The Structural Role of Iago in Othello

There are two main sets of players in drama that form the core of all action – the protagonists and the antagonists. Their pushes and counter pushes are behind both the initiation and the development of the main and sub plots. About Shakespeare’s plots it is said:

His plots, whether historical or fabulous, are always crowded with incidents, by which the attention of a rude people was more easily caught than by sentiment or argumentation; and such is the power of the marvellous, even over those who despise it, that every man finds his mind more strongly seized by the tragedies of Shakespeare than of any other writer; others please us by particular speeches, but he always makes us anxious for the event (Johnson 136).

In many tragedies, the antagonists appear to be the root of not only all evil, but also of all action. As the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics puts it, “villains in tragedy choose their mighty victims, and like the fates, appear to manipulate the machinery of the plot to destroy them with appalling ingenuity” (861).  They are known by their structurally central role of driving the action while being pitted firmly against the protagonist. They are, many a time, not only the initiators but also the prime movers of all important action. Due to their central importance in furthering the action, villains become very important for the development of plot wherever they are present, even when they have a minor role to play as that of Oswald in King Lear. It is about characters like Iago that Sitwell commented: “Certain characters in Shakespeare have the grandeur and loneliness of a pariah sun in a heaven of evil, casting down disastrous rays upon all alike, breeding new forms of life from primeval mud” (17).

Amongst all the villains of Shakespeare’s tragedies, the most important originator and mover of actions against an ever trusting and unsuspecting hero, the most cunningly dangerous and dangerously dissembling villain is Iago. He is a “complex and credible figure” (Stewart 294). He is present in Othello from the first scene of the first act to the last scene of the last act, barring two scenes only. He generally very actively controls, or is involved in, most of the scenes. He controls firmly the action of the whole play and its protagonists too. He does that mainly with his own evil genius, with some help from fortune, his wife Emilia, his pawn Roderigo and the basic nature of the protagonists.

Iago manipulates Roderigo thoroughly and uses him to perform many dirty tasks of his. He uses Emilia to get the inside information and that crucial handkerchief which starts a chain of events terminating into a catastrophe for the protagonists. He works on Othello’s trusting nature and controls him so much that he runs the Moor’s family life, career, emotional stability, and, to his own eyes, even his honour. Cassio crosses Iago’s path unintentionally and pays its price without any fault of his own. Desdemona is inconsequential and expendable for Iago. Although he is not free of lust for her, he is not a man to be moved by anything but his prime motive in the play which is his revenge. Desdemona just happens to be a convenient tool that served the great evil schemer’s purpose well. There are many other characters like Brabantio with whose lives Iago plays as the action proceeds.

In this play the villain is the sun around whom all the characters revolve through his control of their actions. “He is to be understood as the mere source of motive power whose function is to bring the seed of death … to maturity…” (Murry 318). Therefore, Iago is the central force that drives the plot forth and makes the action progress. As the action of the play starts Iago is seen reasoning with Roderigo.

Rod. Thou told’st me thou didst hold him in thy hate.

Iago. Despise me, if I do not. Three great ones of the city,

In personal suit to make me his lieutenant,

Off-capp’d to him; and, by the faith of man,

I know my price, I am worth no worse a place.

But he,..

“I have already chose my officer.”

…One Michael Cassio, a Florentine (Oth. 1.1.6-12; 16-20),

Thus are mentioned for the first time Iago’s two main enemies against whom he’ll spin his lethal silken web of lies and deceit and then will destroy them. He tells Roderigo that he follows Othello with some plan of his own and then takes over the reins. He instructs Roderigo and accompanies him to rouse Brabantio to inform him that his daughter Desdemona has eloped with Othello. Being what he is, Iago safely withdraws from the scene of forthcoming action as he can not accompany Brabantio’s party or be seen with Roderigo. Till this point of the play all action originates in and is controlled by Iago, while his pawn Roderigo functions exactly as previously planned.

In the second scene of the play Iago is seen by Othello’s side as his trusted ancient, proving his loyalty to him, also proving the gentleness of his nature. While doing all this he is also provoking Othello against Brabantio imperceptibly. He fails to provoke the noble Moor against his father-in –law but upholds the Iago myth – that of his being an honest man. Iago tries but fails in controlling the action of this scene because of Othello’s immense reserve, nobility and self-control. Still, Iago is a major participant in this scene too. Thus he lays down the framework of all action that will take place till the end of the play, with few fine alterations he himself will make for efficiency of execution. Iago appears Godlike in his planning of actions and control of the plot.

The action shifts fromVenicetoCyprusin the second act. Iago has more free space for his manipulative tactics here because here he can fool most of the people most of the times as he is new to many of them. He begins immediately. In the first long scene all the central characters interact and a lot of space is provided for the development of action. He keeps on dissembling so consistently that most of the action is made possible through his success in making others see only the Iago he wanted to project. Once he is left alone with his stooge Roderigo, he pushes the pace of action up and in the direction he wants it to take. As his first step, he proves it to Roderigo that Desdemona loves Cassio. His cynical talk with an alternative interpretation to Cassio’s innocent smile, whisper and a parting kiss to Desdemona gives Roderigo hope to live and function on Iago’s detailed instructions. Although in this phase Iago is not very sure of his next step. He only plans to use Cassio’s own fault of losing his senses under alcohol’s effect against him. Once he is alone, Iago reveals the real reason for removing Cassio from his way. It is to replace him in the general’s service. Iago is the most important element affecting the action of this scene. Moreover, he pushes the overall actions to a heightened pitch.

The success of Iago’s plan depends on Cassio’s getting drunk and the third scene of the second act begins with Iago’s maliciously leading an unwilling Cassio towards his doom by making him drunk. He makes Cassio neglect his duty on his night watch and then fills Montano’s mind with wrong information. He tells Montano that Othello knew Cassio’s vice that he overlooked and made him his lieutenant. Montano is convinced and believes every falsehood Iago parades as the absolute truth. This small set of foundational steps leads Montano to stand against a drunk Cassio following Roderigo and he is hurt fighting. The well tutored Roderigo disappears completely from the scene of action the moment he could outrun Cassio and then follows Iago’s instruction to “go out and cry a mutiny”. When Othello appears on the scene of the crime Iago lets out the impression that he is totally unwilling to speak:

I had rather have this tongue cut from my mouth

Than it should do offense to Michael Cassio;

Yet, I persuade myself, to speak the truth

Shall nothing wrong him (Oth. 2.3.213-16)

Forced by his noble ideals Iago finally reports the “truth” to Othello trying all the while to appease him and save Cassio’s career. This enrages Othello to the extreme and precipitates prompt removal of the lieutenant from his position. One of his targets achieved, Iago sets himself immediately to achieve another by consoling Cassio and suggesting him the best possible way out of his present unbearable fall from grace. His plan is the best and Cassio willingly lets himself be led by his biggest enemy with full faith in him.

Iago’s knowledge of human nature and his creative problem solving skills help him forward his cause by apparently helping others again and again. Iago’s plans start bearing tangible fruits for him and he commands the full trust and attention of all the central characters after this scene till nearly the end of the last scene of the play. He leads one action after another very rapidly to its completion and thus leads the plot towards its climax. His ability to dissimulate for successful manipulation makes everything easy for him till he is exposed as a villain. At the end of the scene he spells out the line of action very lucidly, as if he could see the future:

…For whiles this honest fool

Plies Desdemona to repair his fortune,

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.

So will I turn her virtue into pitch,

And out of her own goodness make the net

That shall enmesh them all (Oth. 2.3.342-51).

Whatever this strangely and incongruously prophetic soul expresses becomes the truth very shortly, as if Iago were omniscient and omnipresent in the small world of the play; the writer of everybody’s fate and actions.

The third act is the culmination and fruition of Iago’s master plan. The first scene has Cassio falling neatly in line with Iago’s plan on his own accord. He requests Iago to get Emilia’s help to meet Desdemona alone so that he can convince her to plead for him to the Moor. His request is readily granted and Iago also assures to keep Othello away while Cassio talked to Desdemona. He has his own plans and the locus of control of all action lies in him once more. Iago sends Cassio with Emilia to Desdemona in the third scene and has played the part of a concerned friend so well that Emilia tells her mistress’ “Good madam, do. I warrant it grieves my husband / As if the case were his” (Oth. 3.3.3-4). As Cassio sees Othello coming he leaves hastily and Iago gets his chance. “Ha! I like not that” (Oth. 3.3.35), says Iago. Thus begins a series of questions and answers that make an unwilling Iago reveal the truth to Othello while trying to avoid doing so all the time. Now he has his biggest prize. He has the mind of the hero in his clutches and has the power to affect his actions. Thus he has become the most powerful person inCyprus, de facto, if not de jure. He sows the seeds of suspicion in Othello’s mind by apparently speaking against his own suspicions. He calls Cassio honest and proves otherwise. He calls Desdemona virtuous but also says that she had betrayed her father so cunningly, thus leading Othello to the obvious conclusion that she may, nay, will betray him too.

One central trait of the Elizabethan drama is very prominently present in Othello, as the “essential structure of the Elizabethan drama lies not in narrative or the characters but in the words”, the core of the drama was built on words (Bradbrook 5). Iago’s character controls the play through his command over language. Iago’s mastery over both language and human psychology helps him further his intended actions towards their completion. The biggest possible help Iago could get from his fortune came in the form of the handkerchief Othello had given to Desdemona. Desdemona drops it and Emilia brings it to her husband “to please his fantasy”, as he had always asked her to do so. Iago, who knows that “Trifles light as air / Are to the jealous confirmations strong / As proofs of holy writ” (Oth. 3.3.326-28), produces it as the ocular evidence Othello asked for to take action against the supposed culprits. This ocular proof was crucial because Othello had warned Iago that his life was in danger if he failed to produce it. Thus comes a very crucial point in the plot’s development and the villain is only one step away from the final push towards the endgame. Iago’s method is very subtle as he first talks of a handkerchief spotted with strawberries that he had seen Cassio wiping his face beard with. Actually Iago had dropped the handkerchief in Cassio’s chamber for a “special purpose” (Oth. 5.2.325), as he confessed to Cassio at the end. This planting of elements to gain a targeted end is a common device used by some very dangerous evil minds in Shakespeare’s tragedies. Aaron does it through the incriminating letter, using Tamora as his agent and Cassius does it through the fabricated letters to Brutus. Both these instances play crucial role in the progress of not only the evil schemes of these villains but also the overall action of the play. What happens to Othello’s mind is described by Coleridge in his Table Talks:

Jelousy does not strike me as the point in his passion; I take it to be

rather an agony that the creature, whom he had believed angelic, with whom he had garnered up his heart, and whom he could not help still loving, should be proved impure and worthless. It was the struggle not to love her. It was a moral indignation and regret that virture should so fall… (1)

Thus arises in Othello “black vengeance, from hell” and Iago commits his full support to his general. Othello entrusts Iago with the important task of killing Cassio within three days. Iago, bound by his solemn pledge agrees to kill his friend Cassio but requests Othello to let Desdemona live. With this stroke of his manipulative genius, Iago makes Othello sign Desdemona’s death sentence. He finally gets half of what he had set out for. Othello makes him his lieutenant but the best is yet to come. In the next scene Iago is working Cassio’s mind and asking him to press his cause with Desdemona while she has tried and failed as Othello talks of nothing but the handkerchief Desdemona has lost.

In the fourth act Iago lays an elaborate trap for the Moor, in which he will also catch Cassio and Desdemona. He asks Othello to watch him talk to Cassio from a distance. He says:

For I will make him tell the tale anew,

Where, how, how oft, how long ago, and when

He hath and is again to cope your wife.

I say, but mark his gesture (Oth. 4.1.84-87).

He talks to Cassio about Bianca. Othello sees his free gestures and laughter and interprets them to be meant for his Desdemona. The clinching evidence is presented when Bianca enters the scene brandishing Othello’s handkerchief that Cassio had given her to jealously return it end exits demanding his presence at supper. One stage of Iago’s plan is complete at this point but he does not stop with only this success. Even amidst such active confusion Iago furthers his cause by exhorting Cassio to follow Bianca and assuring that Cassio will be with her at night where he says he’ll meet him. Actually he intends to execute his plan of getting Cassio killed through the agency of Roderigo. Before that he has to work on Othello’s jealous mind to make him take the concluding violent act, his final solution to all te problems. Iago’s control over the Moor is such that he actually overrides all the alternatives for Desdemona’s murder to put forth his solution which is to “strangle her in her bed, even the bed / she hath contaminated” (Oth. 4.1.203-04). In this very scene Iago is seen repeating his habitual act of misrepresentation to disparage and harm others. On Lodovico’s asking him about the true nature of Othello after having seen him mistreating Desdemona severely, Iago characteristically replies:

It is not honesty in me to speak

What I have seen and known. You shall observe him,

And his own courses will denote him so

That I may save my speech. Do but go after,

And mark how he continues (Oth. 4.1.274-78).

Thus, once more, the honest Iago damns his victim despite staying nobly tight lipped and noncommittal.

The second scene of the fourth act presents the crowning glory to Iago’s dissimulation when Desdemona orders Emilia to call her husband after Othello insulted and shocked her by calling her a whore. Iago is the “eternal villain” Emilia suspects behind Desdemona’s misfortunes (Oth. 4.2.131). Yet no one suspects him while he allays all their fears and blames it all to Othello’s disturbed state of mind due to the business of the state. Thus he forestalls all possible measures they could have taken. Later on Iago starts one more important action by instructing a hitherto discontent Roderigo in the violent act of the night to come.

In the last act  the action moves very fast towards the end, but the end turns out to be very different from what Iago had planned. Iago tutors Roderigo in cowardice by asking him to strike at Cassio in the dark. Roderigo attempts the murder but fails and lies wounded along with Cassio whom both Roderigo and a hidden Iago had wounded. Thus Iago performs his first physically verifiable evil action, that too, without any witness to prove he did so. Cassio, Iago’s victim, never suspects him as Iago returns to the scene of crime right in front of Lodovico and Gratiano. He comes to help his friend Cassio and on seeing his state gets so enraged that he kills Roderigo. He then implicates Bianca in all that has happened with Cassio and then has a clear foreboding of the future as he says, “This is the night / That either makes me or fordoes me quite” (Oth. 5.1.128-29).

The last scene of the last act is the culmination of Iago’s successful career followed by its termination after his exposure. Othello kills his beloved Desdemona with his own hands and then commits suicide on finding her innocent and Iago’s revenge is complete. Yet Iago fails as his wife reveals his true nature and his crime of using the stolen handkerchief to fabricate a false case against innocent Desdemona. He tries his best to silence her but is too late in killing her as she has told everyone about him already. Killing Emilia inn full view of everyone is Iago’s first rash act and this one delayed act cost him his success and happy life. Till he is exposed he controls the movement of the plot to a large extent. All the people who acted even with their own free will were given their free actions either through unconscious implant of the seed ideas or as direct and strongly backed suggestions by their benefactor Iago. At all the crucial junctures where action needs a definite direction and push, Iago is always present with all the right reasons and justifications for those he makes work for his selfish gains. Iago is shown as the playwright of the action in the play – Shakespeare’s partial image in the world he populated with the progenies of his pen. No villain, in no other tragedy of Shakespeare has so completely controlled the action of the play from the beginning till the end. Macbeth and Edmund are rivals to Iago in their control of action around them and Macbeth registers a continuous albeit not as strong presence as Iago does. Yet, even these two great villains stand nowhere when Iago’s nearly absolute control over the action of both characters and the play are concerned. The other villains contribute to the overall action (Macbeth) or control the action in a major sub-plot(Edmund) but they pale in front of Iago who stays with the main action that actually originates in his mind. He has full faith in his cause and knows that he has the powers to achieve his ends using means that are basically evil. In this he stands with Edmund, the villainous bastard son of the Earl of Gloucester in King Lear. Both assume central importance in the action of the plays they are present in. both are not the most powerfully placed persons as the play begins, but by the end of the play they are the most powerful determiners of action as they command the actions of many major characters of the plays – both antagonists and protagonists.







Works Cited

Bradbrook, M. C. Themes and Conventions of Elizabethan Tragedy. New Delhi: Vikas Publishing House, 1979. Print.

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. Specimens of the Table Talk.London: John Murray,1837. Print.

Johnson, Samuel. “Preface to octavo edition”. Famous Introductions to Shakespeare’s Plays. Ed. Beverley Warner.New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1906. Print.

Murry, John Middleton. Shakespeare.London:JonathanCape, 1959. Print.

Preminger, Alex Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics.London:Princeton, 1975. Print.

Shakespeare, William. William Shakespeare: The Complete Works. New Delhi: Oxford and IBH Publishing Co. Ltd., 1980. Print.

Sitwell, Edith. A Notebook on William Shakespeare.London; Macmillan, 1965. Print.

Stewart, J. L. M. “Shakespeare’s Men and their Morals”. Shakespeare Criticism. Sel. Anne Ridler.London: OUP, 1970. Print.


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