Othello Character Analysis of Honest Lago
Perhaps the most interesting and exotic character in the tragic play “Othello,” by William Shakespeare, is “Honest Iago.” Through some carefully thought-out words and actions, Iago is able to manipulate others to do things in a way that benefits him and moves him closer toward his goals. He is the main driving force in this play, pushing Othello and everyone else towards their tragic end.
Iago is one of Shakespeare’s most complex villains. At first glance Iago’s character seems to be pure evil. However, such a villain would distract from the impact of the play and would be trite. Shakespeare to add depth to his villain makes him amoral, as opposed to the typical immoral villain. Iago’s entire scheme begins when the “ignorant, ill-suited” Cassio is given the position he desired and this causes Iago to be consumed with envy and plots to steal the position he feels he most justly deserves. Iago deceives, steals, and kills to gain that position. However, it is not that Iago pushes aside his conscience to commit these acts, but that he lacks a conscience to begin with. Iago’s amorality can be seen throughout the play and is demonstrated by his actions. For someone to constantly lie and deceive one’s wife and friends, one must be extremely evil or, in the case of Iago, amoral. When Cassio takes hold of Desdemona’s hand before the arrival of the Moor Othello, Iago says, “With as little a web as this will I ensnare as great a fly as Cassio.” (2.1.164-165) His cunning and craftiness make him a truly dastardly villain indeed.
Being as smart as he is, Iago is quick to recognize the advantages of trust and uses it as a tool to forward his purposes.
Throughout the play he is commonly known as, and commonly called, “Honest Iago.” He even says of himself, “As I am an honest man…” (2.3.239) Trust is a very powerful emotion that is easily abused. Iago is a master of abuse in this case turning people’s trust in him into tools to forward his own goals. Iago slowly poisons people’s thoughts, creating ideas in their heads without implicating himself. “And what’s he then that says I play the villain, when this advice is free I give, and honest,” (2.3.289-290) says Iago, the master of deception. And thus, people rarely stop to consider the possibility that old Iago could be deceiving them or manipulating them, after all, he is “Honest Iago.”
In every scene in which Iago speaks, one can point out his deceptive manner. Iago tricks Othello into believing that his own wife is having an affair, without any concrete proof. Othello is so caught up in Iago’s lies that he refuses to believe Desdemona when she denies the whole thing. Much credit must be given to Iago’s diabolical prowess which enables him to bend and twist the supple minds of his friends and spouse. Iago makes a fool out of Roderigo. In fact, the play starts out with Iago having already taken advantage of him. Roderigo remarks, “That thou, Iago, who hast had my purse as if the strings were thine.” (1.1.3) Iago manages to steal from foolish Roderigo without the slightest feeling of guilt. He embezzles the money that Roderigo gives him to win over Desdemona. “Thus do I ever make my fool my purse.” (1.3.362) Roderigo eventually starts to question Iago’s honesty, saying “I think it is scurvy, and begin to find myself fopped in it.” (4.2.198) When Iago is faced with this accusation, he simply tells Roderigo some fanciful plot in order to capture Desdemona’s heart which Roderigo soon forgets Iago’s theft and
agrees to kill Cassio:
IAGO. Ay, if you dare do yourself a profit and a right. He sups tonight with harlotry, and thither will I go to him. He knows not yet of his honorable fortune. If you will watch his going thence, which I will fashion to fall out between twelve and one, you may take him at your pleasure. I will be near to second your attempt, and he shall fall between us. Come, stand not amazed at it, but go along with me. I will show you such a necessity in his death that you shall think yourself bound to put it on him. It is now high suppertime, and the night grows to waste. About it.
RODERIGO. I will hear further reason for this.
IAGO. And you shall be satisfied. (4.2.228-237)
After Iago simply offers that killing Cassio will aid his cause and Roderigo blindly falls for it, hook, line, and sinker. “I have no great devotion to the deed; and yet he hath given me satisfying reasons,” (5.1.8-9) says the fool Roderigo. And with this deed, Roderigo is lead to his death by the hands of none other than, “Honest Iago.”
Cassio, like Roderigo, follows Iago blindly, thinking the whole time that Iago is trying to help him. And during this whole time, Iago is planning the demise of Cassio, his supposed friend. On the night of Cassio’s watch, Iago convinces him to take another drink, knowing very well that it will make him very drunk. Cassio just follows along, though he says, “I’ll do’t, but it dislikes me.” (2.3.35) When Roderigo follows through with the plan Iago has set on him, Cassio is made to look like an irresponsible fool, resulting in his termination as lieutenant. After this incident, Iago sets another of his plans in motion by telling Cassio to beg Desdemona to help his cause, saying, “she holds it a vice in her goodness not to do more than she is requested.” (2.3.278-279) And thus, Cassio is set on a dark path which leads to trouble and mischief. Yet, Cassio follows it blindly:
CASSIO. You advise me well.
IAGO. I protest, in the sincerity of love and honest kindness.
CASSIO. I think it freely; and betimes in the morning I will beseech the virtuous
Desdemona to undertake for me. I am desperate of my fortunes if they check me here.
IAGO. You are in the right. Good night, Lieutenant. I must to the watch.
CASSIO. Good night, honest Iago. (2.3.282-288)
Now that Iago has Roderigo and Cassio in his hands, not even Othello is safe from this villain. Othello holds Iago to be his close friend and advisor for Iago has been with him in the battlefields and has given no reason for Othello to not trust him. Othello believes Iago to be a person, “of exceeding honesty, and knows all qualities, with learned spirit of human dealings.” (3.3.274-276) Yes, he does know all about human dealings, but no he is not honest. He uses the trust Othello puts in him to turn Othello eventually into a jealous man, looking everywhere:
IAGO. O, beware, my lord, of jealousy.
It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock
The meat it feeds on. That cuckold lives in bliss
Who, certain of his fate, loves not his wronger;
But O, what damned minutes tells he o’er
Who dotes, yet doubts, suspects, yet fondly loves!
OTHELLO. O misery!
IAGO. Poor and content is rich, and rich enough,
But riches fineless is as poor as winter
To him that ever fears he shall be poor.
Good God, the souls of all my tribe defend
From jealousy! (3.3.178-189)
At the climactic ending of the play, Iago’s plot is given away to Othello by his own wife, Emilia. Iago sees his wife as an obstacle and a nuisance so he kills her. He kills her not as much out of anger but for pragmatic reasons. Emilia is a stumbling block in front of his path. She serves no purpose to him anymore and she can now only hurt his chances of keeping the position he has been given by Othello. Iago’s merciless taking of Emilia’s and Roderigo’s lives is another proof of his amorality. If one looks in modern day cinema, one will see the trite villain, evil to the core. Shakespeare took his villains to a higher level. He did not make them transparent like the
villains of modern cinema as he gave his villains depth and spirit. Iago’s amorality and cynicism give, what would be a very dull character, life.
It is evident, I think, that Shakespeare imagined Iago a man of warm sympathetic qualities. Last scene of all, we hear Iago in his final soliloquy, hedged about by the desperate perils which his own moral obtuseness has drawn upon him. Only by homicide of the wildest sort can he hope to escape, but he reasons, with a weary detachment, of his chances, and he offers as a chief inducement to the reckless game the new motive of shame: “If Cassio do remain, he hath a daily beauty in his life that makes me ugly…” (5.1.18-20) Even the “counter-caster,” Cassio, whose one admirable trait is his selfless hero worship of Othello, now seems clothed in a beauty of character which makes the materialist hate himself and drives him to desperate courses. How impossible such an attitude would be to the scornful Iago of the first acts. We have thus a measure of the moral awakening of Iago. His very crimes lead him to a purer sense of the values of life.