Explore the presentation of Iago in Shakespeare's Othello.

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Explore the presentation of Iago in Shakespeare’s Othello.

“O damned Iago! Oh inhuman dog!”

Iago is one of the most central and many-layered of Shakespeare’s villains, though he is also the subject of some controversy. Has Shakespeare created a “motiveless malignity,” as Coleridge suggested (Shakespearean Criticism, 1960), or is Iago deeper and more destructively sharp and vindictive? Shakespeare presents a deep-rooted paradox within Iago – his single-minded conviction and confidence alongside an uncertainty of motive. Iago’s importance and his role as Othello’s ‘poisoner’ is perhaps the first thing to consider. Is he simply a catalyst, aiding the inevitable, or does he deliberately orchestrate Othello’s end on his own? The duality of Iago is also a vital device used by Shakespeare to illustrate his character – Iago is such a gifted actor that no other character even has the opportunity to suspect that he is dishonest. The juxtapositioning of honesty and lies, good and evil, jealousy and trust, are also key techniques employed by Shakespeare to demonstrate Iago’s power. The depth of both Shakespeare’s and Iago’s language and use of imagery and extended metaphor is also suggestive of how layered the character is. It is difficult, perhaps impossible, to fathom Shakespeare’s original intentions for Iago. What must be noted is how different he is from the character in the tale by Cinthio from which Othello was drawn. The ‘Ensign’ is given a name and much more subtlety than in the original story. The motives and reasoning behind Iago’s actions are also key to the movement of the plot. His role as a many-faceted representation of the evils in humanity makes him a fascinating device vital to the sense of tragedy and inevitability that surrounds the play.

The importance of Iago is something that must first be examined when considering his character. All of Shakespeare’s characters are constructs, but there is some question as to what Iago’s role actually is, and how important he is to the storyline. It has been suggested that Iago merely induces what would have happened to Othello anyway. Brabantio’s ominous words in I.3 are a herald to what may come, and have nothing whatsoever to do with Iago. He warns Othello that Desdemona ‘has deceived her father, and may you’. Perhaps it was such comments that drove Othello to his demise, and would have done so even in Iago’s absence. However, Shakespeare’s emphasis on Iago and the thick irony surrounding him suggest that he is much more that just a catalyst. Several times in the first act he is called ‘honest Iago’, and then referred to by Othello as ‘a man…of honesty and trust’ (I.3). This use of dramatic irony draws attention to the character, as the audience already know that Iago harbours a strong hatred for Othello. Emphasis is placed on this by way of Iago’s soliloquies. He is the only character to have several asides, which is unusual as it is usually the central character that requires these. They are necessary in Iago’s case because the audience needs an insight into the workings of Iago’s mind. Shakespeare could be showing Iago’s vital role – if it were not for his complete skills in deceiving the other characters, Othello would not believe that his wife could be adulterous. Iago himself says that because Othello trusts him so well, ‘the better shall [his] purpose work on him.’ He also says that the ‘Moor is of a free and open nature’, suggesting that without Iago, Othello would have no reason to doubt Desdemona’s faithfulness as he takes things at face value. Iago’s relationship with Roderigo must also be noted. Roderigo clearly would not have attempted to pursue Desdemona without Iago suggesting this. However, whether this is the case with Othello is under some doubt. Iago’s importance largely depends on the audience’s perception of Othello. If the audience sympathises with the Moor and believes him to have been cruelly deceived through no fault of his own, then Iago is clearly to blame for his downfall. If, however, the audience believes that Othello’s undoubted faith in Iago is foolish, then they might choose to think that it was Othello’s character flaw, not Iago’s deception, which is at fault.

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The duality of Iago’s character is what makes Othello’s downfall possible and all the more poignant. He is a complete deceiver – an actor who manipulates everyone around him entirely so that the truth is hidden beneath many layers of different lies. Even the audience, who have a particularly close relationship with Iago through his soliloquies, may be unsure as to exactly what the truth is and what simply suits Iago at the moment he says it. His obscurity and rapidly changing façades mean that Iago’s ‘real self’ is difficult to discern. The fact that no one even suspects ...

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This is an extremely strong essay that shows impeccable analytical skills and a very thorough understanding of the play, the characters and the effects that are created by various techniques employed by Shakespeare. Points are well explored and supported with textual evidence and the essay is well structured and fluent. 5 Stars