Iago the Great Villain
When Samuel Taylor Coleridge declared William Shakespeare’s character Iago to be a character of “motiveless malignity”, he spoke the truth. It is not worthy to try to psychoanalyze Iago’s motivations, or any clinical issues that he may have had that led him to such crass and cruel behavior. A close reading of Othello makes it clear: Iago was a pure villain, one with no cause other than personal satisfaction.
I will make the assumption that performing evil on behalf only of one’s own gain is motiveless malignity, to borrow Coleridge’s phrase. In other words, though it has purpose, it serves no greater cause, no good but for oneself. It only takes a few lines of Othello to make clear what kind of a person we’re looking at. The scene in Venice between Iago and Roderigo is not ambiguous. Iago is mad that he’s been passed over for the position of lieutenant by Othello. It is not a steady, even minded conversation on Iago’s part. He is already plotting his way. “I follow him to serve my turn upon him,” he openly declares (Act I scene i). This is a quick reaction and indicates the inner workings of Iago already. Though the decision by his boss has happened only shortly before this conversation, Iago has decided to betray him. He is not considering any other means and is not going to approach the moor face to face. Deception is clearly in his soul, and the play makes no bones about it.
If this scene were not enough, if we were to excuse Iago’s plans for being a natural reaction to being usurped, Act I continues to beg differently. Because Iago and Roderigo are close (close enough to open the play with them sharing a private conversation), it would be abhorrent for one to take advantage of the other. But as soon as that possibility opens itself up to Iago, that is what he does. He uses Roderigo’s affections for Desdemona to personal gain, convincing him that in some way he will be placed to help him in his pursuit of her. Maybe all he would have to do is gain some extra disposable income by signing on for the wars…and Roderigo falls for it. (I iii). It even seems at this point that Roderigo is aware of the faults of his seeming friend. Upon receiving the advice of Iago, he immediately questions, “Wilt thou be fast to my hopes, if I depend on the issue?” Why else would he ask such a doubtful question if there were no good reason? We do not have to be convinced by the text, we only need to see Iago through Roderigo’s eyes. After all, it is Roderigo that knows his friend better than we. Interestingly, Iago’s reply to the question was, “Thou are sure of me…” which can be taken two ways. First of all, on its face it reassures Roderigo that his interests are taken care of. However, upon looking back in hindsight Shakespeare beginning to foretell this wanton villainy. Where Roderigo was expressing doubt and uncertainty, Iago reinforces this by saying to him that ‘your doubts are well – founded; you are sure of me, or you know me well.’
This advantage taking and subtle treason describes well how Iago works, what makes him so successful. He is able to make use of other character’s strengths, their strong traits, and turn them right around. Particularly in the cases of Roderigo and Othello, he sees their loyalty as their great weakness. Even when Roderigo and Othello have their fears about completely trusting Iago, they still do, and Iago knows they will. Roderigo has put his trust in his friend in the above scene, and Othello fails to see Iago’s rage when he puts his own wife Desdemona into Iago’s fiendish hands, going so far as to address Iago as, “Honest.” (I iii).
Is Iago William Shakespeare’s greatest villain? I cannot think that it could be any other way. Generally speaking the villains, enemies and wrongdoers in Shakespeare’s canon are those that we are already expecting such things of. In addition, the characters surrounding them in the plays are also ready for the worst of them, be they family enemies or national enemies. There are even a couple of certifiably insane characters who play the bad guy – but these we already fear, too. It is “Honest Iago” (again, using Othello’s judgment) that performs the evil deeds of Othello. We are introduced to him through a friendship, and are told of his boss’s loyalty to him. He remains an advisor and a confidante. And he continues to work vengeance at the same time. He is truly two faced in this regard. The difference is that the persons in the play fail to see his murderous face for most of the play. They can’t help but see the other side – and that is what makes Iago such a villain. In the end, nothing assuages his villainy. It is not enough to get back at Othello. He must destroy everything associated with the moor, and hurt him through every aspect. This will claim multiple lives including Desdemona, Desdemona’s father, Roderigo, Emilia, and ultimately Othello as well. It is an ever increasing spiral of death, all circling around the orbit of Iago’s personality.
It is the final dealing of Iago that ensures his place as supreme villain. Why would William Shakespeare possibly leave him alive at the end of Othello? What sort of statement was he trying to make. We must be sure of one thing: it is no accident that he remains for judgment in the end. He does not get killed, and so he has completed his vengeance on others. He does not kill himself, and so continues to preserve his selfish vendetta. And – perhaps most fittingly – he is not yet judged at the end of the play by Cassio, the man he was trying to supplant all along. The sheer fact that Cassio is left without final decision, emasculated, leaves us to believe that finally, Iago will still win. It is not hard to see that his day of judgment comes and goes without severe punishment. He finishes still holding his power over all of his victims. His lust is satisfied, and we are treated to the fulfillment of William Shakespeare’s greatest villain.
Shakespeare, W. Othello. Ed. Daniel Vitkus. New York: Barnes and Noble, 2007.