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The Flawed Villainy of Iago

From Shakespeare Studied in Six Plays by Albert Stratford George Canning. London: T. F. Unwin, 1907.

To you, lord governor,
Remains the censure of this hellish villain;
The time, the place, the torture: O, enforce it!
Myself will straight aboard: and to the state
This heavy act with heavy heart relate. (5.2.412-6)
These words end this fearful and affecting tragedy. Its fame both in Britain and on the Continent has always been extraordinary, though Macaulay's praise as to its being "perhaps the greatest work in the world" may be exaggerated. Yet actors and singers have vied with each other in presenting it before the most intelligent audiences. The charms of eloquence, declamation, music and painting have been alike liberally devoted to its illustration, in all those attractive forms of art. In the Italian opera it has been represented with all the power and beauty of musical expression. Rossini and Verdi have each written an opera on it, and the famous "jealousy duets" between Othello and Iago, "Non m'inganno" by the former and "Desdemona rea" by the latter composer, will likely be always remembered with pleasure by their hearers.

In Rossini's musical version of the terrible scene between Othello and his deceiver, the surprise and anxiety of the former and the subtle insinuations of the latter finally lead to a burst of fury, in which the feelings of the enraged dupe and the triumph of the vindictive Iago are vocally expressed with the full genius of the great composer. In Verdi's duet describing the same passage, the instrumental accompaniment expresses perhaps more than the voices the vehemence and passion of the scene, ending with the almost realistic sound of a fatal stab dealt by a murderous hand. Evidently Rossini and Verdi alike succeeded through their different styles in expressing the true meaning of the terrible scene by the attractive medium of their delightful art.

In reviewing this great work, however, the fact of only one villain being in it, with no confidant or confederate, who is loved or trusted by all he knows, and yet willfully destroys or ruins most of the chief persons in it, renders this play unlike the rest of Shakespeare's tragedies. In "Richard III," that King is obeyed by thousands of devoted followers after his crimes are known, yet who die for him on the battlefield. In "Henry VIII," that extraordinary, unscrupulous King was popular to the last among many admiring, obedient subjects. In "King Lear," the chief villain, Edmund, is beloved by the Duke of Cornwall and by the rival Princesses, Goneril and Regan, who fully participate in his crimes. King John, despite his dangerous and odious character, evidently had some friendly adherents to the last.

But Iago, in private life, stands alone, trusted by nearly all who know him, yet trusting none himself. Whether his conduct throughout is consistent with the calm shrewdness Othello describes, of one "who knows all qualities with a learned spirit of human dealings," may surely be doubted. Though his plots succeed, they involve also his own ruin, and, besides, his discovering that he had never the least reason to take revenge on any one. All around him are really friends to him. He has no enemy to hate or dread throughout; his two alleged wrongs are Cassio being promoted before him, and his own wife's suspected intimacy with Othello. The first grievance is of slight importance.

Iago is much more confidential with Othello than Cassio, who, on his part, always admires and likes Iago. Indeed, Cassio's weak, mild character and drunken habits would scarcely have allowed his being long even in nominal authority over such a man as Iago. A "mere suspicion" of his wife Emilia's infidelity seems inconsistent with Iago's common sense to act upon. The very fact of her devotion to Desdemona, and the latter's love for her, might almost have convinced a man of the world like Iago that his jealousy was groundless.

Had Emilia ever been Othello's mistress, of which Iago owns he had no proof, she could scarcely have loved her rival in the Moor's love, nor been beloved and trusted by Desdemona in return. Their firm and mutual attachment was surely almost as decisive a proof as could be of Emilia's innocence. Yet Iago risks all his future fortunes for the sake of avenging a supposed wrong about which he owns he is not certain. He must indeed have been convinced of his error when seeing Desdemona and Emilia both dead before him through his means, directly and indirectly.

His last emphatic declaration that he will never again "speak word" evinces neither triumph nor repentance, despite the complete and fatal success of his malignant powers. Iago's last words seem rather to denote a strong mind stunned, or secretly confounded, by all that has happened, and especially by his wife's brave devotion to her mistress, which apparently takes him altogether by surprise. He had, moreover, left no loophole for his own escape; he has no firm ally or confederate when finally detected.

He merely "runs out," but is, of course, immediately arrested, sentenced to death by torture, and left in the power of men who all know his guilt and abhor him accordingly. His wickedness, however, is so great, so successful, and so remorseless, that his own suicidal folly is seldom noticed. His consistent language seems practically that of a shrewd, self-reliant man with great knowledge of human nature; yet, when his actual conduct is calmly examined, it is more like that of a reckless, as well as vindictive, desperado. When he owns to Roderigo that in his experience of life he never knew the man who could love himself, it might be expected that he would never injure or destroy friends and benefactors without at least some plausible plan for his own advantage. His assumed knowledge of human nature also may seem exaggerated when the characters of those he deals with are carefully remembered.

In all Venice he could hardly have found three men more easily guided, influenced, or persuaded than Othello, Cassio and Roderigo, who all admire and trust him from the first, while in his wife Emilia he is evidently completely mistaken. He believes neither in her faithfulness to him nor in her personal heroism; hence his crimes are chiefly caused by his distrust of the former, while his final detection is mainly caused by his ignorance of the latter. Iago can hardly be thought a triumphant villain, despite the immediate success of his deceit; his malignant course is undertaken and followed under a delusion of his own suspicious nature, and its result is practically more terrible to himself than to any of his trustful, innocent victims.

When Desdemona and Emilia are compared, the latter is perhaps as worthy of general admiration as the former. Desdemona secretly deserted her loving father and married Othello, the man of her choice, without ever hinting her intention to Brabantio. His grief at the elopement of his only child hastens, perhaps even causes, his death. Yet she is never represented as caring about him or making any inquiry after him. Her devotion to Othello and her friendship for the giddy, kind-hearted Cassio are certainly pleasing traits, but she never shows, and, indeed, never has occasion to show, the self-sacrificing courage of Emilia.

The weak, intemperate Cassio and the passionate, excitable Roderigo are alike deceived by Iago; while his wife, though loving him, as proved by her wishing "to please his fantasy," evidently does her duty both to him and to her mistress with consistent fidelity to the last; yet Emilia is sometimes regarded as a minor character in this tragedy, of which she is really and practically the true heroine.

How to cite this article:

Canning, Albert Stratford George. Shakespeare Studied in Six Plays . London: T. F. Unwin, 1907. Shakespeare Online. 20 Aug. 2009. (date when you accessed the information) < >.


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