In William Shakespeare’s tragedy, Othello, Othello, a Moorish general in the army secretly marries the senator’s daughter, Desdemona. Iago, one of Shakespeare’s most infamous villains, overtaken by jealousy, sets out to destroy Othello because he gave another man his promotion and believes he slept with his wife. Themes of power and jealousy motivate the plot in Othello as Iago’s selfish plan ruins his own life and Othello’s inflated ego leads to his own demise.
In the first act of Othello, the reader is introduced to the characters of Iago and Othello. Shakespeare creates a clear contrast between these two characters. Although the theme of racism may lead the reader to view Othello in images of darkness, it is obvious that Iago is the villain. While the play is named for Othello, the reader quickly realizes that Iago will be a major component to the plot of this play as Shakespeare introduces him to the audience first.
Shakespeare establishes Iago’s role as a dishonest villain when Iago tells Roderigo that he is only obeying Othello to serve his own ends, “O, sir, content you; / I follow him to serve my turn upon him” (1.1.42-43). It is not long into the first act that Iago makes known that his first priority is himself. He elaborates on this when he says:
…Were I the Moor, I would not be Iago:
In following him, I follow but myself;
Heaven is my judge, not I for love and duty,
But seeming so, for my peculiar end:
For when my outward action both demonstrate
The native act and figure of my heart
In compliment extern, ‘tis not long after
But I will wear my heart upon my sleeve
For daws to peck at: I am not what I am. (1.1.59-67)
With this speech, Iago solidifies is role as the villain and embodies the characteristics of a two-faced, conniving, and jealous wrongdoer. The reader clearly understands Iago’s disregard for any life but his own. Iago’s cutting remarks concerning Desdemona’s marriage to the Moor reflect his evil personality. When Desdemona’s father asks Iago who he is, Iago replies, “I am one, sir, that comes to tell you your daughter/ and the Moor are now making the beast with two backs” (1.1.126-127). Desdemona’s father replies appropriately by calling him a villain.
While from the reader’s perspective the clear villain is Iago, the characters racist views first show Othello to be their villain. In the first act, Desdemona’s father is convinced that Othello took Desdemona as a wife against her will. However, throughout the course of the characters’ disapproval for Othello, Othello is clearly defined as the hero. He professes his honest love for Desdemona:
…And, till she come, as truly as to heaven
I do confess the vices of my blood,
So justly to your grave ears I’ll present
How I did thrive in this fair lady’s love,
And she in mine. (1.3.466-471)
Othello goes on to explain how he won the love of Desdemona. While he sounds quite boastful and a little conceited, Othello explains that Desdemona fell in love with him after hearing stories of his heroic actions. He describes Desdemona’s infatuation with his tales when he states:
…She wish’d she had not heard it, yet she wish’d
That heaven had made her such a man: she thank’d me,
And bade me, if I had a friend that loved her,
I should but teach him how to tell my story.
And that would woo her. (1.3.507-511)
Othello explains that the only “witchcraft” he has used to win Desdemona’s love is heroism. He says, “She loved me for the dangers I had pass’d, / And I loved her for that she did pity them” (1.3.514-515). In contrast to Iago’s established deceitful nature, Othello is brutally honest about his love for Desdemona and confronts his critics openly on how he was able to win the affection of his bride.
Another way Shakespeare works to contrast the characters of Iago and Othello is the way they present themselves. Othello is open and bold about his actions while Iago often describes his schemes to himself. Iago himself admits this quality about Othello in the final speech of act one:
…The Moor is of free and open nature
That thinks men honest that but seem to be so,
And will as tenderly be led by the nose
As asses are. (1.3.756-759)
In conclusion, there is a sharp contrast between the “free and open nature” of Othello and the closed off, conniving nature of Iago. While both men have a thirst for power, they approach their goals in much different ways. Othello’s ability to trust and Iago’s ability to deceit both prove to be tragic flaws at the play’s end.