Commentary on Iago’s behaviour in Scene Three, Act Two

In this passage, the final parts of Iago’s plot seem to come together, revealing to the audience both his easy manipulation of human nature and his innate understanding of the motivations of those around him. In the first four lines, he takes on a pose of honesty and innocence: professing that his advice is honest, open and, above all, an entirely reasonable course of action for Cassio to take.

These lines demonstrate the necessary importance that Iago places on appearing innocent – he takes care to cover his tracks in order that he might continue his reputation of being ‘honest Iago’. There is, however, a great deal of sarcasm between these lines: the audience knows how little appreciation he has for Cassio and hence that any ‘free [… ] honest’ advice ultimately will serve as a double edged sword. Iago’s perception of Desdemona also emerge in the following lines: he understands that she is chiefly an honest individual.

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However, as we saw in Act One, Scene One, Iago considers the honest to be fools who open themselves up for manipulation and ridicule. Thus, while he appears to profess her virtues, he simply indicates his disdain and her perceived weakness. This fortifies once again our impression of Iago’s dishonesty and adds greater resonance to the ironic statement ‘honest Iago’ that recurs throughout the play. He also describes her as generous, another characteristic that demonstrates her kindness towards others.

Iago seems almost unable to comprehend the good and their ability to place the needs of others above or at the same level of their own. It is perhaps due to this that he simply casts them off as signs of weakness. Desdemona’s honesty also weakens her in the eyes of Iago as it makes for easy manipulation: her course of action is straight-forward and predictable as her inclination is simply to do what is right. In doing this, she demonstrates her nai?? veti?? a trait as disgusting to Iago as honesty or moral inclination. Iago’s proclamation of her actions seems a little weary – he finds the honest and generous not only weak but also dull and predictable. It is perhaps Desdemona’s weakness that makes Othello’s simple devotion to her all the more detestable for Iago. He is unable to comprehend the notion of love, and while easily sees its ramifications and effects, casts it off into his personal pile of human flaws as it opens the lover up to rejection and insult.

In explaining the motivations and actions of Othello, he takes care (as is the case throughout the play) not to mention his name, simply calling him ‘the Moor’. This indicates once again his hatred for Othello and deeply ingrained racism. While it should be noted that most Venetians of the period have some feeling of racism towards Othello, it is manifested mostly in a desire that Othello not breed with a Venetian: for Iago, it becomes rather a desire that Othello not live at all, let alone be treated as a fellow man worthy of a Christian name.

Christianity comes into this soliloquy also as Iago mentions Othello’s conversion and ‘redeemed sin’ – this taken up in effort to carve out a niche for himself in Venetian society, Iago believes that it would nonetheless be forgotten on indication of one of Desdemona’s whims. Iago’s intrinsic misogyny states that Othello’s devotion to Desdemona – merely a woman! – is yet another trait making him ripe for hatred and insurrection. This is particularly clear in the lines ‘… her appetite shall play the god/With his weak function. From here, Iago returns briefly to his prior profession of innocence, asking the audience ‘How am I then a villain’ when he simply advises Cassio to take steps in order to benefit him.

The hefty dose of irony and sardonicism infuses these lines once again – the audience is well aware that it is not the advice he gives that makes him villainous but the final goal he attempts to achieve and, most chilling of all, his utter lack of motivation for the sabotage which he performs. He explodes with ‘Divinity of hell! and goes on to explain that it is only when he appears most virtuous that he is at his most amoral and manipulative, suggesting that he is a ‘devil’, inciting those around him to behave in a way that can only lead to their demise. Iago is totally aware of his amorality and rejoices in it, believing it to be a path to personal strength and a superior character trait. His sabotage gives him much amusement and delight and he appears to view the manipulation of those around him as a highly strategic game.

Iago’s purpose seems simply to win. The last few lines reveal the final cogs coming into place in Iago’s plan. This not only provides a map for the rest of the play but also removes any doubt of Iago’s culpability. It also shows that his lies to the Moor are pre-decided (‘I’ll pour this pestilence into his ear’) and furthers our impression of him as a highly considered individual who rarely speaks before he thinks.

Iago tells the audience that, while Desdemona pleads Cassio’s innocence, he will advise the Moor that it is due to ‘her body’s lust’ for him. Her attempts will then appear to have additional meaning, driving her and Othello further apart. Iago states that he will ‘turn her virtue into pitch’, making her good deed one rooted in lust and infidelity. It is important also that he uses the word pitch – sticky and black, it furthers our understanding of Iago’s racism as it paints a picture of virtue as light and vice as black.

Out of Desdemona’s ‘goodness’ and the simple virtue of these characters, Iago is able to ‘enmesh’ them in a web of deception and ultimately drive them to their downfall. These lines serve to strengthen our understanding of Iago as a perceptive and manipulative individual and simply reinforce our earlier impressions. It is important that these characteristics be heavily portrayed: while repetitive, it is only in this manner that the audience is able to understand the sheer immensity of Iago’s evilness.