Act I Scene I
“Others there are / Who, trimm’d in forms and visages of duty, / Keep yet their hearts attending on themselves, / And throwing but shows of service on their lords / Do well thrive by them, and when they have lined their coats / Do themselves homage.”
In this first scene, we learn a great deal about Iago as a character and a villain. This particular quote as he explains to Roderigo why he wants to help him get Desdemona and in the process hurt Othello, very accurately characterizes this man. He is motivated and intelligent, setting his goals high and knowing exactly what he wants. However, his personality and character are definitely not to be admired. Merely, from the first scene, the reader already knows that our hero is going to get trouble from this man.
Iago is a self-serving parasite. He plans to ride on the coattails of Othello’s power, wealth, and prestige; things he otherwise would have no access to. Then, after he has raised himself sufficiently and no longer has need of Othello, he will destroy the Moor and his reputation beyond repair. Shakespeare allows the audience to see this side of Iago from the very beginning so we can comprehend the motivation and brilliance behind his plot. It also creates a tremendous sense of dramatic irony as we know exactly what Iago is doing while the characters in the play are completely oblivious to the devious plans twisting themselves into their lives. It also allows the Aristotelian idea of tragedy to reach its full impact. Since we are privy to every interaction between characters and many of Iago’s inner thoughts, we are able to see Othello slowly becoming ensnared in Iago’s trap and inching toward his downfall and madness. As the audience, we have no power to change the course of the story and must feel pity towards Othello and fear for evil the likes of Iago.
Act I Scene II
“Nay, but he prated / And spoke such scurvy and provoking terms / Against your honor, / That with the little godliness I have, / I did full hard forbear him.” (I.ii. 9-13)
Already, in the second scene of act one, Iago is playing both sides of the fence. First, he and Roderigo go to Brabantio’s home and wake him to tell of his daughter’s elopement. The reason is that they wish to arouse Brabantio’s anger against Othello and the presumption he exhibits in marrying a wealthy and prominent white girl. Then, Iago steals away to warn Othello that Brabantio has found out about the elopement and is coming after him. He feigns rage at the insulting words that Brabantio says about Othello. Iago must be a good actor and liar to convince Othello of his sincerity. In this manner, he begins to build trust between Othello and him. Or rather, Othello begins to trust him and he, as a very intelligent villain, trusts no one. It is exasperating for the reader to see how easily duped Othello is. However, it also is a warning that this could happen to everyone. The people that one trusts most can be betray that trust without a second thought. People are not always what they seem.
Act I Scene III
“To mourn a mischief that is past and gone / Is the next way to draw new mischief on.” (I.iii. 226-117)
Shakespeare eloquently and powerfully expresses the true nature of human beings. All people are manipulative and self-serving though Iago is definitely an extreme. This quote is the Duke speaking to Brabantio as well as the young couple Othello and Desdemona. The urgent matter at hand is the invading Turkish fleet sailing towards Cyprus. He does not have the time to arbitrate arguments between father in law and son. Originally, before he discovered that Othello was the villain in question, the Duke had given Brabantio leave to punish the perpetrator of the crime in any way he thought justified. When he discovers that Brabantio is accusing Othello, he immediately changes his mind and tone of speech, instead aligning his opinion with Othello’s story.
The Duke needs Othello to fight a war for him and a senator less important in this situation. He asks Brabantio to drop the issue so that he can continue with more important matters. He is keeping his own interests first and foremost in his mind and his concern is for the people of Cyprus and the incoming Turkish invaders. He must keep his people safe and happy and he needs Othello to achieve his goal. When Brabantio’s goals did not collide with the Duke’s, he was happy to assist in any way. However, when the two no longer ran parallel courses, he pushed aside Brabantio’s and addressed his own interests first.
Act II Scene I
“The Moor, howbeit that I endure him not / Is of a constant, loving, noble nature;” (II.i. 231-232)
Iago makes this statement in a soliloquy after Othello and the entire company land on Cyprus. Iago is obviously very honest with himself. He hates Othello but he does not let that hatred blind him to the true nature of Othello. He is able to acknowledge that Othello is a worthy and noble man in contrast to his own devious nature. One would think that he could come to respect that love and nobility vested in Othello despite their differences. However, Iago reveals how evil he truly is because despite his honesty, he still wants to utterly destroy Othello’s life and reputation. He takes advantage of Othello’s trust and penchant to believe others for his own ends.
It seems that Iago has little motivation for what he plans to do to Othello. It is true that he was snubbed when Othello gave the lieutenant post to Cassio but Iago also acknowledges that he is not a leader. It is his role to follow others and to ride on their coattails of glory and fame. He makes ridiculous excuses, that Othello slept with his wife Emilia, as another reason for his revenge. It appears however, that the majority of the time, his only reason is pure evil. He ruins lives for his own sadistic pleasure and enjoys having the power to wreak death and destruction upon the lives of his superiors.
Act II Scene II
“Heaven bless the island of Cyprus and our noble general Othello” (II.ii. 2)
This scene is only one paragraph in length and consists of a herald making the announcement of a celebration in honor of the Turks’ defeat and Othello’s marriage to Desdemona. It is most interesting to trace the reactions of the Italians to the general Othello. Earlier in the play, Brabantio is filled with racism and curses the Moor for stealing his daughter. Now, as Othello lands on Cyprus, he is received with open arms and great joy. Othello is useful to them in this situation as the victorious general, though in truth the Turkish defeat was an act of nature. He is well accepted because he is to serve them as their governor on Cyprus. His reputation as a great leader precedes and though the people do not know him yet, they exult in his presence. However, perceptions are fickle and things can change in an instant.
Act II Scene III
“Now, by heaven, / My blood begins my safer guides to rule / And passion, having my best judgment collied, assays to lead the way” (II.iii 163-166)
This quote reveals an important flaw in Othello’s character for the first time. Othello is not a logical and sensible person. When he is angry or emotionally moved, he allows himself to act according to his heart rather than his mind. In this scene, Othello is awakened from his wedding bed by a commotion and a brawl in a tavern involving none other than his lieutenant Cassio and a gentleman named Roderigo. He is surprised more than a little irritated by the fact that he is aroused and ousted from his bed in the middle of the night. It’s true that Cassio should not have drunk any alcohol before going on the watch and that he should not have responded to Roderigo’s goading, but Iago is behind all of it and it is not Cassio’s fault. However, Othello is angry with Cassio for his behavior and for waking him up. He summarily dismisses his lieutenant without even waiting until morning to further consider and consult others before making a decision. Othello himself knows of this flaw and describes it perfectly in the above quote. Why then does he not, knowing his weakness, endeavor to correct it? It seems that he does not consider this aspect of his character a flaw at all, rather an integral part of his personality.
Act III Scene I
“And I’ll devise a mean to draw the Moor / Out of the way, that your converse and business may be more free.” (III.i. 31-33)
As Cassio seeks audience with Desdemona to plead his reinstatement to his position, it appears that Iago is doing everything in his power to help Cassio. Iago orders Emilia to fetch Desdemona then takes Othello aside to give Cassio more privacy. If that were all Iago was doing, he would be helping Cassio. However, Iago is doing so much more behind the scenes. When he takes Othello aside so Cassio can speak privately with Desdemona, he damns them to their fate. He insinuates to Othello that something is going on between Desdemona and Cassio and then orchestrates their entrance so that they just happen to see Cassio on his way out. The stage is set for the deceit and trickery to begin. The brilliance lies in the fact that not one person suspects Iago as the force behind the calamities to come. Cassio thinks that Iago is his best friend and most fervent supporter, always eager to advise and to help. By the time Iago is through with him, Othello trusts no one but Iago. Iago manages to become an important part of everyone’s life and sows discord while reaping the benefits of everyone’s paranoia and confusion.
Act III Scene II
“These letters give, Iago, to the pilot; / And by him do my duties to the senate:”
Othello charges Iago to deliver some letters to the captain of a ship that is sailing back to Venice. Despite the developing trust between Othello and Iago, Iago is still given the duties of a servant. Running errands, delivering messages: these are the office of the clown, of a lowly servant, not a military officer. It must be very galling for Iago to act subordinate and pretend that he is happy to perform any service for his general. This demonstrates the relationship between ensign and general and gives the reader an idea of Iago’s motivation behind his evil plot.
“Beware, my lord, of jealousy; / It is the green-eyed monster, which doth mock / The meat it feeds on:” (III.iii. 191-193)
Literally, Iago is telling Othello not to be jealous and to be wary of what jealousy can make a man do. However, the subtext of this statement gives it a connotation very different from what the words actually say. Iago shows his brilliance at manipulation throughout this temptation scene in the gradual breaking in of the idea that Desdemona is unfaithful. If he had said outright that Desdemona was sleeping with Cassio, even if it had been true, Othello would vehemently have denied it. However, Iago is much more subtle, dropping hints, letting slip words laden with hidden meaning. At this point, he still has not said anything substantial regarding the affair, only obtusely referring to it in their conversation and feigning reluctance to speak about it. This method is extremely effective and Othello is already convinced of Desdemona and Cassio’s guilt.
This line sets off the whole chain reaction of calamities. By telling Othello not to be jealous, Iago manages to put the idea in his head. No one will realize that Iago is the mastermind behind everything because Othello believes that he is acting on his own volition when his every move is already premeditated by Iago. When Iago speaks this quote, Othello has already stopped listening, so eager is he to hear the juicy details. He is offended that Iago could believe him so petty as to harbor jealousies when they are not warranted but that is exactly how he is. Othello is blind to his own faults. The result of this little speech is twofold. First, he sets the stage for Othello to become jealous just by talking about it and second, he absolves himself of any guilt or responsibility. When Othello looks back and realizes that his jealousy was false, he will remember that his worthy and honest ensign warned him of jealousy.
Act III Scene IV
“To lose ‘t or give ‘t away were such perdition / As nothing else could match”
Othello is already changing under Iago’s negative influence. No longer is he the loving and doting husband. He is now paranoid and suspicious of everything around him. He is preconditioned to find guilt and is seeing it in the most innocuous situations. He is not a partial judge because he is looking for guilt in Desdemona. He is purposely creating a situation where he can accuse her of infidelity. He obviously did not take Iago’s advice about being wary of jealousy because he is a hotheaded man, just as Iago intended and predicted. He takes petty revenge on Desdemona for an unfounded claim because he can. He frightens her with the story of the handkerchief and overtly threatens that he, too, will be unfaithful because she has. Is this not hypocrisy? He has no proof that she has been unfaithful yet he is already considering committing the very same act of adultery. If a man murders my brother, does it then justify my murder of that man to take revenge? I think not. Desdemona, innocent that she is, is frightened most by Othello’s harsh words and unexpectedly cold demeanor towards her.
Act IV Scene I
Iago: “Do it not with poison, strangle her in her bed, even the bed which she hath contaminated.”
Othello: “Good good: the justice of it please: very good.” (IV.i. 182-183)
This quote symbolizes the turning point in Othello’s development. Once, he had been regarded with the utmost love, respect, and honor. The complete change astounds even the reader who has been watching the plot from the very beginning. The epileptic seizure that Othello suffers embodies the change in him. He falls to the ground in a trance, and with his physical body, his honor and his good character have also fallen. When he awakens, he immediately begins to contemplate how he will go about murdering his wife. Ruthlessly and completely unaffected, he discusses the best method with Iago. As in the above quote, he is pleased with Iago’s suggestion because it is more ironic and more pleasurable for him. There is not even a hint of remorse in his speech. He compliments Iago for coming up with a more sadistic method of killing his wife.
Act IV Scene II
“I’ll be hang’d if some eternal villain, / Some busy and insinuating rogue, / Some cogging, cozening slave, to get some office, / Have not devised this slander;”
Othello storms out of the room in anger and leaves Desdemona feeling bewildered and unsure of what she has done wrong. Ironically, she goes to Iago with her questions, looking for advice. Desdemona is so naïve, unable to comprehend that any person could intentionally try to destroy her relationship with her husband. She maintains that Othello is bothered by some matter of state. However, Emilia in this quote, speaks remarkably accurately. She is very clear-sighted and practical. She does not idealize situations but sees them as they are. Though her description in this quote is nearly perfect in describing Iago, she does not realize that the “insinuating rogue and cozening slave” that she talks about is her husband. It demonstrates the severe lack of communication in relationships. During that day, marriages were not made from true love. In Othello and Desdemona’s case, they claimed that love brought them together but it was more like pity and flattery. If there had been effective communication between husband and wife from the beginning, none of the events of this play would have occurred.
Act IV Scene III
“The world’s a huge thing: it is a great price for a small vice” (IV.iii. 63-64)
Desdemona shows her naïveté and innocence in her conversation with Emilia after the men have gone. She has been outright accused of infidelity and is completely confused by the unfolding events. She asks questions that show her ignorance about worldly matters. Emilia is an uneducated, uncultured attendant for the elegant and beautiful Desdemona. However, on such matters of trickery and love, Emilia becomes the authority and Desdemona the bewildered innocent caught in a maelstrom of events. Desdemona asks Emilia whether she would commit adultery if she could have all the world. Of course, she meant it as a hyperbole but Emilia takes it literally. While Desdemona vehemently answers no to her own question, Emilia considers it and says this quote. This again sets off the huge differences between Emilia and Desdemona yet they are confidants and love each other so well. It shows that one can embrace differences, be they peasant or noble, black or white.
Act V Scene I
“This is the night / That either makes me or fordoes me quite” (V.i. 146-147)
Throughout the play, Iago has been fully in control of the situation. He is the mastermind behind all of the main events and manipulates every character with ease. In asides and soliloquies, he is always supremely confident in himself, commenting evilly on his own brilliance or the stupidity of others. For the first time, he expresses that the situation is now out of his hands. He acknowledges that he has no power over what happens next and that he must leave it to Fate. He is not infallible and perhaps just a little nervous that things may not turn out as he plans. Already, Cassio survives which is not supposed to happen according to his plan. Though, this play is a tragedy and the hero perforce must fall, Shakespeare also begins to devise the demise of the villain. Things start to go awry for Iago from here on out. The first time Iago is no longer in control, Fate turns against him. Shakespeare implies that evil will not go unpunished.
Act V Scene II
“Speak of me as I am; nothing extenuate, / Nor set down aught in malice: then must you speak of one that loved not too wisely but too well; / Of one not easily jealous,”
Othello is making a last plea to the people in an effort to salvage his honor and reputation. His madness and attitude while under Iago’s influence was like a trance. Now, he has broken from Iago’s hypnotic and seductive reasoning but it is too late. The damage has already been done. Othello knows he has done wrong, yet he would try to lay the blame elsewhere rather than shoulder it with integrity. The qualities Othello exhibits are not those of a true hero. He is petty, jealous, insecure, and now he is dishonorable and a shirker from his duty. He blames his indiscretion on his fundamental character, that which he cannot control. It is his hamartia, he claims, that drives him to commit murder. However, this is not true. He makes his own decisions; it is he that allows his hamartia to govern his actions. He should recognize his flaws and endeavor to improve upon them, yet he does not. Earlier in the play, he realizes that he is letting his anger get the best of him but does nothing to control it.
The plea he makes to those present, namely Gratiano, Lodovico, and Cassio, is rather ironic. Gratiano and Lodovico in particular, bear no love towards him: Gratiano as the uncle of Desdemona and Lodovico as a man who witnessed Othello’s madness. If they spoke truthfully of what they knew of him, there would be nothing good to say. Othello is a stranger, a changed man from the general in Venice. No doubt, there is pity for the desperate man but also fury. Othello’s choice of words do not match his actions of the play. He claims that he loves to well, then surely he would not have taken pleasure in hearing his wife beg for her life. He claims that he in not easily jealous yet he believes accusations against his wife without a scrap of substantiating evidence. This is all a ploy on Othello’s part for he values honor and reputation above all else. He wants posterity to look upon favorable even after he is long gone. He kills himself because he cannot face the shame of a public trial and knows that others will see a dead murderer in a more sympathetic light than a living one.