Shakespeare’s Othello is a thoughtless victim of pride, whose capacity of self-deception reaches astonishing heights. Unlike Iago, Othello’s strengths and flaws are not easily assessed, as he both elicits the readers respect and sympathy. Yet, the tragic ending is mostly the doing of this possessory and skeptical husband, whose lack of faith in his own wife and his misplaced trust cause his spectacle of ruin.
Iago is quite possibly the most odious villain in all of Shakespeare’s dramas, and his utter lack of veritable motivation for his actions fuel the entire course of the play. Referring to him merely as the symbol of evil or the Devil reincarnate would be oversimplifying his acute Machiavellian aptitude at manipulating the other characters in the play. His masterful plotting capabilities which are second to none are employed for the purpose of destroying Othello. The question of where this criminal hate stems from is left open. In the first scene, Iago is enraged at the fact that he lost the position of lieutenant to Othello and later on he even concocts the idea that Othello may have slept with his wife, Emilia: “It is thought abroad that ’twixt my sheets / He has done my office” (I.iii.369–370). Additionally, it could also be the fact that Othello is a cultural and racial outsider in Venice, yet he manages to have everything Iago yearns for: position, wealth, fame, a beautiful and young wife who loves him. Perhaps he felt an overwhelming jealousy which was a powerful enough reason for him to loathe Othello with such fervor.
In his annihilative desire to do Othello harm, he maneuvers all the other characters like they were puppets in his own personal little tragic theatre. His aptness to deduce and manipulate secret desires of those around him, allow him to evoke the very thing he should never be granted by others: trust. It is exactly this trait which makes him a deadly companion to Othello. He is cunning enough not to state directly the emotions he wishes to instill in Othello. On the contrary, he resorts to subtle indications and he lets the submissive mind of the Moore do all the work. For instance, he sparks Othello’s doubts about his wife’s infidelity, not by plainly stating out that she is unfaithful with Cassio, but with subtle hints about the illicit liaison between Desdemona and Cassio: “Cassio, my lord! No, sure, I cannot think it/ that he would steal away so guilty-like,/ Seeing you coming” (III.iii.38-40). But, his final and what will prove to be the tragic dish to Othello’s murderous green-eyed monster, is the handkerchief belonging to Desdemona, a loving gift from her husband, symbolizing marital fidelity. With this “ocular evidence,” Iago’s farce is complete, he has provided what Othello considers to be irrefutable evidence of infidelity (III.iii.409). Othello has finally surrendered to his words and believes without a shred of doubt, that his wife is unfaithful.
Iago does not really care about the final outcome of his malevolent actions, as long as they are harmful to Othello. His egotistical needs, stemming from his jealousy of Othello make him react in the same way Othello does: impulsively and vindictively. It is not his hand that takes away Desdemona’s life, it is not even his words. It is the effect that these words evoke in the psychologically fragile mind of the play’s protagonist.
Despite being a foreigner in the Venetian society, Othello exudes a vast amount of social power. He is a brave individual of an exotic appeal, who does possess certain self-conscious defense about his plainly obvious, racial difference from other Venetians, but his courageous stories of sea adventures allow him to procure for himself a most desirable bride, which manages to strengthen his position in society even further. Yet, his felicitous times do not last too long. Under the malignant manipulations of his closest companion Iago, Othello’s fairy tale begins to crumble. His fickle personality, lack ability to perceive things for what they are and his erroneous choice of confidant turn him into a murderer. In spite of his prevailing statement that he requires ocular proof and that he will not doubt before he sees, this is exactly what he does. He chooses to believe an implausible story of his wife’s infidelity solely based on Iago’s story that he saw Cassio wipe his beard with Desdemona’s handkerchief. Her final inability to present the ill-fated handkerchief seals her fate. In addition, it is not only Iago who speaks tales of infidelity and of a wife’s marital insubordination, but also Desdemona’s father, Brabantio, who, hurt because of his daughter’s elopement, says: “Look to her, Moor, If thou hast eyes to see:/ She has deceived her father, and may thee” (I.iii.1-2). Consequently, one can condemn Othello for believing a false friend, but not for believing his wife’s father. Still, her impulsive decision was merely a onetime instance caused by love. She has gone against her father’s wishes and bravely chose her husband over her father. Thus, she has shown true devotion and love, and has proven herself worthy of trust, something the enraged husband blinded by jealousy fails to comprehend.
Through the character of Iago and his pseudo-friendship with Othello, Shakespeare is juxtaposing the perceptions of good and evil, and how difficult it is for the truth to be extrapolated when one cannot precisely distinguish between the victim and the oppressor. This is exactly why the reader sometimes finds the question of the true guilty person enigmatic. The bottom line is that Othello would have reacted differently had he been in possession of a more solid character. The fact that he was an outstanding soldier of grand reputation serves little purpose in this event. He should have relied on his own intuition and not be seduced by lies and fake evidence. Desdemona did not die because Iago wanted her to; she was murdered because her husband’s easily influenced personality led him to put an end to their disastrous marital experiment.
Kennedy, X. J. and Dana Gioia. Backpack Literature. New York: Longman, 2005. Print.