Unlike Hamlet where the evil is pervasive and hangs over the whole country, in Othello, it is personified in one character, who, however, wears the outward signs of virtue, life and conviviality. In Iago we see evil as deception and as a direct challenge to the order and harmony of the universe.’ Iago’s superficial brilliance and self-control is the ‘reason’ of Renaissance scepticism which in Shakespeare’s day was challenging the great vision of harmony, order and degree which Christian humanism carried over from the Middle Ages and which was most notably embodied in the writings of Richard Hooker.
Iago as the Evil Force
In spite of his hypocrisy, Iago reveals himself to the reader as an active force of evil right in the first scene of the play. It is strange that it is Roderigo alone who is granted insight from the beginning into the true Iago, but Roderigo is a fool who cannot perceive the implications of what he sees until it is too late. Iago’s single word of admiration in the play is for evil servants who secretly betray their masters. He believes that “these fellows have some soul ;/And such a one do I profess myself.” Iago stands for social disintegration. In the harmonious world order of which Shakespeare’s contemporaries liked to conceive servants had their just place, their .rights and their obligations. They were loyal to their masters out of love, and their masters repaid them with care and protection, all as a part of a social order whose perfection reflected the love of God for man. The true servant of such a system, Iago sees as “a duteous and knee-crooking knave”, who serves his master like an ass who is discarded when he is old. Iago appears to be such a servant, but his semblance of loyalty is but a mask. He is always a self-seeker. He shares none of the ‘love and duty’ which hold together the social order and link it to God Himself. Iago is all seeming, false appearance :
In following him I follow but myself––
Heaven is my judge, not I for love and duty,
But seeming so for my peculiar end.
The supreme egotism of Iago is a manifestation of the code of ‘reason’ by which he lives. True human reason in terms of Renaissance Christian humanism was a reflection of the supreme wisdom of God, and it consisted in attuning one’s own will to the purposes of God, a recognition that human events are reflections of divine purposes. Iago’s ‘reason’ is the sin of pride, for it denies the supremacy of God and sees man as the sole author of his destiny, able to control himself and others by the power of his mind. This is expressed in his speech to Roderigo, which begins with the words “Virtue ! a fig t ‘tis in ourselves that we are thus or thus”, and where he compares our bodies to gardens, our wills to gardeners and our reason to something which can cool our raging lusts and passions. Iago would control human passion by an act of will unrelated to the will of God ; his action reveals an unbridled passion which gives the lie to his own protestation. In denying the purposes and the power of God, Iago strikes at the root of Christian humanism, for the ‘natural law’ which it saw as the guiding principle in human affairs was a reflection of the divine law of God, an emanation of e; s love for his creation and of the harmonious order by which ed the universe. Iago, like the later Edmund stands outside morality. He can, see man only as a creature of animal passion, cut off from the grace of God. Love, the guiding principle in God’s plan, is only ‘a lust of the blood and a permission of the will’.
Iago’s betrayal of himself is quite expected in spite of Bradley’s wonder how his supreme intellect should finally betray him into such colossal errors as his misjudging both the relationship between Othello and Desdemona and the character of his own wife, Emilia. But it is in the very nature of Iago’s intellect that this should be so; for such ‘reason’, standing outside of moral law, can never recognize the truth of moral law ; it can perceive the signs of God’s benevolence only as their very opposites. The love of Othello and Desdemona, a love of mind divorced from physical passion, can appear to Iago only as ‘a frail vow betwixt an erring barbarian and a super-subtle Venetian’. Viewing love as animal lust he can only conclude that Desdemona will be governed by lust. He can perceive only the outward appearance of Othello ; he cannot see the qualities for which Desdemona married him, and thus their relationship seems only a product of lust which lust must destroy. Out of Iago’s failure of perception will come his own destruction, but this failure is inherent in the very ‘reason’ by which he lives.
Views About Iago
What the audience thinks of Iago is not the same as the view which other characters have about him. Since he reveals himself in his soliloquies, the audience knows him to be a demi-devil, the incarnation of evil itself, the negation of moral law. This is not, however, how he appears to the other characters in the play ‘Divinity of hell I /When devils will their blackest sins put on,/They do suggest at first with heavenly shows,/As I do now.’ To the rest of the world, and particularly to Othello, he is always ‘honest’ Iago, and we must remember that ‘honest’ has also the implications of chaste. Like the Claudius of Hamlet, Iago is evil in its traditional role, disguised as good He stands for false appearance, and it is fitting that Shakespeare should give to him the celebrated lines on reputation :
Who steals my purse steals trash ;……
But he that filches from me my good
Robs me of that which not enriches him
And makes me poor indeed,
It is only the outward appearance and name which Iago regards as the jewel of his soul. The confusion between a just self-esteem which a man in his honour must defend and a worship of false appearance without regard to the inner reality is a pervasive theme in this play. “Such a concern for reputation is a manifestation of pride, for it is the sin of cherishing only appearance as that part of man which distinguishes him from the beast, and thus it is a denial of God. This false concern for reputation Iago arouses in Othello, leading him to the murder of Desdemona in the delusion that only thus can he preserve his good name. It may be noted that this theme is emphasised through Cassio also who bewails his loss of worldly appearance when Othello dismisses him. Cassio makes the lamentation before Iago who in his reply may be still seen to be wearing the mask of outward virtue. Iago asserts that the loss of reputation is far less important than receiving a bodily wound, and since Cassio has escaped the latter, there is no great harm done. The seeming virtue of Iago is able to delude Cassio also, who observes of Iago ‘I never knew/A Florentine more kind and honest’.
Iago Versus Othello
Iago personifies evil in the guise of good whereas in Othello himself, we have a depiction of true virtue which seems to be wearing many of the signs of evil. In order to do so, Shakespeare develops a suggestion that he got in his source, the story in Cinthio, that the marriage of Othello and Desdemona was unnatural. Cinthio does not stress the blackness of the Moor, mentioning it only once in his story ; but Shakespeare seized upon it as a poetic symbol by which he could emphasize the theme of the unnatural. That Shakespeare intended his audience to think of Othello as a Negro of very dark complexion is clear. We must recognize that a Jacobean audience could not have failed to view the marriage of a white Italian girl to a black African with some horror. Cinthio himself had told the story as an example of a marriage contrary to nature. This is not to attribute racial prejudice to Shakespeare. It is, on the contrary the most astounding evidence of his freedom from such feeling, for the marriage to which he gives the outward appearance of an evil act contrary to nature, he shows in reality to be the noblest type of spiritual union. In the Renaissance the colour black was a symbol of lechery––it is commonly so used in the emblem books of the period––and it was also the colour of the devil, whose redness is a fairly recent innovation. To Shakespeare’s audience Othello would have all the outward appearance of the ‘blacker devil’ which Emilia calls him. His marriage to Desdemona would appear as an aberration in nature Iago awakens Brabantio with a description of the marriage in these terms, punctuated by images of brute sexuality––comparing Othello to a ‘black ram’ who is going to take advantage ,of Brabantio’s ‘white ewe’. Moreover, Brabantio’s description of Iago when he discovers that he has enchanted his daughter, seems to represent the normal attitude of Shakespeare’s audience to such a situation. Brabantio says that although Othello is damned, he has succeeded in working magic on Desdemona for otherwise such a delicate creature could never reject suitable matches and opt for marrying ‘such a thing as thou’. He is sure that :
...thou hast practis’d on her with foul charms,
Abus’d her delicate youth with drugs or minerals
That weaken motion.
The Theme of Unnaturalness
The first two acts of the play have these two themes, the evil of the allegedly unnatural union and that of Iago’s seeming honesty, dominating them. Othello has the blackness of Satan, Iago the whiteness of truth and virtue. True virtue bears the mark of evil, and evil is marked with the semblance of honesty. Shakespeare assures the audience of the falsity of these outward signs, that Iago is only seemingly honest, and that Othello, in spite of his appearance, is a man of true nobility whom Desdemona can love for ‘his honours and his valiant parts’. We see his calm bearing and his dignity before the council, and he himself is made to deny the very lechery of which his colour is the outward sign. Shakespeare’s deliberate reversal of normal appearances is so shocking that the audience must be left still incredulous, with an uncertain fear that appearance may still be truth. This fear is supported by Brabantio’s warning : ‘Look to her, Moor, if thou hast eyes to see :/She has deceiv’d her father, and may thee.’ Upon this seeming violation of nature, Iago will work in his temptation of Othello Under Iago’s influence, Othello will see Desdemona exactly as Brabantio has seen her, falsely conclude that their union is unnatural as it appears to others and thus cast off Desdemona as foul and evil.