The term, “motiveless malignity” was first developed by Coleridge some two hundred years ago and has limited value in explaining the behaviour and motivations of Iago as a character. The idea that Iago can be seen as a purely evil character whose acts of villainy are solely carried out in order to take pleasure, inflict maximum harm and cause damage to the people around him and their relationships which includes those whom he loved, is misleading. This description of Iago does not permit us to look at the motivations that caused Iago to behave as he did, or to address the complexities of his character. My position in this essay is that Iago’s behaviour can best be understood by taking into account his relationship with other characters in the play, as well as his own flawed psychological makeup.
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It is possible to find numerous examples throughout the play where Iago has acted with malice and treachery and these do reflect the qualities of a malicious character. The approach of finding examples does not explain anything about his motivations behind the actions of Iago. Coleridge’s opinion does not allow examine the behaviour of Iago to himself and also in relation to other characters in the play. Furthermore by solely focusing on the evil acts carried out by Iago, we do not see that he too is a tragic and flawed character, whose actions will result in the destruction of his personal and professional life.
Although Iago wishes to portray himself as a powerful character from the start of the play, it is quickly seen that his power is limited because he has unfairly not promoted to the position of lieutenant and failed to be rewarded by Othello, despite showing the dedicated commitment to the war.
The initial conversation in the play takes place between Iago and Roderigo where it is seen that Othello has failed to reward Iago with the promotion he deserves. We become acutely aware that Iago feels aggrieved for not being promoted. Instead Othello has appointed Cassio, who has less experience than Iago in matters of war: “preferment goes by letter and affection, not by the old gradation”. (Act I, Scene I, 36-37)
Iago rationalises his position in a conversation with Roderigo in Act I, Scene I, where he uses unflattering terms to describe Cassio as, “mere prattle, without practice/ Is all his soldiership”. (Act I, Scene I: 26-27). In other words, Cassio did not deserve the promotion. In matters of war and military strategy, it is true that Iago had far more experience than Cassio and, this is one of the major motives which fuels Iago’s jealousy and anger on Othello.
Iago felt insecure and deeply aggrieved by Othello’s failure to acknowledge his service, he sets out to inflict maximum harm to Othello. It is at the end of Act II, Scene I that Iago is able to falsely convince Othello that his wife, Desdemona, is having a relationship with Cassio. Iago employs a variety of tactics of poison and to ensure that Othello is angered by this apparent affair. This false rumour is repeated over a period of time so that when we get to the end of Act Three, Scene III, and Othello is thoroughly convinced that Desdemona has betrayed him.
Iago decides to embark upon a strategy of revenge and is determined to destroy Othello. In order to carry out this plan of revenge, Iago pretends to be an honest character and adjusts his mood and speech accordingly, in order to continue his plan of revenge. Using this strategy, Iago is able to gain private information from Desdemona, Cassio, Roderigo and Brabantio, which he then uses to his own advantage. Privately, Iago feels that he cannot trust anybody. Iago justifies his conduct in terms of self interest because he cannot afford to show his true self. “But I will wear my heart upon my sleeve/For daws to peck at. I am not what I am.” (Act I, Scene I : 65-66). Failure to secure promotion brought out the paranoia in Iago’ s character and forces him to draw on destructive and negative thoughts.
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Iago is already full with thoughts of jealousy towards Othello and Cassio. These thoughts are compounded further by doubt in relation to Emilia. Iago also believes his wife Emilia to be unfaithful and Iago can be seen as losing emotional control. Evidence for Iago’s insecurity is evident when he convinces himself that Emilia is having a sexual relationship with Othello: “the lusty Moor” has, “twixt my sheets…done my office”. (Act III, I, 387-388). Iago is weakened by the fact that he has not devised a clear strategy to destroy Othello. Further, Iago is never permitted to play the smart tactician because his emotions consistently get in the way.
In seeking to entrap all those around him and: “enmesh em all” Act II, III, 351), Iago becomes trapped himself. Moving on from his grudge towards Othello, Iago becomes paranoid where he could not even afford to trust those whom he supposed to love. The limits of Iago’s power are apparent in the way that his wife Emilia. Upon learning that Iago is behind stirring up false rumours about Desdemona, Emilia turns on Iago with a vengeance and cannot be silenced by Iago’s please: “Go to, charm your tongue”. (Act V, Scene II, 182).
Othello repeatedly presses Iago to explain the motivations for his actions to which Iago replies: “Demand me nothing what you know, you know,/From this time forth I never will speak a word.” (Act V, Scene II, 300-3010). Iago is psychologically wounded and, the manipulation to Othello, Desdemona, Cassio and Emilia has a numbing effect on Iago. The responses of Iago are not necessarily a sign of inherent evil. Iago’s response to imprisonment is not that of a powerful man it is the sign of a broken man who though acting as a destroyer.
To present Iago as a purely evil character is misleading and does not allow for the fact that the powerful human emotion of jealousy and inner rage led Iago to behave in a destructive and negative manner. Iago is driven by his revengeful thoughts which cause him to behave in such a way that is excessive and all out of proportion to wrongs he perceived to have been committed against him. Claiming not to wear his heart on his sleeve, Iago did precisely that. The initial act of being overlooked for promotion sets off a chain of destructive events which result in the ultimate destruction of Iago himself. Iago’s failure to offer a plausible explanation for his behaviour is not a sign of, “motiveless malignity” but rather of a man who has been driven to the edge by a society and has allowed his personal paranoia to push him onto a path of death and destruction.
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