The Tragedy of Iago

The Tragedy of Iago


A villain, or at the very least an antagonist, is integral to most narratives. This is especially true for the plays of William Shakespeare. Villains move the plot forward. They make way for the protagonists to succeed or fail. In Shakespeare’s comedy Much Ado About Nothing, Don John is an elusive villain. He is the illegitimate brother of Don Pedro. He is motivated by a jealousy and anger toward his brother that causes him to poison the relationship between Claudio and Hero. While he propels the conflict, little more is known of Don John and his state of mind. This differs from Richard III, a historical play. Richard is both the protagonist and a malicious villain. His inner monologue and manipulations are fully available and he is driven by ambition and politics. Each villain is shaped by the genre of their play and the necessities of that particular plot. Richard III is transparent because the play is his story. Don John is elusive because the true protagonists are Beatrice and Benedick, followed by Claudio and Hero. Othello, however, is a tragedy. The fight for power here is about the domestic, emotional, and personal. Tragedies, as examined by Aristotle, end in a moment of catharsis for the audience. The catharsis is a complicated achievement, especially in Othello, in which the true struggle surrounds love, will, and loyalty. Iago drives this struggle, manipulating all around him. His intimacy with the audience is necessary for the tragedy’s success and critical in Othello’s downfall.

Aristotle’s Poetics analyzes and pinpoints the components of Greek tragedy. According to Aristotle, a tragedy often surrounds a protagonist of high birth who has a fatal flaw, or hamartia. Tragedies end with a moment of suffering and catharsis, which occurs after two distinct moments in the plot—reversal and recognition, or peripeteia and anagnorisis by their greek names.1. Recognition and reversal mark the moments when a character realizes the truth and adjusts their actions accordingly. Pity and fear result.

Tragedy is an imitation not only of a complete action, but of events inspiring fear or pity. Such an effect is best produced when the events come on us by surprise; and the effect is heightened when, at the same time, they follow as cause and effect. The tragic wonder will then be greater than if they happened of themselves or by accident; for even coincidences are most striking when they have an air of design.2

Here, the :tragic wonder” is heightened when brought about by design—hence Iago’s character. Iago provides the play’s cause and effect design. His planning—which gives viewers insight into his mind—makes Othello, Emilia, and Desdemona’s downfalls all the more striking.

Iago explains his motivations early. They are purely emotional. He first presents his anger towards Cassio in act 1.

Despise me
If I do not. [. . . ]
For “Certes,” says he,
“I have already chose my officer.”
And what was he?
Forsooth, a great arithmetician,
One Michael Cassio, a Florentine
(A fellow almost damned in a fair wife)
That never set a squadron in the field,
Nor the division of a battle know
More than a spinster [. . .]
And I, of whom his eyes had seen the proof
At Rhodes, at Cyprus, and on other grounds
Christian and heathen,
must be belee’d and calmed
By debitor and creditor.
This counter-caster
He (in good time) must his lieutenant be
And I, bless the mark, his Moorship’s ancient.”3

Cassio was chosen over Iago as Othello’s lieutenant. According to Iago, Cassio has only an understanding of theory in war but is not a weathered veteran. Iago fought with Othello in Rhodes and Cyprus. This likely created a brotherly bond often seen among warriors, which makes Othello’s choice more hurtful for Iago. This same bond contributed to Othello’s trust in “honest Iago,” whose manipulative and near sociopathic nature is clear to the audience but hidden from Othello. Later in act 1, Iago reveals he suspects Othello has slept with his own wife, Emilia.

I hate the Moor,
And it is thought abroad that ’twixt my sheets
He’s done my office. I know not if ’t be true,
But I, for mere suspicion in that kind,
Will do as if for surety. He holds me well.
The better shall my purpose work on him.
Cassio’s a proper man. Let me see now,
To get his place and to plume up my will
In double knavery.4

Iago describes how his suspicion is enough motivation. He then uses this sentiment against Othello in planning his downfall. He takes note of Cassio’s good looks and Othello’s honest and trusting nature and decides to raise further suspicions of infidelity. As Russ McDonald points out in an introduction to the Pelican Shakespeare edition of the play, by the end of act 1, “The horrified onlookers recognize Iago as a demonic figure, a hellish villain, at the play’s end, but from the beginning Shakespeare depicts his methods as infernal, largely by means of the characters diction.”5 He creates his monstrous plan and proceeds to bring it alive.

Iago’s design is especially clear when following the handkerchief. Iago acts the “honest Iago,” friend of all, throughout the play, and the handkerchief is his prop. In act 3, scene 3, Emilia gives Desdemona’s dropped handkerchief to Iago upon his repeated request and refuses to tell Emilia why he needs the token. Once she leaves the room, Iago reveals to the audience that he will plant the handkerchief in Cassio’s home.

Dangerous conceits are in their natures poison
Which at the first are scarce found to distaste,
But with a little act upon the blood
Burn like the mines of sulfur.”6

The plan unfolds just as he hopes. While talking privately with Othello, and making more cautious claims at Desdemona’s infidelity, Cassio emerges followed by a courtesan named Bianca. She brings the handkerchief Cassio left with her, claiming he is sleeping with another woman behind her back. This moment, and the importance of the handkerchief, solidifies Othello’s decision to murder Desdemona. Iago devises his every action. He has an understanding of human nature and those he manipulates.

Now will I question Cassio of Bianca,
A housewife that by selling her desires
Buys herself bread and cloth. It is a creature
That dotes on Cassio, as ’tis the strumpet’s plague
To beguile many and be beguiled by one.
He, when he hears of her, cannot restrain
From the excess of laughter.7

Iago’s understanding of these characters was necessary in a tragedy where the protagonist is kind-hearted and unlikely to fall without intervention

In act 5, viewers face the terrible moments of recognition, reversal, and suffering. Emilia returns to Desdemona’s chamber to find her on the brink of death. Othello, wretched, makes his claims to her infidelity and Iago’s part in its supposed revelation. Othello reveals his proof in Cassio’s possession of the handkerchief and Emilia realizes her fatal part in her husband’s plot. Iago discerns his machinations are revealed and kills Emilia. Othello then kills himself. These wasteful deaths create a spectacular scene in both dialogue and portrayal. In the 1995 movie of Othello, directed by Oliver Parker, the deaths occur one by one, with Othello dragging his dying body across the bed to lie with Desdemona. Iago ends on the death bed as well, surrounded by his work and facing a future of torture. Aristotle writes,

Fear and pity may be aroused by spectacular means; but they may also result from the inner structure of the piece, which is the better way, and indicates a superior poet. For the plot ought to be so constructed that, even without the aid of the eye, he who hears the tale told will thrill with horror and melt to pity at what takes place.8

Even without the dramatic visuals of the film production, the pity and fear are felt sharply in the text of the final scene. This is due to Iago’s actions and thoughts throughout the play. He is integral to the structure and uses both diction and direct monologues to bring viewers into this final moment of suffering. Iago is meant to repel and yet, the access to his thoughts ensures viewers are inextricably linked to Iago and his diseased mind. As McDonald describes, “such intimacy nevertheless creates an ironic affinity between villain and audience. Shakespeare links us to his villain by modifying the method developed for Richard III, and this theatrical attachment secures an intellectual bond that ensures complicity.”9 This complicity heightens the catharsis. It heightens not only the dread for the characters but the dread for one’s own ability to be complicit in such easily constructed terror.

Iago is a driving force in this tragedy. He is manipulative and cares little about who he hurts in achieving his goals. The conflict in Othello is not specifically political. There is no clearly justifiable reason for death except through Iago’s discontent, unhappiness, and malicious nature. In this exploration of the human condition,

Shakespeare represents and permits the audience to savor the potential joys of human love—physical, emotional, spiritual—and then depicts the brutal self-destruction of those possibilities. Looking hard at human experience through a dark filter of tragedy, the playwright portrays the vulnerability of morals, even the most gifted and accomplished, to the forces of hatred and fear within themselves.10

Iago inflames Othello’s self-destructive qualities. This illuminates the possibility for anyone to fall when their vulnerabilities, or fatal flaws, overcome the rational mind. Shakespeare uses qualities of the Aristotlian tragedy to express this shared vulnerability, and Iago is the villain required to show the destructive capacity of hatred and fear. His inner monologue, the intimacy he held with the audience, and vicious persona are integral to achieving the recognition, reversal, and strong catharsis described by Aristotle.

  1. Aristotle. Poetics, The Internet Classics Archive, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
  2. Aristotle, Poetics.
  3. William Shakespeare, Othello (The Pelican Shakespeare: Penguin Books, 2001), I.1.8-32.
  4. Shakespeare, Othello, 1.3.378-386.
  5. Russ McDonald, “Introduction,” Othello (The Pelican Shakespeare: Penguin Books, 2001).
  6. Shakespeare, Othello, III.3.326-329.
  7. Shakespeare, Othello, IV.1.93-99.
  8. Aristotle, Poetics.
  9. McDonald “Introduction,” Othello.
  10. McDonald, “Introduction,” Othello.
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