Shakespeare’s Antagonists and “Honest” IagoJames L. Gillis IVDuring this most recent semester we, as a class, have waded through a sufficient sampling of works by the good bard. During this experience, a plethora of characters have successfully held the spotlight, evoked aspects of the nature of man, and twisted the extremes of human emotions into knots. By retreating to ponder these noble souls and most horrid villains, one immediately recognizes a character worthy of more close examination is the dastardly and enigmatic puppeteer culpable for the tragic finale of Othello.
Iago, or more ironically, “honest Iago,” as he is called, is complex role to be considered for two principal reasons. Primarily, because the depth of his character is somewhat endless, but also because when we contrast him with other main antagonists throughout other Shakespearean efforts, some interesting insights can be revealed. Stemming from said contrasts involving Iago, we immediately begin to shift our thoughts to the apparent differences between antagonists within the Shakespeare.
This brings us to the pressing issue of do we consider Iago to be the most complete antagonist? Is he the bard’s most complete depraved creation, or just an assemblage, or mosaic of previous more one-sided evil doers?When beginning to flesh out the skeleton of Iago’s character, it must be first understood that he is not the admitted and obvious opponent of the tragic hero. Iago is a hidden antagonist, or rather he disguises his intentions within the actions or deeds others. He manipulates and “plays” other characters (pardon the pun) showing the reader that he values others as if they were tools available to be used for achieving his own ends, or pawns in a game centered around himself. Iago is beyond the simple representation of the evil foe, for he states that Cassio’s “daily beauty in lifemakes me ugly,” and that it is greatly painful for him to have to suffer the “constant, noble, loving nature” of Othello.
Considering the significance of these statements, we find that not only is he somewhat Machiavellian in his role, but also, he has intense hatred complementing that dubious asset. The first point where textual evidence reveals extent of his depth is where Iago confronts the audience and actually illuminates his position by saying, “I am not what I am.” (1,1,65) This really, is direct insight into his intent or character, and uniquely enough, he shows the audience his committed to proving that. Another interaction equally as revealing is found indirectly following Rodrigo inquiry about why he continues to follow Othello after having been passed up for promotion in favor of young Cassio. Why follow a leader which spurned him and disgraced him so? Iago’s reply to the question is that “I follow himOthello to serve my turn upon him.”(1,1,39) This is ambiguous enough as it is leaving room for interpretation, but later, he elaborates even more openly saying that, “In following him, I follow but myself.
“It is curious that Iago has such straightforward interactions with the audience, for this is the polar opposite to his dealings with the characters of the play. It almost seems as if he does this to assert his role as a central character and foreshadow the coming events. Although reading these obvious types of statements points us in the right direction, it is still questionable whether Iago will be direct or shrouded and malevolent in his imminent conflict with Othello. The first example beyond mere words of his indirect underhandedness comes when we see him convince Rodrigo both to go to Cyprus, and to pay him under the guise that it will assist in winning favor with the innocent Desdemona. To digress, Desdemona, herself, carries certain significance as well as we find her as an angelic figure ushering in a religious angle. Othello must make his choice is between the faultless Desdemona (angel) and the sadistic Iago (Satan).Concerning the swindling of Rodrigo’s finances, we find Iago even gloating in his when he remarks, “Thus do I ever make a fool my purse.
” However, reality be known of course that Rodrigo has no hope of success with Desdemona, for Iago intends to do nothing for the sums of riches given him for furthering said cause. The situation worsens for Rodrigo because he is further exploited beyond the simple money contributions at the end of first scene in the second act by convincing Rodrigo that an enthusiastic greeting is creditable evidence to support the inference that there are carnal relations/canoodleing happening between Cassio and Desdemona. It is but pure manipulation here as Iago has now tuned Rodrigo against Cassio in hope of removing the lieutenant from what he considers to be his deserved position.Also, at the end of the third scene, the more acute revenge on Cassio is set into motion when Iago insinuates to Othello that the lieutenant “.
is too familiar with his wife.”(1,3,402) The adultery theme pops again up a little further down the road, as we find that Iago is suspect of Othello as well(this is one of his many motives). Rodrigo’s subservience is demonstrated most clearly during the deposition of Cassio as he agrees to help discredit the officer by provoking him into fighting during in Act II scene three.
Casio leaves the scene after drinking excessively, and soon returns close on Rodrigo’s heels clearly involved in some dispute. Othello arrives shortly after the singular clash between Rodrigo and Cassio has turned into a fracas involving the other soldiers as well. While in the public eye, Iago makes it seem as though he doesn’t want to discredit Cassio, but his insinuations and wording lead Othello to demoting the Lieutenant. Switching gears once again upon Othello’s Departure, Iago acts kindly to Cassio sending him on the mission of confronting Desdemona for assistance with his reinstatement. The words “Our general’s wife is now the generalconfess yourself freely to her, importune her; she’ll help to put you in your place,” justify this action to Cassio. (2,3,322-27) Cassio departs, and Iago and Rodrigo’s saga continue as he convinces him to stay in Cyprus.
It is almost as if he has finished with Rodrigo, and is just tying up possible loose ends. As Act 3 eventually rolls around, we see the new task at hand and assuredly the most insightful look at Iago’s internal workings. As if perfectly engineered, the scene begins with Iago and Othello observing a meeting between Cassio and Desdemona, and ends with Cassio leaving upon Othello’s arrival (not before the seed of adultery idea has been confirmed or rather metaphorically fertilized). Iago covers his tracks well here by trying to excuse the situation as if it were his fault(as it ironically is).
The says, “As I confess, it is my nature’s plague/ to spy into abuses, and oft my jealousy/Shapes faults that are not.” (3,3,146-48) Othello, after contemplating this, orders him into the Lieutenant position charged with the duty of killing Cassio. In his manipulative measures, we can see Iago’s intentions unfold as he mentions a “vile success,” which is apparently his ultimate aim.As one might expect, having attained his rightful position and deposed Cassio through no expenditure of his own, such an antagonist is not satisfied.
The revenge on Othello, essentially through the use and disadvantage of all characters now begins to become the primary objective. Act IV is really the downfall of the entire roster or established order where Othello’s strangulation Desdemona for her assumed unfaithful behavior is the cornerstone(As “proven” by the handkerchief). Another crucial element is that it is Iago’s wife (who acted unknowingly as his accomplice) who ends up revealing him.
We from Act 1,3, 405-40 hear Iago state that Othello’s infirmity was “of a free and open nature,/ That thinks men honest that but seem to be so,/And will as tenderly be lead by the nose/ As asses are,” but we are not yet clear what lies behind the characters aggressive attempt at creating disorder.Really, as seen in these excerpts and brief recanting of the play, the principle force behind Iago can be relegated to four separate motives: (1)revenge, (2)to get his rightful position, (3)achieving chaos(disrupting order), and (4)the perceived lack of his wife’s chastity. These motives are complex, but do not offer a complete rationale for explaining why all of this has gone on. To summarize Iago adequately, we must see a Machiavellian artist of deception, the slew of motivating factors, the high level of commitment, and an overdeveloped, (near irrational) sense of vengeance.
As the full breadth of his character comes into almost plain view, the question arises of how do these traits compare with other would be “Iago’s” throughout the other Shakespearean works of this semester? The most parallel examples are existent in Anthony & Cleopatra, King Lear and Merchant of Venice.Continuing on with the Machiavellian manipulation theme, another familiar character immediately comes to mind, the sensual queen, Cleopatra, for she, in her own right, is intriguing in a very enigmatic way. The true element of Cleopatra making her significant is that behind the guile and manipulative measures, there is no perceptible rationally akin to the overwhelming list which we are able to allocate for Iago.
Such Manipulation is found explicitly (1,3,3-6) when we hear Cleopatra giving instructions that “If you find him sad, / Say I am dancing; if in mirth, report/ That I am sudden sick.” This lack of definitive reason behind her almost thwarting actions creates suspense, and uncertainty, but is not wholly believable(it actually scares Chairman). In some ways, without any motives for vengeance or means to achieve and end, we begin to assume that she is just playing a dangerous and somewhat childish game with Anthony aimed at maintaining control over him or his love. Supporting evidence for the “childish game” motive is found in Cleopatra’s interactions with Thidias, a messenger. In this exchange, Cleopatra is given a message that basically asks her to abandon Anthony and “put yourself under his Caesar’s shroud,” but ignoring this message, she proceeds to amuse herself by flirting with Thidias over his request: “Give me grace to lay/ My duty on your hand.
“(3,13,60-80) Thidias ends up getting whipped for this action as direct result of Cleopatra’s toying with him (this also serves to enrage Anthony). Is her intention to similarly toy with her Anthony and add him to her trophy wall(or perhaps a notch on the bedpost), to stand alongside her list of accomplishments including the previous Caesar and Pompey?We find her lending credibility to this though in her own words as she says, “The breaking of so great a thing should make/ A greater crack.” This makes one think that she has been waiting for that “crack,” (which we interpret as the breaking of Anthony) as if it is something she has much been trying to achieve.An asset she possesses beyond that of Iago is that she has the advantage of being an “Egyptian dish,” or more specifically a powerful alluring woman in a male dominated society. Even Enobarbus attests to her womanly advantages saying that she is certainly “a wonderful piece of work.
” (1,2,155) Reverting to the basic comparison between Iago and Cleopatra, still dividing the two characters aside from the male/female issues is that we cannot begin to definitely classify Cleopatra’s status or intentions. At no time is there any open interaction with the audience which states such open reasoning for her actions. The ending of the play also holds great significance as well to assessing her character, for unlike Othello and Desdemona, Anthony and Cleopatra are seemingly left united in death. This also undermines the status of Cleopatra as a wholly evil force, for she is unlike silent Iago, not having caused the end for all without a shred of victory for the protagonist (aside from his malevolence being revealed).
Shifting the paradigm entirely, we move to the Merchant of Venice turning our attentions to the Jew, Shylock, and the intricacies of his role. Shylock, who is an outsider and an essentially a foreign presence in Venice, must deal with some of the race discrimination issues in much the same way as Othello is an outsider being a Moor. There is not an equivalent parallel to Iago in this area, and because of that we begin to see Shylock as somewhat divergent from the Iago representation. Furthermore, Shylock is not a manipulator in the same genre as Iago or Cleopatra either, and thus he pursues his justice not through his own concocted devices and sophistry, but through strict dependence on the letter of Venetian Law. Ultimately, the law itself is twisted to actually defeat him because of his own unwavering stance. The actual statement which foils his quest for justice is made by Portia when she says:The party ‘gainst the which he doth contriveShall seize one half of his good; the other halfComes to the privy coffer of the state Another curious caveat illuminating the differences between Shylock and our overall prototype, Iago, is that he does actually evoke some sympathy from the reader as we consider his circumstances.
It is almost as if his motivations are fuelled by more extreme mitigating circumstances than those which drove Iago to his acts of vile success.(his daughter/race/money/dignity) In act three, scene one, the most eloquent dissertation playing on our sympathies is put forth by Shylock attempting to explain his intent or version of justice. In this pivotal point, Shylock asks sensibly, “Hath a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions?If you prick us do we not bleed? An If you wrong us, do we not revenge?”(3, 3, 48-66) Because Shylock has a answer far more convincing to our sensibilities than Iago’s simple silence, we can note that he has at least some greater degree of humanity. In a general sense, the lack of manipulation and nearly noble commitment to his stance almost earn Shylock the tragic hero status of Anthony or Othello.
A certain detractor to this status is the unbridled and unrelenting hatred for Antonio combined with reciprocating the race angle with anti-Christian statements. Both of these go a long way serving to turn us off from emotionally sympathizing with Shylock’s plight, and thus neutralize our hopes for his success in achieving “justice.” An even more discrediting fact is found when we see his reaction to hearing news of his run-away daughter in Genoa.
Instead of being thankful for her apparent safety, he has totally quelled any feeling for her because his reaction is only to the money that he hears she has spent. He replies to the news saying that “Thou stick’st a dagger in me. I shall never see/ my gold again. Fourscore ducats at a sitting, fourscore ducats!”(3,1,96-97) This brings into question which he values more the ducats (like Edmund) or his daughter?As a character, Shylock seems to seal his fate as a lecherous individual through the persistence of his demands for the pound of flesh as dictated by the bond. A statement to this effect is made when Shylock responds to Portia saying, “My deeds upon my head! I crave the law, / The penalty and the forfeit of my bond.” (4, 3, 203-204, my italics) Certainly, he falls short of a Iago, but that very persistence or craving is one of the most common qualities which can be identified serving to relate the two.
Just as Iago went beyond the reasonable and satisfactory level of exacting revenge on Cassio by shifting his attentions to Othello, Shylock goes too far in his insistence for fulfillment of the bond when the available means to pay the debt are at hand.Discussion of the Shylock cannot end without citing a statement he makes which may be deemed a universal truth for Iago, Shylock, and Edmund as a measurement of the hatred which drove them to such lengths. The excavation of this statement from Shylocks character was initiated by Bassanio’s question which asked him “Do all men kill the things they do not Love?(4,1,66) The reply given is one which exemplifies the intensity and passion first encountered in our examination of Iago.
Shylock replies saying or rather questioning as he asks “Hates any man the thing he would not kill? (4,1,67) This powerful retort very accurately identifies the intensity of Shylock’s feelings, but the pain and frustration of the situation. We know can understand what type of weight to attach to his craving for the law (as mentioned earlier).In this next section focusing on the elements of treachery within King Lear, the most pertinent figure dominating this arena is Edmund. Edmund and Iago are certainly alike in more ways than they differ, and one may perhaps consider Edmund as a virtual carbon copy of Iago.
In a sense, they have both been overlooked through one manner or another by the figure they are most bound to serve. (Edmund-his father and Iago-Othello.) Edmund, the illegitimate son of the Earl of Gloucester, betrays both his father and the actual legitimate son of the earl, Edgar. In the same ways that Iago uses the handkerchief and the suspicions of adultery, Edmund uses a letter and a self-inflicted wound to achieve believability of his trickery and deceit. That self-inflicted wound demonstrates a key similarity to both Iago and Shylock from the point of view that it demonstrates the intense level of commitment to his actions. However, Shylock and Edmund differ in the sense that Shylock is driven by retribution for a smattering of ills, whereas Edmund suffers only from the indignity of not being the accepted heir standing to benefit from his father’s prominence. Edmund rejects the traditional passage of wealth, but even beyond that, he shows his disdain for the entire society which facilitates such a system.
(Iago rejects not just the choice of Cassio, but the entire system as well. He goes after Othello specifically because is the most obvious representative of that system.) The evidence of this rejection is found in Act I, scene ii, 1-22 when Edmund makes his proclamation that “Thou, nature art my goddess; to thy law/ My services are bound.” In the closing lines of that passage, he remarks that, “Edmund the base / Shall top the legitimate. I grow. I prosper. /Now gods stand up for bastards.
” Once again, here, we find Shakespeare having the antagonist become out to snare more than just the equality that he was initially denied. Just as crossing this line lead to the eventual downfall of the harbingers of chaos in both Othello and the Merchant of Venice, we find it to be true once again. At the end, when the situation is described as “all’s cheerless, dark and deadly,”(5,3,292) it makes us remember the Earl’s statements about Edmund that “there was good sport at his making.”(1,1,23-24) Hindsight judgement certainly make us wonder whether that “sport” was worth it.
One last instance where we get certain parallel qualities between Edmund and Iago is found nearing the end of the finale where we find evidence of Edmund’s pleasure that Goneril and Regan have died for his sake. This particular excerpt reminds us exactly of Iago’s malicious commentary on his using of Rodrigo for a “purse,” and his attempts at having “Every way make my gain.”(5,1,14) The one the other poisoned for my sake, And after slew herself. (5,3,241-43)Even worse than this we see him mockingly saying, “Which one of them shall I take? / Both, one neither.
“(5,1,57-58) Just as Iago has no preference over whether Cassio kill Rodrigo, or vice versa, Edmund cares not because he is concentrating only on the flattery he finds in being the object of love from two women.The two are closely tied judging from their obvious narcissistic similarities, overall motives and even the end result. (A curious aspect in Lear is found when we realize that Shakespeare has added another a disruptive force in the characters of both Goneril and Regan. They compound the by adding a suspense angle, for because of their presence, at first the audience is unsure of which antagonist is the correct one to focus attention.
Seemingly, they are equally as depraved, for early on we find that they, as they are described as “tigers” and “wolves,” seek the death of their father.The last character to be brought into this discussion is Puck from “Dream”, for unlike the other works considered, Dream is fully intended to be a comedy(Venice had elements of both). Puck is relevant because he demonstrates that the trickery and duping behavior, which we find so often associated with the major villains throughout Shakespeare.
The lines which Puck rattles off to make one think immediately of Iago are found when Puck finishes a little rhyming statement with “Lord what fools these mortals be.”(3,2,110). The reason for this is that it is Puck’s actions/statements as he is manipulating (incorrectly the first time) the other characters are exactly like Iago and Edmund orchestrating their will upon others. This playful, innocent condescension that we see Puck expressing is essentially the comedic interpretation of Iago and Edmund getting their jollies from the using of others.
Puck is essentially saying the same thing, yet more as an honest observation than as a credit to his own talents. Really, the purpose and relevance of Midsummer Nights Dream in relation to the overall course is limited. Mentioning “Dream” is really only intended to show how characteristics which we attribute to Iagos and established villains can appear elsewhere (even in comedies).
Diverging from this final section character dissection(or assassination J), to look at the somewhat rough chronological approximations for the order of these plays, we begin to find some more evidence supporting the possibility of Iago’s influence upon further antagonists. Both Anthony & Cleopatra, and Lear were written following Othello in the so-called Middle tragic Period between 1600-1608. Because of this, we certainly see supporting evidence that the manipulative characteristics of Iago might have somehow been a kind of influence upon the creation of the manipulation side(if nothing more)Cleopatra’s character.
Also, Edmund, with perhaps the most striking comparison, certainly draws from all aspects of Iago’s character. Oddly, the Merchant of Venice comes midway through the Poetic period which falls before the Tragic period, and in some ways we could consider it a transitional work because of its obvious similarities and stark differences.Either way, whether we consider above chronological significance or not, there is certain thread constantly reminiscent of Iago running throughout these plays which cannot be denied. Thus Iago, and all the horrible splendor surrounding him, must certainly fall into the category of Shakespeare’s greatest and most complex villains. Hopefully, if nothing more, examination of these characters will help us to avoid calling out, as Cassio did for the very enemies who have created our unfortunate situations. In Act 5, Scene 1, we hear Cassio say “Iago! I am spoil’d, undone by villains! / Give me some help!” Bibliography: