Othello and Iago Essay
Othello, not Iago? It has often been d that William Shakespeare’s play Othello actually features another character in a more dominant role. While the play ostensibly tells the fate of what happened to an otherwise noble, battle-tested Moor during his final service to Venice in Cyprus as a result of a tragic flaw, it begins with Iago, contains more text regarding Iago, follows Iago’s thoughts to greater degree and ends with a discussion of Iago. It is Iago who controls most of the action and the other characters through his manipulations, not Othello. With this in mind, it bears asking, why is the play called Othello rather than Iago?
Iago’s importance to the play is so complete and entwined that without Iago, there would be no Othello. According to Harold Bloom (1998), Iago’s role is comparable to that of Hamlet in his intellectualism and introspection. His complexity pulls at the audience in a curiously repellant way that fascinates and compels. Miller (2004) suggests that although he is often seen as evil incarnate, creating mischief just to be doing something, Iago is actually working on many of the same insecurities he instills in Othello. “Motivated by the same thing – suspicion of infidelity – Othello commits nearly the same crimes, yet the audience feels sorry for only him, and not Iago … if one looks deeper into his motives, it is apparent that he is no less of a sympathetic character than is Othello” (Miller, 2004). Iago even demonstrates growth, finally coming to the realization in the end that the downfall he’s experiencing is the result of his own actions. This is revealed in his statement regarding Cassio, “He hath a daily beauty in his life / That makes me ugly” (V, i, 19-20), expressing a sentiment that would not have been conceived of by this character earlier in the play. “How impossible such an attitude would be to the scornful Iago of the first acts! We have thus a measure of the moral awakening of Iago. His very crimes lead him to a purer sense of the values of life” (Brooke, 1918). Given this, why does Othello remain the title character?
However, it is because of his high nobility and greater class standing in relation to Iago that Othello gains the title spot. In his final words, Othello confesses that he has “loved not wisely, but too well” (V, ii, 353). This insight goes a long way toward explaining Othello’s character. It is because of where he’s placed his love that he behaves the way he does. He is a hero because of his ability to act according to what love dictates and is brought to his ruin because of where that love had been placed. It is in his love for Desdemona that his nobility shines through. The play opens with a mob of angry townspeople coming to do harm to Othello because they believe he has shamed the daughter of one of the merchants. Instead of running, as he is urged to do by Iago, Othello chooses to stand up to these people and make sure that the good name of his legally bound wife is defended. Rather than fighting with these people, he tells them, “Keep up your bright swords, for the dew will rust them / Good signior, you shall more command with years / Than with your weapons” (I, i, 59-61). However, his power to love is flawed by his inability to judge which of his contemporaries he should trust with it. Othello’s foolishness in placing his love in Iago proves to be his final undoing as he himself casts Desdemona’s honor into doubt and murders her.
Because Othello meets the Elizabethan conception of a tragic hero to greater extent than Iago and because his transition, brought about by insecurity and jealousy, occurs entirely within the play as opposed to Iago, whose transition has been mostly formed by the time of the play’s opening, it is Othello who rightfully deserves the title role. He is not the catalyst for the action in the traditional sense, but he is the outstanding example both of what a man can make of himself through heroic and noble action as well as how a man can destroy himself through jealousy and misjudgment. Iago, on the other hand, while arguably a tragic hero in his own right, does not demonstrate these same attributes of nobility and heroism that one expects to find, nor does he provide the exemplary examples Shakespeare wished to convey by focusing greater attention on the Moor.
Bloom, Harold. Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. New York: Riverhead Books, 1998.
Brooke, Tucker. “The Romantic Iago.” The Yale Review. Vol. 7. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1918.
Miller, Katie. “Perplex’d in the Extreme.” (October 26, 2004). June 5, 2007
Shakespeare, William. “Othello.” The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. Alfred Harbage (Ed.). New York: Penguin Books, 1969.