In order to respond to Iago’s characterisation, it is important to recognise how contemporary audiences understood the play’s villain and also to think about how audiences across time will necessarily see him differently. There is no more compelling a reason to Shakespeare than because his plays hold relevance with audiences today….
Iago declares in Act One ‘I am not what I am’ an inversion of God’s words to Moses ‘I am what I am’. Shakespeare uses this biblical allusion to shape the contemporary audience’s response to the villain by implying that he is the devil.Unlike today, contemporary audiences would have feared the devil as a real threat and so from a theological position it is possible to read Iago as a devil incarnate.
This idea is developed later in the play as Iago whispers in Othello’s ear suspicions about Desdemona’s supposed infidelity ‘Ha! I like not that’ – he is the serpent in the Garden of Eden, the tempter of Christ – this is why Act three scene three is often referred to as the ‘temptation scene’. This is the most important scene in the play because it is here where Othello’s loyalty switches from his wife to his ensign; at the end of the scene they both theatrically ‘kneel’ – a pseudo betrothal to one another as they vow to avenge Desdemona with Othello telling Iago ‘I am your own forever’. The Devil has won the heart and mind of Othello at this point. Desdemona – the ‘white ewe’ and symbolic of virtue, Christian love goodness and forgiveness has lost her husband to Iago.
Shakespeare may also have shaped the character of Iago on the writing of Niccolo Machiavelli, an Italian philosopher who wrote The Prince 1532 (a book banned by Elizabeth I for its ruthless manifesto on how to obtain power). Iago can be considered a Machiavellian villain for his manipulation of truth and virtue for his own gain. His political strategy and cunning is one of his most impressive and menacing attributes.
Shakespeare borrowed the plot for Othello from the story published by Cinthio in 1565 called ‘Un Capitano Moro’. In the original by Cinthio, Iago’s revenge was aimed entirely at Desdemona who had rejected his romantic advances; so Iago’s resentment was at his unrequited love (not at Othello or Cassio). Iago was also responsible for the murder of Desdemona having been tasked with the job by Othello – bludgeoning her to death with a sock full of sand (odd but true) http://www.andweb.demon.co.uk/cinthio.html . Shakespeare shaped his villain as far more strategic – capable of masterminding multivarious deceptions than Cinthio’s character. Also in Cinthio’s tale, Emilia knows of her husband’s plans from the beginning – whereas Shakespeare afforded her greater loyalty to her mistress Desdemona. It seems that Shakespeare was interested in developing a villain far more impressive than in the source text (and maybe offering a more progressive, feminist interpretation?)
However, audiences today, who no longer fear the ‘devil’, may instead fear him for his aggressive racism. The literary critic Germaine Greer said ‘We no longer feel as Shakespeare’s contemporaries did the ubiquity of satan , but Iago is still serviceable to us as an objective correlative of the mindless inventiveness of racist aggression. Iago is alive and kicking and filling migrants’ letterboxes with excrement’.
Given recent events in British and global politics, an audience in 2016 can respond to the xenophobia and racial prejudice of Othello with uncomfortable familiarity. We have seen anti- immigrant rhetoric in the tabloids on the topic of Brexit with hostile language used to describe immigration in terms such as ‘bogus’ ‘influx’ ‘wave’ and of course, Cameron’s term to describe refugees: ‘swarm’. You could argue that this language echoes the derogatory terms used in the play to describe Othello’s otherness ‘ thick lips’ ‘ Barbary horse’ ‘black ram’ ‘turned Turk’ ‘sooty bosom’ ‘beast with two backs’ ‘Moor’. It would seem that Iago’s fear of ‘otherness’ parallels modern anxieties regarding ‘outsiders’ – immigration and border control has been a key part of both Brexit and Trump’s campaigns.
Finally, to what extent can you argue that there are parallels between Iago and Donald Trump?
There is an interesting article that was published in the Los Angeles Times http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/arts/la-ca-cm-0529-shakespeare-trump-20160518-snap-htmlstory.html exploring the similarities between Iago and Donald Trump. It says ‘If Iago were living in America right now, there is no doubt that he would be awed by Trump’s large scale political success at what, for Iago, is merely a mechanism for personal revenge’ and identifies the shared anxiety about race, saying ‘What makes Iago and Trump’s strategy especially effective is that both incite racial conflict. In Iago’s case, that conflict is intended to draw attention to the Moorish general’s racial and geographical difference so that he becomes convinced of the perverse notion that his wife is, somehow, suspect because she has chosen to marry a black man. In Trump’s case the point is to displace economic anxiety onto issues of race and religion so that white American males are provoked to murderous hatred of the outsides in their midst: Hispanics, Muslims, Jews.’ Another interesting comparison is that ‘Iago gains credibility for being ‘honest’ because he seems to speak the gritty truths that other candidates are afraid to utter. Trump’s supports cite his ability to speak what they ‘are afraid to say’ in public as the single most important reason why they support him.’ Finally, the article notes the way in which Iago and Trump are extremely successful in speaking to their audience and manipulating others ‘Iago possesses a media mogul’s mastery of the media just like Trump.’
Finally, am both thrilled and unnerved to have spotted this clip of Trump using the phrase ‘I am who I am’. Do you think he deliberately echoes God’s words, or is he familiar with the play Othello and is making a hero out of the villain?