Iago – character study

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Iago is the villainous character of ‘Othello’ and it is his behaviour that ultimately leads to the downfall of Othello himself, the tragic hero. Iago is duplicitous; to all the characters he is a source of friendship, honesty and knowledge, but in soliloquis he reveals his real self to the audience. It becomes apparent that his machinations are fuelled by anger and a desire for revenge, and he carries them out with an aura of self-belief and resoluteness.
What makes Iago so different from the others is that he is calculating; while Othello operates and hindsight and naivety, Iago is much more perceptive and uses foresight. Although on the exterior Iago projects an image of practicality, rationality and self-confidence, it emerges that his behaviour stems from distraught emotions and feelings of inferiority. Iago’s thoughts and attitudes are clear from the beginning of the play, and they are what drive him on into bringing down Othello. He calls virtue ‘a fig’ and tries to persuade Roderigo that there is little point in being moral.
His first word of the play, in Act I Scene I, of ‘SBlood’ is an indication of the kind of man Iago is. This violent swear is fitting for the rough soldier, however it veils the cunning and cleverness which he possesses. Further proof of his cruel nature is exposed when he is in dialogue with Roderigo, saying “Drown cats and blind puppies… ” It is also during this scene that Iago reveals the dominant reason behind his loathing of the Moor, which is that Cassio, who Iago describes as a ‘bookish theoric’ has been chosen over him as the new lieutenant.

He is angered at the fact that Cassio’s many paper qualifications diminish his extensive field experience, and so divulges to Roderigo that he in fact does not serve Othello, but instead serves himself. This is summed up with his line ‘I am not what I am. ‘ While it seems to the other characters, and indeed to Othello himself, that Iago is devoted to The Moor, really he is engineering Othello’s demise. Also, in this and other scenes of the play, a racist element to Iago, and another reason of his hatred of Othello, is evident.
This is illustrated by his crude line to Brabantio (Desdemona’s Father) of ‘An old black ram is tupping your white ewe. ‘ The ‘black ram’ meaning Othello, and the ‘white ewe’ referring to Desdemona. Iago’s view that he is inferior seems to have been established due to the fact that Othello, who is black, holds a higher ranked position than himself. Another of Iago’s thoughts is visible by his constant use of the words ‘Fill thy purse’ and ‘put money in thy purse’ during his speech to Roderigo in Act I Scene 3. This suggests that Iago believes a life full of money and material possessions is that path to happiness.
He reinforces this when speaking with Othello, stressing the importance of name and reputation by stating, “Good name in man and women, dear my lord, is the immediate jewel of their souls. ‘ He seems to have no desire for love, and treats women with disrespect, calling his own wife, albeit jokingly, a common prostitute. However, women, the audience is lead to believe, are the basis of further motivation for Iago to destroy Othello, as during one of his soliloquis he says he will not be satisfied, “Till I am evened with him [Othello] wife for wife”
There are two distinct sides to Iago’s behaviour throughout the first three acts of the play. Publicly, Iago is a friend to all. To Othello he is the trusted ‘ancient’ and to Roderigo a counsellor and friend. Many of the characters refer to him as ‘Honest Iago’ and when Othello arrives at the scene after Cassio’s drunken episode, it is Iago he trusts to tell him the truth about what happened. All this however, is merely a fai??ade to the real Iago. Only alone, and partially when Roderigo is present, does he begin to act as his real self.
During these times he openly mocks the Moor and Cassio, and make slanderous comments about women. It is during these rare moments of privacy that he reveals his plans for Othello, and the motives behind them. Firstly, A classic example of a trademark Iago scheme takes place in the first scene. Acting upon emotion and anger, Iago devises a well thought out plan, and with trusty sidekick Roderigo, proceeds to Brabantio’s home. There, he drops his defences and to a degree, the real Iago comes alive. They break to Brabantio the news of his daughter’s secret marriage to Othello, and he is enraged, as Iago knew he would be.
However, using forethought and perception that Iago seems to be the only character in the play to be blessed with he departs conspicuously early in order to go to Othello and warn him that Brabantio is after him, and so keep intact the alternate part of his character, the ‘Honest Iago. ‘ In this, like so many of Iago’s other ploys he has initiated the action because of his twisted deep hatred of the Moor and own self-serving nature, but it is Roderigo, who Iago has exploited, who delivers. In addition to Iago’s exploits in Venice, he too drives the action once everyone arrives in Cyprus.
Not surprisingly, the success of his plan hinges upon the ability of Roderigo, whom Iago has convinced that if the Moor is eliminated, he will have another chance with Desdemona, who Roderigo is totally in love with. Roderigo however is not the only one who has allowed themselves to be manipulated by Iago’s eloquence. Cassio too, falls under his spell when he is convinced to have just one more drink. Iago’s ability to persuade and cajole in his subtle, general, almost casual way is one of his most important traits, which he uses to devastating effect on Othello, and leads him in to believing Desdemona is having an affair.
A crucial part in every one of his plans is his own confidence. He carries out his actions with aplomb and when present he is a commanding figure, dominating the stage and speaking with powerful assurance, much like Othello in the first act, when Brabantio insults him and accuses him of witchcraft. To the audience, Iago’s behaviour qualifies him as the villainous character of the play, and his immoral nature is plain to see. He takes advantage of Othello’s trust, and preys on each of the main character’s weaknesses in turn, out of spite and self-interest.
He claims, however he doing this for valid reasons, and through soliloquies begins to break down the barrier between himself and the audience by exposing his inner thoughts, in an attempt to provoke pathos and justify his actions. In addition, Iago’s style of language plays an important role in establishing his character. He has a unique way of speaking, and when he does, it seems he holds the attention of everyone on stage. His speech is so important to the development of the plot in fact, that large parts of scenes are devoted entirely to him in soliloquis.
Throughout the first three acts of the play he speaks with the utmost confidence in himself, and he has the ability to inspire similar confidence in others, or he can use his eloquence to push others, albeit gently, into a state of angst and worry. Firstly, one of the dominant features of Iago’s speech is his constant use of hypocrisy. For example, at the opening of Act I Scene 2 Iago tells Othello how Roderigo … “spoke such scurvy and provoking terms against your honour… ” when really, as the audience knows, it is Iago himself who so often insults the Moor behind his back.
Irony, on the other hand, is not used by Iago himself, but it is present when the others characters of the play refer to him as ‘Honest Iago,’ when really, this could not be further from the truth, as Iago’s whole surface demeanour of respectability and friendship is a lie. A number of Iago’s speech techniques become evident in Act 1 Scene 3, as he counsels the downcast Roderigo, who has been rejected by Desdemona. Throughout his speech, Iago uses a series of imperatives, preying on Roderigo’s weakness of needing to be led. He orders Roderigo, ‘Come, be a man’ and ‘Put money in thy purse. The latter of these two phrases is repeated several times by Iago, as he attempts to instil in Roderigo his own idea that happiness stems from material wealth. Not only is Iago able to speak intelligently and with style, he occasionally lapses into the speech of a hard soldier, being sexist and racist, and playing on Roderigo’s pride and virility. Unlike other characters in the play, Iago is an orator, and is able to use a delicate balance of emotion and reason in his words and, which he pulls of with absolute self-confidence, often with his style driving the argument over substance.
His ability to persuade lies also in the fact that he is never absolutely specific, often speaking in a speculative, indirect style, or using ambiguous metaphors or rhetorical questions. He demonstrates his ability to manipulate and toy with people on two important occasions; the first is when he convinces Roderigo to aid him to bring about the downfall of Othello, and the second is later in the play, at Act 3 Scene 3, when he insinuates to Othello that Cassio and Desdemona are having an affair.
It is Iago’s language that shapes the play and drives the plot of the novel, as he is involved with every strand of it. He has a dominating presence and uses his eloquence to possess influence over every character, from the lowest citizen, to the highest-ranking official. In conclusion, over the first three acts of the play Iago’s character is firmly established and his purpose and motives exposed to the audience. Whilst he keeps up a fai??ade of honesty and trustworthiness in public, in private he confesses to being immoral and self-serving.
He is unique in that he is able to befriend all, and use a blend of emotion and rational calculation to achieve his goals, and simultaneously ruin others lives and careers. He does this without remorse and is propelled seemingly by his own unwavering self-belief, however if also becomes apparent that he is constantly at battle with his own feelings of inferiority, which he smothers by bringing down the lives of others and making them suffer, in the same way that he feels he has had to.

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