Honest Iago

"Honest" Iago

The poet Coleridge appropriately described the character of Iago as being one of "motiveless malignity." Throughout the play Iago’s motives are secondary to, and seem only to serve as justification for, his actions. Iago is driven by his nature of character. To discuss Coleridge’s assessment we must look at Iago’s character—from Iago’s point of view and that of the other characters—his motives, methods, and pawns. Through some carefully thought-out words and actions, Iago is able to manipulate others to do things in a way that benefits him; all the while he is pushing Othello, Desdemona, Roderigo, Emilia, and Cassio to their tragic end.

According to Websters New International Dictionary, Second Edition, malignity is partially defined as "disposition to do evil." "Motiveless" is implied in the definition of malignity. That one has a "disposition to do evil" is to say evil is in the nature of the malignant person; motive is not an issue. "Motiveless malignity" is redundant in the pure meaning of the words. Does Coleridge mean to say that Iago cannot help himself from being evil or does he mean that what Iago did was without motive? For the sake of this discussion, Coleridge intends the later.

Abbott states "in truth character is what a person is; reputation is what he is supposed to be." (Websters) Is Iago evil? No, he is not. Walter Lippmann says that "evil is not a quality of things as such. It is a quality of our relation to them." (Websters) Iago is not opposed to good (a partial definition of evil) however, he is amoral and malicious.

How does Iago see himself? "Others there are who, trimmed in forms and visages of duty, keep yet their hearts attending on themselves, and throwing but shows of service on their lords do well thrive by them, and when they have lined their coats do themselves homage. These fellows have some soul, and such a one do I profess myself." [Act I, Scene I, Line 49] Iago says of Cassio that "he hath a daily beauty in his life that makes me ugly" [Act V, Scene I, Line 19] Iago is aware of his lack of "social graces." However Iago does not feel ugly toward himself. He feels vindicated; "But I’ll set down the pegs that make this music, as honest as I am." [Act II, Scene I, Line 194] Ironically, Iago says of himself "yet do I hold it very stuff o’ the conscience to do no contrived murder. I lack iniquity sometimes to do me service." [Act I, Scene II, Line 2]

How does Iago see others? He sees the world and other people as animalistic and ruled by their basest desires. Perhaps Iago knows this because he knows himself so well. Iago warns Brabanzio that "even now an old black ram is tupping your white ewe…you’ll have your daughter covered with a Barbary horse, you’ll have your nephews neigh to you, you’ll have coursers for cousins, and jennets for germans" [Act 1, Scene 1, Line 88 and 110] Iago describes Othello as a man ". . . will tenderly be led by the nose as asses are." [Act I, Scene III, Line 377] Iago tells Roderigo "I never found a man that know how to love himself . . . Virtue! A fig! Tis in ourselves that we are thus or thus. Our bodies are gardens, to which our wills are gardeners . . . If the balance of our lives had not one scale of reason to poise another of sensuality, the blood and baseness of our natures would conduct us to most preposterous conclusions." [Act I, Scene III, Line 308] Iago’s intelligence and knowledge of human nature (others’ and his own) allow him to control the other characters with ease.

Why, Iago, why? The initial motive for Iago\'s devious behavior is to right a misdeed against him; he, not Cassio, should have been lieutenant. "And I, of whom [Othello’s] eyes had seen the proof . . . must be beleed and calmed" [Act I, Scene I, Line 28] Then he changes his motive to jealousy; he proclaims Othello has had an affair with his wife, Emilia. "And it is thought abroad that \'twixt my sheets he\'s done my office.