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As I was reading "Othello" for the individual play assignment, I found myself becoming increasingly more interested in the character Iago. And while it may be a stretch to describe this captivation as sympathy, something about his particular brand of villainy was appealing, and I had to ask myself why.
Now, it wouldn't be the first time audiences have fallen for a good psychopath story as a blacker means of escapism, but that answer alone didn't satisfy me, nor did explanations that Iago is simply the "worst" villain. What exactly makes him the true villain of Shakespeare, beating out the likes of Edmund in "King Lear" and Lady Macbeth in "Macbeth"? I tried to analyze why audiences love him, and I came up with three reasons, culminating in his invulnerability to moral principle.
Most obviously, Iago appeals to audiences because he's funny. This humor comes from his clever diction and dramatic irony, so it's definitely a darker form of comedy a la Joker in The Dark Knight ("Very poor choice of words . . ."), but it's nonetheless funny. For example, in answer to Lodovico's inquiry, "How does Lieutenant Cassio?", Iago answers "Lives, sir" (4.1.244-5). This is funny because the audience knows that due to Iago's manipulations, Othello is actually planning to murder Cassio, so the good Lieutenant may not be alive much longer. But Lodovico and Desdemona are both ignorant of the true import of Iago's dialogue. Iago appears almost frustrated in some parts at the others' blindness as to his true meaning, but can't help dangling these sinister little hints in front of the audience, which makes him seem malice incarnate, but also provides some much-needed comic relief.
Another source of Iago's appeal is his understanding of the difference between honesty and transparency. I was reading a New York Times article titled "How IagoExplains the World," and was fascinated by the author's argument that "transparency and secrecy are not simply opposite. Instead they interact, each reinforcing the other." By taking advantage of Othello's "free and open nature," Iago succeeds in using false shows of sincere emotion to manipulate him (1.2.442). In other words, Iago uses opaque transparency to show a fraction of the truth, but that fraction of the truth is meant to control someone else's perceptions; he's not being genuine, but he is being selectively transparent. Modern audiences watching him do this can easily relate it to our current political and entertainment climates, so the whole process rings, ironically, more true than ever.
|Paint, created by Micah Cozzens|
But I believe the true catharsis, or purging of emotion, occurs because Iago has no sense of sanctity for moral principle, integrity, nobility, or true beauty, and so he is invulnerable. While the other characters succumb to their emotions, he plays logically and dispassionately. We see ourselves in Othello and Desdemona, victims of our misguided hearts and souls, which are so easily plagued by suspicion and senseless affection. But we long to be Iago because he's free to live for the gratification of his intellect, without the remorse that makes us the rest of us painfully, painfully human. By arguing "I am not what I am," he rejects the oft-quoted phrase of Christian deity, the great "I AM," making himself totally inhuman, a type of Satan. And who can ask for a better villain than the devil himself?