Iago is a unique villain, for no other villain of any tragedy, Shakespearean or non-Shakespearean, has generated a volume of controversy which is at all comparable to that of which Iago has been the cause. It would not be strictly correct to say that the starting-point of this controversy was Coleridge’s characterizing of Iago’s reasonings and self-justifications as “the motive-hunting of a motiveless malignity”, for the puzzlement, and even fascination, exercised by the character of Iago existed much earlier.For example, a ‘Gentleman of Exeter’ was at considerable pains to justify t character and conduct of Iago in an essay published in 1790, entitled, “An Apology for the Character and Conduct of logo”. In this he emphasises the fact that Iago enjoys a good reputation, as man and soldier, and that if be were really wicked the fact would have been discovered by some one or the other in the play during the twenty-eight years of his life that have already elapsed. Two minor critics of the nineteenth century and several modern critics maintain that Iago’s suspicions of having been cuckolded by the Moor are reasonable ; hence they credit him with an adequate motive for ruining Othello. Asks J. W. Draper :
Is Iago then so black a villain ? Is he not a commonplace Renaissance soldier, ‘honest as this world goes’, caught in the fell grip of circumstance and attempting along conventional lines to vindicate his honour ?
For a deeply malicious person, such as we must believe Iago to be, there need be no other motive than his own malice. This point is convincingly argued by Helen Gardner. She observes that the attempt to attribute to Iago a consistent point of view is bound to fail ; “He is no realist. In any sense which matters he is incapable of speaking truth, because he is incapable of disinterestedness. He can express a high view or a low view to taste. The world and other people exist for him only to be used. His definition of growing up is an interesting one. Maturity to him is knowing how to ‘distinguish betwixt a benefit and an injury’. His famous ‘gain’d knowledge’ is all generalizations, information docketed and filed. He is monstrous because, faced with the manifold richness of experience, his only reaction is calculation and the desire to manipulate. If we try to find in him a view of life, we find in the end only an intolerable levity, a power of being ‘all things to all men’ in a very unapostolic sense, and an incessant activity. Iago is the man of action in this play, incapable of contemplation and wholly insusceptible to the holiness of fact. He has, in one sense, plenty of motives. His immediate motives for embarking on the whole scheme are financial, the need to keep Roderigo sweet, and his desire for the lieutenancy. His general motive is detestation of superiority in itself and as recognized by others ; he is past master of the sneer. Coleridge has been much criticized for speaking of his ‘motiveless malignity’ and yet the note of glee in Iago confirms Coleridge’s moral insight. Ultimately, whatever its proximate motives, malice is motiveless ; that is the secret of its power and its horror, why it can go unsuspected and why its revelation always shocks. It is, I fear, its own reward.” It seems that Iago feels the need of attributing his actions to some plausible motive.
The Mystery of Evil
Real, inveterate evil always has a certain mystery about it. Iago’s personality is invested with this mystery in abundance. As Bernard Spivack observes, in spite of the exhaustive rationalisation of Iago by modern critics, the enigma of this character still remains intractable :
There is still no successful mediation, between his terrible vividness, as we feel it on the one hand, and the blank he presents to our scrutiny on the other. To his bad eminence above all figures of evil in the Elizabethan drama he is elevated not only by the shock of his turpitude, the pathos of his victims, and the poetry of his role but also, and in no small measure, by his mystery. The question came after half a century of criticism had already tried to answer it, and the attempts have been legion ever since. But the question abides, and in 1945 Granville-Barker hopelessly threw up his hands at it : “Behind all the mutability there is, perhaps, no Iago, only a poisoned and poisonous ganglion of cravings after evil.”
It is not that Iago claims, or seems to, lack motives. On the other hand, as Coleridge himself stressed, Iago is at considerable pains to enumerate to himself the reasons he has for working the ruin of Othello, Desdemona, Cassio and even Roderigo. As M. R. Ridley observes, Iago is no doubt a villain, but he is a very human villain and very far from motiveless. He is a comparatively young and vastly ambitious professional soldier. War, as he says, is his “trade”, his only trade, the only occupation in which he can loot for advancement. He has been disappointed (in fact, he thinks, defrauded) of military promotion which he had every reason to expect, and, what is worse, the man who has been appointed is one of whose capacities as a soldier he is contemptuous––his view of Cassio is the view traditionally held in all ages and armies by the “Practical’ soldier, the company officer and N.C.O., of the gilded and theoretic staff officer. Any man in Iago’s position would be angered though, mercifully, few men would be tempted to plan such retaliation, and even fewer would have the skill to secure it. He has also another, though from the point of view of his career irrelevant, motive ; his suspicion that Othello has cuckolded him is not a bit of momentary motive-hunting ; however ill-founded, it is, as a later remark of Emilia shows, a genuine suspicion.
Love of Power
There is further, in Iago’s temperament, a ‘general’ motive quite apart from the immediate and specific occasion. He may not really have an innate love of cruelty for its own sake, and the mere spectacle of suffering, caused by any agency other than himself, would have, perhaps, little relish for him. But he has a profound love of power, and there is no more certain proof of one’s power than the ability to hurt :
He is like the child, pulling a fly to pieces or tormenting his younger brother. It is not the pain inflicted which delights him, but the fact that here is something or someone on which he, otherwise harried and controlled by unreasonable adults, can exercise unfettered power. Further, Iago’s love of power is partly ‘compensatory’. He despises most of the rest of mankind ; any man who does not keep his heart strictly attending on himself, who allows anything but reason and self-interest to guide his actions is to Iago just a fool. Yet in this preposterous world the men and women who have some instincts of generosity, some regard for honesty and honour, somehow manage to be more highly thought of than the self seekingly reasonable Iago ; they are apt to have a daily beauty in their lives which (for Iago is honest with himself), makes him ugly ; they may even –– most absurd of all––be more successful. Can he be wrong ? The idea is intolerable.
Element of Terror
W. H. Auden points attention to a unique aspect of the character of Iago––the terror he holds more for the modern reader or spectator, although to his Elizabethan counterpart he would have appeared to be just another Machiavellian villain, with whom he would never think of identifying himself. Auden adds :
To us, I think, he is a much more alarming figure ; we cannot hiss at him when he appears as we can hiss at the villain in a Western movie because none of us can honestly say that he does not understand how such a. wicked person can exist. For is not Iago, the practical’ joker, a parabolic figure for the autonomous pursuit of scientific knowledge through experiment which we all, whether we are scientists or not, take for granted as natural and right ?
To Auden, Iago is an impersonal investigator who wants to discover all that he can about Othello. The knowledge that he seeks is, in our terms, the equivalent of power. Iago’s procedure seems to Auden of conform to Bacon’s definition of scientific enquiry as ‘putting Nature to the question’. We must concede that upto a point Iago is highly successful, for not only does he discover unsuspected truths about the formidable general, but reduces him to a mere ‘thing’. It is a manifestation of Othello’s own greatness that, just before his death, he recovers his human identity once again.