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Analysis of Iago Character in Shakespeare’s “Othello”

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The early scenes of “Othello” establish Iago’s character and allow the audience to learn of his nature. He plays two different people, the disguise of the trusty and loyal ensign and the one whom hides behind this disguise. Act One, Scene One is the most important because it foreshadows the whole drama. Iago is young and treacherous, a scoundrel from the start of the play. In “Othello”, Shakespeare makes the audience aware of the notion that people are not all what they appear to be on the surface. Iago’s character compliments this notion, as he cleverly disguises his true nature behind a mask. He portrays himself as Othello’s loyal and trustworthy ensign as opposed to his actual evil and mischievous nature. Iago gives the reader a warning that he is not all that he seems when he says, “I am not what I am”. Shakespeare suggests that Iago is not really a man, but the devil in disguise, manipulating people for his own pleasure. His character is quickly established as corrupt and sly as he pretends to be a supporter of Othello but in reality, is secretly scheming against him. Iago achieves this easily as his great ability to play the part of the “loyal ensign” renders his facade more than convincing.

Othello believes “honest Iago’s” every word and begins to rely on him for information. Iago’s jealousy of Othello’s position is more than evident as he broods upon the lost promotion. Othello took the advice of others and chose Cassio, who is young and untested. Iago feels betrayed at this because Othello had seen him in battle but overlooked him. In Act One, Scene One, Iago and Roderigo are discussing the current situation and Iago expresses his thoughts towards the promotion. “I know my price, I am worth no worse a place,” says Iago of being a Lieutenant, “but he [Othello] as loving his own pride and purposes, evades them with a bombast circumstance.” This emphasizes Iago’s contempt towards Othello’s decision. He feels as though he is not worthy of any less a position as a Lieutenant, therefore feels insulted that Cassio, a Florentine, who has never even “set a squadron in the field” has received the position over him. Once again, Iago’s immorality is revealed when portraying Cassio as “a fellow almost damned in a fair wife.”

This is a paradox, as he has used the word damned as opposed to blessed, revealing Iago’s ideology regarding marriage: a burden. He is mistrusting in the honest nature of people, especially Othello’s. Iago appears to be an honest man, where his “honesty” is regarded highly of by Othello. We learn later in the play that this misplaced trust in Iago is what brings about Othello’s end. In Act 1, Scene 1, Iago reveals that he is indeed only pretending to be Othello’s faithful officer to serve his own purposes. “O sir, I content you,” he says to Roderigo, “I follow him [Othello] to serve my turn upon him.” He is immoral, but very perceptive, keen, and able to manipulate people into falling for the traps he sets without them being aware. Throughout the entire first scene, no character has called Othello by his name, but they have referred to him with derogatory terms such as “the devil” and “the thick lips”. Iago constantly refers to Othello as “the Moor”, which is a reference to his race, suggesting that Iago is trying to take away Othello’s individuality by calling him a scornful name.

When he approaches Brabantio, Iago constantly refers to Othello and Desdemona’s lovemaking in obscene terms. When explaining to Brabantio that Othello and his daughter are having sexual intercourse, he says that they are “making the beast with two backs,” which is a dehumanising way to express such an emotional act. “Even now, now, very now, an old black ram is tupping your white ewe” (Line 89, Scene One). The word “tupping” is an allusion to sheep, where Iago describes Othello as the black ram tupping Desdemona, the white ewe. He does not care who he harms, as long as he can get what he wants. He manipulates people “but for his sport and profit”, allowing him to achieve what he wants while destroying any person in his path. Iago regards others as being simple in nature and that they merely exist for his amusement. He enjoys playing mind games with people as it gives him a chance to use his real power, his mind. He knows that he is smarter than the average person, and uses this to his own advantage.

He sees people for their true nature, recognising their flaws and weaknesses, and uses them as objects in his chess game, destroying each one to eventually destroy the King himself. In Act One, Brabantio gets a gang after Othello. Iago’s treachery is emphasized greatly here, as he appears to be on Othello’s side when he is confronted. Ironically, Iago was the person who in sighted the whole ordeal. Othello and Desdemona are called upon to declare their love to the Duke. Desdemona is called upon to speak for herself, and she says that she loves Othello, proving to her father that their love is indeed true. Brabantio grudgingly accepts their marriage and Othello is sent to the battle with a fleet of ships, with Desdemona permitted to join him. Once again, we see that Iago uses people to his own advantage, even Roderigo, who, after the meeting of Brabantio and Othello, is upset that he has lost his chances with Desdemona. He becomes very depressed, but Iago encourages him not to give up. This is of course because he wants to feed Roderigo’s determination which will be needed to aid Iago. This shows that he can identify a fool and use them to his advantage.

Iago quickly makes Rodrigo a parnter in crime, with his initial raging jealousy of Cassio’s position as Othello’s lieutenant, along with Roderigo’s jealousy of Othello as he has been turned down by Desdemona as a suitor. Near the end of the first scene of the second act, Iago convinces Roderigo, who was observing Cassio’s enthusiastic greeting of Desdemona, that Cassio and Desdemona have something going on between them. We see Iago once again manipulating someone, where his manipulation of Roderigo through his passion for Desdemona convinces him to provoke Cassio to anger, so that the lieutenant will be disgraced in Othello’s eyes and Iago can take his position. We see once again Iago’s evil nature as he begins to form a more detailed plan of how he can ruin both Cassio and Othello.

“I have told thee often, and I retell thee again and again, I hate the Moor,” says Iago to Roderigo, (Act One Scene 3 ), “My cause is hearted: thine hath less no reason. Let us be conjunctive in our revenge against him.” Iago’s cunning nature is also emphasized when he “warns” Othello that Barbantio is coming, therefore appearing as a trustworthy supporter of Othello, when it is indeed he who is responsible for the mess Othello is about to be in. Iago causes most of the conflicts for Othello, and he is ironically the one to warn him about it.

From the first few scenes of “Othello”, we learn that Iago is a heartless snake, who mixes lies with truth to achieve what he wants. He stays underneath a mask which hides his true, evil nature from the world.

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