How does Shakespeare present Iago

Length: 1921 words

In Shakespeare’s Othello the character Iago is one who has appalled and intrigued audiences for years. His cruel actions have shocked, yet enthralled audiences everywhere. We find ourselves being drawn unwillingly to a character; the audience’s revulsion is blended with fascination at the horrific culmination of his terrible scheme.

I intend to explore how it is that such conclusions can be drawn from Iago character and how Shakespeare shows it to us. Iago is quick to show his hatred of Othello in the opening scene. ‘I follow him to serve my turn upon him’. This suggests that Iago is dedicated to his revenge as he is willing to bide his time. Shakespeare gives Iago bitter, harsh language to reflect his anger and bitterness towards Othello. This harsh aggression is spat out with the brutal ‘t’ sounds; the irregular flow shows the violence and rage that Iago wishes to inflict upon Othello.

The fact that other men are ranked above him is a situation that Iago despises and it is because of his subservient role that he lashes out with such ferocity. The natural subservient inferiority of the phrase ‘I serve’ is twisted around completely by the controlling phrase ‘upon him’. Iago intends to further himself at the expense of Othello and the terms ‘upon him’ and ‘turn’ show how he is prepared to use sex as a weapon as a part of his revenge. We see the beginnings of Iago’s revenge when we see him taking a disconcerting pleasure in revealing to Brabantio the apparent atrocity of the marriage of his daughter, Desdemona, to Othello.

Iago sets out to ‘poison his delight’. Iago is not prepared to reveal himself so as not to lose all that he has strived for and built up over a lifetime – his reputation. The plosive consonant suggests the explosion of anger which his foul images stir within Brabantio. Shakespeare’s choice of; ‘poison’, has a long drawn out ‘oi’ vowel sound emphasising the slow, painful infection which Iago inflicts upon others happiness. Iago’s plan is what he inflicts upon Othello, and the storm during the journey to Cyprus as symbolic of Iago’s plan’s ‘monstrous birth’. Birth is usually seen as a painful, yet wonderful experience.

This presents Iago as an emotionless shell as he would merely notice the pain and suffering of such an event. Something which we would expect to be positive is, in fact, a terrible aberration like Iago who himself is unnatural. Shakespeare has Othello become lost in the storm just as he also becomes lost in his own mind when he bends to Iago’s will. ‘They were parted with foul and violent tempest’. This physical separation between Cassio and Othello by the sea is also an emotional one as they become split up by Iago. Iago’s storm separates the two friends whilst the plan tries to drown them in a sea of hate.

The battle between Venice and Turkey reflects the events in the play. The Turks launched an attack on Cyprus and the Venetians are unsure of how many are attacking, this is similar to how Iago attacks Othello though the audience are unclear of his true motives. We have many ideas to why he schemed against Othello, just as the noblemen did of the numbers of the Turkish fleet, none of which are conclusive. The Turkish did momentarily rule Cyprus for two years in the same way that Iago controlled Othello; he too is an unwanted guest in Othello’s mind as he forced his way in.

However, Othello manages regain control of Cyprus, and his mind, albeit for a short while until his suicide. The Turks fled and Iago was condemned to be slowly tortured to death. Shakespeare presents Iago’s vulgarity through his use of bestial imagery ‘An old black ram is tupping your white ewe’. The ‘ol’ sounds as if Iago is drawing out the sound to emphasise the age difference and therefore contrasting the ‘old’ with Desdemona’s youth. There are several harsh consonant sounds that make the audience feel Iago’s hatred and his malicious revenge as it is spat across the stage.

Othello is referred to as the ‘lusty moor’ the ‘st’ sounds like the hiss of a snake. This could be seen as a relation to the serpent in the Garden of Eden which led Adam and Eve astray. Iago is referring to Othello as a snake who has led Desdemona astray. Ironically it is Iago himself, who is the snake and leads Othello astray so that he may enjoy his Garden of Eden no more. We see further animal images when Iago refers to Othello as being a ‘ram’, this use of bestial imagery presents Iago as a distasteful man with no shame or sense of decency. He sees Othello as an animal.

We see Iago challenging Brabantio’s authority as he does with Othello. Iago cries that Brabantio is ‘a Senator’, which is thrown out as a sadistic insult. Iago is constantly abusive, and draws on racist preconceptions when focusing on Othello’s blackness and how Desdemona is ‘white’, the contrast would be seen as good and evil in Iago’s mind as black is supposedly the colour of the devil, ‘devils will the blackest’, ironically the true battle between good and evil is between Othello and Iago; the irony in this situation being that the white man has a dark sickening heart and that it is Othello so who is ‘noble’.

We see that Iago acts sinisterly towards Othello because he believes him to have bedded his wife, ‘twixt my sheets he’s done my office’ suggests that Iago’s view of sex is that its merely a ‘deed’. Iago finds the idea of his wife sleeping with another man repulsive as it robs him of his ownership of her, not because she has broken his heart. The word ‘office’ is associated with a job and allows Iago to imprint his view of women ‘go to bed to work’. Iago tells Cassio that ‘reputation is an idle and most false imposition’, however it is the most important thing he possess.

Without respect he is nothing, if it were to become public knowledge that Emilia had an affair then Iago would be branded a cuckold. Iago’s character has been presented as being self-obsessed and selfish; therefore I believe that it is the idea of horns rather than grief which makes him lash out. Iago is presented as judgemental and he lashes out at those whom he believes to be in need of punishment. Iago uses himself as a marker with which to judge others against, though the marker is one no-one can surpass.

Iago however never truly looks at his own character; he uses many faces and even swears ‘by Janus’ and through all these disguises and personas seems to have lost ‘Iago’ and has become lost, not knowing who he truly is. As the play progresses we see Iago become more self obsessed and including even more fiendish elements to his plan. ‘Do it not with poison. Strangle her in her bed’. The idea of ‘strangling’ is a concerning one as it suggests that Iago has ulterior motives other than killing Desdemona.

If Othello strangles Desdemona then he is more than likely to be caught. Iago used the term ‘Poison’ earlier in the play and at the time he was trying to be undetected and he was not discovered. Iago may see poisoning as a sly way to kill someone, his ultimate goal is not to kill Desdemona, and she is merely a tool within his scheme. He is again showing us that he is committed to his cause and does not worry about who gets in his way. Roderigo too will be swept aside so as not to incriminate the only person who matters, Iago himself.

The irony of ‘strangling’ Desdemona in her ‘bed’ would have appealed to Iago as Desdemona would be killed in the place that she had apparently cheated on Othello. The location would also make the whole affair easier to be found out thus incriminating Othello, and as Othello has ordered for Cassio to be killed this would leave Iago to rule Cyprus and take up the mantle he believes that he deserves. Earlier in the play Shakespeare shows Iago exclaiming that Heaven is my judge’. This suggests that Iago is a religious man as his referral to the divine suggests that he has some form of belief in god.

Iago’s hubris, he feels that there is no mortal who he respects enough that they could ‘judge’ him and that he is on a par with the gods. The use of the term ‘judge’ suggests that Iago has some guilt of the deeds he is about to and has previously committed; he is at this point confessing to the audience that he is not a nice person and that he has sinned. Iago is also challenging the gods in this statement and this is another challenge to authority showing that Iago will never be happy with his predicament as he will always feel there is someone with more power than he.

In a film version of the play Richard Branagh crawls onto the dead bodies weeping, I believe that this is that same guilt being let out and having grown, I found this was effective as it presented Iago in pain, one that would stay with him forever. This can also be seen as the gods having judged Iago, and a life of pain and suffering is their sentence. At the time of the play the Turks were presented as devils in human form, ‘circumcised dogs’ for Muslims or any non-believers of the Christian faith would be seen as heretics.

However, as an audience you realise that if anyone, it is Iago who is the devil. If thou be’est the devil I cannot kill thee’, Othello then lunges at Iago, though he is unable to kill him suggests that Iago has sadistic qualities. If this is to be taken literally then Iago is the devil. At the end of the Birmingham theatre company’s adaptation where Iago is shown to have no compassion and laughs at the bodies before him, showing him to be the complicated heartless menace that he is and stripping him of the title ‘honest Iago’. Iago’s character is a complex one which we as an audience never completely understand. There is bewilderment as to the force of his anger.

The audience are made uncomfortable not only at the complexity of the character but also how we found ourselves laughing at Iago’s malevolent actions over the course of the play. The word ‘Iago’ directly translates as ‘he who usurps’. Ironically Iago moves to usurp Othello, but eventually usurped himself by the woman who he has treated with great disdain and disrespect, his wife. ‘Emilia’ translates as ‘rival’ which is very true as in the final scene she truly is Iago’s rival by standing up to him and revealing how Iago ‘begged of me to steal’ the handkerchief.

Iago would see this as him being usurped in his plans whereas the audience and the other characters would see this as a brave and courageous act by Emilia. Iago would see this as his views on women being proved before his very eyes whereas the audience would see her actions as disproving Iago’s views. Iago shows his conflicting view by stabbing his wife, therefore proving himself to be dishonest and manipulative and desperate for power, revealing him to be the usurper he really is.

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