In Shakespeare’s “Othello”, Iago carefully and masterfully entraps Othello into believing that his wife, Desdemona, is having an affair with Cassio. He does this through a series of suggestions and hesitations that entice and implant images in Othello’s head that lead him to his demise. But what is more important is, he gives Othello the motive to murder his own innocent Desdemona, satisfying Iago’s immense appetite for revenge.
The motive for Iago’s devious plan is initially made clear in the first of Iago’s three major soliloquies, in which he proclaims Othello has had an affair with his wife, Emila. “And it is thought abroad that ‘twist my sheets he’s done my office.” The irony behind this line is that he then says, “I know not if’t be true, but I, for mere suspicion in that kind, will do as if for surety.” The impression this gave me after reading the complete text was that Iago is so exceedingly paranoid and insane that he will go as far as murdering, and deluding even a General into murdering his wife!
Iago simultaneously conducts an equally devious plan to obtain Cassio’s position as lieutenant, using Desdemona’s prime weakness, her naivety. He disgraces Cassio by getting him drunk so that he strikes Roderigo. Othello then discharges Cassio when he says, “I love thee; But nevermore be officer of mine.” How must poor Cassio have felt? To lose all he had worked for, burning gallons of mid-night oil, working up his reputation that any half-hearted human can tell he deserved. It was therefore understandable that he would fall to the mercy of Iago completely oblivious to the inevitable effects. Iago reveals his plan to the reader in his third soliloquy where he states, “His soul is so enfettered to her love, that she may make, unmake, do what she list, even as her appetite shall play the god with his weak function…And she for him pleads strongly to the Moor, I’ll pour this pestilence into his ear, that she repeals him for her body’s lust; And by how much she strives to do him good, she shall undo her credit with the Moor.”
The first instance of this plan comes to life in the scene where Iago gets Cassio drunk, but the crafting only begins after Cassio is dismissed. With Cassio’s reputation squandered – “O I have lost my reputation. I have lost the immortal part of myself, and what remains is bestial,” Iago subsequently hooks in Cassio by taking advantage of the fact that he is in a state where he will do anything to get his job, position and reputation back. Iago tells him to seek Desdemona to get it all back, “Our general’s wife is now the general…She is so free, so kind, so apt, so blessed a disposition, she holds is a vice in her goodness not to do more than she is requested.” This tells me then Iago knows Desdemona is extremely naive.
So Cassio asks Desdemona to ask Othello to take him in again. Iago implants images of Cassio and Desdemona having an affair in the mind of Othello, so the more Desdemona pleads with Othello, the more he believes Iago. And the more he refuses Desdemona because of this, the more Desdemona pleads with Othello, thereby creating an inescapable knot that never ceases to tighten around all three characters.
But for any of this to work, Iago first had to carefully build up trust from all characters. Being a master of deception, this was not difficult. All the constant declarations of love spoken so openly and as though thoughtlessly throughout the play would be enough to fool anyone, “I think you think I love you…I protest, in the sincerity of love and honest kindness.” And evidently he does deceive them thoughout the play in their words:
Othello : Thy honesty and love doth mince this matter…My friend, thy
husband, honest, honest Iago.
Cassio : Good night honest Iago…I never knew a Florentine more kind
All the love and honesty Iago falsely imposes upon Othello and Cassio easily conjure them never to doubt the possibility that he could ever set either of them up in such a profound and disgraceful manner. The irony of course is that all the open declarations of love are made during conversations where Iago is deceiving other characters. One is therefore left to ponder on the naivety and innocent nature of all the characters. How can no-one see through his mask? The answer – Emilia can.
Iago’s beloved wife, Emilia, is the one who eventually unravels her husband’s masterful plan in the ultimate scene, but that is already too late, for Iago has gained his revenge with the murder of Desdemona by Othello. Another irony is that she actually failed to connect the persona she described, after Othello strikes Desdemona, with the persona of her husband. “I will be hanged if some eternal villain, some busy and insinuating rogue, some cogging, cozening slave, to get some office, have not devised this slander; I’ll be hanged else.”
What does this tell us about the relationship between Iago and Emilia? She does not seem to know her husband very well. To my mind, this is due to Iago’s animal like attitude to love and life. He is very individualistic, concerned with only himself and what he wants. Very self-centered – a closed door. This is made evident even in the first scene when Iago shouts up to Brabantio, “an old black ram is tupping your white ewe…you’ll have your nephews neigh to you; you’ll have coursers for cousins, and jennets for germans.” The constant metaphoric association of animals and humans in this way portrays Iago’s bestial attitude to sex.
This relationship between Iago and Emilia is masterfully contrasted by Shakespeare with the relationship between Othello and Desdemona, who openly express their love and passion for each other:
Othello : O my fair warrior!
Desdemona : My dear Othello.
Othello : It gives me wonder great as my content to see you here before
me. O my soul’s joy! If after every tempest come such
calms, may the winds blow till they have wakened death and
let the labouring bark climb hills of sea as hell’s from
Perpetual love and affection are contrasted with animal lustful attraction. What must Iago feel when he sees Othello and Desdemona together? The atmosphere. How his mind must associate the same atmosphere with Othello having an affair with his wife, enticing the “green-eyed monster” within him.
It is therefore not that hard to understand the feelings that Iago feels, for it is just common jealously, which is clearly outlined when Iago finds Emilia alone in the courtyard. “How now, what do you here alone?” But to do this without surety, and to such great an extent is what we could much more easily describe as “mad”. Why does he choose the path he does? “Wife for wife”? But Emilia was never killed, so why must Desdemona die? In attempt to cover up, he does more than Othello ever supposedly did to him. And by putting Othello through the same feelings he himself has gone through, he does not really rid or relieve his feelings, but merely gains sadistic pleasure from brutal revenge. Mental treatment would be enforced upon such a person in today’s world. Sinister and sly, I regard Iago as a cult figure for youths not to follow. That is not to say “Othello” is not a compelling and flawless portrayal. Generally, it can be said that it is more the function of our human imagination and understanding of our own nature, through which we determine Iago as being who he is.