amorality, duplicity, cynicism, pride, and of course, ego. Presented by the speech and actions of all characters, the modern audience can construct a character sketch of Othello that contains all the elements stated above
Iago, the Machiavellian villain of Shakespeare's Othello exhibits character traits of amorality, duplicity, cynicism, pride, and of course, ego. Presented by the speech and actions of all characters, the modern audience can construct a character sketch of Othello that contains all the elements stated above. They are discussed with reference to the first two Acts.
Foremost, Iago is an amoral being. Using Desdemona, an innocent with whom he has no quarrel to 'enmesh'em all,' Iago weaves a web of deception that ensnares the essentially innocent Othello, Cassio, Roderigo and Emilia, each guilty only of hurting Iago's pride. He succeeds in destroying a marriage and two noble characters as well as his wife, (Emilia), and Roderigo. Iago's true delight in his own cunning however, can be witnessed in his Act 2 Scene 1 soliloquy. Here he revels in the power he wields, that which can to turn Desdemona's 'virtue into pitch.' Also amoral is Iago's mercenary use of Roderigo to 'line his coat.' He readily accepts money for a service that is impossible to achieve - Desdemona has no feelings for Roderigo, and Iago knows this.
At the heart of Iago's duplicity is his ability to play a number of roles convincingly; to adapt his tone and style to suit any occasion. With Cassio , he is bluff, coarse and genial. He offers plausible, practical solutions for his problems. With Montano and Lodovico he stresses he has the State and Othello's best interests at heart. His ego is absent when dealing with these people. They are above him socially and professionally. This is however, deliberate. With Roderigo and Emilia, he is self-serving, materialistic and cynical. This can be seen in Act 1 Scene 1 where he makes it clear to Roderigo that his pride was hurt when Cassio was promoted before him, and also in Act 2 Scene 1 where he openly degrades women. There is not much difference between the Iago who speaks alone on stage and the Iago who gulls Roderigo; both are mean spirited, boastful and dismissive.
The duplicity of Iago that is discussed above can be seen after the brawl between Cassio and Roderigo. Iago indirectly instigated the fight, but still feigned reluctance to accuse Cassio saying that
'I should rather have this tongue cut from my mouth than it should do offence to Michael Cassio. Yet I persuade myself, to speak the truth.'
This serves to make him look like a loyal, trusted friend but it also convinces Othello that Cassio behaved badly and should have his post replaced. This skill at manipulation can also be seen when, after waking Brabantio, Iago leaves to go to Othello. He tells Othello that Brabantio 'spoke such scurvy and provoking terms against your honour.' He emits that he to spoke the same scurvy. This pretended loyalty and indignation are designed to invoke trust and a favourable opinion - Iago is positioning himself so that he is ensured lieutenancy after Cassio loses his. It is somewhat appropriate that Iago curses using the words 'by Janus.' Janus is a two faced go in Roman mythology; Iago is effectively taking his own name in vein.
Iago is both a misogynist and a racist. The former of the two qualities can be witnessed in Act 2 Scene 1. Here he is openly cynical and misogynistic - he can only see women as false, mean spirited and inferior creatures, proven when he makes comment that women 'rise to play and go to bed to work.' This crude delineation of females is a sign of his narrow and twisted egotistical nature. The soliloquy at the end of the scene has a strong racist undertone that suggests Iago cannot accept that Desdemona, an aristocratic white woman has chosen the 'poor trash of Venice' - a black man. Clearly, Iago is a very egotistical man who seeks to disgrace those he deems to be worse beings than he is.
Iago is a cynical malcontent. In Act 1 Scene 1 Iago makes it clear that he despises men who 'wear their hearts on their sleeves' and other 'honest knaves' such as Cassio and Othello. He also claims to admire men who exploit their masters to 'line their coats' - himself. These beliefs undermine the very basis for our conventional standards of decency. Iago is loyal only when it serves his needs. This can be seen in Act 1 Scene 2. Here, Iago pretends to be Othello's faithful supporter but it is not out of the goodness of his heart but rather out of a desire to be luitnant. This cynicism extends from the professional domain into the private. In Act 2 Scene 1 Iago admits his 'love' for Desdemona and then quickly corrects himself, as if the word love should not belong in his vocabulary. He re-describes his feelings as 'lust.' Nor does Iago believe that Othello loves Desdemona, continually referring to him as 'lascivious' and 'lustful.' He clearly attributes love to a sexual itch.
Othello is an immensely proud man but unlike Othello, his pride is laced with sly vindictiveness. When he suspects that Othello has 'twixt my sheets?done my office', he becomes furious. This anger was not founded however, because he loved Emilia, but because he could not bear to know that another man had had the better of him. These feelings are made clear in lines 270 - 280 of Act 2 Scene 1. He states that his soul will not be sated 'till I am evened with him wife for wife,' that the suspicion 'doth like a poisonous mineral gnaw my inwards.' This pride is also seen when Iago makes his anger about Cassio's promotion clear. When speaking to Roderigo he describes Cassio as a 'bookish theoric' with no practical experience in battle. He cringes that the system of promotion is not just stating that 'Preferment goes by letter and affection, not by the old gradation where each second stood heir to the first.' He later makes it known that he intends revenge on both Cassio and Othello, presumably for hurting his pride.
In conclusion, Iago is an interesting and fascinating study in evil. A practiced liar and cruel political opportunist, Iago delights in his own manipulative skills and relishes turning other's 'virtue into pitch.' By the end of the second Act, the characterization of Iago by all characters in the play leaves the modern audience with much food for thought and the discussed characteristics firmly entrenched on their minds.