I’ve always referred to Othello by Shakespeare as Iago because Iago dominates Othello. Iago drives the action; Othello is like a piece of driftwood, although he gets one of the best lines (as he breaks up a fight): ‘Keep up you bright swords, for the dew will rust them’. But the problem of the play is deeper than the title. Iago is the problem. Why is he such an asshole?
Now, I’m offering a reward to anyone who can convince me why Iago is such an asshole. It’s a question that’s eluded generations of theatregoers. Othello is my least favourite Shakespeare tragedy because I can’t figure it out. Coleridge ascribed Iago’s bad nature to ‘motiveless malignity’. While that has a nice jingle, it doesn’t explain much. Other Shakespeare villains at least have convincing explanations why they’re bad. Take Macbeth: he’s tempted by the crown. But what’s Iago tempted by? I’m not sure. The closest Shakespeare villain that’s bad just for the sake of being bad is Richard III. But at least he has some motivation: he’s getting back at nature for being born deformed (that’s the motive Shakespeare gives him).
How is Iago an asshole? His wife, Emilia, seems like a nice lady. This is how he addresses her:
Iago (to Cassio): Sir, would she [Emilia] give you so much of her lips
As of her tongue she oft bestows on me,
You’ll have enough.
Desdemona: Alas, she has no speech.
Iago: In faith, too much;
I find it still, when I have list to sleep:
Marry, before your ladyship, I grant,
She puts her tongue a little in her heart,
And chides with thinking.
Emilia: You have little use to say so.
Iago: Come on, come on; you are pictures out of doors,
Bells in your parlours, wild-cats in your kitchens
Saints in your injuries, devils being offended,
Players in your housewifery, and housewives in your beds.
Here’s another one:
Emilia: I have a thing for you.
Iago: A thing for me!–it is a common thing–
I’ll leave it up to your capable imagination what a ‘common thing’ is. Hint: Emilia’s reaction is ‘Ha!’ and I don’t think she’s amused!
What else does ‘Honest Iago’ do? Well, he leads Roderigo on. Roderigo has a crush on Othello’s wife, Desdemona. Iago promises him access to Desdemona and takes all his money and jewels. Basically he bankrupts him for the fun of it. He has no intention on going through with his promises.
Iago gets Cassio drunk, with the result that he loses his job. He also stirs the pot between Roderigo and Cassio, hoping that one will kill the other. He gets Othello all jealous so that he suspects Desdemona of infidelity. When he succeeds at this, he urges Othello to kill Desdemona. Desdemona had never done him injury, and is his wife’s best girlfriend.
Basically Iago screws everyone over that he can.
Shakespeare doesn’t leave Iago entirely without motivations. Iago complains that he was passed over for a promotion. He wanted to be lieutenant but Cassio got that position. But as Othello’s ancient, he’s second in command. He also believes that Othello has slept with his wife. But he doesn’t give a reason. And there’s nothing in the play between Othello and Emilia that would suggest anything inappropriate has taken place. Then at other times, he says that he enjoys playing the asshole just for the fun of it.
Despite his insidious actions, none of the other characters can see through him. As the play’s reader, I find that frustrating: usually someone suspects something. Everyone calls him ‘Honest Iago’ and trusts him with all their secret concerns. That’s how he can get up to such great mischief: he knows everyone’s secret wishes and desires.
His motivations, to me, are unconvincing. He has motivations. But it’s like meeting someone who’s late for a meeting. If they have one excuse, it might just be real. If they have a bunch of excuses, they’re full of it. Iago, with his many excuses, seems like he’s full of it. But that leaves the question: why is he such an asshole.
The characters don’t seem to know either. When everyone’s dead in the end, and they question Iago as to his motives, this is what he says:
Demand me nothing: what you know, you know.
From this time forth I never will speak word.
I went through a whole play just to hear a character tell me that he won’t say what the whole play was about! Frustrating! So, if anyone knows Iago’s secret, let me know!
Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong, and I have real motives for Doing Melpomene’s Work.