Unequivocally, Iago plays an important and major function in the tragedy of Othello. By the end of the play, Iago has been directly responsible for the deaths of Roderigo, Emilia and the protagonist and his love. Iago’s importance to the play is revealed by his contribution to the plot and his significance relative to other characters. Iago’s function, which invariably adds to the importance he has on the play, is to lead to the downfall of Othello therefore revealing the themes of hate, jealousy and revenge. Iago also serves to contrast with the characters of Othello and Desdemona and to create dramatic irony consequently involving the audience in the journey of the play. The foundation of his success has been built upon his honest reputation, perceptive nature and ruthless motivation.
Iago’s importance to the play is revealed through the significance he has in determining the direction of the plot. Just like a masterful puppeteer, he has forcefully steered its’ direction. Shakespeare, at the very beginning of the play does not bother to develop the character of the protagonist, Othello but rather places greater emphasis on plot development. We are immediately introduced to Roderigo and Iago and are privy to their conspiracy to undermine Othello. With a masterful stroke, Iago subdues Roderigo, his ‘dupe’ and sets up the initial plot- Iago intends to gain his rightful position of lieutenant by destroying Othello and Casio. “I Know my price, I am worth no worse a place.” Although Iago’s plan does not change throughout the play, his motives, which obviously influence his actions do. Iago’s initial motive in destroying the protagonist is hatred. “I hate the Moor.” This shifts to jealousy, “He’s done my office”, to just sheer malignant motives. “If Cassio do remain he hath a daily beauty in his life that makes me ugly.” It is as if Iago has allowed us to follow his journey from revenge to finally madness.
Iago’s emotive feelings are dictating the direction of the plot. The audience ponder whether Iago will gain some control and restore balance. By Act 3 sc. iii he has achieved half of his objectives. Cassio has been removed and Iago has replaced him as lieutenant. ‘Now art thou my lieutenant’. Instead Iago, full of rage and satisfaction that is plan is working so well continues his destructive plan. All the while Iago’s ‘medicine’ is working to ‘put the Moor at least into a jealousy so strong that judgement cannot cure’. He so easily controls the ‘levers’ of the play.
The success of Iago can be attributed to his ruthless motivation fueled by his emotions. From the outset, Iago sets up his plan and motivations. With tenacity, he sticks to it. ‘Dull not device by coldness and delay’. Even when flaws start to appear in his plan he still goes on with it. ‘The moor may unfold me to him- there stand I in much peril’. This, in effect, undermines his own success- because he does not know when to stop, he cannot see his own destruction coming. Throughout the play the imagery of a spider drawing his net to catch his prey is constantly used. ‘I Shall ensnare them all’, Iago says. So just like a barbaric animal, Iago has set his web and nothing can stop him now.
Iago success is also achieved because he positions everything correctly. This involves getting Cassio drunk, arranging ‘the’ handkerchief to go missing in Cassio’s quarters and personally beguiling Othello’s mind into thinking Desdemona is cuckolding him. Obviously without these events (so remarkably planned by Iago), the plot would never have developed. With great skill, Iago is able to arrange a conversation between Cassio and Bianca and carefully position Othello so that he thinks Cassio is discussing his wife. ‘Oh, dear Cassio! As it were. His gestures import it’.
However, Iago’s success is partly due to luck. Luck that the handkerchief was dropped by Desdemona and retrieved by one of Iago’s unsuspecting puppets, Emila. Luck that Cassio was confronted by Bianca and luck that his plot was not discovered any earlier.
Iago’s importance is also shown through his significance (relative to other characters) to the play. By far, in terms of stage time, soliloquies and the like, Iago supersedes any other character. He makes Roderigo to appear like a ‘fool’. He has similar success with Cassio and Othello. Both these characters turn to him for his ‘free advice’. Even when he is off stage he is still referred to in praising terms- ‘that he is honest’. Shakespeare does not allow any attention to shift from Iago. Throughout his soliloquies, Iago discloses his true evil nature as well as the nature of other characters. ‘Hell and night must bring this monstrous birth to the world’s light’, clearly shows Iago’s passion driven dominance. He will do anything to destroy the goodness of Othello. His soliloquies also give him the chance to reveal the qualities of other characters. He so easily stipulates that Othello is of ‘a free and open nature.’ This contrast to any other character- they all have difficulties in examining human nature. Iago is often referred to as ‘honest’ even though he is far from it. Othello cannot dispel Iago’s simplistic argument that Desdemona ‘be false’. This quality makes Iago an extremely important character as he serves to highlight other’s flaws.
A fundamental reason for Iago’s success is his ability to appear ‘honest’, underhandedly giving him the power to manipulate and influence other characters. Iago manages to appear honest partly because of natural characteristics and partly because he purposely sets out to look honest. Before Iago can even begin to initiate his plan he is referred to as honest by many of the characters. This would suggest that this is a fundamental characteristic of his. However, Iago does strive to appear honest and sincere. ‘If I shall stay with Roderigo I shall- against the Moor. This is also seen when he defends Cassio after the drunken brawl. Iago speaks with hesitation and refers to Cassio being a friend several times. ‘I had rather have this tongue cut out from my mouth than it should do offence to Cassio’.
This appearance allows him to gain favour with all characters, especially those of Cassio and Othello, allowing him to influence them.
The success of Iago’s deceptive honesty is most clearly seen in the final scene of the play in which the truth of his dishonesty is revealed. So successful was Iago’s scheme that Othello can only think that Iago must have been a devil. ‘I look down towards his feet- but If that thou be’st a devil, I cannot kill thee’.
Even when on stage, Iago appears to have an overriding dominance over the other characters. In Act 3 sn iii, in which Othello asks Iago to kneel next to him and make a pact in order to destroy Cassio and Desdemona, we cannot but notice the power Iago evokes in Othello. ‘Do not rise yet’, Iago cries, ‘I am yours forever’. Also Iago’s dominance over Othello is seen in Act 4 sn I where Othello has fallen into a trance. The audience look on with pity as Iago says, ‘Thus do credulous fools are caught.’ On stage this would be a powerful scene in which Iago finally subdues Othello.
Iago has also shown his importance in the way he has changed Othello’s language and nature. Bestial terms such as ‘black ram’ and ‘plague him with flies’ are initially reserved for the likes of Iago. However, he has managed to bring Othello down to this base language. ‘Oh blood! Blood! Blood!’ Similarly, after Cassio has disgraced his ‘reputation’, Iago councils him, offering with affirm belief the way in which Cassio should seek his position back. The language Iago uses is sharp and commanding. ‘What man! There are more ways to recover the general again’. Cassio can only resort to thanking Iago- all initiative is gone- Iago controls Cassio’s puppet strings, furthermore revealing him importance to the play.
Another reason for Iago’s success is that he is very perceptive and can manipulate character flaws. Roderigo’s flaw is first noticed- his infatuation with Desdemona. Iago wonderfully capitalize on it. He temps Roderigo with the promise that Desdemona ‘will be’ his. This serves to ‘profit’ Iago as well as use Roderigo to achieve his plans. Under the powerful control of Iago, Roderigo further adds to the plot. He is responsible for the brawl between Cassio and helps to mane him in a latter scene.
Iago also exploits Cassio’s weak tongue for liquor and uses Cassio’s reputation as being a womaniser to his own advantage. Iago also realises the importance of reputation to Cassio and turns this against him to great success.
Iago also takes advantage of Othello’s ‘free and open nature’. ‘I trust thee Iago’, Othello says. This unquestioned ‘trust’ is carefully abused by Iago to plant the seeds of destruction in his mind. ‘Look to your wife’, Iago asks Othello.
Iago’s perceptive nature goes hand in hand with his persuasive language of reluctance in order to successfully corrupt Othello. This is most brilliantly seen in Act 3 sn iii. Iago, with great precision uses repetition and hesitant language to convince Othello of his wife infidelity. ‘By heaven, thou echoest me as if there were some monster in thy fought too hideous to be shown’.
Iago successfully continues to contaminate his mind with the language of hesitation all throughout this scene. Also, Iago’s language is much more basic and sexual imagery is used. ‘Oh beware, my lord, of jealousy!’ If Iago used complex language (as he is capable of doing), this technique may have not proved success with Othello who is ‘rude in speech’ and ‘little blessed with the soft phrases of peace’. In essence, Iago appeals to Othello’s quick acting solider nature.
The success of the use of bestial imagery can be seen through the way Brabantio acts after being told that ‘an old black ram is tupping his black ewe.’ His language becomes rushed and he looses self-power. This is revealed in his short confused sentences. ‘Strike on the tinder, ho! Give me a taper’ This is exactly what happens to Othello latter in the play when bombarded with course language. ‘Oh Devil! Devil!’
The primary function Iago serves is being the catalyst to the downfall of Othello and Desdemona. Without Iago the tragedy would not have occurred. This is not to say however, that Othello is not void of blame. Iago merely perceived Othello’s inherent weaknesses such as his open nature and exploited them. This is Iago’s function- showing that the downfall of Othello is not the cause of just one obdurate body but there are many other contributing factors. Obviously Iago tapped into the fact that Othello was an outsider/ non-venetian and used it to prey on his insecurities. ‘In Venice they do let God see the pranks they dare not show their husbands’. Would Othello been so prone to Iago’s attack if he himself were a Venetian?
Iago also serves to highlight the naive relationship between Othello and his love- which also contributes to the tragedy. To the audience it appears ridiculous that Desdemona, just married, would even want a sexual relationship with another man. It is also apparent that Othello has very little understanding of his wife. ‘My wife feeds well, loves company, is free of speech, sings, plays and dances’. This is a different Desdemona to the one in Act 1 sn iii which presents to the senate the reasoning as to why she should be allowed to go with her husband to Cyprus. ‘If I be left behind the rights for why I loved him are bereft me let me go with him.’ Her actions are based on her firm belief’s. It is obvious to the audience that Iago has a greater understanding of Desdemona than her own husband. Iago, pressing the right levers, insists that Desdemona help Cassio knowing full well that she would persist in her argument in trying to reinstate him.
Shakespeare’s message in this play is that even the best of us, if manipulated in the right way can easily fall victim to another persons malignant motives. This is unveiled by Iago.
A contributing factor to Iago’s success in undermining Othello his attacks on his pride. Othello ‘loves his own pride and purposes.’ This is revealed to us in the second scene of the play, where Othello refuses to fight Brabantio’s men because ‘my parts, my title and perfect soul shall manifest me rightly’. He also understands his worth to the state. ‘I have done the state some service and they know’t’. However, when he is told that his wife is cheating him, this must certainly put a dent in his pride. Cunningly Iago recalls the last lines Brabantio told his Othello. ‘She deceived her father and may thee’. Othello, a man of absolutes, would without a doubt take offence that ‘his prize’, Desdemona, would cheat him. It is Iago’s credit that he can feed him with such thoughts.
Iago also serves to contrast with the goodness of Othello and his love, thereby showing the direct consequences of hate, jealousy and revenge. Iago is motivated by greed ‘put money in thy purse’ and opportunism. On the other hand Othello is motivated by rapturous emotions of love, ‘O my soul’s joy’. There is no doubt that Othello during the course of the play has taken a mighty fall from grace. However, this descent is cushioned because of Iago’s involvement. That is, Othello’s fall is more an indication of Iago’s evil. If Othello, a man ‘not so easily jealous’ can fall, this highlights how powerful Iago’s feelings for revenge and hate must have been. In essence, Shakespeare is telling us the ramifications of malignant emotions. It is for this reason that we gain greater pity for Othello instead of anger. We can empathise with his predicament- Iago has stripped him of his nobility. Hate and Jealousy have overpowered Iago. His actions reveal his emotional deficiency. For him love is sex, animal appetites that ‘dull blood’.
Yet another function of Iago’s is to create dramatic irony/tension, thereby involving the audience on the journey of the destruction of the protagonist. The closest character to get to the audience is Iago. His soliloquies order the audience to think. He plans out his actions and asks rhetorical questions as to how he will succeed in his plan. ‘How? How?’, he asks us in one of his soliloquies. It is in this way that we know the direction of the story thus creating dramatic irony. This is a contributing factor as to way Othello is such a success play in terms of audience satisfaction. Even thought we know the story line, through Iago we are more interested in the journey he and Othello undertake. At first we feel comfortable with taking this adventure- who cares about the exploitation of Roderigo? However, the journey starts to become distasteful when we realise Desdemona is involved in his master plan. Iago will not be content ‘Til he has evened with him, wife for wife’. It is from this point on the any commendable feelings we had for him quickly deteriorate into disgust. However, with a greedy ear, we still watch the play, waiting in anticipation as to whether Othello will discover the sinister plans of Iago. We are more interested in the journey of the downfall of Othello not so much the plot.
Iago, such an important and fundamental character to the play is often incorrectly cast as just being pure evil. His success can mainly be attributed to his sagacious temperament and masterful wit. However, Iago’s achievement also hinges on his ability to exploit the character’s innate weaknesses. Iago perceives the protagonists ‘seeds’ of self-destruction and merely fertilisers them with base bestial language and non-‘ocular’ proof. This ability to find and exploit weakness has made him such an accomplished villain. Although there is contention surrounding Iago’s significance in the downfall of Othello, one thing remains true: Iago is one of Shakespeare’s most complex, intriguing and malignant characters. Without Iago there would be no tragedy.