Throughout Shakespeare’s play Othello, the character Iago is one of the main instigators of the action and serves the dual role of director and actor, thus putting the audience at his mercy as both director of the action and central character. What is most troublesome about these complicated roles is that his motivations are never clear and his purposes are often shrouded in secrecy, even though he frequently addresses the audience and seems to brag about his villainy and deceptive nature.
Through his charm and unorthodox direct addresses to the audience (whom he lets on to his plans to some degree) Iago steps out of the page and becomes a director of our thoughts through subtle manipulation. At times, it seems that he simply revels in seeing the effects of his psychological games and that this alone is what spurs his actions, but at others he seems to be motivated by a force that is strong enough to drive him to great action and manipulative planning due to his use of language, among other techniques.
Without Iago, the story of Othello would likely not have any tragic conclusion and it is because of his machinations that the story unfolds as it does. The characters, especially Othello and his wife, are the most affected by his subtle evil, but interestingly, this play involves the reader or audience because of the way Iago directly implicates and addresses them through direct asides not meant for other characters’ ears. What this means for the audience is that like Desdemona and Othello, they are like pawns in his games as they have no idea from one moment to the next what is going to happen, what Iago intends by his manipulations and deceptions, and what the ultimate consequences for his sometimes conflicted behavior. Iago manipulates his audience’s sensibilities just as easily as he does Othello’s and in hindsight, many of his asides spoken aloud about how blind Othello is to what is happening can be seen as jabs at the audience as well.
At the end of the first act, Iago tells the audience that Othello “thinks men honest that but seem to be so, / And will as tenderly be led by the nose / As asses are” (I.iii) but in many senses, he could also be directing this statement at the audience as well as we are far too easily led along by strong characters in plays or narratives. We are at first led along by the nose by Iago, not always having any clue exactly what his intentions are, but due to the fact that he seems oddly charming and openly honest with the audience, we ignore this feeling of being led along. By implicating his audience and “opening up” to them about his true feelings, he reels us in, only to make us recoil in horror by the tragic, bloody ending that mere words have instigated.
Iago is confident in his role to manipulate both the characters in the play and those watching or reading it. Unlike traditional characters in Shakespeare’s plays that do not recognize the audience and certainly do not speak to them, Iago is distinctly aware of his position theatrically speaking, and exploits the reader’s trust by being charming, eloquent, and anything but transparent. At one point, before a longer monologue, he states aloud, “And what’s he then that says I play the villain?” (II.ii) which addresses a character but also makes the audience reconsider how we think of him as a villain. This is one of many points in the text when it seems as though Iago is forcing his readers to confront issues of theatricality, not simply the current state of the plot. When he asks about designations such as “villains” he is playing on the fact that we all, as audiences or readers, have specific expectations about what a villain should be. Accordingly, he distorts villainy by befriending the audience and thereby making them passively complicit in the tragic conclusion and deaths of characters who are, for all intents and purposes, perfectly innocent. By this conclusion, we see the power of words, especially when the main instigator of the tragedy uses only words a weapon—and does so extraordinarily well.
Language as Iago’s weapon of choice is important when thinking about how he serves the roles of character, actor, and director. While Iago is convincing throughout the play for both his victims and often, for his audience, this is not simply because of his decision to directly appeal to the audience and openly discuss his feelings. For the characters who are the victims of his manipulation and deceptions, he uses language as a tool better than anyone in the play—even Othello, whom is supposedly a master of language. For instance, when he tries to appeal to characters, he does not give them reasons, but he gives them vivid imagery. The famous line about jealousy from the play is a perfect example of his use of rich language to compel his target when he says, “It is the green eyes monster which doth mock / The meat it feeds on” (II.iii). There is nothing simple or readily apparent about Iago—his language is full of metaphors and rich images and his motivations are often equally obscure (but of course fascinating and often charming in a strange way). This makes him an interesting character but more importantly, it makes him a brilliant director because the audience is too quickly “led” along to remember what kind of theatrical power he yields.
At the conclusion of Othello, the audience finally realizes that Iago has not simply been a character in a play, but he has also deceived the audience as well as the central characters. His motivations in the first act of the play seem typical of a character who might have a vendetta, but these initial feelings about the relatively innocuous nature of his character quickly disappear. At the beginning of Othello, far before the audience is aware of how villainous and manipulative is, Iago seems to be a trustworthy character and it is possible to take him at his word. At one point, in order to explain his hatred of Othello, he says, “I hate the Moor; / And it is though abroad, that ‘wtizt my sheets / He has done my office: I know not if it be true; / But I, for mere suspicion in that kind, will do as if for surety” (I.ii). Later, Iago also suggests that he resents Othello because he was not offered a promotion to a higher office. In the first act alone, Iago gives two reasons to want to cause harm to Othello, first because he thinks Othello may have slept with his wife and secondly, because of the perceived professional insult. However, given the false face he presents to Othello, the other major characters, and the audience, these reasons are not stable and furthermore, even if they were true and valid, they do not warrant the kind of vicious psychological attack that ensues.
As suggested in the analysis of his early attempts to build audience trust by providing reasons for his endless hatred of Othello, Iago seeks to establish trust, but later goes back on what he says and makes the audience aware that what he says is only used to make us think a certain way. He uses double language and conflicting representations of himself as either a clever manipulator or a kind, honest friend who wishes to rectify problematic situations but eventually, these attempts at appearing forthright come off as horribly manipulative and hypocritical. At one point, he states, “Men should be what they seem; Or those that be not, would they might seem none!” (III.iii). It is not until the end of the play that the extraordinary hypocrisy becomes completely clear, but in fact, this duality could be a statement not just on the plot, but on the nature of theatre more generally. By saying this, he his subtly asking us that if we as an audience can be so easily led along by a ruse or dishonest character, what does this mean about the nature of character? If characters we encounter are not what we expect them to be, what is the point of presenting them at all? While the answers to these questions are complex when considered in the context of a character like Iago, it is worth noting that the issue of theatricality and overlapping roles characters can take as directors of the audience’s perceptions might be at the heart of this double-edged statement on seeming versus being. Iago is a fascinating villain to us because he invites us in and lets us share in the theatrical process by seeing his understanding of his role as an instigator, actor, and finally, as the director of audience perceptions.