Poisoned: Iago's Veiled Vulnerability | Teen Ink

Poisoned: Iago's Veiled Vulnerability

February 8, 2019
By KingOfTheRats PLATINUM, Kirkwood, Missouri
KingOfTheRats PLATINUM, Kirkwood, Missouri
24 articles 38 photos 1 comment

Favorite Quote:
"The theater is an empty box, and it is our task to fill it with fury and ecstasy, and with revolution."

Though Iago’s cruel, duplicitous actions in Othello are infamous – from chipping away at Othello’s psyche, to the murder of Emilia, to betraying and killing Roderigo – his motivations are still a point of contention. Some critics argue the jealousy spawned from Cassio’s promotion is not nearly significant enough a snub to justify his Machiavellian rampage, and conclude that the reader ought to interpret Iago not as a person with real thoughts and desires, but as a devilish symbol of inhumanity and temptation (Bowman 460). But surely Shakespeare would not create such a significant character as a mere plot device! If Iago is as human as the rest in his desires and his tactics to achieve them, what deep conviction drives him to orchestrate these atrocities?

Professor John C. McCloskey argues Iago is driven by hate: Hatred of Cassio for taking a promotion Iago believed he deserved; hatred in his suspicions of Othello’s race; hatred in his distrust of the women around him (25). But he errs in his textual evidence, citing the explanation Iago supplies Roderigo: “I/hate the Moor. My cause is hearted; thine hath no/less reason” (1.3 408-410). Why would we take anything Iago claims to his ever-loyal lackey at face value? If anything, Iago’s insistence that he is driven by a hatred of Othello alone (in the presence of a man he knows to be jealous of Desdemona’s affections for Othello) should raise a red flag. This is nothing more than the classic two-facedness we see from Iago in every scene. Perhaps he does hate Othello, but if it was his only motivation, he wouldn’t lay it out on the table! As Iago establishes from the very first scene, “In compliment extern, ‘tis not long after/But I will wear my heart upon my sleeve/For daws to peck at” (1.1 69-71). Iago is not the type to reveal his true convictions to the characters around him; we cannot examine his façades as fact.

An important trait of note is Iago’s bitterness. His mocking of Emilia and womankind in Act 2 Scene 1 “reveals a profane and hard-bitten cynic, one to whom love is but physical gratification, a bond between man and the beast” (Bowman 460). Iago gains nothing in his plot against Othello through his excessive ridicule of Emilia, nor does it reflect well on the reputation he holds so dear. If Iago isn’t making such appalling statements as a power move or tactic, it just might reveal his true nature. Perhaps he’s letting on more than he cares to admit in his riddles and wit. Perhaps his show of hatred is a front, as it so often is, for underlying fear.

Iago? Fearful? Is a man as cold and uncaring as Iago capable of such insecurity? We tend to take Iago’s heartless, conniving soliloquies at face value. After all, he’s alone, what does he have to prove? But we don’t take a moment to consider that Iago may lie to himself as frequently and unconsciously as he does others. Early in the play, he shouts again and again of his hatred of Cassio’s characteristics – too book-smart, too flirty, too whatever – but as his scheme comes to full fruition, Iago privately confesses that, in his view, Cassio “hath a daily beauty in his life/That makes me ugly” (5.1 19-21). It isn’t disdain of Cassio’s qualities that fuels Iago’s wrath! Rather, Iago’s internalized belief that Cassio is deeply good – specifically, too good for Iago to ever hope to match – sparks his rage. It’s insecurity. And what motive is more human than that?

In fact, Iago’s Act 5 confession cleanly parallels Othello’s insecurity in Act 3, where Othello frets over his shortcomings that could lead Desdemona to another man: “Haply, for I am black/And have not those soft parts of conversation/That chamberers have, or for I am declined/Into the vale of years” (3.3 304-307). It’s no wonder Iago’s slow poisoning of Othello’s mind worked so well: The two are cut from the same cloth, with an internalized feeling of inferiority (one from race and age, the other wit and ranking).

McCloskey puts it perfectly: “To maintain, as some writers do, that [Iago] delights in evil for its own sake or that he is a symbol of evil rather than a human being is to ignore his plainly stated motivation and to overlook the stages by which his intrigue reaches its tragic culmination” (29). The paranoid Iago is jealous of the self-confident Othello and Cassio, and suspects Emilia must have committed infidelity with them, because he just knows he isn’t good enough. It translates into dispassionate manipulation and a rejection of love itself, but deep down, Iago is more human than most: Extremely sensitive to feelings of inferiority, and quick to shield himself from his own fears with warlike notions of revenge. Strip away the layers of contempt and deception, and you’ll find nothing but a single wounded ego.

The author's comments:

In Othello, the deceiving Iago is the quintessential villain: Cold and calculating, passionless. But what lies beneath the carefully-constructed exterior?

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