The Iago in Us All
All humans struggle to control themselves. Human beings must grapple with their emotions and check their actions, to prevent either from getting out of hand. While one should not be an apathetic everyman, or a stranger to human sentiment, neither should one allow their emotions to completely dictate their behavior. This struggle is applicable to the main character of Shakespeare’s Othello: Iago. However, with the play’s opening, readers immediately know that Iago has certainly crossed the line and is consumed by his emotions, although he hides it well. Iago’s character cannot be clearly defined as either “feeling jealous and not being able to control [his feelings]” or a “moral pyromaniac” (qtd. in Ray). Instead, he is a mixture of both, progressing from uncontrolled feelings to obsession.
Iago cannot be described as having been initially or completely evil because he embodies the human condition in which every person fights to choose between good and bad. Although Iago is depicted as having succumbed to his evil nature, Shakespeare artistically illustrates Iago’s inner turmoil and evolvement from a spurned, jealous ancient to a manipulative murderer. Because his first word in the play is “’Sblood,” which was actually an offensive curse that was even omitted in the Folio text, readers know that Iago has crossed over to his evil nature (1.1.4). However, towards the beginning of the play, Iago still conveys snippets of his jealous feelings. After Othello ignores the men Iago sent to vouch for his credentials as lieutenant, Iago states, “I know my price, I am worth no worse a place.” (1.1.11) Readers can sympathize with Iago because he is hurt, as though he never had a chance at being lieutenant. Everyone, such as Othello, is pursuing success while Iago is left behind, particularly by the person who is already successful. Furthermore, Michael Cassio, whom Othello did choose, is an intellectual and everything Iago is not. Iago then proceeds to curse that which makes Othello different, and maybe, in his heart, that which makes Othello better and more successful than he is. He then begins to plot against Othello, illustrating how his jealousy begins to get the better of him when he decides to “follow him to serve my turn upon him / We cannot all be masters, nor all masters / Cannot be truly follow’d.” (1.1.42) Although Iago intends to duplicitously trick Othello, he simultaneously hints at the recognition that not every person can be successful, a recognition that pains him so much that it consumes his thoughts and ultimately motivates his actions. Iago’s vulnerability and offended pride are especially expressed when he claims that he “will wear [his] heart upon [his] sleeve / For daws to peck at. I am not what I am” (1.1.65). Readers are given the impression that Iago’s heart has been already been torn out, and that he has been permanently injured. Furthermore, he asserts that he “never found a man that knew how to love himself.” (1.3.310) Although Iago appears to be speaking about mankind as a whole, he ultimately is also referring to himself. He uses generalized statements to project and come to terms with his own insecurities. In fact, it is Iago who does not love himself. One may assume that Iago is unsatisfied with himself because he compares himself to men such as Othello and Cassio, who appear to be more successful than he is. These insecurities and jealousies escalate until they begin to consume Iago’s thoughts and ultimately his actions as well. Calderwood explains that “A motive is within the agent before he acts, generating his action, but it is also the projected result of that action.” Iago is finally pushed to the limit when he “do[es] suspect the lusty Moor / Hath leap’d into my seat,” (2.2.284) Because Iago believes that Othello has been with his wife, he has been pushed past the breaking point. Iago feels as though all his suspicions have been confirmed – not only has Othello deprived him of the lieutenant position, he has now invaded Iago’s home. Iago is no longer simply struggling between the choice between good and evil. His mind has been utterly occupied by his insecurities and envy, and he has long since crossed the line. He himself states that “oft my jealousy / Shapes faults that are not” (3.3.148). Iago has progressed from insecurities, to overwhelming jealousy, and finally, to an unstable mental state where he projects his fears on the people around him and acts on those feelings.
Although “Iago stands for mediation, for inbetweennes and the shaped made-up-ness of things,” he has crossed that line and is now almost entirely motivated by his evil intent (Calderwood). He begins to slyly prod Othello to question Desdemona’s and Cassio’s relationship when he converses with Othello, saying, “Ha! I like not that.” To which Othello asks, “What does thou say?” To which Iago replies, “Nothing, my lord; or if – I know not what.” Othello again asks, “Was not that Cassio parted from my wife?” Iago states, “Cassio, my lord? No, sure I cannot think it / That he would steal away so guilty-like, / Seeing you coming.” (3.3.35) In this scene, Iago is passively-aggressively confusing and worrying Othello by questioning his wife’s relationship with another man. Although Iago’s mind has been devoured by uncontrollable jealousy and hatred, his actions are still composed as “He revels in plots, sees them everywhere…[and] When he is not suspecting plots in others, he is inventing them himself.” (Calderwood) Iago’s mind has been filled to the brim with negative thoughts and emotions. However, just as in the beginning, he simply struggled, his actions are initially very purposeful. Nevertheless, he begins to loose control of himself completely, exemplified when he kills Roderigo, stabs Cassio, and murders his own wife, Emilia. Just as “The Moor already changes with [Iago’s] poison” the poison of envy is Iago’s mind runs its course through his actions.
Although Iago is not “initially malevolent,” the claim that “He’s not the Devil” only has a little truth to it. Although Iago is not initially the Devil, he becomes one through his hatred. Iago’s devilishness is illustrated when Othello says, “I look down towards his feet; but that’s a fable. / If that thou be’st a devil, I cannot kill thee.” Othello then wounds Iago, who says, “I bleed, sir, but not kill’d.” (5.2.283) Because Othello claims that the Devil cannot be killed, and Iago does not die after being wounded, Iago has actually become the Devil, the epitome of evil.
Shakespeare, a literary genius of his time, would never have his main character be completely flat. Shakespeare would never create an entirely evil Iago from the beginning; instead, throughout the play, he hints at the inner turmoil that Iago faces. This struggle makes Iago representative of the human condition, in which human beings must constantly make the choice between right and wrong. Iago is accurately described as Shakespeare’s “most despicable villain” (qtd. in Ray). However, his villainy is especially frightening because every human can see himself or herself in him, and because he does not die with the play’s closure, Iago represents how constant the human struggle between right and wrong is, how the fight continues to this day. Iago is the definition of what happens when humans allow evil feeling to take over and run unchecked. The character of Iago reminds human beings of the old proverb that warns people to watch their thoughts, for they become words; to watch their words, for they become actions; to watch their actions, for they become habits, and to watch their habits, for they become character. And finally, to watch their character, for it becomes destiny.