Analysis Of Iago From Shakespeare’s Othello In Terms Of Machiavellianism

It may seem to be a stretch when connecting the behaviour of Shakespeare's Iago with Machiavellianism, but other authors seem to agree. Ken Jacobsen says, “Iago’s behavior represents an authentic application of the inner logic of Machiavellianism to a particular set of contingent circumstances”. Though it does seem more likely that one would discover those infamous principles especially in Measure for Measure, they are vaguely apparent in other plays as well. These plays correlate more with Machiavelli’s famous monograph The Prince, in which he outlines the unique and required behaviors and techniques of a successful prince or governor of any sort. It is not just The Prince, however, that is the text of relation to Iago; it can also be said that The Art of War that influences his verbal strategies against Othello. It is from this text that Iago, via Shakespeare, masters his “rhetorical performance”, and wages verbal warfare against Othello. It is Iago’s words that do the most harm, for his actions proved to be unsuccessful in the end.

It is not hard to recognise that Iago is a conniving, envious, and intelligent man. His use of deceit and evil intentions are not unknown to the audience, but they are to the rest of the characters in the story. It is most obvious that Iago has intentions to manipulate and lie to achieve his aims when he says, “But I will wear my heart upon my sleeve. For Daws to peck at. I am not what I am.” Iago uses a sort of blurred transparency to gain and hold the trust of Othello. He is constantly wobbling on the edge of exposure, but he does this skilfully. As it is his intention to seem as transparent as possible, creating an illusion of honesty. Shakespeare probably used this illusion of honesty to allude to the potential for the government to seem so transparent, yet only for the purpose of concealing their deceit. Several times, Iago contradicts himself verbally and openly to Othello. It is only because of the audience’s omniscient presence that we understand how close Iago is to revealing himself. This is presented to us in many verbal ironies. One such example is Iago’s statement about how one person seems to another. Iago says,

“Men should be what they seem; Or those that be not, would they might seem none!”. One might think how one who is so well learned in human nature and behavior could be evil? It seems as if Iago has nothing to hide, and that is just the way he wants it to be. Even when he is honest about his deception he is still disclosing only the partial truth. Kenneth Heilman (I think that’s his/her name) observed that Roderigo is the only one who is aware of Iago’s false character, yet he is still blind to the fact that Iago is more than willing to, and did, use that same deceit on Roderigo whenever the time required it to be so. It is apparent from Iago’s behavior that he is free from guilt, almost soulless in a way. The extent to which he goes in order to destroy Othello seems only possible for one who has no fear and/or knowledge of consequences. This being a relatively rare human trait may suggest some insanity on Iago’s part. He says and does things without any fear of punishment. Daniel Stempel says in the Silence of Iago, “Iago, as I have suggested, is entirely unconcerned with the moral consequences of choice”. This could be looked at as either amoral or immoral. Iago does have bad intentions, making immoral sound like a more appropriate description of his behavior, but in the Early Modern Era people might think amoral and immoral are pretty much the same (so did I until this assignment, to be honest). This stems from the large fear and rejection that faced Machiavelli’s modern philosophies. Other than Machiavelli, the Devil was really the only other one to blame. This schism of fear in response to new the ideology most likely created a false image of Machiavellian concepts. If the Devil was not blamed, the audience probably looked to Machiavelli or the like. Iago, however, puts Machiavelli to shame with his do whatever it takes mentality. He caused terrible amounts of grief to many people just through the use of his words.

Iago very skilfully and carefully plans out his words, unlike his actions. It is apparent from this fact that Iago was given far more control over his words. This is a testament to the limits of control possessed by humans. The average human is aware that they can control very little in their life, especially the external events around them. The one thing that we have the most control over is our mind and how we it. It is often said that actions speak louder than words, but also a picture is worth a thousand words. Iago slyly falls in between these understandings of speech for he uses his power of manipulation to create a very real image with a thousand words. This image is the poison that drove Othello to jealousy and madness. For example, one could argue that Iago was extremely lucky. He did indeed have full control over the verbal battlefield. He was inside everyone’s minds, using his words to twist and turn their innocent, natural sins into burning desire, but he may have not been successful if it were not for Fortuna (luck). If it were not for the handkerchief that was dropped by Othello or the rowdy drunken behavior of Cassio, Iago’s words may have just caused unnecessary fear and anxiety in Othello, Cassio, and Desdemona.

It is without a doubt that Iago is a villain and a genius. His graceful use of deceit and receipt of Fortuna allowed him to bring the destruction to Othello that he did. Iago may not have been created solely based on Machiavellian techniques of rhetoric and behavior, but he was most likely in the mind of Shakespeare during his creation. This type of manipulation on another human for personal gain is a frightening scene. It leaves the audience wondering if the person next to them is really who they are. It leaves them wondering if their government is really who they say they are, and is doing the things they say they are doing. It also reaffirms the church’s suspicions and fears of rogue intellectuals challenging the habits and virtues of life as they knew it. This idea is not far from the fear that people may have had of Machiavelli and his worldview changing principals.

After understanding the Influence of Machiavellian thought and literature on the Early Modern Era, along with understand his influence in many other politically charged Shakespeare plays; it is not then so far fetched as to notice some Machiavellianism in the villainous character Iago. Shakespeare was surely well learned in these modern philosophies, and he was probably well aware of the political dissidence it proposed. It seems to be a pattern that Shakespeare wrote so subtly about sensitive topics of his time; in a time where man was beginning to question thousands of year old religious traditions that kept relative intellectual peace between mankind. It is not surprising then that we see Machiavellian traits in Shakespeare villains, and even heroes in other cases not mentioned here.

Shakespeare has a habit of being ambiguous in his writings. It is difficult to pin his point of view down because he does such a good job of covering all intellectual and personal perspectives that may exist. He leaves his readers at the end of each play questions each characters true motives and beliefs, and in turn, their true motives and beliefs. It is possible that his live audiences could compose a more grounded understanding of the tone and connotation of the plays. Harold Bloom says, “We can wonder why Shakespeare did not make all this clearer, except that we need to remember his contemporary audience was far superior to us in comprehending through the ear”. This may prevent us from ever fully understanding Shakespeare, and he will probably be studied for as long as his plays survive.

16 December 2021
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