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To what extent is Iago responsible for the downfall of other characters in Othello?

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English Literature Coursework- Othello

“To what extent is Iago responsible for the downfall of other characters in Othello?”

The Shakespearean character Iago is the trusted friend and advisor of the General Othello, who plots the downfall of several characters within the play, due to a number of reasons including jealousy and a search for revenge.

        The play begins in Venice, one of the most culturally and economically developed cities of its time, although the majority of the story is set in Cyprus. It is important to realise that during the time of the plays creation, matters that are seen as unacceptable nowadays such as racism or sexism were common during this period. Venice was very much a white-male dominated society.

        In this essay I will be discussing how Iago manages to ensure the demise of a number of different characters in Othello, his possible reasons for doing so, and exactly how much of his plot is successful as a result of his scheming and how much is down to chance.

        One of the main characters Iago manipulates throughout the entire play is Roderigo, a man jealous of Othello because of his marriage to Desdemona. Iago manages to influence Roderigo mainly by his use of language, something that he does with other characters as well. Act 1 Scene 1 begins abruptly with an ongoing argument between Roderigo and Iago. This sudden start to the play is something Shakespeare often used, as it would let the Elizabethan audiences know the play had begun.

        From the opening scene, the audience become aware of Iago’s manipulative nature, mainly because of his comments to Roderigo about other characters, and his first soliloquy. His deviousness shows through when he says “ I follow [Othello] to serve my turn upon him” [I i 42], and he even goes as far to admit to us; “ I am not what I am” [I i 66]. Already, so early in the play, we can acknowledge Iago’s scheming personality, and his soliloquy, a device used by Shakespeare in order to emphasise just how deceitful his main character is, only helps to highlight this.

        Interestingly, he is the only character able to switch between prose and verse, something that he constantly uses to his advantage, particularly when he deceives Roderigo.  Traditionally, in most Shakespearean plays, prose is spoken by low status or comic characters, whereas verse is used by upper-class characters. However, Shakespeare has chosen to alter this in the case of Iago, which also helps to reflect his manipulative nature, as he is able to speak in both ways in order to use different people according to their characters. He talks in prose mainly when speaking to characters individually, which enables them to be taken into his confidence. Prose can be considered to be a more informal way of talking; therefore Iago uses this in order to guarantee that Roderigo (and others) trust him. Iago knows that once he has gained Roderigo’s trust, he will be able to control him to some extent, using him in order to make his plans work.

        Iago’s use of repetition in his language is also a key feature in his manipulation of Roderigo. During Act 1 Scene 3, when Iago is attempting to convince Roderigo that Desdemona will soon tire of Othello, he frequently uses the phrase “put money in thy purse” ( I iii 330). In total he talks about money in his short speech eight times, most likely in order to make his message quite clear. Here he has used his language to manipulate Roderigo into putting money in his purse, which, as we learn later in Iago’s soliloquy, is for his own financial benefit. He also wants to ensure that Roderigo travels to Cyprus with the Army, because Iago needs him in order to carry out his plan for Cassio and Othello’s downfall.

        When ‘controlling’ Roderigo, Iago uses his knowledge of his weaknesses, in this case his love for Desdemona, in order to get what he wants. As he plots the downfall of many of the characters including Othello and Cassio, he lies to Roderigo telling him that Desdemona will soon tire of “the moor” and that he should go to Cyprus in order to be there when it happens. Here he has played on Roderigo’s love for Desdemona and managed to ensure that he travels to Cyprus. For Iago, Roderigo’s presence there is vital as he unknowingly becomes a puppet in Iago’s game, carrying out deeds Iago himself is unwilling to.

        Iago’s quick thinking and persuasive techniques are essential in not only his manipulation of Roderigo, but of almost every other character in the play as well. He manages to convince Roderigo to provoke Cassio into a fight when he is drunk; something Roderigo was reluctant to do beforehand. He starts by painting a negative picture of Cassio; “ a slipper and subtle knave, a finder out of occasions … a devilish knave” [II i 229-230]. He then goes on to tell Roderigo that Desdemona “hath found him already” [II i 234]. This, as Iago knows, evokes hatred and jealousy towards Cassio in Roderigo, although he is still hesitant about initiating a brawl with him. It is only when Iago says, “so shall you have a shorter journey to your desires by the means I shall have to prefer them” [II i 259-260], that Roderigo is convinced that getting rid of Cassio as lieutenant is the best thing to do. Once again, Iago has used a combination of persuasion and playing on weaknesses to influence Roderigo.

        The element of chance does not play much of a role on the downfall of Roderigo. It could be argued that the fact that Desdemona ends up going to Cyprus with her new husband is a part of fate that plays right into Iago’s hands. Without Desdemona in Cyprus, there would be no need for Roderigo and he plays a major role in Iago’s entire plot. Therefore, in this case, a large part of Roderigo’s downfall is a direct result of Iago’s manipulation, particularly through his use of language.  

        Iago’s manipulation of Cassio is quite similar to that of Roderigo, in the fact that language plays a major role. Firstly, Iago attempts to take Cassio into his confidence by his use of “men’s talk,” in other words, the way in which he speaks of Desdemona. His language has both sexual connotations and is degrading, saying she is “full of game” [II iii 18], and is “sport for Jove” [ II iii 16]. This contrasts Cassio’s language completely, who speaks highly of Desdemona calling her a “most exquisite lady” [II iii 17]. Iago’s informal conversation is an attempt to create some sort of bond between them; no matter how false it is in Iago’s eyes, so that Cassio will become more trusting of him. He also tries to convince Cassio to drink some wine, knowing he has a poor head for alcohol. He does this by repeating that the soldiers would like to relax and that they deserve it, insisting that Cassio join the celebrations. It is human nature that if someone insists and wants us to do something, we almost always give in and agree. Iago, a master of how the human mind functions, realises this and so insists that Cassio have a drink, which he eventually does, leading to his demotion from Lieutenant.

        After the drunken fight between the soldiers in Cyprus, when Othello questions the men in order to reveal what happened, another of Iago’s manipulative techniques come to light. Othello demands that Iago truthfully tell him how the fight started and what happened. Instead of choosing the more obvious route i.e. directly blaming Cassio so that it’s guaranteed he will lose his position as Lieutenant, he opts for the more subtle approach. He blames Cassio for starting the brawl; “it should do offense to Michael Cassio” [II iii 202-203], but then goes on to defend his actions:

But men are men; the best sometimes forget…

Yet surely Cassio, I believe, received from him that fled some strange indignity

Which patience could not pass. [II iii 222-228]

By doing so, Iago now has not only managed to appear far to honest and kind in Othello’s eyes, (his response being that Iago is simply toning down the extent of Cassio’s unprofessional behaviour) but he has also managed to obtain an incredible amount of trust in one of the men he seeks to destroy, Cassio. His brilliant use of language, knowledge of human nature and quick thinking has ensured Cassio’s trust and belief that he is indeed an honest man.

        After succeeding in securing Cassio’s trust, Iago then goes about putting the next phase of his plan into action. In order to bring about the downfall of Othello, he must ensure Cassio and Desdemona spend an increasing amount of time together. Soon after the fight, he offers what would be considered very useful advice, if we the audience weren’t aware of Iago’s true intentions. He tells Cassio that in order to regain his title and reputation, he must speak to Desdemona, because she is the only one who can change Othello’s mind. Iago knows that when Cassio follows this advice, interactions between Desdemona and Cassio will be visible for all to see, most importantly Othello.

        Here, Iago’s skill with words and knowledge of his “victim,” in this case Cassio, are how he manipulates him. The fact that he starts by asking “are you hurt Lieutenant?” [II iii 239] shows concern, however false we know it to be, once again increasing Cassio’s trust in him. He also asks Cassio who it was the provoked him into such a quarrel, which is Iago’s sly way of guaranteeing that Roderigo won’t be implicated. His use of flattery, something he also uses with Roderigo, helps to influence Cassio further, saying he is “too severe a moraller” and so on. Once again, by his use of language in particular, Iago has managed to complete another part of his plan, and even though these interactions serve more to ensure the downfall of Othello, they do play a role in Cassio’s downfall as well. His “death warrant” by Othello would never have been granted if he hadn’t been suspected of the affair with Desdemona.

        These two conversations between Iago and Cassio are the only main interactions between these two characters. Although Iago does play a role in his downfall, the manipulation of other characters such as Othello, Roderigo and even Emilia to some extent due to her involvement in the handkerchief incident), is what eventually brings about Cassio’s near murder, and of course the element of chance plays a much more significant role that in Roderigo’s case.

        It can be argued that perhaps Iago’s plan would not have been so successful if it weren’t for the fact that Cassio was not a good drinker. His drunken brawl leads to his demotion and eventually an increased amount of time spent with Desdemona, which in turn intensifies Othello’s suspicions and jealousy. Therefore we have to wonder how well his plan would have worked without the ‘intervention’ of fate. The fact that Desdemona and Cassio get on so well together could be another factor in the assistance of Iago’s plot, and perhaps even the fact that she ended up in Cyprus, just as in the case of Roderigo. Hence it is difficult to say whether Iago or chance was most responsible for Cassio’s downfall. Iago’s manipulation definitely plays a major role but would it have worked so well without these particular elements of chance aiding Iago?

        Finally, the manipulation resulting in the downfall of Othello is slightly different to that of the previous two characters mentioned, due to the fact that he is Iago’s “primary victim,” and that the interactions between these two are more frequent.

        The first major difference in Iago’s manipulation of Othello, compared to the other two, is his large use of imagery in his language. Particularly his imagery associated with subjects Othello can relate to such as newlywed couples. When defending Cassio after the drunken fight, as well as attempting to gain the Lieutenants trust, Iago is also trying to take Othello into his confidence, and does so by his use of imagery. When Othello asks who initiated the quarrel, Iago is quick to respond by saying; “ I do not know…in quarter and in terms like bride and groom” [II iii 160-161], knowing that this kind of language is going to go down well with Othello.

As well as using imagery to appeal to Othello, Iago also uses it to intimidate him. According to (sparknotes.com?):

Desperate to cling to the security of his former identity as a soldier while his current identity as a lover crumbles, Othello begins to confuse the one with the other. His expression of his jealousy quickly devolves from the conventional—“Farewell the tranquil mind”—to the absurd:

Farewell the plum’d troops and the big wars
That make ambition virtue! O, farewell,
Farewell the neighing steed and the shrill trump,
The spirit-stirring drum, th’ear piercing fife,
The royal banner, and all quality,
Pride, pomp, and circumstance of glorious war!”
         (III.iii.353–359)

In order to heighten Othello’s feelings of insecurity, Iago chooses to use lots of imagery connected to black and white, perhaps with the intention of emphasising the fact that Othello isn’t socially accepted by the Venetian people because of his race, and his marriage to a white Venetian woman has done nothing to help this. Therefore Iago says things such as “she did deceive her father marrying you/ and when she seemed to shake and fear your looks/ she loved them most” [III iii 206-208], pointing out Othello’s differences with the rest of the society he lives in. As the play progresses, we can see that this use of imagery clearly has an effect on Othello, who at the beginning, didn’t comment on his race but who now resorts to saying things such as; “[Desdemona’s] name…is now as begrimed and black/ as mine own face” [III iii 388-389]. Therefore Iago has used imagery in two ways to manipulate Othello; to give him something to relate to, making the image more clear and vivid in his head, and also as a “weapon” against him, to make him feel insecure and isolated from the people around him.

        Iago’s language once again is a major factor in the downfall of the plays protagonist. Instead of telling Othello what he thinks, and what Othello should think about the possible affair between his wife and Cassio, he resorts to dropping hints occasionally, and refusing to elaborate on them. Near the middle of the play, as Cassio and Desdemona having been talking, Cassio hastily leaves when he sees Othello and Iago appear, Iago quickly but subtly says “Ha! I like not that” [III ii 34]. Othello asks him to say more but he refuses to do so. Here Iago is clearly shaping the way he wants his General to think, planting ideas in his head, but letting him develop them. He does this throughout the play, allowing Othello to form his own conclusion, with a little help from Iago.

        It is interesting to see the breakdown in Othello’s language towards the end of the play, as a result of Iago’s control. He was extremely well spoken at the beginning, but jealousy and hatred, along with the influence of Iago, have managed to alter his language into sexist, negative and sometimes incomprehensible. Shakespeare has chosen to do this in order to highlight how much Iago has managed to manipulate Othello, and how jealous he has become as a result.

        Probably the most obvious form of manipulation from Iago is the plan involving the handkerchief, in which Iago persuades his wife, Emilia to steal Desdemona’s handkerchief (which was a gift from Othello) which he later plants on Cassio. This is done in order to give Othello some sort of “ocular proof” that an affair between his wife and his Lieutenant is real. Even though Othello isn’t really manipulated directly by Iago in this plot, or it isn’t the main reason for his downfall, he is the character who Iago attempts to hurt the most as a result. Othello, Desdemona, Cassio, Bianca to some extent and Emilia are all manipulated by Iago in this plan. Iago “plants the seed” in Othello’s mind about the possibility that Desdemona gave her handkerchief to Cassio, then proceeds to give him some sort of proof that it is true. Othello thinks he overhears Cassio talking to Iago about his relationship with Desdemona, when in fact he is speaking of Bianca. Iago obviously knows this and he intended that Othello would misunderstand. As a result, Cassio’s death is ordered, and Othello vows to murder Desdemona. Therefore, it could be said that Cassio and Desdemona’s downfall are caused by the handkerchief, but Othello’s actual death/downfall doesn’t come later, until he realises that his wife was innocent.

        Chance also plays a major role in Othello’s downfall, one of the main factors being that he is far too trusting in nature. He often calls Iago “honest” and can only see the good in people. Perhaps this is his classic Shakespearean “tragic flaw.” He is also an extremely jealous and incredibly insecure character, and Iago only helps to reinforce these feelings. He jumps to conclusions far too easily which Iago uses to his advantage. At one point, after Iago has first pointed out that he should “look to [his] wife, observe her well with Cassio” [III iii 199], Othello then becomes so affected by this that he actually starts having doubts about his marriage. Another element of fate that plays a role in his downfall is the very myth of the handkerchief, this being that Othello’s mother had received it from the Sybil who said that it should be given as a love token, and if it were ever lost or given to someone else, the love would be “broken.” Othello believes the handkerchief to be magical, and so the thought that Desdemona has given it to someone else is awful in his mind. It could be argued that if the handkerchief did not have such a history, perhaps the whole plot involving it would be ineffective because of a lack of value to Othello. This is again another part of chance that played nicely into Iago’s hands.

        In conclusion, both Iago and chance play major roles in the downfall of several characters within the play, some more than others. Iago is almost entirely responsible for the demise of Roderigo, whereas chance plays roughly an equal role in the fall of Cassio and Othello. Elements of fate and Iago’s plotting work hand in hand, and without chance it is questionable whether the entire conspiracy would have worked at all. However, it can also be suggested that, to what extent did Othello bring about his own downfall? His character contains more than one tragic flaw, something that was commonly found in most if not all of Shakespeare’s main characters in his tragedies. His trusting nature combined with his jealous, self-doubting personality no doubt played a key role in his downfall, and it could be disputed that Iago merely encouraged this. Nonetheless, in my opinion Iago and chance play quite an equal role in the fall of these characters.

Word Count- 3207

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