Examine the presentation of either Othello, Desdemona or Iago in Act 1 of « Othello ».




There is no doubt in « Othello » as to the role Shakespeare has given Iago, he is the villain, masterful at deceit he generates most evil in the play. The clever soldier, his incredible acting allows him to be two or three completely different people. During most of the Act the audience finds itself constantly trying to find a motive for Iago’s actions but finds none that can justify what he is about to do. What does seem to come back again and again is his view on women which he sees as sex rapacious and a danger to his machiavellian plans.

Scene 1 offers us a good preview as to what Iago is going to do for the rest of the Act and ultimately the rest of the play. Our first view of Iago is of a hard deceitful man who says « Sblood » as opposed to Roderigo’s « Tush!  », we see already his powers of deception as he explains how he is even worse off than Roderigo, his furious language: « A fellow almost damned in a fair wife » manages to convince the intellectual Roderigo who is presented along with Cassio in contrast to Iago. They are polite, educated, fairly wealthy and can not imagine that something as evil and motiveless as Iago exits. Iago has not only lost his promotion but also his hero in Othello. We sense the irony in « We cannot all be masters, nor all masters can be truly followed » and see that what Iago says he will do to Othello he is doing Roderigo, he is manipulating him. He gets a bit carried away in his speech about how he hates the Moor to the extent that some parts are hard to understand:  « Were I the Moor, I would not be Iago » which might mean that if he was the Moor he would not like to be followed by Iago (himself) so that we see that although he might be exaggerating to justify taking more of Roderigo’s money he really hates Othello. We see how he enjoys playing the part of the villain and already wonder why Roderigo can’t see that Iago has insufficient motives to do what he wants to do to Othello, we aren’t sure what he plans to do but can tell that it involves extreme sufferance and maybe death. He also acknowledges here that he is not what he seems to be: « I am not what I am » which strengthens the impression we have had of him so far. He draws Roderigo into his slurring of Othello and they both come up with unpleasant images and expressions dealing with Othello’s blackness:  «What a fortune does the thick-lip owe If he can carry’t thus» and « Plague him flies ». Iago seems to be enjoying himself in the manner of a young child who tries to come up with the nastiest word he can. 

We see how evil Iago is when he goes to wake up Brabantio and we sense that for Iago this is all a game that he takes extreme pleasure from. While Roderigo can only manage a polite:  « What, ho, Brabantio! Signior Brabantio, ho!  » Iago uses animalistic and explicit images of his daughter Desdemona and her new but secret husband Othello: «an old black ram Is tupping your white ewe», « your daughter and the Moor are making the beast with two backs.» and can imagine Brabantio, a respectful and wealthy merchant shuddering at the filth in Iago’s language. Iago manages to convince Brabantio and again it’s the strength of the language that is most useful and effective in his manipulation. Iago then leaves the scene because he does not want Othello to know it is he that is starting this whole affair.

In scene 2 we see Othello and Iago together and clearly Othello is the master in their relationship, Iago admires and respects him and it clearly shows in his speech that is a bit humbling: « I lack iniquity Sometimes to do me service ». We see another part of Iago and he seems completely transformed from his usual self if what we saw before is his real self. We can sense how ironic he is when he says: «he prated, And spoke such scurvy and provoking terms against your honour » being that it was him that said such insulting words. Here the audience tries to find motives for Iago hating Othello who seems a nice enough person. Does Iago have an inferiority complex, it does seem possible, however it seems more like he feels betrayed by Othello who after years of campaigning together choses another man as his lieutenant and does what seems to Iago as the ultimate insult by marrying a woman who he really cares for and loves, the disgust Iago feels because Othello’s looked for companionship elsewhere than the army is in a way typical of a soldier as is his language and some of his actions. However there is also the element of evil in Iago’s choice to punish Othello and we have already see his ruthlessness at work when he wakes up Brabantio. He is like an actor too caught up in his work who ultimately comes to believe that he is all his characters at the same time, however Iago is more in control of his characters and can be described in a way as a chameleon who can be any number of people without any normal person being able to recognize him through his parts. The sheer pleasure Iago gets from turning people against each other and causing pain and sufferance is a sign of motiveless evil as Coleridge once put it: «The motive hunting of a motiveless malignancy».

We next see Iago at the end of scene iii, he is talking to Roderigo and it is hard to see how Roderigo can not sense the mocking and sarcasm in Iago’s words. Roderigo’s passion is presented in contrast with Iago’s cool cynicism, while Roderigo wants to drown himself Iago is already thinking of a plan to do away with the Moor and Desdemona. It is hard to understand why Roderigo or for that matter Othello cann’t see Iago’s evil which is so apparent to the reader. Here he expresses his extreme dislike for Desdemona: « guinea hen » and for women in general. He talks about how one should not be as bound to passion as Roderigo is and how one must be able to calm our desire for the sex rapacious women: «we have reason to cool our raging motions, our carnal stings or unbitted lusts », he also says love does not exist: « I take this that you call love to be a sect or scion » and women are only for pleasure. Iago’s world is the world of the army, where the fittest survives and passions only get in the way. Again his language is for the time incredibly foul and filled with animal images of death and sex: « The food that to him is as luscious as locusts shall be to him shortly as bitter as coloquitida », however we do wonder whether he is exaggerating to force Roderigo to give him money so that he can pursue his machiavellian plans. Again Roderigo’s own motives for revenge blind him and he says: « I will sell all my land ». Then for the first time we see the real Iago for he is at last alone. We see what he really thinks of Roderigo: «Thus do I ever make my fool my purse » and as he tries to find a motive for hating and destroying the Moor after the council has pronounced that he did not use black magic to attract Desdemona our view of him as the villain is strengthened even further. We see his evil mind stir as he tries to find a plan for a « double knavery ». His opportunistic side is revealed here as he imagines a way of persuading Othello that his wife has been cheating on him with Cassio, the man who Othello chose over him. Shakespeare ends the scene very dramatically with «  I have’t! It is engendered! Hell and night Must bring this monstrous birth to the world’s light ». The whole line has an evil feel to it and symbolizes Iago’s evil.

Iago has been viewed by countless people as the original villain in literature, his powers of deception and manipulation which bring him to act with as only motive pain and sufferance have branded him as purely evil in nature. Iago is the definition of evil ion the play .What this act does is prepare us for the rest of the play which we know will turn out to be a tragedy as Iago’s « monstrous birth » unwinds.


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