"Honest" Iago's Truth through Deception
William Shakespeare’s play, “Othello, the Moor of Venice,” is a masterpiece that displays the innate inner characters of mankind, both good and bad. It demonstrates the dangers of corrupt emotion and poisonous lies, as the villain destroys the lives of nearly everyone to convince Othello that his new bride is being unfaithful. The story reveals each character in their most simple form, by displaying their greatest weakness or vice. The catalyst that reveals to us each character’s truest emotions and qualities is the play’s villain, Iago. The character description at the beginning of the play presents Iago simply as “a villain” (1368). Describing Iago as a mere villain seems almost an understatement as the play progresses, and we gain full insight into Iago’s deceptive and wicked actions. Yet, throughout the story he is most frequently referred to as “honest Iago” by nearly every known character. Despite Iago’s maliciously foul and deceitful actions, he earns his title of “honest Iago” in his ability to portray the other character’s inner personalities through his exploitation of their weaknesses. Through the mechanism of deception, Iago uncovers to the readers: Brabantio’s concealed racism, Cassio’s vanity, and Othello’s insecurity, possessiveness, and jealousy.
At the play’s beginning, Iago incites Roderigo’s assistance in announcing to Desdemona’s father, Brabantio, that she has secretly married Othello. Iago hopes to spur Brabantio’s fury by kindling his racial tendencies, and despite Roderigo being left with the duty of informing Brabantio of the secret marriage, it is Iago that begins provoking the racial tensions. Iago first refers to Othello as “the old black ram” and Desdemona the “white ewe,” (1.1.90-91). This reference to a black ram insinuates correspondence with the devil, as the devil is often depicted as a black ram, as well as blatantly referring to him as the devil later. These implications by Iago later lead Brabantio to accuse Othello of devilry by using “spells and medicines” (1.3.63) to bewitch his daughter, an utter attack on Othello because of his color, as blacks were often associated with witchcraft and devilry at this time. Brabantio twice verbalizes his obvious distaste for blacks, the first being in Scene II when he tells Othello that without spells, Desdemona would never have ran to his “sooty bosom” (1.2.71) when she had already turned down the wealthy white men that had already wooed her. He further attacks Othello for his color when in front of the council, in Scene III, when he refers to Desdemona as “Being not deficient, blind, or lame of sense,” (1.3.65) as part of his arguments that Othello had bewitched Desdemona, inferring that Desdemona was not so unintelligent nor blind, as to have willingly chosen a black husband. But it was Iago that first instrumented the ideas of devilry and racism that caused Brabantio’s racism to come bubbling forth during his defense to the council, without which we may have never seen this side of Brabantio.
Another casualty of Iago’s intuitively keen sense of propensity is Cassio, whose inherent vanity falls prey to Iago’s schemes. His desire for popularity is first revealed when he is convinced by Iago to drink, being goaded into believing that “the gallants desire it” (2.3.32), thus falling victim to his own desires to be well-liked. He is edged to drink more as Iago sings a song of how true soldiers can drink and are therefore real men, and again later, by Montano who swears that he will drink as much as Cassio can. Cassio, as the wine loosens his tongue, later demonstrates that he feels he is better than others because of his rank as lieutenant, stating “For mine own part…I hope to be saved” (2.3.87-88), but belittles Iago, saying “but, by your leave, not before me; the lieutenant is to be saved before the ancient” (90-91). His ego arises again when it is time to leave, and to convince his mates that he was able to drink without getting drunk, he states, “Do not think gentlemen, I am drunk…I can stand well enough, and speak well enough” (92-94). Once stripped of his position as lieutenant, Cassio bemoans not his loss of rank, but more-so his loss of reputation. Repeating and lamenting the loss numerous times and he states “I have lost the immortal part of myself” (2.3.236-237), again demonstrating with his inflated ego that he holds his reputation more important than anything else. Yet it is only through Iago’s manipulations are we shown Cassio’s high regard of himself.
Iago’s most important victim is the principal character and protagonist, Othello. Othello has his own vices that are his weakness, an insecurity because of his race, and a jealous, possessiveness of the things that he has earned despite his race. Amongst the things he has won, is his respect and rank amongst the Venetians which he hopes will resolve him in light of his marriage to Desdemona. Yet when asked to speak regarding their courtship, his insecurity requires him to not stand alone in his trial, but to call for collaboration from his bride. His bride is perhaps his most prized possession that he has won, and he is very possessive of the fact that he has won her. He openly flaunts her, kissing her in public when arriving to Cyprus. But when Iago drops the smallest hint of Desdemona’s infidelity, Othello rapidly grasps the idea and allows it to eat away at his love. Iago begins as simply as saying that Cassio had stolen away “guiltylike” (3.3.41) when they spot him talking to Desdemona, and this was enough to froth Othello’s insecurity and jealousy. As Othello’s insecurity regarding Desdemona’s fidelity grows, it feeds his jealousy and possessiveness of her. Othello’s insecurity in his color makes him question if it is a reason for her stray, saying “for I am black, and have not those soft parts of conversation that chamberers have…she is gone” (3.3.279-83). His possessiveness is demonstrated in the same stanza, “That we can call these delicate creatures ours and not their appetites! I had rather be a toad…than to keep a corner in the thing I love for others’ uses” (285-89). His jealousy incites him to charge Iago with the slaying of Cassio for adultering his wife, and to strangle Desdemona himself that night in bed. Had it not been for Othello’s vices, his insecurity, jealousy, and possessiveness, Iago would have never been able to prey upon his love. If Othello had been able to think clearly, without the tainting of delusive emotions, he may have steered clear of Iago’s fallacious accusations and found truth in Desdemona. However, Iago instrumented Othello’s flaws to his own advantage and thus destroyed Othello’s judgment.
As Iago so brutally manipulated each character to their own demise, he fulfilled his own prophesy during the very first scene, “I am not what I am” (1.1.67). He fools the other characters that injudiciously call him “honest” Iago, but also fools the audience who believe that he is the most dishonest of all villains. Iago fools the audience into believing that he is most certainly not honest, when in truth, he has, through his deceptions, allowed for the truest and most portrayal of each character, including his own.
Shakespeare, William. “Othello, the Moor of Venice.” Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, Drama and Writing. Ed. X. J. Kennedy and Dana Gioia. 10th ed. New York: Longman, 2007. 1368-1468.