Darkest Sins and Heavenly Shows: the Nature of Iago’s Villainy in Shakespear’s Hamlet
William Shakespeare’s Othello is a classic work of tragedy named after its protagonist.It is a compelling piece of literature due to the intentions and subsequent actions of not the noble Moor but of his ensign or ancient.The character of Iago is responsible for the conflict within the story.
He is villain who manipulates the other characters by assessing and exploiting their weaknesses with complete lack of conscience, and he accomplishes this trickery by employing clever use of language.
His methods consist of taking advantage of Roderigo’s feelings towards Desdemona – Othello’s lover – and using the trust that Cassio and Othello have for him against them, and he does it to great effect. As previously stated, Othello is not the only character in this play with feelings for Desdemona. Roderigo is a Venetian gentleman who has long pined for her affections, even going as far to pay Iago to assist him in winning her heart. Unfortunately for Roderigo, Iago does not have his best interests in mind, stating “Thus do I ever make my fool my purse.
For I mine own gained knowledge should profane if I would time expend with such a snipe but for my sport and profit” (1. 3. 382-385). Based on this admission, one must concede that Iago is aiding Roderigo purely to satisfy his own desires. Another display of Iago’s manipulative villainy can be found in Act 2 when he makes Roderigo believe that Cassio would be next in line to win Desdemona’s love if her and Othello were no longer married as he witnessed the two holding each other’s hand (2. 1. 251-252).
He goes on to suggest that Roderigo provoke Cassio in some way (2. 1. 264-268) which results in Cassio’s loss of rank and ultimate disgrace. In essence, this diabolical act stems from Iago’s jealousy toward Cassio. In fact, it could be argued that Iago hates Cassio almost as much as he hates Othello for passing on him and promoting Cassio to the rank of lieutenant (1. 1. 7-32). Cassio trusts Iago, and the scoundrel uses that trust and his reputation as an honest man to cause the good lieutenant to fall from grace.
For instance, Iago pressures Cassio to have another drink while socializing with the other officers, which puts him in a vulnerable state(2. 3. 26-29). A combination of Roderigo’s provocation and Cassio’s uncharacteristic ill temperament leads to the incident which results in the lieutenant’s embarrassment and loss of title. Putting his trust in Iago once again, he accepts the mischief-maker’s advice to speak with Desdemona, hoping that she can sway Othello to change his mind.
This, of course, is part of Iago’s plan to make it appear that the two are having an affair. In a famous line from the text, Iago whispers to the audience “when devils will the blackest sins put on they do suggest with heavenly shows as I do now (2. 3. 346-348). In doing so, he plans to “pour pestilence into his ear” (2. 3. 351). This course of action causes Othello to further doubt not only Cassio but Desdemona as well, helping Iago achieve his principal goal of destroying Othello by ruining his marriage and removing the influence of his true friends.
Lastly and most importantly, Othello is a character who pays more dearly for Iago’s villainous deeds than any other. Being a military man in a strange land, he often feels isolated and insecure, seeking the counsel of Iago, a fellow soldier who he trusts above all others. Othello declares Iago to be very truthful, saying “O brave Iago, honest and just, thou has a noble sense of thy friend’s wrong” (5. 1. 31-33). Meanwhile, Iago relishes the thought of manipulating his superior, declaring “Make the Moor thank me, love me, and reward me for making him egregiously an ass” (2. . 317-320). Iago then continues his plot by influencing Othello to doubt Desdemona’s loyalty by making him believe that his race played a part in her alleged infidelity. He does this by saying “The did deceive her father, marrying you, and when she seemed to shake and fear your looks she loved them most” (3. 3. 207-209). His reference to her face being “begrimed and black” as his own (3. 3. 390-391) suggest that he hates himself somewhat for being black. He also refers to their unnatural marriage as “nature erring from itself” (3. 3. 229).
Iago then replies by saying that she refused other suitors of her “own clime, complexion, and degree”, which is a subtle implication that Othello is not on the same human level as the other Venetian men. This evidence makes the possibility of Desdemona’s infidelity more credible upon the discovery of the handkerchief – the symbol of her fidelity or lack thereof in Othello’s eyes – which solidifies Othello’s belief that his wife has been untrue. To conclude, the nature of Iago’s villainy in Shakespeare’s Othello is that of pure manipulation, brought about by masterful use of wit, language, and “heavenly shows”.
The most remarkable aspect of his villainy was that he was able to accomplish so much without physically having to do anything, using people as pawns to exact his sadistic revenge. He remains defiant until the very end, refusing to explain himself, remarking “Demand me nothing. What you know you know” (5. 2. 300). Although the other characters, and the audience, are flabbergasted by such refusal, it seems like fitting conclusion for such a character, toying with people’s minds and emotions even in the face of death.