Iago: the Main Antagonist
In the play Othello by William Shakespeare, the main antagonist Iago guides the audience through his path of deception to justify his revenge towards Othello. As a result of Iago being humiliated and disenfranchised by Othello, he takes from Othello what he values most; the security he feels in Desdemona’s untainted love and commitment. Iago justifies his action though: his jealously of Cassio being appointed as lieutenant instead of him, the misconception he has that Othello had sex with his wife, and his own ambitions to gain power. Iago increases his own power, but at the cost of his own morality and the death of his wife.
Cassio’s appointment to lieutenant was based on politics and not merit. For all that Iago has done for Othello, he rightly deserves the position. Iago states, “One Michael CassioThat never set a squadron in the field, Nor the division of a battle knows More than a spinster (Shakespeare 556). It was by his favor with the counsel, not merit in battle, that Cassio stole Iago’s appointment and Othello did nothing to try and help him. Iago’s ambition for power and to be stripped from a rightful promotion brings nothing but rage induced anger into his heart: “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 (Shakespeare 556). Othello’s indirect actions has disrespected Iago and as a result started Iago on a trail of deception that will lead to death for all.
How it works
Iago contemplates his revenge with Othello, but no sooner does Iago hear rumors in town that Othello slept with his wife, Emilia. Iago states, “I hate the Moore, and it is thought abroad that twixt my sheets H’as done my office. (Shakespeare 572) The only revenge that Iago can formulate is to drive a wedge between Othello and his wife Desdemona. He takes advantage of Othello’s insecurities derived from the social acceptance of his black ethnicity contrasted to Desdemona’s white ethnicity. Iago takes Othello’s peace of mind of having a pure marriage by stating, “After some time, to abuse Othello’s ear That he is too familiar with his wife. He hath a person and a smooth dispose To be suspected, framed to make women false. 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 (Shakespeare 572). Othello lets Iago’s influence set him on a destructive path to his own damnation. He starts questioning every relationship he has and calls for the execution of Desdemona and Cassio. Iago, planning this, makes steps to ensure that he will gain the ambitious power he has been seeking when Othello destroys himself.
Iago, comparing himself to Othello, finds himself to be a more capable man and better fit to rule. The only reason he has sought out lieutenantship is, so he can take over as ruler after Othello fails. Iago asserts, “For naught but provender; and when he’s old-cashier’d: Whip me such honest knaves! Others there are Who, trimm’d in forms and visages of duty, Keep yet their hearts attending on themselves (Shakespeare 557). Iago sees Othello as a pawn in his master plan to obtain his own power. Due to Othello’s trusting spirit, he does not think of himself as a target for exploitation. However, it proves very easy as Iago casts doubt on Desdemona’s loyalty to her husband and forces Othello to restore his honor. Othello states, “Yet she must die, else she’ll betray more men. Put out the light, and then put out the light: If I quench thee, thou flaming minister, I can again thy former light restore, Should I repent me: but once put out thy light (Shakespeare 626). By Othello’s own hand, guided by Iago’s revenge and greed for power, he takes Desdemona’s life out of ambiguous facts that Iago fed to him. Guided by Iago’s tongue, playing on his own insecurities, has made Othello lose what he loves most.
The Character of Iago is one that the audience relates to because throughout the play he makes side comments elaborating on his next plot of deception. This connects the audience with Iago’s mindset and subjects the audience to sympathize with his dreams to gain power. Iago states, “For when my outward action doth demonstrate The native act and figure of my heart In compliment extern, ’tis not long after But I will wear my heart upon my sleeve For daws to peck at: I am not what I am (Shakespeare 557). This shows the more humanistic side of a man who wishes to be judged on his ambitions, not his actions. The play makes Iago seem like an insensitive monster, but he does show great concern for his country. While he does not show care towards the fate of his wife or friends, he holds great dreams of leading his country into prosperity through his rule.
Iago sets out to destroy the relationship of Desdemona and Othello to gain revenge on Othello for: appointing Cassio as lieutenant instead of him, the misconception he has that Othello had sex with his wife, and his own ambitions to gain power. Othello being deceived into taking his own wife’s life out of shame, and the death of Iago’s wife, all seemed to be collateral damage for Iago. However, Iago’s actions, no matter the consequences, were to gain power and lead his country to prosperity. While this Shakespearean tragedy does cast Iago as the antagonist, the loyalty he has towards his own cause shows great admiration towards his will to gain power. Even though Iago lost everything he had, the opportunity to restore his name, social status, and establish himself as the leading power was all well worth the risk. For what is a man, if not ambitious to seek power for himself.