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The Nature of a Dishonest Soul: Examining Iago in William Shakespeare’s “othello”

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The Nature of a Dishonest Soul: Examining Iago in William Shakespeare’s “Othello”

“The jealous are troublesome to others, but a torment to themselves.” – William Penn

     In the play “Othello,” by William Shakespeare, a particular character acts in such a way that the emotions of nearly every individual who views the play are aroused. This character goes by the name of Iago, and Iago’s actions leave the bewildered audience with feelings of hatred, yet pity, for the villainous soldier. Though many, if not all, the characters in “Othello” initially seem to believe the soldier is honorable, the audience watches with agonizing excitement, knowing every devious action that Iago intends to commit. These knavish actions show that Iago is not the virtuous soldier he appears to be, and it takes the tragedy of death for others to finally recognize Iago’s ill intentions themselves. As an observer of the play, one can see Iago’s true motives unfold by viewing the soldier from the perspectives of other characters at the beginning of the play, from the audience's viewpoints throughout the play, and finally, from the perspectives of both characters and audience at the conclusion of the play. 

     If the audience were to view the play from the perspectives of the characters alive within “Othello,” the ill intentions of Iago would be difficult for them to distinguish. Because Iago behaves courteously around every other character, they all seem to trust him and regard him as being honest. A first character perspective of Iago being honest is seen very early in the play during Iago’s interaction with Roderigo. Sympathizing with Roderigo and his hatred of Othello, Iago claims to despise Othello as well. This claim is the reason Roderigo believes he is being helped when Iago instructs him to summon Desdemona’s father. Iago commands Roderigo, “Call up her father, / Rouse him, make after him, poison his delight” (1.1.64-65). Since Roderigo thinks Iago is attempting to help him win Desdemona, he does not hesitate to disturb Brabantio during his peaceful hours of sleep. This action of Roderigo shows he trusts Iago so much that he will behave according to Iago’s commands if the outcome is life with Desdemona. A second character perspective of Iago being honest is exemplified when Iago convinces Cassio to drink alcohol, although the noble Othello put Cassio on guard. Cassio initially tells Iago, “Not tonight, good Iago” (2.3.28). This phrase illustrates that Cassio considers Iago to be moral, and his respect for Iago causes him to believe nothing wrong could result from drinking a small amount of alcohol. A third character perspective of Iago’s honesty arises in conversation between Iago and Othello regarding the events that occurred due to the intoxication of Cassio. After Iago explains to Othello the events of the night, Othello states, “I know, Iago, / Thy honesty and love doth mince this matter, / Making it light to Cassio” (2.3.237-239). This statement alone expresses Othello’s vision of Iago as an honest and loving individual. A fourth character perspective of Iago being honest occurs during conversation between Iago and Desdemona after she confides in him that Othello seems to be troubled. Desdemona pleads to Iago, “What shall I do to win my lord again? / Good friend, go to him; for by this light of heaven, / I know not how I lost him.” (4.2.151-153). When Desdemona cries these words to Iago, her affection for Iago is surfaced, and one can clearly see that she has great trust in him. A fifth and final character perspective of Iago’s honesty is that of Emilia’s. Emilia’s trust for Iago appears when she steals Desdemona’s handkerchief to give to her husband, although she surely knows how beloved the handkerchief is to Desdemona. Emilia claims about the handkerchief, “I’ll have the work ta’en out, / and giv’t Iago; what he will do with it / Heaven knows, not I: / I nothing but to please his fantasy” (3.3.298-301). With this statement, Emilia shows she trusts Iago enough to assume he has fair reasoning for her to steal Desdemona’s valued handkerchief, so she acts at the opportunity to please Iago as soon as it is presented to her. Viewing the actions of these five characters, Roderigo, Cassio, Othello, Desdemona, nor Emilia ever have any inkling that Iago has a dual personality, for they all believe for a majority of the play that he is an honest individual.

     On the contrary, the audience is able to see Iago’s ill intentions from the start of the play. While Roderigo believes he is performing the proper action by trusting Iago, the audience clearly sees Iago’s betrayal of Roderigo when he immediately speaks negatively of him to Othello. Iago tells Othello about Roderigo, “Nay, but he prated / And spoke such scurvy and provoking terms / Against your honor that with the little godliness I have / I did full hard forbear him” (1.2.7-10). The audience is aware that Iago is not telling the full truth about his conversation with Roderigo, but Othello chooses to believe Iago. The audience is also aware of Iago’s villainous thoughts regarding Cassio, knowing that Iago plans to use a stoup of wine to cause his fall. In his speech, Iago declares, “If I can fasten but one cup upon him / With that which he hath drunk tonight already, / He’ll be as full of quarrel and offense / As my young mistress’ dog” (2.3.42-45). These words of Iago speak truth about his underlying personality, and they give the audience a clear picture of his real objectives. More evidence that Iago is knavish appears in another soliloquy given by Iago referring to Othello. While Othello believes Iago to be honest to him, the audience knows very early that this is not the case. Iago states, “Nothing can or shall content my soul / Till I am evened with him, wife for wife; / Or failing so, yet that I put the Moor / At least into a jealousy so strong / That judgment cannot cure” (2.1.292-296). This line by Iago is proclaimed as early as the first scene of Act 2, so while Othello believes Iago to be honest until the very last scene, the audience is very aware of his dishonesty. As for Desdemona, she trusts Iago because of her pure heart, but little does she know of his involvement in the downfall of her relationship with Othello. The audience obtains a vision of Iago’s care for Desdemona when he tells Othello, “Do it not with poison. Strangle her in her bed, / Even the bed she hath contaminated” (4.1.201-202). This statement suggests to Othello the method he should use in killing sweet Desdemona, while the entire audience knows, along with Iago, that Desdemona is truthfully innocent. Lastly, the audience gathers a vast image of Iago’s personality during his interaction with Emilia. When Iago does not tell Emilia why he needs Desdemona’s handkerchief, Emilia demands, “If it be not for some purpose of import, / Giv’t me again. Poor lady, she’ll run mad / When shall lack it” (3.3.319). In this plead, Emilia informs Iago of how sacred the handkerchief is to Desdemona, but because of his cold heart, Iago dismisses her and tells her that he has use for it. Perhaps the largest glance of the audience into Iago’s soul appears when Iago then declares alone,

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