Introduction: Among Villains and Victims
Of all the complex and thought-provoking Shakespearean plays, Othello must be the most complicated and enticing one. Offering a plethora of three-dimensional characters and developing an intriguing plot, the play conveys the author’s idea of the battle between good and evil and offers specific, unclichéd characters. Following the development of the characters, good and evil intertwine in the lead characters, Othello and Iago. Hence, the choice between an ultimately negative character and the one that comprises both good and evil features is quite complicated. Because of the complexity of Othello’s character and the meanness of Iago, the role of the main villain can suit each of the characters; however, because of Iago’s treachery and Othello’s nobility, the former must be the essence of vice in Shakespeare’s play.
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Combined with the elements of utter vileness and meanness and attempts to obtain the reputation of an honest man, Iago is the one who deserves the title of the true villain of the play, in contrast to the straightforward and noble Othello. However, the definition of a villain is rather a complex issue itself. Portraying Iago in his play, Shakespeare offers the following commentary:
And what’s he then that says I play the villain?
When this advice is free, I give and honest,
Probal to thinking and indeed the course
To win the Moor again? (Shakespeare, 1491).
Judging by the extract quoted above, the Shakespearean concept of a villain in the given play relates rather to a merciless and despicable intriguer than to a character that is equal to the protagonist of the play. To simplify the idea of a villain in Shakespeare’s vision, critics may say that Shakespeare sees the villain as the person plotting something evil while claiming to be pure and innocent. However, in the modern understanding of the word, being a villain presupposes the fight of good and evil within the character. Hence, though the characters in question are incredibly complex, the main antagonist must be the lowest of the low in Othello.
Iago: Poisoned with the Desire to Destroy
Iago is doubtlessly the main villain because of the role that he plays in the story. Hence, Iago’s image and behavior comply with the scenario of the play. However, despite the obvious negative features that Iago possesses and uses to seize power over Othello and, leading this titan astray, make him collapse, the character possesses certain virtues. Weirdly enough, since Iago is claiming to be constantly telling only the gospel truth, he is an evil incarnate.
Ancola suggests that telling the truth is a crime in the world where lies reign: “In a truthful world, an evildoer causes mayhem by lying. But in a world filled with lies–as ours is–how does one become evil? The answer is as obvious as it is simple: One tells the truth!” (Ancola). Moreover, Ancola emphasizes that Iago’s desire, to tell the truth offers a striking contrast to his mean essence. As Ancola explains,
Consequently, “honest Iago” – just think of the numerous times his honesty is referred to in the play – tries whenever possible to tell the truth, so much that sometimes when he does tell a lie, he will actually admit it. (Ancola)
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However, it is also important to consider the public’s perception of the characters as the protagonist of the play to possess the element of tragedy within, the ultimate feature that is supposed to make the character dual, and, thus, more appealing to the reader. Iago does not possess any single positive feature except his questionable and even mocking “honesty,” which makes him ultimately evil: “Iago moves finally to the desire for Desdemona’s death, or, more precisely, for a specific kind and location of death” (Zender). Since Iago wishes Desdemona to die without any reason except the wish to destroy Othello, Iago is evil itself, and his key motivation is evil.
Othello: Seized by the Need to Avenge
Providing a striking contrast to Iago, Othello still represents another complex character that is not simple enough to be “good” or “bad” and is also balancing on the verge of becoming evil, yet in his own way. In contrast to Iago, Othello’s negative features, once manifesting themselves, obtain a certain hue of magnificence. As Christofides says, “Traditionally, the problem of Othello has been seen as Othello” (Christofides). “A noble barbarian” (Christofides), this character possesses considerable flaws as well, yet they do not seemingly change the reader’s attitude towards the character, still leaving him attractive and even gorgeous in his savage-like rage. Hence, Othello is far from being a positive character; what differs him from Iago is not being good head to toes, a specific manifestation of all virtues a human being can possess, but the way Othello acts and thinks – the latter proves far more magnificent than the lowest of the low that Iago is: “Nor from mine own weak merits will I draw/ The smallest fear or doubt of her revolt” (Shakespeare para.1839-1840), he said with dignity, while Iago’s cues, “I hope you will consider what is spoke/ Comes from my love” (Shakespeare 1871-1872) are shot through with hypocrisy and meanness, while he is pretending to offer Othello a helping hand. Hence, there is no doubt that Iago is much lower than Othello and, therefore, the latter proves to be much more attractive to the readers.
Speaking of the multi-dimensionality of the characters, Othello cannot be taken as the main protagonist because of his dual nature: “Rather than a noble Moor, for Leavis Othello is “at best, the impressive manifestation of a noble egotism” (Christofields). Hence, Othello is not completely positive, with the passion of a savage and the feelings of nobility, yet he is not as negative as impeccably evil Iago.
Is Gullibility Worse than Treachery?
Comparing the main characters, namely, Iago and Othello, will necessarily lead to the fact that the two have certain common features as well, which makes a choice between the two for the title of the main villain of the play rather difficult. Since both are craving to seize power, there is a certain link between them. However, Iago does so by treachery and motivated by hatred, and Othello, with his incredible martial art, inspired by his devotion to the state and his one true love and motivated by his desire to being helpful and appreciated. Moreover, passion blinds both characters, Iago by his hatred towards the Moor, and Othello by his disappointment in his angel-like wife and the poisoning jealousy:
Naked in bed, Iago, and not mean harm!
It is hypocrisy against the devil:
They that mean virtuously, and yet do so,
The devil their virtue tempts, and they tempt heaven. (Shakespeare 2416-2419)
A perfect portrayal of a suffering husband who does not linger to find out the truth and cannot believe the evidence found, Othello turns into a beast thirsty for revenge. Nevertheless, the suffering that he has to take blunts the image of the bestial within him, exposing the remnants of the humane that he still possesses. Meanwhile, Iago obtains increasingly obvious features of a cunning monster: “’Faith, that he did – I know not what he did” (Shakespeare 2447). Hence, Iago suits best both the idea of a villain that Shakespeare offers and the common image of a traitor and a slanderer, whereas Othello is rather a desperate man driven to the edge by Iago’s insinuations and his own gullibility. However, Othello’s love does not have the chance since the very beginning of his marriage with Desdemona because Othello seems to comprise the ideas of love and death together:
And Othello’s speech beginning, “It gives me wonder great as my content / To see you here before me” (II.i.183-84) displays, as many commentators have observed, a disturbing tendency to link thoughts of love with thoughts of death. (Zender)
Nevertheless, it is clear that Iago is the key character that adds the element of evil into the play. He is rotten, low, and craving for power, which makes him despicable. Compared to the magnificence of Othello, he is pathetic nothing.
Conclusion: In the Ocean of Misery
Despite the fact that Othello does turn into a beast at a certain point, the splendor of his character and the misery that seizes him completely do not allow him to choose him as the main villain. Low and vile, Iago fits the image of a villain better. A striking contrast to Othello, Iago seeks the most treacherous ways to reach his aim. In addition, the goal of his, that is, the desire to destroy the Moor, is even meaner since it grounds on nothing but envy. Therefore, Iago is the main villain of the play, compared to the grief-stricken Othello. With the help of the complex features of the main characters and the versatility of their nature, Shakespeare creates the most credible world where sins and virtues mix in a weird fashion, which makes the play border reality.
Ancola, Francesco Aristide. “‘Honest’ Iago and the Evil Nature of Words.” Journal of Evolutionary Psychology 26.1-2 (2005): 44+. Literature Resource Center. Web.
Christofides, R.M. “Iago and Equivocation: The Seduction and Damnation of Othello.” Early Modern Literary Studies 15.1 (2010). Literature Resource Center. Web.
Shakespeare, William. “The Tragedy of Othello, Moor of Venice.” OpenSource Shakespeare. n.d. Web.
Zender, Carl F. “The Humiliation of Iago.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, 34.2 (1994): 323+. Academic OneFile. Web.