In some ways, this character study of Iago was the culmination of 15 years of germination. But the process of bringing what became The Iago Epilogue into existence took just under two years. It started with a continuing conversation with a friend, who prompted me with these questions.
- What is it about villains in general that intrigue and terrify us as audience?
- Why do I feel drawn to Iago, to research and understand him to the point of inhabiting his perspective?
- What about Iago is relatable?
- What about Iago’s story from before, during and after Othello remains contemporary and relevant?
- Who is Iago?
- Why is Iago considered Shakespeare’s ultimate villain?
- Why does he do what he does?
My queries about Iago follow the age-old debate of nature versus nurture. Are some people inherently evil or do they end up that way? My guess is both.
Iago is a product of his environment. Bad people rarely appear out of nowhere. They are crafted over years of influences, social, biochemical, etc. Neuroscience has researched psychopaths and sociopaths for the past decade and though the niche studies present a range of results, all generally agree that a combination of genetic, interpersonal, and environmental influences are involved in creating both anti-social personality disorders. (Iago seems to exemplify traits from both.) These environmental factors are aspects of evil which we are all culpable in creating—the environment in which the morally bankrupt find opportunity to thrive.
A good production of Othello should leave you wanting a shower. Because of Iago’s intimate relationship to the audience, we are accomplices in immoral actions that lead to the demise of many good men and women. But consider where this violence comes from. Iago fought at least “seven years’ pith” alongside Othello “at Rhodes at Cyprus and on other grounds”.1 You don’t come out of seven years of war without some baggage, as we have all been witness to. Even the most well adjusted of our soldiers go through enforced decompression, to calm the aggression and heightened awareness needed in wartime and transition back to civilian ‘normality.’ We’ve been living with a long long war, either up close and personal or (more likely) in the background hum of the news cycle. If you put that many people under that kind of stress for that long, in a numbers game you are going to get some bad apples triggered towards the worse. In Dave Grossman’s classic On Killing:
A World War 2 study determined that after sixty days of of continuous combat, 98% of all surviving soldiers will have become psychiatric casualties. They found that a common trait among the 2% who were able to endure sustained combat was a predisposition toward “aggressive psychopathic personalities”.
The entirety of Chris Hedges’ book War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning is a litany against war that digs into not only its horrible effects on victims and killers alike, but its psychological appeal, perpetuated through propaganda and misunderstanding. We are that society. Iago is that killer. He can handle continuous combat, develop skewed but deeply intimate relations with his fellow soldiers, feel all-encompassing revenge almost instantly, reduce humanity to the actions of animals, call upon deeply disturbing sexual imagery, manipulate others without empathy, and seek destruction largely for his jealousy “ever feeding on itself”– all characteristics Hedges define as an outcome of War. In this, Iago is explicable and sickeningly relatable.
In my Iago Epilogue, I end with the assertion “Iago…if it were not me, it could be You,” because given that backstory of bloodshed and psychological distortion, I believe that a fair number of people would behave like Iago. Maybe a partition of wartime veterans, 5.2% of general population, who would feel it all too well2. At least 5%, the combined percentage of psychopaths (1%) and sociopaths (4%) in the general population. So if two hundred people watch Iago’s performance in Othello, ten will be nodding their heads in an understanding they can not empathetically feel.
What complicates Iago more than a Coriolanus or other Shakespearean military man is that part of him is actually Evil, in the raw, inherent, Biblical and Freudian sense. Now, a real human being who is wholly Evil may not exist, for they would be performing malicious acts entirely without cause yet while consciously forsaking an empathic “goodness,” something which psychopaths are simply born without. But the narrative construct of such a character allows us to contemplate the Evil that does exist in the real world, seemingly without cause. In this sense, Iago is a descendent of the Vice character of the medieval Morality plays. Vice is more of an archetype, similar to the characters of Commedia del-Arte, rather than a fully fleshed human being, but the residue remains in Iago’s makeup.
He is Vice personified, minus Sloth and Gluttony (that horrible vitality, that strangely sated hunger). We see Hubris in his prizing his intellect and will over “fortune-a fig!” Iago’s Lust appears in all his perverse sexual imagery throughout the play. Greed derives from his inordinate desire to control and maintain power over others. Envy for being passed over for promotion and suspicion of his wife’s infidelity, combined with unreasoning Wrath, lead Iago into his deep hatred of Othello. If my teacher Denize implies that he is also guilty of Despair, then the result is Evil: the package deal.
Here I defer to Terry Eagleton’s On Evil, which I cannot more highly recommend for so parsing out how Evil functions, and in such a frank & humorous tone. Part of what characterizes Evil is a vengeful existential despair, born from pride:
Evil would prefer that there was nothing at all since it does not see the point of created things…. Given that things do exist, the best Evil can do is try to annihilate them….Evil believes that it is entirely self dependent, conjuring itself out of nothing, but the truth is that it is not its own origin. Something, be that God, Good, Creative Existence, has always come before it. It’s one of the reasons why it’s eternally miserable with an infinite source of frustration.3
Yet as a human, seeking this complete independence brings about complete suffering. “The most acute form of suffering for human beings is loneliness. The isolated individual can never be completely human,” remarks Hedges by way of Aristotle. Denied his one intimate relationship with Othello by his former companion’s marriage, Iago is thrown into isolation. His anti-social personality disorder prevents him from developing any meaningful relationships save for the one embraced in the heat of violence and warfare. Hedges also mentions how War can bring on such despair:
When the mask of war slips away and the rot and corruption is exposed, when the addiction turns sour and rank, when the myth is exposed as fraud, we feel soiled and spent. It is then we sink into despair, a despair that can lead us to welcome death.4
Both Eagleton and Hedges discuss Thanatos or Freudian’s Death Drive, the desire to annihilate all things, including ourselves. “An infinity of will to replace the eternity of God.”5 It is an ever-present symptom of our free will, that taken to an extreme can defy all creation and destroy on a physical and spiritual level. This is why my Iago has to commit suicide. There is no other way for an evil character to vacate the premises.
To be damned, you must know what you are turning down… you cannot end up in hell by accident. You land yourself in hell by turning down God’s love. Consigning yourself to perdition is your final triumph over the Almighty. There is no other way of outsmarting God….The damned refuse to be saved since this would deprive them of their adolescent rebellion against the whole of reality.
Iago’s final moment in Othello chills because he willfully refuses an opportunity for redemption by giving any justification for his actions.
Demand me nothing. What you know, you know.
From this time forth nevermore will I speak word.
He spits on reason and redemption. We are left with the knowledge that Iago is still out there, in some prison, seething in his hatred for all things. This is also the argument for why if my Iago has to die, she goes at least with eyes wide open. Hell is hell in part because its suffering never ends. There is a painful cyclical incompletion to this monster “begot upon itself, born on itself”6. Eagleton nails it:
To the damned, the self (ego) is too precious to be given away.
The torment of despair is precisely the inability to die.
Here, death by any normal means is a resolution into God’s forgiveness. I’m remembering 10th grade English when I point out in Milton’s Paradise Lost, God says of the Devil “I would grant him forgiveness if only he would ask it.” But Satan can’t bring himself to, as it would give God the final word. True Despair, true Evil don’t end. My Iago cannot allow herself that submission, as much as she is driven by Thanatos resolve her despair in death. So she dies, but does not end.
1Shakespeare, William. Othello, 1.3.83
3Eagleton, Terry. On Evil. p. 60, 63
4Hedges, Chris. War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning. p. 164
5Eagleton, Terry. On Evil. p. 65
6Shakespeare, William. Othello. 3.4.155-156