Shakespeare clearly had a deeper and more dimensional way of presenting shades of evil in his plays. In The Merchant of Venice, the intended antagonist is Shylock, who is a vengeful, spiteful man. However, Shylock’s depth rests in understanding what makes him the way that he is. There is a carefully placed set of circumstances which help us to understand the tint of his dark shade. In Iago, there is a much more unsettling, unexplained, sinister nature which sets him into a league of his own, with little answers as to his afflictions. Iago represents a true presence of evil, versus the presence of malice based on a reasonable affliction.
The characteristics which make Shylock a villain in The Merchant of Venice are clear; Shylock exists to represent a minority pushed to the brink of his tolerance by oppression and lifelong hatred. In Shakespeare’s time, religious and racial prejudice were the constant with few variables in Caucasian, Christian setting. Being Jewish, Shylock is born with a large disadvantage, and his seemingly selfish, vengeful attitude towards Antonio (a staunch anti-Semite) can be seen as understandable. It is easy to imagine sympathizing with Shylock, because his villainous behavior was created, it may not have been in his nature. In Othello, the Moor of Venice, Iago’s back story is less prevalent, but his cold, calculating, self-serving behavior illustrates that his very nature is evil-based.
When the reader meets Iago in the beginning of the first act, his abhorrent distaste for showing one’s true colors is tangible. Considering himself to be a far superior candidate for promotion over Michael Cassius by Othello, his destructive plot of deceit and murder kick starts the entire story. A true predator, he finds a gullible weakness in Roderigo, and ultimately in Othello, and twists the fate of each character (basing his sinister behavior on slights he believes done to him artificially) for his own personal gain, and shows no remorse or indication that he follows any type of moral compass. It is exceptionally seamless for him to carry out his salacious plans, because he masquerades as a trustworthy, articulate, and convincing confidante, manipulating Othello into believing his with Desdemona has deceived him, and Roderigo to believe he can have Desdemona. He is easily able to divert suspicion with his seductive rhetoric, and does so with creepy ease.
Were I the Moor I would not be Iago.
In following him I follow but myself;
Heaven is my judge, not I for love and duty,
But seeming so for my peculiar end.
For when my outward action doth demonstrate
The native act and figure of my heart
In compliment extern, ’tis not long after
But I will wear my heart upon my sleeve
For daws to peck at. I am not what I am. (I.i.57–65)
The consciously deceptive nature of Iago is evident immediately. He is not what he appears to be, in his own carefully placed words, and he is not loyal to Othello because he has an allegiance to him. He is falsely loyal to Othello for the purpose of furthering his own agenda, however he does not make it clear who or what he is loyal to and why, sending off an ambiguous warning flare. His clipped, cryptic prose is covered in disdain and mystery at the same time, but it is not until later in the play that his more menacing intentions become known.
I have told thee often, and I re-tell thee again and again,
I hate the Moor. My cause is hearted.
Thine hath no less reason.
Let us be conjunctive in our revenge against him.
If thou canst cuckold him,
thou dost thyself a pleasure, me a sport. (I.iii.364-365)
With little further convincing, Iago reiterates his hatred of the Moor, Othello, to Roderigo in the end of the first act. He goads Roderigo into seeking money for their plan to destroy the marriage between Othello and Desdemona, Roderigo’s unrequited love, and Iago’s revenge for being overlooked in favor of Michael Cassius, as well as the alleged affair between Othello and his own wife, Emilia. Although those bulleted indiscretions are enough to ignite the anger in any man, they are superficial. The disparity between his words and his actions, as always, are large. Iago’s burning desire to destroy Othello are incendiary to the core and his foundation, so much that it would appear that Iago harbored either an abysmally deep envy of Othello, or simply a baseless path of artificial revenge spurned from a truly malicious and sinister lack of morals and values. In enlisting the help of Roderigo (and later Emilia), his scapegoats are in place to allow Othello to entrust in him even more, all the while appearing to have his interests at heart.
They say that a true friend does not stab you in the back, but in the front. A stab to the back is cowardly and deceptive, but you can clearly anticipate a stab in the proverbial front, because a friend would never deceive or mislead you. In honesty and values, we entrust our lives to others for support. Iago is a character that is brilliantly damaged, and truly diabolical psychologically. Whatever his need for the destruction of those around him, it extends far beyond an eye for an eye, and is not satisfactory until any and all roadblocks in his path to power and position are eliminated permanently. What sets him apart from any other villain thus far in our Shakespeare studies is his complete lack of an inner monologue, an inner conscience, which would exist to make him a scarred human rather than a raving sociopath.
Shakespeare, William. Othello, the Moor of Venice. Project Gutenberg, November, 1998.
Web. 9 June 2012.