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Shakespeare’s Iago and the History of Villainy

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From a historical perspective villainy is as old as mankind itself. The nature of villainy is also to a great extent influenced by zeitgeist or spirit of the age. In Greek mythology the distinction between the hero and villain is not very clear-cut. Hercules, for example, had strength and courage, but his inability to control his temper led to the murder of his wife and children. Atalanta who should be regarded as a pioneer feminist for fighting against discrimination, is considered by some as villain for asserting women’s independence. In fact there is no villain in Greek tragedy because each character acts on good faith, though the result may be evil.

As we try to explore the role of history, we examine how Shakespeare has created character like Richard III defying the evidence of history. The portrayal of villains is often based on the traditional history. In Othello and other tragedies the villains are usually sinister and  cold-blooded characters. Sometimes, a villain’s role  is dubious. We are not sure whether to  call Shylock in The Merchant of Venice or Brutus in  Julius Caesar a hero or a villain. Is the historical Achilles truly a hero? And is Cleopatra more villainous than a  tragic queen? Iago and Lady Macbeth are more Machiavellian than Goneril and Regan of King Lear.

Machiavellism originally stood for the statecraft preached by Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527) in The Prince which prescribed various devious means like cruelty, lies and treachery for ruling a state. Later through gradual distortion the diplomacy came to be associated with all sorts of vices like murder, hypocrisy and unscrupulous villainy – the embodiment of evil like Iago. Everybody in Othello is affected by its dark and poisonous atmosphere as  Wilson G. Knight’s writes in The Imperial Theme : “In Othello, the negative forces oppose Cassio’s efficiency as a soldier, his honour and ‘reputation’ and Othello’s warriorship and love.” (Knight.17)

In Marlow’s tragedies we have also villain-heroes like Dr.Faustus, Barabas and Tamburlaine who get involved with evil to fulfill their ambition or greed and defy gods. They may be waylaid by their vaulting ambition, but their original intention was pursuit of knowledge or power, not to harm  others. Shakespeare’s Iago is a perfect example of a scheming Machiavelli who brings about Othello’s tragedy to spite him for denying him promotion. According to Machiavelli’s The Prince the end justifies the means and therefore evil can be justified for personal gain.

 He also recommends cunning method: “But it is necessary to be able to disguise this character and to be a great feigner and dissembler; and men are so simple and ready to obey present necessity that one who deceives will always find those who allow themselves to be deceived.” (Machiavelli.64-65)  As the good usually come to grief in a bad world, he advices a prince to learn not to be good. (Machiavelli.56). In modern drama too the demarcation between the hero and the villain has almost disappeared.

 Iago as a scheming villain is a unique creation of Shakespeare. In modern times he might have been dubbed a ruthless climber or a careerist. He is the embodiment of Machiavellism. He manipulates the gullible Moor by his slow-poisoning method.

 Lady Macbeth is another case in point. She hatches the conspiracy to murder Duncun and finally executes it. Claudius in Hamlet is another userper who has a secret liaison with her sister-in-law and plots to murder him to satisfy his lust and attain power. In Julius Caesar Brutus, in spite of his glaring honesty, falls a victim to his gullibility and misled to the path of assassination by clever maneuver of Cassius and Casca.

On the whole I agree with Dr.Johnson’view that “The gradual progress which Iago makes in the Moor’s conviction, and the circumstances which he employs to inflame him, are so artfully natural that, though it perhaps not be said of him as he says of himself, that he is  a man not easily jealous, yet, we cannot but pity him when at last we find him perplexed in the extreme.” (Wain.50) Othello lacks the objectivity and cool detachment necessary for self-assessment; and no one knows it better than Iago.

 Iago is basically a conspirator who takes advantage of Othello’s absolute trust and gullibility to destroy him. His motive is of course revenge.  From the exposition it is clear that his self-respect was wounded on being passed over for promotion to the post of lieutenant. As he confides his sense of injured merit to Roderigo, “I know my price, I’m worth no worse a place;” (Othello.1.1.11) Moreover, he is not merely a villain in the conventional sense: he is an omnipresent evil in the play that guides the course of action and the fate of all major characters.

 He begins hating both Othello and Cassio and plots to ruin their lives for ignoring his merit and slighting him. In his opinion Cassio is an incompetent and  “bookish theoric” and an arithmetician who did not understand the business of war. But Iago is clever enough to conceal his hatred under the guise of love and loyalty to the Moor and hatches conspiracy , “I follow him to serve my own turn upon him;” (1.1.42)

He further exposes the scheming villainy of his heart, “In following him, I follow but myself;/ Heaven is my judge, not I for love and duty,/ But seeming so, for my peculiar end.” (1.1.58-60) It is this peculiar and selfish motive that drives him to indulge in dissembling behavior. With a view to destroying Othello, Iago plans a series of  wicked actions with the help of  Roderigo, a frustrated ex-lover of Desdemona. He is a master manipulator who pulls the strings to achieve his wicked ambition.

So far as Iago’s role is concerned, Othello becomes a study in evil: he is not only engaged in the  master plan of destroying a loving couple, but also takes sadistic pleasure in inflicting pain on innocent Desdemona and his own dutiful wife, Emilia. He is also responsible for the blood bath of Othello, Desdemona, Emilia, Roderigo and Cassio. As a strategist of  harmful and negative action he dominates all other characters in the play. Only Richard III and Lady Macbeth are close parallel in wickedness. On being crowned king, Richard settles score by having the Prince and his brother murdered and after precipitating the death of his wife Ann, he plans to marry Elizabeth. When Buckingham joins Richmond, he is arrested and murdered.

He makes a pertinent confession, “And therefore, since  I cannot prove  a lover/…I am determined to prove a villain.” (Richard III, 1.1.32) Lady Macbeth’s advice to her ambitious but conscientious husband emphasizes the need for keeping up the façade of innocence, “…bear welcome in your eye, /your hand, your tongue: look like the innocent flower, /But be the serpent under’t.” (Macbeth, 1.5.65-67) What Macbeth could not put into practice Iago perfectly did like a seasoned criminal. He takes advantage of every turn of events and pursues his game plan.

Iago resembles Satan of  John Milton’s Paradise Lost in one respect: he resolves to destroy his enemy when he fails to achieve his ambition. Satan conspired to sabotage the good work of  God; Iago resolves to destroy the loving marriage of  Moore and his dearest wife, Desdemona. Though evil incarnate, it must be admitted that Iago goes about implementing his sinister design in small achievable targets with precision.

I do not agree with Jonathan Bate’s view in The Genius of Shakespeare that Shakespeare provides insufficient motive for Iago: “ In the story that is the source for Othello, the Iago-figure is motivated by his own desire for Desdemona; in Shakespeare’s play, his lack of sufficient motive is a notorious Critical debating-point.” (Bate.146) I think for an ambitious soldier like Iago denial of a coveted promotion  in career provides a greater motive for revenge than mere romantic infatuation.

His first move is to instigate Desdemona’s father against Othello by raising hue and cry over the unequal and secret marriage. When Roderigo expects the marriage to be nullified by Desdemona’s father, a Senator of Venice, Iago is shrewd enough to know the Moor’s importance to indulge in such idle dream. So he resorts to a cunning move of pretending to be Othello’s loyal and devoted friend while hates him from the core of his heart as is evident from his speech: “I do hate him as I do hell pains.” (1.1.155)

Satan has his Beelzebub so has Iago his accomplice in Roderigo. This first sabotage fails because of Desdemona’s unflinching love for Othello which she expresses in public. Emrys Jones provides a more apt  parallel to Othello in The Origin of Shakespeare: “For in the opening sequence of the play (1.1.2) Iago plays the part of Judas. Indeed, his words at 1.1.555-558 are distinctly evocation of Judas’ kiss of betrayal.” (Jones.78) Only the difference is that while Judas got Jesus arrested, Iago assumes the role of a psychopath serial killer.

Next Iago takes advantage of Othello’s journey to Cyprus and trusting Desdemona in his care, as Othello says, “A man he is of honesty and of trust.” When Roderigo plans to commit suicide, he  assures him that the unnatural and interracial  marriage between  Desdemona and Othello must fall apart. But Iago knows that he cannot carry out his plan alone; so he instills hopes in Roderigo to act against the Moor and his newly promoted lieutenant Cassio. His cold-blooded villainy is revealed in his soliloquy at the end of Act I:

The Moor is of a free and open nature,

That thinks men honest that but seem to be so,

And will as tenderly be led by the nose as asses are.

I have’t; it is engender’d: hell and night

Must bring this monstrous birth to the world’s light.

                                          (Othello, 1.3.405-410)

Iago has correctly sized up his generous master and is hell-bent to exploit this weakness. Moreover, he is conscious of  the monstrosity of his conspiracy, yet he resolute to carry  it outs.  Iago deliberates on Desdemona pleading for Cassio’s reinstatement:

How am I then a villain

…Divinity of hell!

When devils will the blackest sins put on,

They do suggest at first with heavenly shows,

As I do now….

I’ll pour pestilence into his ear

That she repeals him for her body’s lust;


This makes him probably the most treacherous  villain in Shakespeare’s plays. The Id in Iago is so strong that his super-ego is completely suppressed. Through out the play he has not shown an iota of goodness in thought or action. His sympathy for the dejected Roderigo is only skin-deep. He uses him as a means to his personal gain. Hell and night indeed dominate the world’s light in this drama. As in law a pre-planned murder is more punishable than a rash, unintentional one, so is Iago’s villainy: his action is more despicable that homicide.

Iago goes a step farther in his plan by installing his wife Emilia as Desdemona’s maid. Having close access to Othello’s personal life, he now plots to insinuate the impression to the credulous Othello that Desdemona and Cassio are having an illicit love affair. The small courtesies that pass between them are interpreted as signs of love. Iago is capable of giving abnormal twist to any normal incident and thereby fish in troubled waters.

His next move is to plot revenge on  Cassio and engineer a  situation that would lead to his demotion.  He invites Cassio for a friendly drink which he refuses but prevailed upon by Iago. Roderigo  is instructed to pick a quarrel and involve him in a brawl. To further instigate Cassio, Iago comments that a man who refuses a glass or two cannot be called a man at all. Thus  Cassio is  unwillingly drawn  into a “barbarous brawl” with the former senator and gets him demoted for his unacceptable behavior.

While pretending to stop the fight Iago gets Cassio sacked and then lays another trap for  him by suggesting that he should seek Desdemona’s favor to get reinstated. As Cassio approaches her for intervention, the malevolent Iago brainwashes Othello to think how Cassio is wooing her behind his back. He further suggests that Cassio steals away guilty-like,seeing the Moor  coming. Thus  Iago begins his  coup de grace of poisoning  Othello’s mind which has complete trust on his standard-bearer.

The  slow and systematic injection of the idea of Desdemona’s unfaithfulness and the resultant jealousy gradually unhinge his mind. When Desdemona pleads for Cassio’s reinstatement and the Moor grants it to please his wife, Iago raises more suspicion on his mind by asking about his past relationship with his wife.

Iago pretends perfectly as a well-wisher of Othello hesitating to talk about an embarrassing disclosure which further confuses Othello’s mind. Though his motive is nothing less than revenge, he hides it as his complete dedication to Othello. While planning to revenge the Moor, Iago destroys innocent Desdemona in the process and never has any compunction for such a crime. A.C.Bradley comments on Iago: “…evil has nowhere else been portrayed with such mastery as in the evil character of Iago.”(Bradley.169)

Iago’s darkest design is to isolate Othello from Desdemona and rob him of his happiness. So he carries out his act of steady slow poisoning of Othello’s mind. By repeating falsehood in the manner of Hitler’s propaganda manager Joseph Goebels, he is able to convince Othello about its truth. It certainly goes against Othello that a man of his high position should have been able  see through the lies and hypocrisies of his subordinate. Very aptly Iago reminds Othello of the warning of Desdemona’s father that she had deceived her father and may in future deceive her husband.

And Othello confesses his little knowledge of Desdemona’s character, except his all-consuming passion for her. It is this weakness in his character that leads to his ruin and Desdemona is no more than a victim. But Emrys Jones considers Desdemona to be a habitual liar, “On more than one occasion in Othello Desdemona swerves from telling the sobre truth. Even at the moment of her death she tells a lie.” (Jones.25) It is hard to agree with this view as  Shakespeare makes it amply clear that Desdemona’s lying is like a drowning person’s desperate efforts to clutch at a straw.

Anthony Brennan writes about the unique role played by the omnipotent villain: “The structure of Othello develops in a series of improvised undeclared playlets in which Iago organises roles for his victims. The degree of control he maintains over the characters allows him to induce a psychological alienation and separation between some of them.” (Wain.188) Indeed in his dark universe he seems to be playing God or a  director.

He resorts to a series of  deceptions to prove his allegation of Desdemona’s illicit lover affair with Cassio. First, he has her handkerchief with strawberry design, a gift from Othello, stolen by his wife Emilia and plants it in Cassio’s room. And later he fabricates a story of his overhearing of Cassio’s confession of intimate love-making with Desdemona during his sleep. This calculated disclosure leads to Othello’s undoing. Yet not even once in the play he shows any repentance for the havoc done in other people’s lives. Othello loses his sleep and peace of mind for ever and Iago is elated:

Not poppy, not mandragora,

Not all the drowsy syrups of the world

Shall ever medicine thee to that sweet sleep

Which thou owd’st yesterday.

…My medicine, work! Thus credulous fools are caught;

And many worthy and chaste dames even thus,

All guiltless, meet reproach.

      (4.1.46-47 )

For all the mischief he blames his inherent nature which is unalterable; he asserts even after his villainy is exposed: “Demand me nothing:What you know, you know .” (5.2.302) He not only harms his enemies and their allies but also delights in doing so. Macbeth and Claudius are also villainous, but neither is a sadist like him. Iago’s ambition is fulfilled when he gets his coveted position of lieutenant by pledging revenge for Cassio’s debauchery. The pilfering of handkerchief further complicates Desdemona’s  plight. Her inability to confess that she has lost it only strengthens Othello’s suspicion about her alleged affair with Cassio. Compared to Iago, both Othello and Desdemona are naïve children.  Desdemona shows little knowledge of her husband’s character when she says, “My noble Moor/ Is of true mind, and made of no such baseness/ As jealous creatures are…”

Though wrought by Iago, Othello proves to be an extremely jealous and possessive husband who is not good enough for the gracious Desdemona. Manipulated by Iago, his “honest, honest Iago”, Othello becomes too easily convinced of her infidelity. Driven by jealousy, Othello tries to extract a confession about Desdemona’s unfaithfulness, first from Emilia and then from Desdemona herself in vain. When Desdemona turns to  Iago for advice, he misleads her into thinking that her husband’s outrage is caused more by the turbulent affair of the state than the distrust that has grown between them.

Thus Iago enjoys everybody’s trust and destroys almost all till his double-dealings are exposed by his wife Emilia in the end and  is stabbed as punishment. Even after losing everything due to Iago’s conspiracy, Othello spares his life with the thought that living in such a brutal world would be a fit retribution for his villainy. Iago is all-pervading evil force in the play and he richly deserves the epithets – “Spartan dog” and “hellish villain”. Othello’s dying words reveal his self-knowledge which comes too late in the play:

Of one that loved not wisely, but too well;

Of one not easily jealous, but, being wrought

Perplexed in the extreme…( 5.2.343-345)

Marlowe’s villain-heroes are shown to be driven by inordinate lust for power and glory and they do not hesitate to have revenge in mad pursuit of their goals. Doctor Faustus and Tamburlaine are two such villain-heroes and Mortimer in Edward II is capable of inhuman cruelty and bloody assassination for the sake of  power.  Iago conforms to the conventions of literary villain. There are many  villains in literature before and after Shakespeare. A modern genre added to the repertoire is the film which has tremendous social impact. Krogstad in Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House is a heartless and unscrupulous villain who ruins the marital life of Nora and Helmer to serve his selfish end. He is determined like Iago to get reinstated illegally at all costs.

Having failed to blackmail him, he destroys the marital life of Helmer.  The archetypal stepmother in Grimm brothers’ fairy tales and Mrs Coutler, the baddie, in His Dark Materials by Phillip Pullman are two examples of evil incarnate. In recent time Lord Voldemort  of Harry Potter series and Sauron of The Lord of the Rings are regarded by children to be the darkest characters. In recent film Catherine Tramell of Basic Instincts represents the most heinous villain-protagonist.

While Othello has a major flaw in his character: his inability to judge people and gullibility, Iago has hardly any virtue. He mocks it: “Virtue! A fig! ’tis in ourselvesthat we are this, or thus. Our bodies are our gardens, to the which our wills are gardeners:”(1.3.323-325)  So many lives were ruined because of his naiveté. It is indeed hamartia or tragic flaw that blinds him to Iago’s  sugar-coated speeches and never makes him suspect his evil  motive.  William Empson points out  that the word ‘honest’ has been used fifty-two times; and I agree with his view that “Everybody calls Iago honest once or twice, but with Othello it becomes an obsession.” (Wain.96)

The word ‘honest’ in relation to Iago sounds as much a mockery as Mark Antony’s use of  ‘honorable’ in relation to Brutus after Julius Ceasar’s assassination. Here  is  a character with the tendencies of a congenital criminal who not only turn to crime easily, but also shows no remorse till the end of the play. G.K.Hunters raises a few valuable questions about him: “For if Iago is mean-spirited and Othello is heroic, can we not also say that Iago is a realist and Othello is a poseur; that Iago know the world and that Othello does not even know himself?” (Wells.131)

 Iago, the “insinuating rogue” is always in the driver’s seat: leading and controls every other character except his own wife Emili who exposes his crime and was stabbed to death. His entire life is shrouded in sham and self-deception as is evident in his confession: “I am not what I am.” (1.1.65)

Works Cited

Andrews, W.T. ed. Critics on Shakespeare. London. George Allen. 1973

Bate, Jonathan. The Genius of Shakespeare. London. Picador. 1977

Bradley, A.C. Shakespearean Tragedy, London. Macmillan.1905

Craig, W.J.ed.,  Shakespeare: Complete Works. London. O.U.P. 1974

Halliday, F.E. A Shakespeare Companion. Harmondsworth. Penguin.1964

Jones, Emry. The Origin of Shakespeare. London. O.U.P. 1977

Knight, Wilson G. The Imperial Theme. London. Routledge.1965.

Machiavelli, Niccolo. The Prince and The Discourses. N.York. Modern Library.1950

Ridler, Anne. Comp. Shakespearean Criticism. London. O.U.P.1934

Wain, John. Ed., Shakespeare: Othello. London. Macmillan.1994.

Wells, Stanley. Ed., The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare. Cambridge. Cambridge    U.P. 1986

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