Othello is one of the most important and popular Shakespeare tragedies where the playwright highlights the maliciousness of human nature and the way it can destroy some naive souls. Iago is the villain in this play who is presented as an epitome of deceit and malice. However this has been done while keeping the character wrapped in thick clouds of honesty and truthfulness. This is a strange paradox as the on the surface we are repeatedly told that Iago is an honest man and he also considers himself to be so, while beneath all this fake honesty, he is always trying to stab someone in the back.
Because of his crafty nature, this character can also be considered a true Machiavellian figure. Close reading of Machiavelli's work reveals certain link between Iago and Machiavellian prince. Yet despite all his slyness, the character repeatedly claims to be an honest person (Cassal, 2003). This facade of honesty allows him to perform his essential tasks of manipulation and revenge.
Iago is a good example of how selfishness can sometimes lead to success and how one must use his evil powers of manipulation and ruthlessness to destroy the life of their enemies. Iago is thus a true Machiavellian figure- who does everything that Machiavelli thought a ruler should do to overcome his enemies and achieve his goals. A Machiavellian figure is defined in Webster's Third International Dictionary as "1. Of or relating to Machiavelli or his political theory (as the doctrine that any means however lawless or unscrupulous may be justifiably employed by a ruler in order to establish and maintain a strong central government. 2: resembling or suggesting the principles of conduct laid down by Machiavelli: characterized by political cunning, duplicity, or bad faith." We notice that Iago did possess all these characteristics. Many critics believe that Iago was created in the light of Machiavelli's model of a ruler. As Auden writes, "To his first audience and even, maybe, to his creator, Iago appeared to be just another Machiavellian villain who might exist in real life but with whom one would never dream of identifying oneself."
Iago possesses the genius of Machiavelli's prince. He is ruthless and cares about no one but his own goals and ambitions. Secondly just like the prince, he is least concerned about morality or ethical aspects of his actions. He simply believes in winning by hook or by crook and that is exactly what Machiavelli wanted his prince to do. Iago is aware of the evilness of his intentions as he says, "To counsel Cassio to this parallel course,/Directly to his good? Divinity of hell!/When devils will the blackest sins put on,/They do suggest at first with heavenly shows,/As I do now:" (Act 2, Scene 3)
For some odd reason, he hates Othello who thinks of him as an honest friend and his hatred for the protagonist results in an absolute tragedy where numerous lives are destroyed and reputations tarnished. For those who have read the play, it is difficult to understand why Iago would be considered an honest person when he was certainly anything but this. However as negative as his character was, Iago must have some honest streak in his nature or else no one would have believed him and the whole ploy against Othello would have failed.
For the success of this conspiracy against Othello, it was important for Iago to be seen as a man of honor and honesty. From the very beginning of the play, Iago tries to project himself as just that- a truthful person and a sincere friend of Othello. This was done primarily to win the trust of the hero because it would later help him destroy his life. While Iago is busy projecting a positive image of himself, at the same time, he is weaving a plot against him and is well aware of Othello's weaknesses.
The Moor is of a free and open nature,
That thinks men honest that but seem to be so,
And will as tenderly be led by the nose
As asses are" (Act 1. Scene 3. Line 399-402).
Presenting himself as an honest man is also part of Iago's plan and for this reason, he does everything in his power to appear a good sincere friend of Othello. From the beginning of the play, Othello naively trusts Iago and entrusts him with various important responsibilities. He often address him as honest Iago, something that proves that this villain was indeed an honest man in the first half of the play. While his truthfulness is grounded in his malicious intentions, he nonetheless manages to win Othello's trust. When Duke orders Othello to leave for Cyprus but entrust someone with the duty of carrying documents to the Senate, Othello appoints Iago saying:
man he is of honest and trust:
To his conveyance I assign my wife,
With what else needful your good grace shall think
To be sent after me. (Act 1.Scene 3.Line 284).
While going to Cyprus, he needs to have someone escort his wife and again Iago's name comes in his mind. This is because he believes that Iago is an honest man who can do no wrong and wouldn't intentionally hurt anyone, least of all, Othello and his wife.
My Desdemona must I leave to thee:
prithee, let thy wife attend on her:
And bring them after in the best advantage" (Act 1.Scene 3. Line 294-297)
Similarly, later Othello discusses the festivities plan with Cassio. He inquires as to who had been assigned the duty of managing celebration and Cassio mentions Iago. This choice is utterly approved by Othello as he says, "Iago is most honest" (Act 2.Scene 3. line7). All this reflects that Iago had established his reputation as an honest man firmly before the real action began.
The word honest is mentioned so often in the play that we wonder why Shakespeare stressed this characteristic of Iago's nature repeatedly. The reason was to probably highlight the irony behind this. He is considered an honest soul by the very people who are later destroyed by Iago. Cassio is one important example. He was dragged into Iago's ploy when the latter makes him drink too much which is actually a serious violation of rules. He knows that this would get Cassio into trouble and that would provide that right setting for his own play to begin. On the one hand, he gets Cassio drunk while on the other, he pretends as if he projects himself as a close friend of Cassio's when he refuses to report this incident. However Othello's comes to know about this and summons Iago for further Iago. The look on his face makes Othello assume that since Iago himself was such an honest and upright man, a dreadful mistake by his friend must have caused him pain.
Honest Iago, that look'st dead with grieving,
Speak, who began this?" (Act 2.Scene 3. Line 177-178).
As Iago pretends to be covering up for his friends, Othello urges him to speak the truth and again reassures him that his honesty was unquestionable.
A know, Iago,
Thy honesty and love doth mince this matter,
Making it light to Cassio" (Act 2.Scene 3. Line 246-248)
Upon learning the truth, Othello fires Cassio that hurts the latter's ego and reputation. He confides in Iago about the pain and agony that Othello's decision had caused him. Iago sees this as a great opportunity to use Cassio. He hypothesizes with him: "As I am an honest man, I thought you had received some bodily wound" (Act 2.Scene 3. Line 266-267). This clearly shows, that Iago is aware of his reputation as an honest man and believes he could use it to his advantage. Iago begs Cassio to speak to Desdemona about his case because he knew once the meeting took place; he could take it further his own interests.
A protest [promise you], in the sincerity of love and honest kindness" (2.3.327).
After Cassio agrees to discuss it with Desdemona and leaves Iago with his thoughts.
And what's he then that says I play the villain?
When this advice is free I give and honest" (Act 2.Scene 3. Line 336-337).
After he firmly established his position in the hearts and minds of important pawns, he uses it to implant thoughts and convey hidden messages. Upon closer analysis of his actions, we realize that while he was certainly a negative character, Iago was never wholly untruthful because he doesn't openly tell lies. He only implies certain things by his words and actions that are quickly accepted by people especially Othello since he considers him an honest person. Iago is aware of this as he observes, "The Moor is of a free and open nature that thinks men honest that but seem to be so" [Act 1, Scene 3, Line 375].
With this in mind, Iago knows that the only thing he needs to do is implant certain negative thoughts into people's minds like…