“Were I the Moor” Part 2

Continued from “Were I the Moor” Part 1

Recognizing the relationship between Othello and Iago as that of a General and Ensign is crucial to understanding their relationship as one of a protagonist and his ego. Although it is Iago who gains control over Othello, the general Othello is the “master” of Iago the ensign. Othello holds a superior position to Iago; hence he should not be controlled by him. In the same way, one’s ego should submit to the personal identity, rather than the personal identity to the ego. “The tendency of the whole play is to acknowledge Iago’s relationship with Othello” (Raatzsch 23). This means that the reader must understand multiple facets of their relationship as General/Ensign and protagonist/antagonist, as well as that of personal identity/ego. Othello shows a distortion of this order in which the ego gains control over one’s personal identity. Iago does so by taking his own jealousy and planting it in Othello’s heart.

Further evidence to suggest that Othello and Iago share an uncanny connection is their mutual animosity toward Cassio and suspicion of their wives’ infidelity, which allows Iago to serve as a reality test for Othello’s personal identity. Their hostility toward Cassio is rooted in jealousy. Iago envies his promotion to lieutenant, while Othello is under the impression that Cassio is sleeping with his wife, Desdemona. Iago also suspects Othello of sleeping with his wife, Emilia. Therefore Iago declares his hatred for Othello in his first act soliloquy:

I hate the Moor:

And it is thought abroad, that ‘twixt my sheets

‘Has done my office. I know not if’t be true,

But I, for mere suspicion in that kind,

Will do as if for surety. (1.3.429-433)

The primary difference between the two is that Iago separates these jealousies. He is jealous of Cassio and believes that his wife is cheating on him, while Othello is jealous of Cassio because he believes Cassio is sleeping with his wife. On the other hand, Iago attributes these suspicions to Othello. Although he mentions suspicion of Emilia also having an affair with Cassio, Iago fixates his treacherous plots on Othello. Perhaps this is because Othello promotes Cassio to lieutenant rather than Iago. Marvin Rosenberg goes so far as to claim that Iago “had a right to be jealous. The unsuspected infidelity was a fact; Othello’s part in it explained why Othello himself should have been so ready to suspect his own wife of adultery” (Rosenberg 147). However, Emilia denies her husband’s accusations:

I will be hanged, if some eternal villain,

Some busy and insinuating rogue,

Some cogging, cozening slave, to get some office,

Have not devised this slander. I will be hanged else! (4.2.148-50)

Whether or not Rosenberg is correct in affirming that Othello did sleep with Emilia, the fact that Iago is able to project these jealousies onto Othello further links them and exhibits their synergy, depicting a spot-on portrayal of paranoid projection. Although Shakespeare’s works came before that of Freud, Shakespeare, to an extent, understood the concept of projection and “mistaking of one’s own mental states for external reality” (Farrell 42). This demonstrates a failure on behalf of the ego to make the distinction between conscious and unconscious, as well as reality and suspicion. Iago fulfills the ego’s function as a reality test for Othello’s personal identity, but fails to do so by distorting his perception of reality and those around him with a lens of distrust. While “ego” is a neutral term, the relationship between Othello and Iago is an example of a detached ego coming from a place of self-destruction. Shakespeare used Iago as a medium between reality and Othello’s deepest, darkest fears.

Richard Raatzsch provides a compelling analysis of Iago in his book The Apologetics of Evil

Othello and Iago’s sexual jealousy and treatment of their wives illustrates their symbiosis due to the aspects of Elizabethan marriage, love, and sexism they represent. Both are suspicious of their wives’ infidelity. Sexual jealousy is a key theme in Othello that relies heavily on the imagination rather than physical evidence. This is true not only to the play, but to human emotion in reality: “There is something metaphysical about sex to the jealous mind. The sexual act about which the jealous lover wants the truth must seem, however closely viewed, still to hide something. No knowledge is complete enough to satisfy jealousy” (Bell 83). Othello and Iago share the same sexual jealousy, but Othello’s is rooted in love and Iago’s in ownership. Othello does not objectify Desdemona to the extent Iago does Emilia; there is textual evidence to defend Othello’s love for Desdemona. Their mutual affection is the reason Desdemona’s father approves of the marriage, despite its vastly controversial breaking of barriers including age, class, and race. In fact, Othello believes he loves “not wisely but too well” (5.2.404). He does not want to be remembered as the husband who was too easily jealous, but is so consumed by love for his wife that he becomes unaware of the tragedy he inevitably fulfills. On the other hand, Iago reveals no romantic emotions for Emilia. He treats her as a pawn in his plot to bring down Othello, using her to retrieve Desdemona’s handkerchief without informing her of his true motives. Iago appears to only care that Emilia potentially cheated on him in order to protect his reputation. He also treats her as a pawn in daily life. When she gives him the handkerchief, he responds by calling her a “common thing” and a “foolish wife” (3.3.311-13). Devotion and obedience are two traits that established an Elizabethan marriage (Fletcher 63). Othello shows the love found in a marriage that transcends demographics, including age, class, and race. Othello and Desdemona’s romance does not discredit the sexism of the Elizabethan era; Othello, as a product of his time, is inevitably affected by biases of a time in which women were looked down upon. However, the foundation of their marriage is love. On the other hand, Iago represents the primal ideal that women are the property of men and shows minimal affection toward Emilia. While drastically different, both love and ownership are accurate portrayals of what constituted a marriage in their day and age. In this respect, Othello and Iago are two halves of a whole not only in their respective marriages, but as a psychic split in which Iago is the darker half that. If Iago is ego, then Othello’s sexual jealousy replicates what readers see in Iago. The crucial difference between Iago’s and Othello’s sexual jealousies the fact that Iago’s is self-generated while Othello’s is generated by Iago. Freud explained ego-splitting as the inability to maintain cohesive attitudes of both positive and negative thoughts, therefore polarizing the affectionate and hostile, and psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan stated that sexuality “provides the energy for the ego to exist” (Ruddell 41). This explains Shakespeare’s choice to polarize the attitudes of Othello and Iago. Throughout the play, Iago is hostile toward Emilia whereas Othello is affection toward Desdemona. The split culminates when Iago’s hostility infiltrates Othello’s love for Desdemona, leading him to murder her. Due to his loving “not wisely but too well” (5.2.404), his affection becomes so strong that he cannot express it in the face of sexual jealousy without hostility.

Ian McKellen plays Iago in the 1990 film

Classifying Iago as Othello’s ego complicates the task of identifying Iago’s motive. Researchers attempted to diagnose Iago with various social and personality disorders in order to defend his violent schemes. There is an argument that he has no motivation at all, which Samuel Taylor Coleridge called “motiveless malignantly” (Babcock 297). However, without motive, Iago has no reason to target Cassio and Othello specifically. Some characterize him by his jealousy, some by his conceit. However, “no one passion is seen to dominate him, but all that can crowd in, jealousy, envy, pride, fear, humiliation, hate, self-contempt” (Rosenberg 157).  Each of these emotions contributes to Iago’s hatred of Othello. This hatred is also a common motive ascribed to Iago: “The basic motivation of Iago is hate. Wounded pride, a feeling of personal injustice, and jealous suspicion coalesce into his master – passion hate for Othello the Moor” (McCloskey 25). This is reminiscent of Iago’s soliloquy in Act 1 Scene 3 in which he announces his hatred for Othello, and also foreshadows Othello’s suicide (5.2.358-359). As soon as Othello despises himself as much as Iago has from the beginning, killing himself appears to be the only option. It could be said that the story of Othello begins when Iago expresses his hatred for the Moor (1.3.429) and concludes with the realization of his goal: Othello’s death. The plot is a scheme in which Iago projects this hatred onto Othello. In this way, Shakespeare penned a story not primarily about jealousy, but self-hatred and the dangers in listening to one’s ego when it is coming from a place of self-destruction. If not for Iago’s passionate hatred of Othello, the Moor himself would not feel remorse to the point of self-hate, and therefore would also not resort to suicide.

The name of the play, Othello, is critical to this claim; it is titled Othello not because it is more about Othello than Iago, but because Iago is part of Othello. Given his one-third more lines compared to Othello’s (Pechter 25), his frequent honesty with the audience through soliloquy, and breaking the fourth wall, it makes more sense for the play to be titled Iago. This is not the case because the story is about Othello’s inner turmoil, which Shakespeare personified through Iago.

Just as a field guide to plants could manage with a series of pictures alone, without any text, gradually allowing the reader to form the concepts of ‘primrose,’ ‘fern,’ daffodil,’ and so on, so Othello, through its successive scenes, defines what one might call ‘the concept of Iago.’ But given that this is a concept of something pathological, the totality of the scenes can be viewed as presenting a systematically organized visible display of curious, deviant, and otherwise noteworthy phenomena. (Raatzsch 33-4)

This concept of Iago as Othello’s ego is not one that can be accepted and forgotten. This changes how the character of Othello must be interpreted as both a protagonist and a lover. Once the reader recognizes that the connection Othello and Iago share goes beyond that of general and ensign, or even protagonist and antagonist, one can understand that by grasping the concept of Iago, a newfound depth can be attributed to Othello. By comprehending Iago as Othello’s ego, Othello’s internal conflict becomes more authentic. For example, after Desdemona denies Othello’s accusation of being a whore (4.2.84), Othello is unable to trust his wife. His faith is clouded by the lies of an ego that is wary to the point of self-destruction. The understanding of the relationship between Iago as ego and Othello’s personal identity depicts an internal dynamic that resonates deeply with readers, as it is human nature to struggle with the worry that one is unworthy of love, or to question the loyalty of a spouse.

One of Shakespeare’s greatest legacies is translating the human heart into words. His characters encompass themes from love and hate to jealousy and pride. Iago is one of the most widely debated characters in Othello because no one wants to imagine that such a sadistic person can exist. Yet Iago exists within everyone. Iago brought out the worst in Othello with ease. The fact that Othello so quickly turns on Desdemona and even murders her with such minimal evidence brings into question the genuineness of the love he declares for her. Characterizing Iago as Othello’s ego explains his readiness to betray their love at such extreme measures. Shakespeare’s personification of ego goes beyond the individual text; everyone has an ego telling them that they are unworthy of love. For Othello, Iago is a person he knows and trusts. For most, the “Iago” is the little voice that whispers doubt and suspicion. The ego can be so strong that it easily manipulates its victims into distrusting others. This is the driving force depicted in Shakespeare’s Iago.


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