In Shakespeare’s Othello, there is a continuous theme that what characters say is not always true, and most of the accusations made in this play have little to no concrete evidence, only based on schemes and manipulations of others. Specifically, Iago serves as perhaps the greatest example of this as his actions and soliloquies illustrate the contrast between his “true self” and the self he outwardly presents to others. Through his character, the audience gets a glimpse at the 16th century interpretation of the being of Lucifer; Iago embodies the “devil” through his manipulative plan that includes blatantly making promises he doesn’t intend to keep while acting as though he is honest and trustworthy.
One of the qualities of the devil, or the villain in the Elizabethan plays, is conniving and manipulative actions that are not solely rooted in an explicit desire for revenge, but rather stem from some sort of dispositional attribution such as the natural tendency toward evil or general indifference to people’s suffering. In Othello, Iago certainly exhibits that he leans toward committing underhanded deeds for his own personal benefit, as seen in all of the “plans” he makes with the men, Cassio, Brabantio, Roderigo, and Othello. As he speaks to them individually and riles them up with stories of alleged sex and betrayal, he has no true intention of personally following through with the ideas he presents; he is only there to plant the ideas in people’s minds, and lets the seeds grow out of their own hearts and sprout into wicked deeds. For example, in the first act of the play, Iago and Roderigo complain to each other, and Iago discloses that he hates Othello, claiming, “Despise me / If I do not” (I.i.8-9). He encourages Roderigo to get revenge on his desire for Desdemona by “shout[ing] up to Desdemona’s father, wake him, pester him, spoil his happiness, spread rumors about him in the streets, enrage his relatives, and irritate him endlessly.” He claims, “However real his happiness is, it will vanish in light of this” (I.i.57-60). However, in all of these instances, Iago serves as a perpetrator, but does not have clear motivations for the heinous acts that stem out of his own personal experience; he doesn’t, for example, want to see Othello die necessarily to justify anything Othello has done to him (although he does mention hating him, but not for a deep enough reason), but rather seems to just want him out of the way because he can (revenge is only a byproduct of simply carrying out the evil tasks for evil’s sake).
However, although Iago’s disposition might seem evil, his outward actions while around the others he is trying to kill seems trustworthy and confident; he embodies another characteristic of the devil in that, just as Satan temped Eve in the garden with an alluring, charismatic charm, Iago maintains a feigned sense of respect and dignity. Each person he interacts with, he wins over to his side. For example, although the whole point of his plan includes getting rid of Othello at the center, Iago pretends to hold Othello in highest esteem, saying “Though I do hate him as I do hell pains, / Yet for necessity of present life / I must show out a flag and sign of love, / (Which is indeed but sign)” behind his back, and yet telling Othello he doesn’t know if he has it in him to kill someone, doesn’t think it’s right, which makes Othello only respect him more (I.i.123-125). In the play as a whole, he is called “honest” or it is mentioned of him many times—that includes in Act II scene iii when, even as the dead bodies begin piling up, Othello says, “Honest Iago, / that look’st dead with grieving, / Speak, who began this? on thy love, I charge thee” (II.iii.202-204). Until the end when he draws his sword, he has tricked everyone into believing what he says, all while conspiring with another to whom they are oblivious.
Although Iago’s character is certainly reminiscent of the devil, it is not so that the play has an overarching “dark” or evil quality to the plot; rather, his motives and actions give the plot depth and interest, shedding light on the inherent good of others by highlighting the “bad” in Iago. Iago is not some improbable, far off fictional villain, but rather a realistic man who hits almost too close to home. Through Othello, Shakespeare is able to bring up some tough, scary questions, such as that there might be someone just like Iago living in the world around us, and, because he is so manipulative and duplicitous, we might never know it.