Updated: Jun 19, 2021
IAGO: Shadow Antagonist
by Elizabeth Faris
Laurence Fishburne and Kenneth Branagh in the film version of 'Othello' (1995)
"Make the Moor thank me, love me, and reward me
For making him egregiously an ass
and practicing upon his peace and quiet,
Even to madness."
Othello (Act II, sc. i, ll. 308-312)
To be human is to be defined by a passage through beginning, middle and end. The challenges we fleshly protagonists face along the way constitute the plot of our existence, and as such, the fiction we create in reflection of ourselves can only find meaning in tracing the journey of one who shares both the luxuries and limitations of our unique brand of consciousness. Storytellers have grasped this essential for as long as we have enjoyed their acquaintance. Before quill was ever put to parchment, tales of heroes and heroines with trials to tackle and villains to run interference were being recited to rapt circles seeking to connect with their fellow beings and identify with the pleasure or pain of their mutual experience.
Among those wordsmiths who have dared to lead the protagonist in pilgrimage through "leaves no step [has] trodden black" (Frost) is the incomparable William Shakespeare. The remarkable dexterity he displays in portrayal of the tragic hero is no less potent today than it was 430 years ago at its first flourish. The genius of his characterization stems, in part, from his willingness to break from standard protocols of perspective: to delve into the dilemma of the protagonist is always the central challenge and yet one never fully realizable without key insight into those with whom his destiny is inextricably intertwined. Thus, if we are to grapple with Macbeth and the daggers of his conscience, we must likewise be prepared to feel grudging concern for his lady at the washbasin, for the proceeds of her latent anxiety are but an echo of his more freely expressed. Certainly, it is a rare brush with the bard that doesn't offer an edifying glimpse into the workings of a whole host of hearts, all in one way or another instrumental to the development and resolution of the hero's plight.
Such derring-do of point of view is arguably most pronounced in Othello, Shakespeare's tragic portrait of a man of consequence brought to infamy by the envious machinations of a would-be trusted servant. Indeed, the character of the play's antagonist, Iago, is so roundly rendered as to eclipse that of the protagonist himself. It may be Othello with whom we are encouraged to sympathize, but it is Iago who is able to collar us and wrest from us all our fiercest feeling. Nor is the play's intensity traceable only to Othello's storms of jealousy and affection, but perhaps even more to Iago's relentless manipulation of them in service of directives so dark as to defy our comprehension, and so disturbing as to dare us not to look away. Each time this villain pivots our way in yet another diatribe of deflection, he invites us deeper and deeper into the sticky web of his dysfunction, thus ensuring that it's his motives, not Othello's, over which we are compelled to ruminate.
So what, exactly, are those motives? Iago himself would have us believe that all his sycophantic posturing is secretly in aid of a perfectly righteous scheme of retribution for long-suffered injustices. And yet, where Shylock is vengeful, Edmund two-faced, and Cassius green with envy (Merchant of Venice, King Lear, Julius Caesar), Iago is all three and something thrice again more sinister. As he prepares the ground for his master's undoing, we see him don the garb of 'Honest Iago' with sickening calculation:
O, beware my lord, of jealousy!
It is the green-eyed monster, which doth mock
The meat it feeds on. That cuckold lives in bliss
Who, certain of his fate, loves not his wronger
But O, what damned minutes tells he o'er
Who dotes, yet doubts -- suspects, yet fondly loves!
(III. iii. 165-170)
This first seed in what is to become a dense plot of cruel insinuation, planted under the guise of selfless concern, is designed to take the scythe to Othello's fragile ego in matters of the heart. It betrays such a deep and festering cynicism on the part of Iago that even he must take pains to avoid confronting it. Instead, he treats us to an endless course of rationalization. First, he claims to hate the Moor for passing him up for promotion. Then, he reveals his private disgust at his presumption to civilized society. Finally, he admits to suspecting him of having done his own office 'twixt his sheets (I. iii. 369–370). Of course, none of this amounts to anything more than vulgar innuendo: the desperate attempt of an angry man to give rhyme and reason to a nameless nagging dread, which, like a poisonous mineral, gnaws increasingly at his own inwards (II. ii. 297).
Anyone who loathes himself to this extent can be a formidable opponent, and Othello remains the unwitting catalyst for conflict if only for holding the secret to winning success and social approbation. As long as Iago is slave to the shadow, the public acclaim and personal intimacy he so envies of his master will continue to elude him, for they are the logical conclusion to a course he has long since rejected for himself: that of choosing to rise above the baser impulses of the self in order to see life through the lens of the common good. Perhaps Iago fears that the beacon that guides Othello has light enough in surplus to expose his own feeble justifications and render his cherished construct obsolete, which is why it is not Othello's achievement he truly covets, but rather, the virtue that informs it. He would like to have it for himself: not to live by, nor to learn from, but simply so that he might extinguish it once and for all. And he reckons that this can only be properly achieved by the Moor's being made to put the lie to his own morality. Only once all his fond love he has blown to heaven may Iago live to see him share in the hollow hell he himself knows far too well (III. iii. 441-444). With this in mind, Othello's parting words, as he prepares to snuff out the life of Desdemona, take on a whole new level of significance:
Put out the light, and then put out the light
If I quench thee, thou flaming minister,
I can again thy former light restore,
Should I repent me; but once put out thy light,
Thou cunning'st pattern of excelling nature,
I know not where is that Promethean heat
That can thy light relume.
(V. ii. 7-13)
From the earliest lines of the play, the duplicity of this antagonist is made clear to us by his own admission: "I am not what I am" (I. i. 61-62). It is a turn of phrase reminiscent of another from scripture. On Mt. Sinai, when Moses asks God his name, he receives the cryptic reply, "I am that I am." (Exodus 3:14) Perhaps Shakespeare's choice of these particular words, but in the negative, is his subtle way of pitting Iago directly opposite God, in the role of Satan or at least his chosen accomplice. We can never know for sure, but what we can know is that he is a character who has made himself both broker and pawn to some of the most vile and volatile forces that can stalk the human psyche. Obsessed as he is with the purely visceral concerns of self, he seems under the extraordinary delusion that he can somehow escape the darkness that engulfs him if he can only douse the light of a blameless other. Unfortunately, it is a story that can have no happy ending, for to offer sustenance to the shadow is but to give it license to devour.
Also by this author: PALIMPSEST: A Book of Literary Classics Penned Again in Verse.
Available for purchase through the home page @ elizabethfaris.com