Many literary critics, from A.C. Bradley to Harold Bloom, have focused their discussions of Shakespeare's "Othello" not around the title character but around his trusted ensign, "Honest Iago." Iago is Shakespeare's most aloof character; he is also the Bard's most consummate nihilist. When Othello confronts him in the final scene and asks him to account for his conduct, Iago replies cryptically: "Demand me nothing: what you know, you know: From this time forth I never will speak word."
Little is known of Iago's immediate past. He has apparently served under Othello in many wars, and Othello, among others, admires him for his abilities as a battle tactician. Othello's decision, apparently made just before the play begins, to promote Michael Cassio to the rank of lieutenant angers Iago greatly. Iago is married to a woman named Emilia, who serves Desdemona. Iago claims that Emilia has had sexual relations with Othello, but many critics are skeptical; nearly all suggest that this is unlikely, and some doubt that Iago even believes his own assertion.
Iago plans and executes two schemes over the course of the play. First, he ensures that Othello demotes his rival Michael Cassio. He knows that Cassio cannot hold alcohol and tricks him into getting drunk and joining a public brawl, forcing Othello to take away his newly acquired lieutenant's rank. With his second scheme, he destroys Othello's marriage to Desdemona. He persuades Othello that Cassio is sleeping with Desdemona. He convinces Emilia to steal one of Desdemona's handkerchiefs and tells Othello that he has seen Cassio with the item. He then asks Othello to listen to a conversation Cassio has about his mistress Bianca. Othello thinks that Cassio is describing his conduct with Desdemona, and he asks Iago to kill Cassio, promising him the coveted role of lieutenant. Instead of killing Cassio himself, Iago convinces the foolish Roderigo to duel Cassio. During the course of the duel, Iago himself kills Rodergio, who in turn manages only to wound Cassio. Meanwhile, Othello murders Desdemona just before he discovers Iago's treachery.
Many critics consider Iago Shakespeare's most ruthless villain. Other Shakespearean villains topple entire kingdoms, killing far more people in the process -- but no one ever suspects that Iago could be capable of such treachery. This is because, unlike Don John and Edmund or the hunch-backed Richard III, everyone trusts and admires him. Characters refer to him throughout the play as "Honest Iago." Othello believes that Desdemona and Cassio are lying to him, but he assumes that Iago is telling the truth. 19th century critic A.C. Bradley wrote that "evil has nowhere else been portrayed with such mastery as in the evil character of Iago."
Shakespeare borrowed the plot of "Othello" from a 1565 story called "The Moorish Captain" by the Italian author Cinthio. In the original story, Iago lusts after Desdemona; this element is entirely absent from Shakespeare's play. While the reader can persuade himself that he understands Iago taking vengeance against Cassio, he finds little motivation for such drastic action against his employer and friend Othello. Iago's assertion that his captain has made sexual advances toward Emilia appears entirely unfounded. Iago's motivation for destroying the life of the noble Moor of Venice are as much a mystery to those around him as they are to Shakespeare's audience. Samuel Taylor Coleridge called Iago a "motiveless malignity."
- "Othello (Norton Critical Editions)"; William Shakespeare and Edward Pechter (ed.); 2003
- "Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human"; Harold Bloom; 1999
- "Shakespearean Tragedy: Lectures on Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth"; A. C. Bradley; 2009
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