Shakespeare’s “Othello” is a classic tragedy that has philosophers and literary critiques, even historians and religious figures, debating back and forth about what it means. Why do the characters behave the way they do and why did Shakespeare characterize them so? What was he trying to tell the readers that has everyone so boggled up; for it must have been some fantastic lesson to have lasted this long. And most importantly, who is the true hero among the heroes?
The ongoing debate centers on the main two characters, Iago and Othello. Many readers and critiques have two pre-conceived notions regarding the nature of these two characters that they rather not shatter to pieces. The first notion is that they see Iago as the evil, manipulative antagonist who actively seeks to destroy Othello, Cassio, Roderigo, Desdemona, and any other good character, out of selfish and unprovoked rage. The critic, W.H. Auden, says this in reference to Iago, “Iago is a wicked man. The wicked man, the stage villain…the suffering he inflicts is real” (48). The second notion illustrates Othello as the ultimate good character, the brave hero that everyone simply loves; the heroic protagonist. The critic William Empson defines him as, “the personification of honour” (44). Othello is living a successful life, newly married, and prospering until Iago decides to step in and brew trouble and hatred in everyone. Now it is easy to view Iago as the pure evil character in Shakespeare’s “Othello,” however in a different perspective he can be portrayed as the true hero. He may not be selfless, noble, brave, courageous, infinite valor, unlike King Arthur or Achilles; but nevertheless he is a hero. Iago can be portrayed as the Satanic/Miltonic hero, made popular during the 19th century. Iago’s desire and motive to create a better life for himself, as well as his keen and cunning intellect, make him a heroic protagonist character, much like Milton’s Satan, with whom the audience can sympathize.
In Milton’s, “Paradise Lost”, Satan was a being to be admired for overcoming tremendous obstacles, using intelligence and bravery. In “Sympathy for the Devil,” Peter J. Kennedy digs into the character of Satan, “a fist-shaking, blasphemous evil, flashy and glamorous” one who fights for a world he believes in to be just. He heroically fights for freedom, democracy, and individualism; the same way Iago fights to gain position, status, and recognition. Both characters strive to create a utopia that serves their needs and they achieve this by throwing out other obstacles; Milton’s Satan pushes past the passive Adam and Eve while Iago takes on the world. Like Iago, both his actions and his motives seem quite reasonable, given his unique situation; he wants to break from the forced hand of God, “Heav’n’s awful Monarch,” (Gabriel, Book IV, Line 960) much like the way Iago wants to break from his position as the forever “ancient” or advisor to the naïve Othello. In this light, Kennedy argues, Satan’s most fundamental motivation, his unwillingness to be an obedient second best (and with the arrival of the Son of God, now a distant third best) seems justified (“Sympathy for the Devil”).”Better to reign in hell, then serve in heav’n,” (I, 263) demonstrates Satan’s belief in self-government, though in a miserable land, as superior to monarchy, albeit God’s. All the Devil wants is self-determination, freedom from an, “Eternity so spent in worship paid/to whom we hate.” (II, 248-9)
Let us not then persue..Our state
Of splendid vassalage, but rather seek
Our own good from ourselves, and from our own
Live to ourselves, though in this vast recess,
Free, and to none accountable, preferring
Hard liberty before the easy yoke
Of servile pomp. (Paradise Lost, II, 249-57)
This speech again reemphasizes Satan’s deep wish for freedom and independence, a rather moving declaration of independence almost.
Iago’s motivation in “Othello” mirrors that of Milton’s Satan in that he too is fighting for justice and freedom and in order to achieve his dreams, the ones standing in his way must be dealt with. On the outside, he may seem self-absorbed and snobby but in reality he only wishes to secure a better life for himself and his wife, Emilia. He desires the position as the lieutenant, second to Othello in command that would bring him respect, responsibility, and of course money for his family. Furthermore, this new position would raise his current status in society and it would allow him the ability to create a more comfortable life for his wife—so she wouldn’t have to wait on the general’s wife. Although Iago has proven his worth to Othello, the lieutenancy is given to Cassio, a man undeserving of the role. Angry and disappointed, Iago says, “One Michael Cassio, a Florentine that never set a squadron in the field nor the division of a battle knows more than a spinster” (49). Driven not by jealously and selfishness, but rather by passion and yearning for the lieutenancy position, Iago schemes of ways to reclaim what he believes to be rightfully his. Moreover, the appearance of Cassio has created a gap between himself and Othello, much like the way the appearance of Adam created a drift between God and Satan. Thus, his reason for wanting to eliminate Cassio, or the very least discredit him, comes from the human side of him that desires a better life.
This again raises the protagonist/antagonist relationship between Othello and Iago, and who between the two can be dubbed the true hero. Iago, the faithful advisor, has proven his loyalty, usefulness, and intelligence countless times during battle, while Cassio was most probably only chosen out of favor (again the same injured merit that is prevalent in Milton’s Satan); as he confessed to Roderigo.
And I, of whom his eyes had seen the proof
At Rhodes, at Cyprus, and on other grounds
Christened and heathen, must be be-leed and calmed
By debitor and creditor. This counter-caster
He, in good time, must his lieutenant be
And I, God bless the mark, his Moorship’s ancient. (Othello, Act I, scene I)
In his confession to Roderigo, he portrays how Othello destroyed him with no sense when he gave the position to a “great arithmetician” with no war experience rather than his own trusted self (Iago). In this instance, Othello is clearly the antagonist who destroys a character for no reason while Iago is portrayed as the flourishing protagonist who was stepped on.
Thus, in order to achieve his dream of becoming lieutenant and secure the welfare of his family, Iago devises a cunning and intelligent plan that is beyond complicated and reveals his true level of intelligence. Like Milton’s Satan, Iago lays out all the characters that will be involved and little by little embellishes and polishes the perfect plan to execute his vision; cleverly using the different character’s weaknesses to bring his notion to life. The first victim is Roderigo, a soldier in Othello’s army, who is in love with Othello’s wife, Desdemona. Roderigo is deceived by Iago into believing that Desdemona is having an affair with Cassio, he then persuades Roderigo into provoking Cassio, so that Cassio will lose his favor with the moor and ultimately be replaced by Iago. Although it is dangerous and risky, Iago is driven by passion to successfully fulfill his plan. The critics would argue that because Iago is using manipulation to get what he wants, he is acting in an evil and antagonistic manner, however Iago (again like Satan) feels that all of his actions are justified because he did not get the promotion which he deserved. Besides, it can be argued that Othello (the so called protagonist) won Desdemona’s hand in marriage based on the manipulative nature of his war stories, for he knew the effect such stories would have on a fair maiden’s heart.
Iago is an artist, a brilliant play-write who manipulates all the characters into behaving in the exact manner which he perceives, without any of them noticing his actions or motives. Neither Roderigo nor Cassio were remotely aware of Iago’s plan until the very end of the play, when it was too late. Othello believed Cassio to be an intelligent man, which is why he gave him the lieutenancy over Iago, although he easily managed to fool Cassio, proving his superiority and intelligence. It is painfully obvious that Iago is much better suited for not only the lieutenancy position, but also the general position because he is an excellent judge of character, and his bright eyes can detect deception; Othello on the other hand is far from the ultimate General for he is naive. His blind trust in Iago, who he’d wronged, and his anxiety toward Desdemona and Cassio clearly hint to the fact that he is not mature enough to manage a wife, let alone his army. Othello’s ultimate downfall begins when he lets Iago’s words outweigh the trust he should feel toward his beloved spouse, this eventually led to hatred so strong that it wholly consumed him and muddled his mind to the point of no return. Now does this sound like a man who would triumph when things got difficult on the battlefield?
According to the critics, Iago’s quest for revenge is evil, sadistic, and this makes him the antagonist of the play; he’s the one character that readers love to hate. Empson concludes that “the entire audience hates Iago because he is the obvious, antagonistic villain, who acts out of selfishness and feels no remorse” (45). Auden agrees with Empson when he refers to Iago as, “the practical joker without motive” (50).
Overall, like Milton’s Satan who felt justified leaving heaven for hell and deceiving Adam and Eve, Iago too had reason for his scheme. The two obvious ones being that Othello wrongly gave away the position that was meant for Iago to Cassio, and that he has reason to believe that Othello had an affair with his wife Emilia. Iago says, “I hate the Moor, and it is thought abroad that ‘twixt my sheets ‘has done my office” (135). His disappointment and anger lead him to seek revenge on the Moor who has mistreated him greatly. In this way he is clearly justified for protecting his rights and family (much like Satan’s justification of his freedom and individualism).
Despite his portrayal as the antagonist by many critiques and readers, Iago possesses the satanic heroic quality that is to be admired. Unfortunately, he who has so many of the same attributes as the Evil One suffers the same fate. Iago and Satan both live on but in constant torment and anguish, Iago because of his failure to achieve his goal and Satan perhaps because he never had the desired effect on God. Perhaps the ultimate fall of the characters in both “Paradise Lost” and “Othello” serve as a reminder that not one being can prevail and we all must fall. Perhaps, Milton and Shakespeare are simply mocking our sense of justice and independent thought by showing us the harsh reality that both protagonist and antagonist (whichever one you choose) are all a lost cause and that life as a whole is doomed.
Auden, W.H. “Iago as the Practical Joker.” Shakespeare’s Major Tragedies. Ed. Harold Bloom.
Broomall, PA: Chelsea House Publishers, 2000. 47 – 51.
Empson, William. “Good and Evil in Othello.” Shakespeare’s Major Tragedies. Ed. Harold Bloom. Broomall, PA: Chelsea House Publishers, 2000. 44 – 46.
Kennedy, Peter J. “Sympathy for the Devil.” Skeptic Files. 9, Jul. 1986. 11 Nov. 2008.
Milton, John. Paradise Lost. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987.
Shakespeare, William. Othello. Ed. Daniel Vitkus. New York: Barnes and Noble Shakespeare, 2007.