Tuesday, 29 September 2015

On Iago's "motiveless malignity" in Othello (1604)

Iago was described as ‘motiveless malignity’ by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, almost as if he were at heart some sort of essence, which was quite simply the embodiment of evil which has no motive. He would be pure evil, the devil incarnate, a character who has sworn “evil be thou my good”. But is Iago really such a motiveless force for evil as Coleridge makes out, or do his motives appear subtly over the course of the plot?

It seems to have become an axiom in most forms of literature that the greater the hero or the more evil the villain, the less realistic the characterisation. The superlative emotion – pride, greed, heroism – seems to become the driving force of the character, wiping out all else, giving the character a prevalent, one-dimensional mood. There are many characters, predominantly in ‘classic’ literature, who are accused of being far too ‘good’ (Amy Dorrit in Little Dorrit, for example): in attempts to make them heroic, the author has unintentionally made them unrealistic. In a similar vein, scholars criticise Shakespeare’s character of Iago: during the process of making him quite possibly the most villainous man we have ever read about, they argue, Shakespeare has also transcended the boundaries of possibility: how can the bitterness of only one human being make him commit such inhuman acts?

In tragedy, perhaps because he is dealing with weightier subject matter, Shakespeare invariably increases the three-dimensional qualities of his characters. Macbeth, Hamlet and Othello are undoubtedly amongst the most complex characters ever written, but even within the plays named after them there are several other well-rounded characters. The villains in his tragedies don’t simply commit evil but they too are complex figures, intriguing in their deception, villainy and influence over others. Iago, the most poisonous evil character Shakespeare has conceived, is consistently referred to as “honest”, a testament to his integration into society and his ability to fool even the most quick-witted people: he is not just sheer evil, but a complex character with realistic characterisation in his own right. Hamlet says of Claudius, “one may smile, and smile, and be a villain,” as if he is irritated with himself for having not realised sooner that his uncle is a murderer – Claudius is well-masked by his charm and yet, once we know he is a murderer, he seems only vile and macabre. Octavius in Julius Caesar delivers a similar line in his shrewd evaluation of Antony’s enemies, saying, “And some that smile have in their hearts, I fear, millions of mischiefs.” (In sharp contrast the ‘villains’ in Shakespeare’s comedies, such as Don John, are poorly realised characters who only serve to add a problem which can be overcome in the matter of a couple of acts.)

But even amongst Shakespeare’s greatest villains, Iago stands out as one of the most intriguing. He is certainly the most evil, in his manipulation of every other character on stage to his own ends: to murder Cassio; to have Othello reduced to a wreck; and to bring Desdemona’s chastity into question. He does so by exploiting characters’ weaknesses (Cassio’s liability for drunkenness, Othello’s pride and temper) and their own motivations (such as Roderigo’s lust for Desdemona). He is careful to suggest things rather than state them, allowing others to feel as if they have conceived the idea rather than have it implied in their ears. These are possibly personifications of evil but they in no way mean that Iago is motiveless and one-dimensional. He may claim that if Roderigo wins Desdemona it will be “sport” for him but this also does not necessarily indicate a love of evil.

One of the strongest themes of Othello is the theme of order versus chaos, and this is embodied on a purely physical level by the two characters of Iago and Desdemona. One is impossibly villainous, sees the worst in everyone, uses vulgar phrases, is never what he seems to be: a coolly cynical man. The other is impossibly chaste and heavenly, sees the best in everyone, uses the most spirited language, is the only truly honest character in the play: an emotional, idealistic woman. Throughout the play it is possible to see in Iago and Desdemona two striving antitheses, as if they are the angel and devil of Othello’s mind. Iago is the darker parts of Othello’s mind, Desdemona the purer. It is his troublesome wandering between the two (one moment convinced of Desdemona’s innocence, the next appointing Iago his lieutenant and resolving to murder her) which forms most of the plot of Othello and it is perhaps this human chaos to which Othello refers when he states “chaos is come again”.

However, this can be contested by the fact that Desdemona as an angel is not really an embodiment of Othello’s purer side. In fact, Desdemona is not really any form of antithesis – at best, a very passive one. There is nothing to indicate she is aware of what she is striving for, or what she is striving against; she is as much in the dark about Iago as everyone else is. As if Shakespeare feared that by giving her too much to say he would lose the audience’s sympathy with her, she is the least expressive of Shakespeare’s heroines, and has by far the fewest lines. She does very little in the way of action; she is, like Othello in the first part of the play, a person who is caught up in events. The difference is that at this earlier stage she shares this with Othello, but by Acts Four and Five, her husband is the one moving forward the events, just as Iago was doing in the first three acts. It is as if in the middle of Act Three, Othello gives himself up to his ‘Iago side’ and lowers himself – “chaos has come again” – and from then onward there is no hope for Desdemona, because as a passive antithesis, there is nothing she can do against such active demonic energy as that which Iago conceals.

Act 3 Scene 3 is very much the turning point of Othello, featuring as it does Iago bending Othello to his will, though still appearing to remain his loyal servant, and eventually their shared decision to murder Desdemona. The Othello we see at the end of the scene is a man who has finally made a choice, and has chosen his ‘Iago side’. It is telling that over the space of the first three acts, Iago spouts incessant, vulgar phrases, usually with animal symbolism, and uses 14 of his 18 hell/damnation metaphors, whilst over the space of the last two acts, Othello spouts similar incessant, vulgar phrases (even using Iago’s words at one point: “Goats and monkeys!”) and uses 25 of his 26 hell/damnation metaphors. Othello has been transformed. Iago has corrupted his mind to make him think similar thoughts to him, he has dragged him down to his own level, and it shows. On a less analytical level it is obvious that this transformation has taken place: Othello as a main character is actually in evidence in Acts Four and Five. That is not to say he does nothing in the first three acts, but about his strongest action is to dismiss Cassio as lieutenant. By the later acts, he is the one committing the actions – and if need be, murders.

Othello and Iago’s first discourse occurs near the beginning of the scene, where Iago plants the idea of a guilty Cassio in Othello’s mind. There is a great deal of restraint here; Iago is careful not to come outright and state his opinion, as that would jar with his usual behaviour. He casually, even dismissively, says when asked what it is he remarks upon, “Nothing, my lord; or if – I know not what.” Shakespeare has deliberately used this to contrast the solid and seemingly dependable relationship the two have with one another by the end of the scene. Indeed, the very symbolism of their body language corroborates this idea; the image of Othello and Iago kneeling and clasping one another’s hands in a sacred vow is very much a binding one, very much a symbolic bringing-together of the characters. In Elizabethan times this would have held especial significance. From here onward, we know from their mere words that Othello will trust Iago implicitly: there can be no deception behind Othello’s “Now art thou my lieutenant” and similarly we know that Iago means what he says with his blood-chillingly simple “I am your own forever.”

For a scene which features very clearly his techniques of villainy, Act 3 Scene 3 has rather little to display concerning Iago’s motives and impulses. There is nothing here like his Act 1 or Act 2 soliloquies which reveal – albeit rather arbitrarily – possible motives for the heinous acts he commits. The very point of a soliloquy, at least in Elizabethan times, was to reveal the character’s inner thoughts and feelings, and so even with the deceptive Iago, we can take what is said in his soliloquies as true; anything he says to others can be called into question. Therefore with Act 3 Scene 3, as no such revealing soliloquies appear, we must examine carefully what he says to others to find out more about his inner workings and motives.

Concerning Othello and Iago the scene is roughly split into two; there are parts of the scene which feature other characters, but Othello and Iago share two major ‘semi-scenes’. In the first, Iago does not even attempt to provide circumstantial evidence for his implications, merely stating his anxiety. Whilst this might at first glance appear a risky approach – why not submit solid proof and win him over as swiftly as possible? – it is in fact much more effective for its very ambiguity. He knows that with Othello whipped up into suspicion, the man will not think logically – such is human nature, something which Iago never ceases to deride. He subtly plants the seeds of doubt in Othello’s mind. Up until now, and even including the first half of this scene, Iago could always go back on himself, could merely state that he was being misunderstood and deny any implications he might have made; such is the ambiguity of what he says. He does not need to provide any evidence. He uses the fact that Othello is an outsider in their society to his advantage, making him feel insecure; and at the same time he echoes Brabantio’s line “She has deceived her father, and may thee” except Iago’s words are “She did deceive her father, marrying you.” As with so much of what he says, Iago leaves the last part, “and may thee”, open to Othello’s interpretation. For his twisted and experimental mind it is enough to see what will happen with his mere words: with a “little act upon the blood” will they “burn like mines of sulphur”?

His words to Othello in this passage reveal more about his past than he would no doubt care to admit to others. There is surely a sense of familiarity in his warning against “the green-eyed monster which doth mock the meat it feed on”, and this is something which is usually skipped over in analyses of Iago. At heart he is probably more of a jealous man than Othello – certainly he could not be described as “not easily jealous” as Othello can. He is driven to worse things than the Moor by his own envy, although it is envy of a different kind; Iago is jealous of Cassio, Desdemona, Emilia, and Othello. Iago infects others with his jealousy: Othello, Roderigo and Bianca all display varying levels of jealousy throughout the play – similar to the way that Hamlet’s quest to avenge his father mirrors similar quests by Fortinbras and Pyrrhus and foreshadows what Laertes will also go through in time.

Iago is jealous of Cassio because of the rank of office that man holds; it is a position Iago sorely wants, as we can tell from his Act 1 and Act 2 soliloquies (“[he] that never set a squadron in the field/but he, sir, had the election...”). Iago is jealous of Othello because of his success, perhaps – this is a black man, an outsider to the society and yet he is of a higher social standing than Iago – and because of his ability to woo the beautiful Desdemona, whom Iago confesses to love not “out of absolute lust” but to find his revenge, either by cuckolding Othello or getting someone else to do so. She is a plot device in Iago’s plan and he loves her for it. Controversially, Iago does not seem to be particularly jealous of Othello because of the rumour that Othello once had an affair with Emilia. Indeed, his precise words are “I hate the Moor, and it is said abroad that ‘twixt my sheets he hath done my office”. Iago does not say that he hates the Moor “because...” but that he hates the Moor “and...” It is as if he is more rankled by the notion of his self-esteem being affected by another man being so casual with his possessions than by the actuality of the man sleeping with his wife and the feelings this ought to invoke in him.

It is admittedly somewhat contrived, and at the very least unbelievably fortunate, that shortly after Othello and Iago speak together, Emilia has a chance to provide for her husband the exact proof that will be needed to convince Othello for definite next time they talk. However, such proof (Desdemona’s handkerchief) he obtains. Ever the cautious observer, Iago does not use the handkerchief immediately – rather he waits to observe how far Othello has been down the path of jealousy in his absence. To test this later in the scene, he conjures up Cassio’s dream about Desdemona, and when it is apparent that Othello’s reaction to this is exactly what he wanted, he knows that he can play his trump card and introduce the handkerchief. Again, if Othello had been thinking logically, he would have realised that there was no opportunity for Desdemona and Cassio to sleep together between journeying from Venice to Cyprus and that therefore Iago is lying. However, Othello does not – indeed, cannot – think logically.

When he is certain that Othello has been preoccupied by what he has talked about previously, Iago knows that the time is right to introduce the handkerchief. As far as Othello is concerned, this is clinching proof. Othello is a superstitious man, an insecure outsider who worries about the symbolism of things; when he sees this love-token (which he does not even consider to be a replica, let alone the possibility that Cassio found it innocently) he believes instantly that Desdemona is unfaithful (saying with alarming swiftness “all my fond love thus do I blow to heaven”) – once again, despite the illogicality of Iago’s suggestion.

Any reasonably intelligent person would veer towards playing it down rather than playing it up, but Iago seems determined to take subtlety to a whole new level. What is worst is that as an audience we have seen his soliloquies, we know that he is a villainous character and that what he tells Othello is not true, and yet we are still uncertain – we do not quite know what his motives and his reasoning are. As CS Lewis writes in The Last Battle, “They lie, but by mixing their lies with a little truth they make them far stronger.” This is what Iago does, but the truth in his lies is not triviality such as who it was that found the handkerchief, it is an inner, psychological truth. Othello really should beware of jealousy, the green-eyed monster – so Iago says, with worrying honesty – but as he is introduced to it in the form of warning the Moor will never suspect that his ensign is in fact instigating the said emotion. The lines he speaks serve a dual purpose because by offering a warning Iago is affiliating himself with his general in a way that means Othello trusts him implicitly.

This is a very intense, personal scene; and despite the fact that there are two characters on stage it does not follow the pattern of other intense two-character scenes (Hamlet casting Ophelia away from him; Macbeth and his wife plotting and instigating a murder; and Romeo and Juliet in the infamous ‘balcony’ scene). I would argue that this is much more intense and personal, because here it is less that there are two characters and more that there is only one, listening to the darker parts of his own mind. The scene should be staged in a plainly furnished room, where there is no grand architecture to detract from the dialogue; it should be dimly lit and bare, a small set with little or no pretentions, so that the audience can focus on Iago and Othello.

To emphasise his indecision, the actor playing Othello might want to pace from time to time, but the actor playing Iago should similarly ensure that he is never far behind, always following, always present and watching his prey’s every agonising moment. Iago should genuinely come across as charismatic, honest and friendly, because part of the tragedy is in Othello’s greatness before his fall and he would not appear great if he was tempted by some transparent buffoon. As Iago is parasitic on Othello, he is not likely to allow the character out of his sight unless he knows what he is likely to do next – a rash moment here would ruin everything in Iago’s plan.

Act 3 Scene 3, as I have already said, is particularly important for showing us more about the characters of Iago and of Othello, as well as for providing a turning point where the latter chooses to accept the former’s way of thinking and implications, and is galvanised to act upon them. It is important not only because it offers a look at a master tempter’s final touches to his persuasion but also at the final struggles Othello goes through before coming to believe Iago entirely. The scene is undoubtedly a masterpiece in taut psychological drama, and more than makes up for the inconsistencies in the plot (especially regarding time-frames). But a concluding note on Iago must be put forward.

At first glance he seems to be as Coleridge says, ‘motiveless malignity’. If this were so it must be considered a failure on Shakespeare’s part: this would make Iago essentially pure evil, the devil incarnate, which is trite and lazy writing. It is not that Iago is immoral, that he knows that what he is doing is bad and chooses to do so for the sheer joy of committing immoral acts (although there is certainly something defiantly confident in the way he ensures to bring about first Cassio’s demotion and then Othello’s downfall). It is not that he is immoral, then. It is more that he is thoroughly amoral, that he simply has no conscience whatsoever. If Iago lived today we would refer to him as a psychopath. A man with a conscience would not be able to lie to his family and friends for such a period of time under such pressure and risk of discovery. Undoubtedly Iago had a conscience – as Andy Serkis (who played Iago in 2002) said, at one point Iago must have been a genuinely pleasant man, a laugh, great to have around – but it seems that the corrosion of his mind has come about through what he can stand least: undervaluation. Iago is determined his full potential should be explored, whether in reference to the post Cassio has obtained or to Othello’s happy marriage. And it is because he is so furious at his undervaluation that his mind is so jealous, and brings its own corrosion to the very mind of the man he wants to destroy.

It is so hard to examine Iago properly as not only is he always deceiving other characters and so rarely reveals his true impulses and feelings, but also because our opinion of him is undoubtedly going to be influenced by our opinion of Desdemona and her husband. They are so noble and innocent that of course Iago must be a villain in our eyes, as he wants to bring about their destruction. But characters should be examined in isolation, in perspective, as well as in their interaction with others. Iago is the unseen tragedy by Shakespeare, and the play Othello forms the final tragic act of this hypothetical work: the tragedy of a charming, decent and above all, “honest” soldier who took the bait of villainy, and as Othello said, made “a life of jealousy”, whereupon he embittered all his acquaintances and sent them to ruin and deprecation, with, in the end, no outward benefit to himself.

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