Heroes And Villains: Iago And The Extent Of Human Potential In Shakespeare’s Othello

1780 words - 7 pages

The character of Iago has traditionally been viewed as the most infamous villain in all of Shakespeare. The conniving ringmaster of the tragedy of Othello, Iago serves as a necessary catalyst for the action of the play. He takes such a principal role in the drama that the play has commonly been described as Othello’s tragedy, but Iago’s play. Scholars have disagreed, however, as to whether or not Iago can simply be described as an ingenious villain lacking all regard for morality. Many have seen some of his most inhuman or evil qualities as the very thing that makes him human; others have attributed his manipulative ambition to a deep-seeded psychological need to belong and have drawn clear parallels between Iago and the play’s tragic hero, Othello. Clearly there is more to Iago than a simple lack of a moral compass. In the process of becoming the vehicle for the tragic actions of the play, Iago also brings about his own downfall. He is the second tragic figure of Othello, and the undoings of both Iago and Othello demonstrate both the extents and limits of human potential as well as Shakespeare’s implication that no single man can ever be greater than the world around him.
Although it is counter-intuitive to say that one of drama’s greatest antagonists is actually one of its tragic figures, Iago fits much of the criteria for a tragic hero in a Shakespearean play. According to A.C. Bradley, a Shakespearean tragedy brings about the downfall of “an exceptional being,” a man or woman who demonstrates extraordinary capabilities and whose greatest attribute, or tragic flaw, is also the most significant cause of his or her death (“The Substance of Shakespearean Tragedy” 3154). Iago constantly demonstrates exceptional cunning and skills in manipulation. He possesses a magnetic charisma that makes him instantly trustworthy to the other characters of the play. Cassio affirms that he “never knew / a Florentine more kind and honest” (III.i.37-8). Othello immediately declares him to be “of exceeding honesty” (III.iii.257) and soon begins to unquestionably take the word of his acquaintance Iago over the word of his wife, Desdemona. Iago’s charisma and deep understanding of the other characters’ ambitions and weaknesses allows him to become the puppet master of the tragedy, initially predicting each character’s behavior with great precision. But as the action unfolds, however, Iago is increasingly unable to control his situation, and in his attempts to regain control he begins to improvise with murders, including that of his own wife. While his charisma and genius understanding of human nature allow him to set his devious plan into action, his overestimation of his own abilities traps him in “in the web he spins for others” and ultimately leads to his arrest and execution (Bradley 3157).
Iago’s initial success in achieving his goals is representative of the extent of human potential in the play. While his plot stems from selfish and devious motives, Iago is...

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