Question: Discuss the character and motives of Iago - is the character a logical and self-consistent one in its developments?
Answer: Iago is the perfect villain. He neither respects moral beauty as seen in Desdemona, nor the grand nobleness of
the mighty-souled Othello. All things pure and noble in their nature are looked upon as far beneath his "learned
spirit." As Mr. Hudson says, Iago is "severely introversive,"
and is only satisfied by dipping what is good into his own
vileness and bringing it forth reeking in the filth of his own
evil nature. The purest of all sentiments is, in his mind, a mere "lust of the blood and a permission of the will." It
is utterly foreign to his nature; indeed, we cannot even conceive of lago's loving anything. As in Macbeth, we may,
perhaps, regard the "Weird Sisters" as the personification
of the evil existing in Macbeth's mind, so lago may be regarded as the personification of all evil, the superlative
degree of evil, of which the Witches are merely the positive.
To lago and in an intensified sense, "Fair is foul, and foul is
fair." The very quintessence of his nature is the consummate power which he possesses of reversing the order of good
and evil so as to make the good appear the evil; as when he turns Desdemona's generous solicitations in behalf of Cassio
into solicitations for her own destruction, as it finally proves to be; and the evil into good as, i.e., in his own mind when,
after urging Cassio to entreat readmission through Desdemona, he says:
"And what's he, then, that says I play the villain?
When this advice is free I give and honest,
Probal to thinking, and, indeed, the course
To win the Moor again."
With the other characters of the play his villainous intellect sports and trifles at will. Roderigo is the instrument
with which he works his diabolic plan. In the reunion scene (II. i. 3), where the happiness of husband and wife
seems almost too exquisite, we find lago glorying and exulting in the sad havoc he is soon to make within their Eden;
he here appears more cruel than Milton's Satan, who feels
some pity and remorse on seeing the happiness which he is
about to destroy.
The consummate skill with which he links together in one
continuous chain his many plans for evil is a striking mark
of lago's genius.
Another thing to be remembered is, that the poet has not
made lago an old man, hardened by disappointments and
contact with this rough world; we would generally suppose
this to be the case, but lago tells us himself that he is only
twenty-seven, a young man, and hence his innate, inveterate,
instinctive vileness seems more horrible. We can almost
forgive a man hardened and changed by the unrelenting hand
of Fate, but we feel the deepest repulsion for the naturally
and instinctively mean man.
As to lago's motives, much has been said. He says that the Moor and Cassio have wronged him. So report goes; but
we see from his conduct afterwards that he does not really
believe this report; besides, this would be no adequate cause
for the terrible effect which he brings about. Coleridge
speaks of lago's alleged motives as "the motive-hunting of
a motiveless malignity." So revenge is not his motive. I
am inclined to agree with Hudson, Dowden, and others on
this point, when they say that lago had no motives in the
real sense of the word, but that his intellect, spurning all
law, motive, influence from without, was unto itself all in all;
and that he did evil simply because he had the power and
liked to exercise it. Yet there is another thing to be considered in this respect; i.e., lago says:
"Cassio hath a daily beauty in his life,
That makes me ugly."
Perhaps I should say, then, that envy has a strong influence
over his mind. The two things envy and conscious power,
are then his motives, I think.
Yes, lago's character is a logical and self-consistent one
in its developments. His position, as shown by his own
words in the first scene of the play, seems but the first link
in the chain which ends with the characteristic words:
"Demand me nothing.
What you know you know:
From this time forth I never will speak word."
From his words, "I am not what I am," we see his conduct of duplicity with the Moor in III. iii. Starting out with
the assertion that he is one who has "some soul," he closes
with defiance and sullen silence. Since he feels that lying,
cheating, and deceiving will no longer avail, he gives up
everything and is silent, but neither remorseful nor repentant. Yet we do not feel at the end that lago has conquered, but that he has failed, miserably failed. Having no real motives in the beginning for his conduct, lago cannot
change as these motives change, but steadily and closely
works out little by little his diabolical plans. Some one has
said that the absence of all passion in lago enables him to
assume at any moment the feeling or passion which best
suits that particular place and circumstance: thus we see
him affecting the greatest friendship for Cassio, in order that
he may effect his own ends thereby.
How to cite this article:
Ragland, Fanny. Shakespeare Examinations. Ed. William Taylor Thom, M. A. Boston: Ginn and Co., 1888. Shakespeare Online. 10 Aug. 2010. (date when you accessed the information) < http://www.shakespeare-online.com/plays/othello/examqo/iagological.html >.