Iago  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Iago is a fictional character in William Shakespeare's play Othello. Iago is one of Shakespeare's most sinister villains, often considered such because of the unique trust that Othello places in him, which he betrays while maintaining his reputation of honesty and dedication. Iago has been described as a "motiveless malignity" by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. This reading would seem to suggest that Iago, much like Don John in Much Ado About Nothing or Aaron in Titus Andronicus, wreaks havoc on the other characters' lives for no ulterior purpose.


Contents

Character overview

Iago is a soldier who has fought alongside General Othello for several years, and has become his most trusted advisor. At the beginning of the play, Iago claims to have been unfairly passed over for promotion to the rank of Othello's lieutenant in favour of Michael Cassio. Iago plots to make Othello demote Cassio, and thereafter to bring about the downfall of Othello himself. After Iago engineers a drunken brawl to ensure Cassio’s demotion (in Act 2), he sets to work on his second scheme: leading Othello to believe that his wife, Desdemona, is having an affair with Cassio. This plan occupies the final three acts of the play.

He manipulates his wife, Emilia, into taking from Desdemona a handkerchief that Othello had given her; he then tells Othello that he had seen it in Cassio's possession. Once Othello flies into a jealous rage, Iago tells him to hide while he (Iago) talks to Cassio. Iago then leads Othello to believe that a bawdy conversation about Cassio's mistress, Bianca, is in fact about Desdemona. Mad with jealousy, Othello orders Iago to kill Cassio, promising to make him lieutenant in return. Iago then engineers a fight between Cassio and Roderigo in which the latter is killed, but the former merely wounded.

In the final scene, Iago’s plan appears to succeed when Othello kills Desdemona, who is innocent of Iago's charges. Soon afterwards, however, Iago’s treachery is brought to light by Emilia; Iago is placed under arrest. He remains famously reticent when pressed for an explanation of his actions:

Demand me nothing. What you know, you know.
From this time forth I never will speak word.

These are his final lines before being taken away, presumably to be executed.

Iago is generally regarded as one of Shakepeare’s most malevolent creations. A. C. Bradley, a famous critic of Shakespeare said that, "evil has nowhere else been portrayed with such mastery as in the evil character of Iago."<ref>Bradley, A. C., [1904] (1974), Shakesperean Tragedy, Basingstoke: Macmillan Press, p. 169.</ref> Particularly, the mystery surrounding Iago’s actual motives continues to intrigue readers and fuel scholarly debate.

Description of character

Iago is one of Shakespeare's most sinister villains, often considered such because of the unique trust that Othello places in him, which he betrays while maintaining his reputation of honesty and dedication. Shakespeare contrasts Iago with Othello's nobility and integrity. At 1097 lines, he speaks more lines in the play than Othello, more than any other non-title characters in Shakespeare (with the arguable exception of Falstaff, if his lines from both the first and second halves of Henry IV are combined). Iago is often referred to as "honest Iago," displaying his skill at deceiving other characters so that not only do they not suspect him, but they count on him as the person most likely to be truthful.

Motives

Iago has been described as a "motiveless malignity" by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. This reading would seem to suggest that Iago, much like Don John in Much Ado About Nothing or Aaron in Titus Andronicus, wreaks havoc on the other characters' lives for no ulterior purpose.

Possible analyzed motives include:

  1. Failure to be promoted
  2. Racism
  3. Jealousy (of Emilia, of Desdemona, of Cassio or of Othello)
  4. Othello's rumoured infidelity with Emilia
  5. Insecurity
  6. Supreme intellect unregulated by empathy or conscience (psychopathy)
  7. Sadism
  8. Unacknowledged homosexual feelings for Othello

In the exposition scene in Act 1, scene 1, Iago himself states that his prime motivation is bitterness at having been passed for promotion to the top post. His racist disgust at seeing "a black ram tupping" a "white ewe", and his supreme confidence in his ability to destroy Othello and escape detection all present potential motives. In a later soliloquy, it is revealed that Iago suspects his wife of infidelity with both Othello and Cassio. Ultimately, none of these motives are identified as primary, so it is impossible to determine conclusively which applies, if indeed any of them do in isolation, or which is most important among them.

Andy Serkis, who in 2002 portrayed Iago at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester, wrote in his memoir Gollum: How We Made Movie Magic, that: "There are a million theories to Iago's motivations, but I believed that Iago was once a good soldier, a great man's man to have around, a bit of a laugh, who feels betrayed, gets jealous of his friend, wants to mess it up for him, enjoys causing him pain, makes a choice to channel all his creative energy into the destruction of this human being, and becomes completely addicted to the power he wields over him. I didn't want to play him as initially malevolent. He's not the devil. He's you or me feeling jealous and not being able to control our feelings."

Iago only reveals his true nature in his soliloquies, and in occasional asides. Elsewhere, he is charismatic and friendly, and the advice he offers to both Cassio and Othello is superficially sound; as Iago himself remarks:

'And what's he then that says I play the Villain?' (II.iii.303)

It is this dramatic irony that drives the play.

Actors who have played Iago

Other versions of the character

In looser adaptations of Othello, the "Iago" character is typically given a different name, but has been more or less the same as Shakespeare's. Prominent examples include Christopher Eccleston as "Ben Jago" (a corrupt police detective) in a 2002 adaptation set in a London police department, Josh Hartnett as "Hugo" (a steroid-addicted teenager) in 2001's O, which sets the play in a contemporary high school, and Saif Ali Khan as Langda "Tyagi" in Vishal Bharadwaj's Omkara, set in Uttar Pradesh, India.





Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Iago" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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