The Demi-Devil (Iago) An indepth look at Iago as Satan
- Pages: 8
- Word count: 1756
- Category: Othello
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Iago is portrayed as perhaps the most malevolent and conniving character in classical literature. In William Shakespeare’s tragedy, Othello, Iago manipulates the people around him through masterful and clever tactics. Through these devices, Iago brings forth a nearly apocalyptic end that leads to his torture and the death of many around him. Iago’s malevolence and his complete mastery of it is clear to even the most cursory observer. But, more than this, Iago is the king of evil himself, Satan. Iago uses the Satanic art of manipulation to conduct his doings.
Satan has been portrayed over time in varied forms. In the Old Testament, Satan is mentioned merely as a fallen angel. In the modern day, Satan is envisioned as a red hoofed human like animal with a pointed tail. Shakespeare, however, has taken Satan and put him in the form of Iago. Satan has the ability to enter into man and act through him (Britannica “Satan”). In the play, Satan has entered Iago, and is testing these humans for entrance to hell.
Iago’s temptation of others mirrors that of Satan. Never does he tell people what to do specifically, but rather is that little voice of doubt questioning the characters. Society has come to picture Satan as a little red man on the left shoulder advising people to carry out evil things. Similarly, Iago raises doubt and keeps on being that voice egging on Othello. Iago makes sure that Othello doesn’t remove Desdemona’s dishonesty from his mind. Iago continually nags Othello about the handkerchief and Cassio’s interactions with Desdemona. Less serious but equally indicative of his nature as the tempter is how Iago encourages Cassio to drink with his entreaty: “But one cup, I’ll drink for you” (2.3.34-5). Again, he moves Cassio to do wrong by drinking and getting drunk. Iago himself, however, never sins in this instance.
Satan was perceived as a gentlemanly person in the Middle Ages. Satan used his chivalry to manipulate other people into doing his will. Iago too uses his chivalry to appear as an honest and trustful friend. Iago throughout the book is very cordial and nice, and would be the life of any party. Desdemona finds Iago funny as she writes, “O, fie upon thee, slanderer!” (2.1.113). He seems to be protecting other people as a good friend when he is in fact manipulating the person next to him. When Iago says, “Cassio, my lord? no, sure, I cannot think it That he would steal away so guilty-like Seeing you coming” (3.3.57-9), he is planting the seed, even as he appears cordial. Other people also fall into Iago’s play of taking up an honest persona. Othello believes that Iago is honest as he says to Desdemona, “I know, Iago, Thy honesty and love” (2.3.242-4). Iago’s gentlemanly habit of hiding evil intentions mirrors that of Satan.
Satan’s purpose is to essentially strengthen all that is bad. Satan’s function is to perpetuate the evil in others and make sure it grows. Iago strives for a similar result, by strengthening the vices of the characters, and developing them to do the will of Satan. Iago uses the weaknesses, insecurities, flaws, and potential sins in others that are there and uses them to his benefit. All of the people who died had a sin that they were guilty of. Iago uses this tactic of manipulating others’ sins no matter how small the sin may be.
Iago knows that Roderigo has adulterous thoughts and wishes to steal Desdemona from Othello himself. Iago has a prior knowledge of Roderigo’s envious habits and utilizes this want, greed, this sin to control the actions of Roderigo. Roderigo’s desires are well known as shown when Barebantio complains to Roderigo that, “My daughter is not for thee” (1.1.96). While trying to convince Roderigo to attack Cassio, he convinces him that Desdemona will leave Othello and that he must stop her from going after Cassio. Iago knows Roderigo’s “soft spot,” his sin spot and employs this for his own evil.
Iago also exploits the sin and perhaps “fatal flaw” of Othello for his own evil acts. Othello is naturally jealous. Clearly, this is the case because Othello becomes jealous and distrustful only a few days into his marriage. Iago knows that Othello’s fatal flaw is jealousy and play straight into it. We can see the control Iago has over Othello when Othello says, “Will you, I pray, demand that demi-devil. Why he hath thus ensnared my soul and body?” (5.2.297-9). Although many would argue that Othello is not naturally evil,
when Emilia asks, “Is he not jealous?” (3.4.29), Desdemona responds by saying that “I think the sun where he was born Drew all such humours from him” (3.4.30-30), literally meaning the four chief fluids of the body that determine a person’s mind and qualities, created him as jealous. Iago had the foresight to see this natural quality or detriment of Othello and capitalize upon it.
Iago also utilizes Desdemona’s ignorance and obedience to understand that Desdemona will commit the sin of lying and lead to Othello’s jealousy. Iago understands this potential evil in Desdemona and is able to tactfully use it to attack Othello. He succeeds in using Desdemona’s obedience, when Desdemona lies about the handkerchief.
For the seemingly ignorant and innocent Emilia, Iago still finds a sin in her and works through that vice. Emilia is guilty of the sin of silence and indifference. She looks the other way when Iago conducts in these acts of evil. Just as someone is guilty for staying quiet, she is guilty too. Iago uses the guilt in other people to destroy them.
Iago is distinct in his method in that he works through other peoples natural sins to control the outcome. He as Satan can identify these flaws easily and thereby utilize them.
One of Satan’s purposes is that G-d allows him to conduct in tests of humans (“Satan” Britannica). Satan, in the form of Iago, is set forth to test the goodness of humanity in the play. Iago creates tests in which the characters can chose to sin or not. Through these tests, we see many of the characters fail and thereby become punished by G-d through death at the end. We see at the end of the play that Desdemona, Othello, Roderigo, Emilia have all died because of the sins described above that Iago utilizes. It seems that G-d punished everyone but Cassio. Cassio in essence passes the test Iago sets forth. Iago tests Cassio the furthest by taking his position and seeing to what extent he can withstand hardships. Cassio proves to be the strongest of the characters and is rewarded for doing so. Satan can’t tempt him to become envious or hateful.
Iago’s and Cassio’s survival can be only explained through Iago as Satan, for all the sinners who sinned died. To explain Iago’s survival we can look to Shakespeare’s writing that Iago like the Devil can be killed in body but not in soul. This is represented as he attacks Iago, Othello shouts, “I look down towards his feet, but that’s a fable. If that thou be’st a devil, I cannot kill thee” (5. 2.282-3). Then Iago confirms the fact that he is the devil when he responds, “I bleed, sir, but not killed” (5.2.285). Shakespeare uses incredible imagery to create this likeness of Iago as a Satanic figure and thus explains why Iago lives in the end of the play.
Powerful proof of Iago’s diabolic nature is his reaction and defiance of G-d. Iago says, “I am not what I am” (1.1.64). Shakespeare set Iago’s comment in direct contrast with the biblical “I am that I am” (Exodus 3.14). Iago is literally writing that he is the anti-thesis of G-d; if G-d is as he appears; Satan is hiding in Iago’s body and deceiving those who look onto him.
Iago tries to justify his actions for a few minute and diminutive things, but his true intentions lie in his desire to make sure that evil is perpetuated. Satan is not concerned with appointments to certain positions, he wishes for others to conduct evil and thereby enter through the gates of hell. Iago’s evil achieves no worldly good for him. At most, Iago wins the position as Othello’s first lieutenant. Iago’s motivation seems to be to create a sort of hell above ground and to tempt people to into ending up in the hell beneath. Iago succeeds at bringing Othello to the depths of hell. In his last minutes of life Othello admits he is damned for Hell as he says, “Whip me, ye devils, From the possession of this heavenly sight! Blow me about in winds, roast me in sulphur, Wash me in steep-down gulfs of liquid fire!” (5.2.275-8). Satan working through Iago succeeds in bringing the characters that fail to the underworld.
Othello enlists the service of Othello as his devil agent as the book progresses. Emilia accuses Othello of being the devil agent of Satan. Othello claims that he, as the devil has sent her to hell when he says, “She’s like a liar gone to burning hell: ‘Twas I that killed her” (5.2.127). Emilia goes on to say says that Desdemona is the angel and Othello the devil, “O, the more angel she, and you the blacker devil!” (5.2.129). Iago has taken Othello under such control that, Othello is blindly acting as the devil and assistant to Iago. Ironically, as Iago is appointed the first hand man to Othello, Othello becomes the devil servant to Satan.
Satan has mastered the manipulation of humans to an art. Just as an artist knows how a viewer will interpret every brush stroke, Iago knows how each of his “victims” will interpret his words. Through this art form, Iago as Satan is able to manipulate those around him by addressing their fatal flaws and sins, and twisting them to his own will. Iago as Satan succeeds in all his goals of perpetuating evil, entering servants into hell, and testing humanity. The conclusion that Shakespeare creates is distinctly tragic because of the Satan inside Iago. Shakespeare forms Iago as Satan to help not only explain perhaps the motivations, but also account for the pure evil of Iago.
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Shakespeare, William. Othello. London, England: Arden Shakespeare, 2001.