Othello as the Greater Evil in William Shakespeare’s Othello

What makes one person to be considered evil, while another is considered righteous? The character Iago, in William Shakespeare’s Othello, could be considered evil because of his plot against Cassio and Othello. Othello, could be considered righteous, because he believes his wife has been unfaithful. The line between these two labels, evil or righteous, is thin. Ultimately, actions speak louder than words. Iago is evil in his actions towards Othello, but between the two, Othello is the most evil for reacting to lies in the most violent of ways. 

The evil in Iago becomes visible from the very beginning of the play. He explains at the beginning how he was passed over for the position of lieutenant by Othello, who gave the position to Cassio. This gives Iago cause for not only hating Othello but Cassio as well. Iago’s hatred for Othello becomes even more apparent by his simple statement "I hate the Moor" (Oth. 1.3.588). His hatred for Othello is partly based on his belief that Othello had an affair with his wife, Emilia. He says, "And it is thought abroad that twixt my sheets / He’s done my office" (Oth. 1.3.588). This belief is based purely on rumor and nothing more. It is during this speech that Iago gives insight into his plot to make Othello think that Cassio and Desdemona are having an affair. This will ultimately be the fuel that exposes the evil in Othello. 

Othello’s deep love for Desdemona is the reason behind the deep hatred he begins to feel. Early on Othello proclaims how happy he is and how much in love he is with Desdemona. "For know, Iago, / But that I love the gentle Desdemona" (Oth. 1.2.572). Othello also seems consumed with passion for Desdemona. This is best indicated when he announces to everyone in Cyprus "That profit’s yet to come’tween me and you", reminding Desdemona that they had not yet consummated their wedding vows (Oth. 2.3.601). Later on, Othello seems to expect that something will go wrong when he proclaims to the exiting Desdemona that he deeply loves her and that "when I love thee not, Chaos is come again" (Oth. 3.3.619). This may be a very innocent proclamation of Othello’s love, but in reality it is an ironic lead into what Iago has in store for the two of them. 

Iago’s story of Desdemona and Cassio has the power to turn a man in love into a man full of hatred. Othello’s attitude, during the first discussion with Iago, is one of clear denial. He claims that he would simply "whistle her off, and let her down the wind", or divorce her in other words (Vanita 3). As time goes on, the accusations that Iago has made, against Cassio and Desdemona, begins to churn in Othello’s mind. He tries hard to forget the claims but when Iago offers him proof, he begins to break down and cries out "I’ll tear her to pieces" (Oth. 3.3.631). One would normally ignore this remark, assuming that he was simply speaking in anger, if it were not for his call for "revenge" shortly after (Oth. 3.3.631). The true evil in Othello begins to show when he commands Iago to kill Cassio by saying "Within these three days let me hear thee say / That Cassio’s not alive" (Oth. 3.3.632). What makes this directive so evil is that Othello has not yet seen any proof. He has only heard the accusations from one person (Iago), and yet he has already decided that they are both guilty and they both should die. 

Iago and Othello’s approaches to the rumor of infidelity are slightly different. Iago is more content with the thought of Othello going insane, rather than killing his wife and her suspected lover. While Othello calls for death, Iago wants to sleep with Desdemona or at least drive Othello insane with jealousy and take over Cassio’s position as Lieutenant. While Iago was thinking out loud, he expressed a need to be "evened with [Othello], wife for wife" (Oth. 2.1.600). This was explained by one author as Iago desiring "to sleep with Desdemona as he imagines Othello has slept with Emilia ..." (Zender 1). Iago feels these are simple requests for restitution that he is owed. If Iago would have succeeded in his original goals without spilling any blood, would he have been considered evil? He may have even been revered for accomplishing such a task. In his mind Othello truly did sleep with his wife, Emilia, as he said, "I know not if’t be true; But I, for mere suspicion in that kind, will do as if for surety" (Oth. 1.3.588). He clearly felt that he was setting things to way they should be. He should be the Lieutenant, not Cassio, and Othello should know the agony of having someone he trusted sleep with his wife. Unfortunately, Iago begins to enjoy the game a little too much. As Othello’s mind churns on the thought of Desdemona and Cassio, Iago fans the flames with the infamous handkerchief. The handkerchief is not only the key to succeeding, but the ultimate key to the plan’s failure. 

The misplaced handkerchief rekindles Othello’s hatred and need for murder, because he believes it is charmed or magical in some form (Oth. 3.4.635). If his father truly did stay with his mother because of it’s power, then what would it mean for his marriage if his wife were to simply give it away. Othello perceives this as a total break in the marriage. He no longer sees her as his "dear love", but as a "Devil" (Oth. 4.1.649). He has lost his magical power over the "fair Desdemona". 

Othello’s goals, of the deaths of Desdemona and Cassio, are much more defined than Iago’s ever changing plan for revenge. It is also much more evil than anything Iago has done to this point. After hearing what he believes to be Cassio describing an interlude with the fair Desdemona, Othello proclaims, "How shall I murder him, Iago" (Oth. 4.1.646). At this point, Othello’s violent and evil nature has taken over his actions. Iago’s evil side shines through when Othello begins to weaken. When Othello begins to speak of Desdemona as "A fine woman! A fair woman! A sweet woman!", Iago quickly interjects "Nay, you must forget about that" (Oth. 4.1.646-647). Iago does not want Othello to start feeling sorry for Desdemona. Iago, also, feels the need to direct Othello on how Desdemona should die. While Othello is contemplating how to kill her and resolves to poison her, Iago suggests a death of irony. "Do it not with poison. Strangle her in her bed, even the bed she hath contaminated" (Oth. 4.1.647). The evil in Othello rises back to the surface and proclaims joy at the thought of suffocating Desdemona in the very place that she "cuckolds" him. 

Iago’s lack of a complete plan indicates that he never expected to be successful. Iago does not dwell on thoughts of murder, but still feels that it will be necessary. He elicits the assistance of Roderigo and battles within his mind if he wants Roderigo or Cassio to live through the fight. It isn’t until he realizes the possible danger of Cassio denying the accusations, that he finally resolves to letting Cassio die. During this mental battle, Iago is still thinking of Desdemona as a goal for Roderigo who, if he lived, would try to win Desdemona by giving her the "gold and jewels that [Iago] bobbed from him" (Oth. 5.1.663). This would mean that he did not think Othello would be able to accomplish such an evil task of strangling his own beloved wife. Then the failure of the attack on Cassio, causes Iago to kill his assistant. Ironically Othello hears Cassio’s cries for help and assumes that his own plan is on schedule. 

Desdemona’s unwarranted and cruel death, expose the evil inside of Othello. While Iago is making sure that Roderigo has nothing more to say, Othello is begging Desdemona to say her final words. Desdemona pleads for her life and even asks that she be aloud to live just one more day or even thirty minutes longer (Oth. 5.2.671-672). There is no in-depth description of Desdemona’s death, yet one can surmise that if she was arguing for her life while she was breathing, she would continue to fight while she was not. If you were to poison someone, you could simply walk away and ignore them dying, thus removing yourself from the act of murder, but in order to strangle (or smother) someone, you must hold their writhing body still while you keep them from taking a breath. This is not an act of love, but an act of pure violent evil. 

Both Roderigo and Emilia die at the hand of Iago, in a cowardly way. Iago’s plot is exposed by Roderigo’s letters and by his very own wife explaining the missing handkerchief. While Roderigo is pleading for help, Iago (his supposed friend), stabs him to keep his secret unknown (Oth.5.1.666). Iago then stabs Emilia from behind while she explains her husbands lies (Oth. 5.2.677). 

While Othello reflects on how evil he became as a result of Iago’s lies, Iago still believes that Othello got what he deserved. Othello, knows that what he did was evil and decides to punish himself by taking his own life. Iago, on the other hand, still believes that Othello slept with his wife, Emilia. When Iago is asked to explain why he has lied to Othello, he says "What you know, you know", inferring that Othello knows that he slept with Emilia (Oth. 5.2.680). 

Exploring the evil in these characters causes one to not only look at what they do, but why they do it. Iago is firm in the belief that Othello has slept with Emilia. He feels that this act gives him the right to act the way that he does. Iago’s actions, though deceitful and evil, are not nearly as evil as Othello’s actions. Othello, thinking that Cassio has slept with Desdemona, does not plot to destroy his name, but instead plots to murder him. Othello is also guilty of murdering his own wife in a most vile and evil way. These lies may have been planted by Iago, but it is Othello’s own decision to carry out these murders. Should Iago’s soul carry the blame for the lies that had an evil result?  

Works Cited 

Mc Elroy, Bernard. Shakespeare’s Mature Tragedies. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1973. 

Shakespeare, William. "Othello, The Moor of Venice". Literature and Ourselves. 2nd ed. Ed. Gloria Henderson, Bill Day, and Sandra Waller. New York: Longman, 1997. 563-682. 

Vanita, Ruth. "’Proper’ men and ‘Fallen’ women: The unprotectedness of wives in Othello". Studies in English Literature. 34 (1994): 341-58. Online. EBSCO Publishing. 18 June 1999. Available WWW: http://www.epnet.com. 

Zender, Karl F.. "The Humiliation Of Iago". Studies in English Literature. 34 (1994): 323-40. Online. EBSCO Publishing. 18 June 1999. Available WWW: http://www.epnet.com.

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