“Were I The Moor” Part 1

Iago as a Manifestation of Othello’s Ego

Scholars of Othello too often categorize the villain, Iago, as a mere sociopath. While this diagnosis is psychologically valid, it confines Iago to a trope that limits the emblematic potential of his character. Many attempt to get inside Othello’s head in order to see the loyal Iago he sees, but along the way miss the complex concept William Shakespeare created. Iago warns Othello to beware of the green-eyed monster, referring to jealousy (3.3.170-171). In this line, Shakespeare begs the reader to ask if Iago planted jealousies within Othello, or if he unearthed repressed jealousies already buried in Othello’s ego. Iago is the villain of the play, but he also represents a greater antagonist: ego. Iago not only reflects, but manifests Othello’s own ego. Shakespeare demonstrates what Richard Raatzsch dubs “the concept of Iago;” he does this through Iago’s name, Iago’s manipulation of Othello, the strong jealousy that they both share, Iago’s lack of motive, and the title of the play itself.


What’s in a name? Shakespeare left many clues as to the nature of Iago in his name, though he does not explicitly state the significance in the play. His name could be a phonetic hint to his role in the play: “The reason why Iago is called ‘Iago’ could be the resemblance between the name and the word ‘ego’” (Raatzsch 11). Ego, in this context, does not necessarily equate to pride; rather, it means “the part of the mind that mediates between the conscious and the unconscious and is responsible for reality testing and a sense of personal identity” (Ego, N.). Ego is neither positive nor negative, but neutral, although it can come from a place of pride or self-deception. In order to understand ego, one must also understand personal identity. Generally, it is the “essential or intrinsic character of an individual,” while its philosophical definition is “the condition or fact of being one person, or remaining the same person throughout the various phases of existence; continuity of the personality” (Personal identity, N.). The ego is a component of one’s personal identity; therefore, both are necessary to constitute a full person. When the ego detaches itself from the personal identity, it creates disharmony within the person, which is demonstrated through Iago’s detachment from Othello’s personal identity. Iago serves a medium between Othello’s conscious and unconscious – he knows Othello better than Othello knows himself. Iago embodies the reality test that causes Othello to question the loyalty of people he trusts, disrupting the continuity of Othello’s personality. Due to Iago’s treachery, Othello fails to remain the same person throughout various phases of existence from the beginning to the end of the text. Shakespeare uses Iago to personify the natural but repressed doubt that we are not worthy of our own spouse’s love, despite conflicting experiential evidence. In Othello, Shakespeare portrays this doubt when Othello questions Desdemona’s loyalty. Jealousy “feeds precisely on what is not witnessed but only imagined. Othello, desperately swinging between belief in his wife’s innocence and conviction of her guilt, pleads for visible proof” (Bell 81). When Iago causes Othello to be wary of his loyal wife, Iago creates jealousy toward a nonexistent threat. For example, although Cassio is a real person in the play, the Cassio with whom Desdemona has an affair is fictitious; the Cassio Desdemona has an affair with does not exist because she does not have an affair. The Cassio that Othello sees is a caricature of the true Michael Cassio, distorted by Iago. Despite Desdemona’s fidelity, Iago imagines a threat to Othello’s marriage, and then instills a fear of this in Othello himself. In this respect, Iago is “an expert in producing an effect of virtual reality in someone else’s mind” (Bell 81). He mediates between Othello’s conscious and unconscious by bringing to surface Othello’s repressed doubts of Desdemona’s loyalty and love. Jealousy arises through gossip and misinterpretation of evidence. However, the true catalyst is a mistrustful – though appearing to be honest – “ego,” or in this case, Iago. When an ego feeds on jealousy, it becomes a force that relentlessly insists one’s love is not reciprocated. Clearly, Shakespeare chose the name Iago after careful consideration of how he intended to set apart his unique role of the ego to Othello’s personal identity.

Shakespeare utilized the linguistic background of Iago’s name to further link the two characters; however, he also created a detachment. Iago is a Venetian soldier who bears the name of a Spaniard. This suggests that he is a foreigner, much like Othello the Moor, making them the only main characters that are not Venetian. However, Iago makes a distinction between himself and Othello when he states “Were I the Moor, I would not be Iago” (1.1.59). Shakespeare used this line to create distance between the identities of the two characters. Indeed, they are quite different. For example, Othello’s relationship with his wife is distinguished by love, his career by overcoming racial biases, and his death by guilt. On the other hand, Iago’s marriage is based on ownership, his career as a soldier by ambition, and his life by manipulation. Iago and Othello are different as the sun and moon, but they are connected at a core level because Iago’s character as a villain cannot exist without Othello’s trust in him. By claiming that he is not the Moor, Iago entices the reader to further analyze the connection between Othello and his foil. At first glance, the statement appears remarkably simple: he is not Othello; otherwise he would not be Iago. Although with closer analysis, one might find that Shakespeare intended to express the dangerous detachment of the ego from the personal identity. Everyone has an ego that mediates between the conscious and unconscious, but something about Othello’s ego became autonomous to the point of destructive when personified by Iago. Many men and women doubt the fidelity of their husbands and wives, but this rarely leads to murder. The detachment of Othello’s ego from his personal identity is so strong that the ego becomes autonomous, and powerful enough to lead Othello down a path of self-destruction. Shakespeare could have written a play about a man with a fragile ego who doubted the fidelity of his wife. Instead of penning a tale of inner turmoil, he put a face and a name to the ego, creating “Honest Iago” – one of the most legendary villains in fiction.

Othello’s trust in Iago plays an important role in their camaraderie, hence why Othello, as well as a majority of the characters, identify him as “Honest Iago.” There are only two instances in which a character calls Iago by this nickname in person: once Othello (1.3.295) and the other Cassio (2.3.312). However, “the third instance of this phrase bears the bitterest ironic twist of all: when on her deathbed Desdemona asserts that Cassio will not say he has used her, Othello answers: ‘No: his mouth is stopp’d: Honest Iago hath ‘tane order for’t’” (Babcock 300). Iago wears honesty as a mask to hide his jealousy. He says “I am not what I am” (1.1.71), telling Roderigo that his words and actions do not align. This parodies the Bible when God says to Moses “I am that I am” (King James Version, Ex. 3.14). Iago does not equate himself with God – he does the opposite. This is often used to support the theory that Iago is the devil personified, although the theory requires more concrete evidence. At its most basic level, Iago’s strange words suggest that there is more to him than a conventional antagonist, and exposes the demonic nature of his motives. After all, “How can we say Iago is a villain if we learn nothing really believable about his motives? …On the contrary, to this day he has constantly been regarded as an incarnation of evil” (Raatzsch 20). The idea of Iago as an incarnation of evil is not unique to readers; by the end of the play, some characters come to this consensus. Othello calls him a “demi-devil” (5.2.303) after learning of his treachery. By twisting the divine claim of the “Great I Am,” Iago confirms that his charismatic honesty is a façade to mask his selfish intentions: a devilish trick of the ego, and an unearned epithet of honesty.

Laurence Fishbourne and Kenneth Branagh as Othello and Iago in Othello (1995)

While Iago fails to live up to his nickname “Honest Iago” based on his deceitful interaction with other characters, he reveals his brutal honesty to readers through soliloquy. Iago shares his true self and schemes to the audience. Shakespeare did this strategically; he knew that there is no character Iago could trust as fully as he could the audience. This is due to the fact that the audience has no opportunity to reveal the truth. Outside of the fourth wall, Iago publicizes his evil intentions without attempting to deny his treachery or disguise it with charisma as he does with other characters. For example, Iago feigns the role of Honest Iago in conversation with Roderigo. Once Roderigo exits the scene, Iago turns to audience to disclose his plot to destroy Othello’s faith in Desdemona: “After some time, to abuse Othello’s ear / That [Cassio] is too familiar with his wife” (1.3.332-3). Iago is not alone in his honesty with the audience. Many of Shakespeare’s villains, including Aaron from Titus Andronicus and Richard III, “announce [their villainy] in soliloquies: they brand, but do not understand, themselves. They cut themselves off from humanity; they draw the line clear between black and white” (Babcock 300). In a paradoxical sense, the dishonest villain earns the title “Honest Iago” because he is honest – at least to the audience and himself – about his deceit. If Iago truly is Othello’s ego, then he certainly fulfills Shakespearean scholar Robert Weston Babcock’s claim by cutting himself off from humanity. Freud explained that “ego cannot exist in the individual from the start; the ego has to be developed” (Ruddell 38). The more Iago develops, the more he splits from reality. He becomes a villain so detached from humanity that loses any notion of empathy. In his detachment, he brings Othello with him. However, Othello splits in a different direction. Iago attempts to destroy those around him, whereas Othello ultimately destroys himself. Not only does the ego destroy the personal identity, it convinces the personal identity that it must be destroyed. If Iago draws the line between black and white, Iago is the black ego contrasting Othello’s white humanity. This also calls into question Shakespeare’s intentions in writing Othello as a Moor – perhaps allowing the dark ego to tarnish what society perceives as a pure, white humanity. Shakespeare does not merely point out the coexistence of darkness and humanity; he paints a picture of the disastrous outcome when ego gains control.

The truly compelling aspect of Iago’s relationship with Othello is Iago’s level of control. Iago manipulates Othello to extreme lengths. Iago’s authority parallels the influence of the ego on an individual in the psychology of paranoids, based on the studies of Sigmund Freud; “Paranoids” are those who experience delusion to the point of loss of autonomy (Farrell 43). Othello loses his autonomy to the delusion of Desdemona cheating on him. Iago creates this delusion and goes on to control Othello in the same way a paranoid is controlled by hyper-alert superstition (Farrell 43). Othello’s loss of autonomy is an astute demonstration of this psychological phenomenon; Othello loses control of his life and Iago takes the wheel. What Othello loses in autonomy, Iago gains. After learning of his ensign’s treachery, Othello asks Cassio, “Will you, I pray, demand that demi-devil / Why he hath thus ensnared my soul and body” (5.2.302-3). Although Othello kills Desdemona and commits suicide, Iago is responsible for both of their deaths due to the control his words wield over Othello. Iago is the puppet master, and Othello is the marionette. Iago realizes his power and takes advantage of it:

The Moor is of a free and open nature

That thinks men honest that but seem to be so,

And will as tenderly be led by th’ nose

As asses are. (1.3.388-390)

Just as “the paranoid is obsessed with controlling his own actions and reactions” (Farrell 43), Iago is infatuated with manipulating Othello’s actions and reactions. Othello is desperate to believe that Desdemona reciprocates his love, while Iago concocts the delusion of her affair with Cassio. They function in a codependent symbiosis everyone experiences: the power-struggle between ego and personal identity. Humans experience this internally, while Shakespeare decided to express the conflict externally via Iago’s enmity toward Othello. Just as everyone has the choice between trust and doubt, Othello could choose to believe Desdemona or Iago, and he chose Iago. The external power-struggle of the play, as well as Othello’s internal strife, culminates when Othello loses faith in Desdemona and turns to doubt. Although Othello holds the higher military position, Iago gains psychological power over Othello. Shakespeare utilizes the disharmonious hierarchy to represent the disruption is the status quo of ego and personal identity.

To be continued

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