Tuesday 20 August 2013 - by Kyl Chhatwal
He was 28-years-old, a Venetian by birth, probably not noble. He was a good soldier and had a reputation for courage. He had already fought in a number of battles, and despite being only an Ensign, had won an unusual degree of trust among his superiors. His fellow soldiers liked him, found him funny and high-spirited, and whenever he was spoken of his honesty was invariably praised. “Honest Iago” is what they called him. And when they did so they never once guessed that beneath his facade of moral decency lay an icier heart than anyone could’ve possibly imagined.
Iago has been called Shakespeare’s greatest villain—possibly the greatest villain of all time. He’s the grandaddy of all bad guys: and in our age of TV and film crime dramas—and with our modern fascination with criminal psychoses—Iago remains unusually familiar and relevant.
He appears in (and dominates) Shakespeare’s great Venetian tragedy, Othello, and has more lines in the play than the title character. Like a sort of master puppeteer, Iago manipulates the noble-hearted and generally honest characters around him with admirable aplomb. Othello, a Venetian general of “Moorish” descent, marries the beautiful and virtuous Venetian woman, Desdemona; and all is well in their marriage until two-faced Iago convinces Othello that Desdemona is having an affair. In a fit of jealous rage Othello kills his wife, finally committing suicide when he learns the truth: Desdemona is innocent, and the tragedy is entirely the black work of “honest Iago,” the very man Othello trusted implicitly.
Iago fascinates us not only because he bamboozles everyone into believing in his essential goodness, but also because he is capable of such terrible cruelty without remorse. He’s the first criminal genius; and he seems to commit all his evil deeds without a clear motive to explain them.
As the play opens, Iago gives us a litany of reasons why he “hates Othello”: everything from the fact that Othello promoted another soldier above him, to his racist disgust at Othello’s sexual coupling with the fair-skinned Desdemona (what Iago famously, and ignominiously, refers to as a “black ram tupping” a “white ewe”). But Iago’s tone in his complaining gives the distinct impression of a man trying to justify himself. In all likelihood, Iago has no motive; and when at the play’s climax he’s asked to account for his actions, he clams up, refusing to speak.
Many critics agree that Iago probably does what he does simply because he can, or to prove to himself that he can. A.C. Bradley, for example, sees him as a sort of nefarious artist, who experiences “a delight in the exercise of artistic skill.” He’s a small-minded man, but he knows he’s craftier than his superiors, and gets a thrill out of employing his superior skill to control them. More imporantly, he’s almost entirely egocentric; loyalty and affection, to Iago, are mere “stupidity” or “want of spirit.” It’s almost like he’s trying to prove to himself that he can be utterly inhuman—an unfeeling machine.
So how did Shakespeare ever dream up such a villain in the first place? We do know that Shakespeare based his play on a short story published a few decades earlier, in 1565, by the Italian writer Cinthio (or Cinzio). But in Cinthio’s version the character on which Iago is based is not nearly so manipulative, nor is the character on which Othello is based so faultless.
There is a possibility that Shakespeare, in giving us the “motiveless malignity” of Iago, is responding to a commonly-held English bias at the time that Italians were capable of a special type of villainy, impossible among other races of people. This curious Elizabethan notion was a reaction in England to Niccolo Machiavelli’s Il Principe, in which Machiavelli famously posited that a ruler is more successful if he is feared rather than loved.
Unlike more passionate and murderous English baddies therefore (like Richard III) Italian villains were snake-like, calculating, less impulsive, and yet ultimately more deadly—in other words, more Machiavellian—according to this antiquated English stereotype.
Does it explain Iago therefore? Is he merely a singular reading of Machiavelli—an English bias of what constitutes “Italian” evil?
While an intriguing possibility, it cannot fully explain a character so subtly and masterfully rendered as Iago, who, even after 400 years, still manages to chill our blood with his malevolence and verisimillitude.
Below is a famous Iago soliloquy from the 1995 film version of Othello, in which Kenneth Branagh expertly shows just how odious and conniving Iago can be. “I’ll pour this pestilence into his ear.”