- Andretta, Richard A. “Shakespeare’s Iago And Dostoevsky’s Stavrogin: A Comparative Study in the Nature of Evil and the Demonic.” The Journal for English Language & Literary Studies 1 (2011).
- Schapiro, Barbara A. “Psychoanalysis and the problem of evil: debating Othello in the classroom.” American Imago 60.4 (2003): 481-499.
- Shakespeare, William. Othello. N/d. Web. 3 Dec. 2015.