The poet Coleridge appropriately described the character of Iago as being one of motiveless malignity. Throughout the play Iagos motives are secondary to, and seem only to serve as justification for, his actions. Iago is driven by his nature of character. To discuss Coleridges assessment we must look at Iagos characterfrom Iagos point of view and that of the other charactershis motives, methods, and pawns. Through some carefully thought-out words and actions, Iago is able to manipulate others to do things in a way that benefits him; all the while he is pushing Othello, Desdemona, Roderigo, Emilia, and Cassio to their tragic end.
According to Websters New International Dictionary, Second Edition, malignity is partially defined as disposition to do evil. Motiveless is implied in the definition of malignity. That one has a disposition to do evil is to say evil is in the nature of the malignant person; motive is not an issue. Motiveless malignity is redundant in the pure meaning of the words. Does Coleridge mean to say that Iago cannot help himself from being evil or does he mean that what Iago did was without motive? For the sake of this discussion, Coleridge intends the later.
Abbott states in truth character is what a person is; reputation is what he is supposed to be. (Websters) Is Iago evil? No, he is not. Walter Lippmann says that evil is not a quality of things as such. It is a quality of our relation to them. (Websters) Iago is not opposed to good (a partial definition of evil) however, he is amoral and malicious.
How does Iago see himself? Others there are who, trimmed in forms and visages of duty, keep yet their hearts attending on themselves, and throwing but shows of service on their lords do well thrive by them, and when they have lined their coats do themselves homage. These fellows have some soul, and such a one do I profess myself. Act I, Scene I, Line 49 Iago says of Cassio that he hath a daily beauty in his life that makes me ugly Act V, Scene I, Line 19 Iago is aware of his lack of social graces. However Iago does not feel ugly toward himself. He feels vindicated; But Ill set down the pegs that make this music, as honest as I am. Act II, Scene I, Line 194 Ironically, Iago says of himself yet do I hold it very stuff o the conscience to do no contrived murder. I lack iniquity sometimes to do me service. Act I, Scene II, Line 2
How does Iago see others? He sees the world and other people as animalistic and ruled by their basest desires. Perhaps Iago knows this because he knows himself so well. Iago warns Brabanzio that even now an old black ram is tupping your white eweyoull have your daughter covered with a Barbary horse, youll have your nephews neigh to you, youll have coursers for cousins, and jennets for germans Act 1, Scene 1, Line 88 and 110 Iago describes Othello as a man . . . will tenderly be led by the nose as asses are. Act I, Scene III, Line 377 Iago tells Roderigo I never found a man that know how to love himself . . . Virtue! A fig! Tis in ourselves that we are thus or thus. Our bodies are gardens, to which our wills are gardeners . . . If the balance of our lives had not one scale of reason to poise another of sensuality, the blood and baseness of our natures would conduct us to most preposterous conclusions. Act I, Scene III, Line 308 Iagos intelligence and knowledge of human nature (others and his own) allow him to control the other characters with ease.
Why, Iago, why? The initial motive for Iago’s devious behavior is to right a misdeed against him; he, not Cassio, should have been lieutenant. And I, of whom Othellos eyes had seen the proof . . . must be beleed and calmed Act I, Scene I, Line 28 Then he changes his motive to jealousy; he proclaims Othello has had an affair with his wife, Emilia. And it is thought abroad that ‘twixt my sheets he’s done my office. I know not if’t be true, but I for mere suspicion in that kind, will do as if for surety. Act I, Scene III, Line 363 The motivelessness comes from the possibility of truth in the rumor.
Iago will use Desdemona’s prime weakness, her naivet, to gain Cassios position. Iago reveals his plan; His soul is so enfettered to her love, that she may make, unmake, do what she list, even as her appetite shall play the god with his weak function…And she for him pleads strongly to the Moor, I’ll pour this pestilence into his ear, that she repeals him for her body’s lust; And by how much she strives to do him good, she shall undo her credit with the Moor. Act II, Scene III, Line 305 Without having much to do with Desdemona, Iago shall be her downfall. Without pity or empathy Iago intends to see her demise. In the movie, during this soliloquy, Iago bare-handedly holds the smoldering end of a fire log and snuffs it with the palm of his fist saying So will I turn her virtue into pitch, and out of her own goodness make the net that shall enmesh them all. Act II, Scene III, Line 320
Iago first had to gain trust from all the characters. He plies human nature with constant declarations of love; I think you think I love you…I protest, in the sincerity of love and honest kindness. Act II, Scene III, Line 276 and 290 The deception works. Othello: Thy honesty and love doth mince this matter Act II, Scene III, Line 225 An honest man he is, and hates the slime that sticks on filthy deeds . . . My friend, . . . honest, honest Iago. Act V, Scene 2, Line 147 Cassio: I never knew a Florentine more kind and honest. Act III, Scene 1, Line 37
Iago builds his reputation; of this Iago says Reputation is an idle and most false imposition, oft got without merit and lost without deserving. Act II, Scene III, Line 244 Throughout the story he is called Honest Iago. Iago is confident in his false reputation; of Othello Iago says He holds me well, the better shall my purpose work on him. Act I, Scene III, Line 366
Iago is smart. He is an excellent judge of people and their characters. He knows Roderigo is in love with Desdemona and would do anything to have her as his own. Iago says about Roderigo, Thus do I ever make my fool my purse. Act I, Scene III, Line 359 By playing on Roderigos hopes, Iago is able to swindle money and jewels from him, thus making himself a profit, while using Roderigo to forward his other goals. He observes of Othello The Moor is of a free and open nature that thinks men honest that but seem to be so Act I, Scene III, Line 375 and is of a constant, loving, noble nature. Act II, Scene II, Line 265
Iago is cunning and crafty and able to improvise when something unexpected occurs. Iagos ideas are born when he spies Cassio take Desdemona’s hand before the arrival of Othello; With as little a web as this will I ensnare as great a fly as Cassio. Act II, Scene I, Line 164 When talking with Cassio about Bianca (Othello thinking the subject is Desdemona) Bianca comes in with the famous handkerchief. Though not part of his immediate plot, Iago uses this appearance to his full advantage. To Othello Iago taunts And to see how he prizes the foolish woman your wife? She gave it him, and he hath given it his whore. Act IV, Scene I, Line 63
Iago poisons people’s thoughts, creating ideas in their heads without implicating himself. And what’s he then that says I play the villain, when this advice is free I give, and honest, Act II, Scene III, Line 297 says Iago, the master of deception. Hes proud of his deceit; Work on, my medicine, work! Thus credulous fools are caught, and many worthy and chaste dames even thus, all guiltless, meet reproach. Act IV, Scene I, Line 42 As planned, people rarely stop to consider the possibility that Iago could be deceiving or manipulating them; after all, he is Honest Iago.
His first victim is Roderigo. Roderigo remarks, That thou, Iago, who hast had my purse as if the strings were thine. Act I, Scene I, Line 2 Throughout the play, Iago leads Roderigo, professing that . . . I do hate the Moor as I do Hell pains. Act I, Scene I, Line 152 He tells Roderigo to Put money in thy purse Act I, Scene III, Line 328 so that he can win Desdemona with gifts. Iago keeps for himself those gifts that Roderigo intends for Desdemona. Roderigo eventually questions Iago’s honesty, saying I think it is scurvy, and begin to find myself fopped in it. Act IV, Scene II, Line 191 When accused, Iago simply feeds false hope and offers that killing Cassio will aid Roderigos cause. Roderigo laps it up like a starving dog; I have no great devotion to the deed, and yet he has given me satisfying reason. Act V, Scene I, Line 8 And with this deed, Roderigo is lead to his death by the hands of Honest Iago.
Cassio also believes that Iago is trying to help him. Iago is planning the demise of his supposed friend. On the night of Cassio’s watch, Iago persuades him to take another drink, knowing that it will make him very drunk. Cassio reluctantly relents, saying I’ll do’t, but it dislikes me. Act II, Scene III, Line 37 Iago is able to make him defy his own reasoning to take another drink by plying Cassios nature to be needed, admired, and a comrade to his charge. Later Roderigo follows through with Iago’s plan to make Cassio look like an irresponsible fool. Crafty Iago has gained; Cassio is terminated from lieutenant. Iago then sets another of his plans in motion. He tells Cassio to beg Desdemona to help his cause, saying, She holds it a vice in her goodness not to do more than she is requested. Act II, Scene III, Line 284 Cassio blindly tells Iago, You advise me well. Act II, Scene III, Line 289 Eventually Iago snares Cassio and Roderigo attempts to murder him.
Othello holds Iago to be his close friend and advisor; I think thou dost love Othello, and for I know thourt full of love and honesty and weighst thy words before thou givest them breath. Act III, Scene III, Line 119 He believes Iago to be a person, of exceeding honesty, and knows all qualities, with learned spirit of human dealings Act III, Scene III, Line 259 Unfortunately Othello does not know how truly he speaks. Iago uses the trust Othello puts in him to turn Othello against his beloved wife and lieutenant.
How can no one see through Iagos mask? The answer — Emilia can. Iago’s wife, Emilia, is the one who eventually unravels her husband’s plan. After Othello strikes Desdemona, Emilia unwittingly describes her husband as the cause of Othello’s anger; I will be hanged if some eternal villain, some busy and insinuating rogue, some cogging, cozening slave, to get some office, have not devised this slander; I’ll be hanged else. Act IV, Scene 2, Line 130 And Iagos answer to that Fie, there is no such man, it is impossible! Line 134 Emilia gives Iago’s plot away. Emilia, now an obstacle and a nuisance, is killed by Iago for practical reasons. She serves no purpose to him anymore and now she can only hurt his chances of keeping his position as lieutenant.
Like the symbolic chess pieces in the film version, Iago manipulates the pieces toward an end. He uses skill and knowledge of the nature of things to play a game and win. He does not make each move with conscious reason, only to win the game; thus Iago is motiveless at each step. He is like a child who only enjoys tumbling down the blocks of other children; he is the play-yard bully. When asked why, the bully generally shrugs and says I dont know. Similarly when asked why, Iago’s response is just as simple: What you know, you know. Act V, Scene 2, Line 302 And Iago knew why; and he knew how. Iago most honestly confesses to Emily I told him what I thought, and told no more than what he found himself was apt and true Act V, Scene 2, Line 175 The unspoken line comes next: they believed what they wantedthey are the guilty not I. Iago is a crafty, intelligent, manipulative school-yard bully, who is motiveless at each move. Iago is an honest man–deadly honest.