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Iago's Spinning Web: The Deceit in Shakespeare's Othello

Updated on March 11, 2014

Iago the Villain?

In Shakespeare's tragedy "Othello", Iago becomes this character that creates mayhem and does so by spinning half truths to people that are close to him. He wants to destroy the Moor and in the process ruin a couple other lives as well. So the big question is, can he be considered a true villain? Yes he deceives the people around him and gets them to turn against each other, but he only spreads whispers of half truths. He doesn't physically harm anyone he only plays the part of puppet master in getting the players to do exactly what he wants by exposing their vulnerabilities. Iago is indeed a villain, maybe he doesn't hold the weapon committing the crimes, but he does manipulate his victims into doing what he wants.

Othello Act 2.3.310-336

Here is a passage that I will be examining it's from Act 2 Scene 3 lines 310-336. In this passage Iago is reflecting on his current plan to ruin the Moor. He also explains how he isn't the villain and that he is merely lending advice to friends in need and supplying the fuel to the fire. He tries to convince the readers by describing how Desdemona will ruin her own reputation with Othello by putting in a good word for Cassio, this will intern cause Othello to become suspicious and allow jealously and paranoia to control him. Desdemona will ruin herself because she wishes to help Cassio and since Iago will make the relationship of the two seem more than what it really is, Othello will turn from a sensible guy to a heathen. So Othello hangs himself because he allows his mind to wander and create these scenes of infidelity and deceit. But no Iago isn't the villain here, he is just simply providing the gun and bullets. It's ultimately up to Othello to pull the trigger. It's as if Iago is the puppet master and the remaining characters are his marionettes. They all eventually become entangled in his web of lies.

Iago: And what's he then that says I play the villain, 310
When this advice is free I give, and honest,
Probal to thinking, and indeed the course
To win the Moor again? For 'tis most easy
Th'incling Desdemona to subdue
In any honest suit. She's framed as fruitful 315
As the free elements; and then for her
To win the Moor, were't to renounce his baptism,
All seals and symbols of redeemed sin,
His soul is so enfettered to her love
That she may make, unmake, do what she lists, 320
Even as her appetite shall play the god
With his weak function. How am I then a villain,
To counsel Cassio to this parallel course
Directly to his good? Divinity of hell:
When devils will the blackest sins put on, 325
They do suggest at first with heavenly shows,
As I do now; for whiles this honest fool
Plies Desdemona to repair his fortune,
And she for him pleads strongly to the Moor,
I'll pour this pestilence into his ear: 330
That she repeals him for her body's lust,
And by how much she strives to do him good
She shall undo her credit with the Moor.
So will I turn her virtue into pitch,
And out of her own goodness make the net 335
That shall enmesh them all.


Untangling the Web: A Gloss of the Vocabulary

Line 330: The idea of pouring pestilence into Othello's ear is another way to describe Iago's poison. Throughout the play we read of Iago's poisoning Othello, but with this line maybe Shakespeare is saying more. Pestilence is "that which is morally pestilent or pernicious; moral plague or mischief, evil conduct, wickedness; that which is fatal to the public peace or well-being. To make pestilent, infect with disease." (OED XI). In this line it's possible that Shakespeare intended to show how Iago will not only poison Othello, but show his intent to infect the other characters as well.

Line 319: Enfettered refers to enslavement, "to enslave to" (OED V). By using this word Shakespeare is saying that Othello is a slave to Desdemona's love, that he will do anything for this woman because he is so attached to their love. But Shakespeare might also be playing on the word slave, and maybe even mocking Othello and Desdemona's relationship because Othello is a Moor. While Othello is a General in the military he is of darker complexion than his love Desdemona. Now we see this in the beginning of the play when Iago informs Desdemona that her and Othello had run off to marry. So her father, who is furious, accuses Othello of seducing Desdemona. But his accusations get over turned. So throughout the story people question their love for one another and it's possible that is due to his skin tone, because that is discussed all through the play and his race plays a major role within the play and other characters.

Line 315: The words honest suit could be referring to Desdemona's nature. She will gladly incline to help someone in true need, hence she'll readily agree to help Cassio. It's showing how Iago will use her good nature against her in order to use her for what he wants. Suit means "5. To pay court to a woman. 6. To pursue, follow. 7.a. To pursue, aim, to seek to obtain. 7.b. To seek in marriage; to woo" (OED XVII). I believe this shows how Iago is going to trick Desdemona and use her honest nature to trick Othello into thinking she has betrayed him. Then we get into the essence of which Desdemona is build on with framed as fruitful / As the free elements. Iago is saying that yes Desdemona is built on innocence and purity as free elements, but that doesn't mean she can't be changed under the right light or made appear to change.

Line 321: This line shows Desdemona, a woman, with all the power, even though it may be only for a brief moment. Appetite directs ones attention to something that draws one to something else, "Bent of the mind toward the attainment of an object or purpose; desire, inclination, disposition" (OED I). This line shows Desdemona as being god-like because her appetite will ultimately lead Othello. It seems with this line that she sort of steers Othello's mind. Whatever she suggests or wants she gets her wish, in the modern day men would color that being whipped.

Line 331: Repeals refers to "try to get (one) restored" or "to recall (a person) from exile" (OED XIII). Here we see how important Cassio's exile is to ripping Othello and Desdemona apart. If he wasn't repealed from Othello's good graces then Iago wouldn't have his fuel for the fire, he wouldn't be able to turn Othello into the heathen he knows him to be. I believe this is an important situation Iago needs for his plan to work.

Line 324: The image of hell Iago paints is a metaphor for Othello being a demon or having the ability to be demon-like. I believe Iago thinks Othello is a beastly figure of hell, because throughout the play he refers to Othello as everything but human. And the more Iago allows Othello's imagination to wander and let paranoia sit in his bones, the more e see the heathen or savage. Also in the next line the blackest sins could possibly be foreshadowing the carnage that awaits the characters. On the other hand, it could be pointing out Othello's true nature, or just the nature of all men who are tricked or poisoned with words.

Line 334: So will I turn her virtue into pitch, here Iago is telling us that he may have a hand in ruining Desdemona, but by her being so innocent she may ruin herself because no one is perfect. And by giving Othello's imagination the ammunition it needs Iago is indirectly the one who destroys her virtue to blackness. So is he or isn't he the cause of her virtue turning to pitch? In the beginning of the play before Iago's poisoning Desdemona is described as alabaster or white as snow, but because of Iago's deceit she turns pitch black.

Line 310 & 322: Villain is an important word in this passage because Iago is claiming himself not the villain; however, according to every story ever written a villain is someone who quarrels with the hero. Iago is trying to poison not only the characters, but the readers as well. He wants to convince us with his twisting words that he is in fact not the villain. But then again he isn't the villain just the mastermind provoking the villain within Othello, within all men. That villain is self doubt. If Othello was sure of himself and the love he and Desdemona share then Iago's poisonous words would of never infected his mind, but the way Iago has a way of spinning his words with half truths is enough to convince Othello of Desdemona's betrayal.

The Villain Revealed

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary a villain is defined as an "uncouth person" or "a deliberate scoundrel or criminal" and this definition fits Iagos' character like a glove. He deliberately sets out to destroy the Moor simply because he out ranks him in the military and that infuriates Iago. He also hated that Othello promoted Cassio who is younger than Iago. These lines and this passage helps the readers get a sense that Iago is in fact the villain. Sure he never commits the acts himself instead he uses Othello's vulnerability to spin his web. Othello is Iago's main target and the best way to unravel the Moor is to show that he beloved has indeed betrayed him the way her father for told. Desdemona doesn't betray Othello she is only made to appear as if she has betrayed her lover. Iago is a clever villain in that he never has to get his hands dirty he simply lights the fuse, sits back and enjoys the fireworks.

In these lines Iago paints a wicked picture of his treachery. He maps out every little detail and knows his victims inside and out. He preys upon Desdemona's pure nature and her willingness to help people in order to make it appear that she is having an affair with Cassio. Then he plants these ideas in Othello's mind in order to better spread his poison. Othello would already have a reason to be skeptic, after all Desdemona did elope without so much as a word to her father. So if she deceived her father who's to say she won't deceive Othello. So the self doubt is already in Othello's subconscious Iago just helps to set it free.

James Earl Jones Reading of Othello

Language in Othello


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