"His Moorship's Ancient": Iago as the Protagonist of Othello

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Shakespeare is universally revered for his characterization of flawed and psychologically unstable protagonists. Hamlet is a crazed, murdering prince, Lear is narcissistic, senile, and a verbally abusive father, and Macbeth is a murderous traitor to his king and country. These unfavorable and evil attributes serve Shakespeare's main characters by presenting them as realistically written men, and there always seems a degree, however small, of sympathy associated with their respective downfalls and tragedies. Othello, however, is an anomaly.

While he is flawed by his paranoia and pride, Othello is only unstable and destructive after intricate deception. Indeed, he seems maddeningly perfect to his adversaries. Even Othello's greatest enemy, Iago, confesses in act I, scene i, "Were I the Moor, I would not be Iago," or rather, he would not want to be Iago if he could be a man like Othello. The Moor commander is constantly respected by Venetian senators, soldiers, and ladies alike, even after murdering his wife and committing suicide.

This level of respect helps Othello become a tragic character indeed, but not a typical Shakespearean tragic protagonist.

Protagonists are not necessarily the heroic or inherently good characters in a play's plot. Rather, a protagonist is the principal character, propelling and leading the plot's progression. In Shakespeare's tragedies, the protagonist often gives epitaphs or soliloquies when on-stage alone, and makes lasting changes on other characters. With these attributes, the clearer protagonist in Othello is the villainous Iago.

Iago is clearly a sociopath, as he unscrupulously betrays his commander Othello, his wife Emilia, and his friend and patsy, Roderigo. This does not detract from his responsibilities of the plot's progression, however. Without Iago's diabolical persuasion, Roderigo would not have been present in Cyprus to help frame and wound Cassio. Likewise, Othello would not have grown paranoid and murdered Desdemona without continuous prompt by Iago's advice. In the final scene, Othello even cites Iago's word as his reason for murder to Emilia, rather than citing the physical evidence of the handkerchief, "Cassio did top her, ask thy husband else…Thy husband knew it all." The tragedy, and the general development of the play, comes solely from Iago's motivations and actions, evil as they may be.

Iago is also the character who gives soliloquies to the audience, mapping the progression of the play and of his ill deeds, as if he were the narrator. These soliloquies show the audience the inner workings of Iago's twisted mind, and not Othello's. In Act II, Scene i, the soliloquy reveals that Iago is not merely an evil man, but possibly a good man who has become murderously insane with jealousy. He decides, "That Cassio loves her (Desdemona), I do well believe 't. That she loves him, 'tis apt and of great credit," which marks Iago as crazy enough to believe his own lies. His insanity could also be explained due to the extensive war record that he claims in Act I, Scene i. If his experiences in battle were as explicit as he claims, then his psychosis may be a result of post-traumatic stress. While Othello's past and present are somewhat mythical and mysterious, an audience gets to delve into Iago's, making him the principal character.

His apparent madness presents some sympathy for Iago, as well. It is almost unanimously believed that Othello had never bedded Iago's wife, Emilia, but that is not relevant. What is relevant is that Iago believes that Othello has cuckolded him. After all, Hamlet had no proof that Claudius killed his father, and many argue that Hamlet's insanity invented the ghost that told him of the murder. Why would Hamlet's revenge be considered more valid than Iago's? Another sympathetic aspect of Iago stems from Cassio's promotion. As previously stated, Iago claims an impressive battle record, "At Rhodes, at Cyprus, and on other grounds Christian and heathen," and he was rejected for promotion in favor of Cassio, who allegedly "…never set a squadron in the field, nor the division of a battle knows more than a spinster." This series of events would be seen as injustice by any man in Iago's position. These motivations for Iago's villainy are the first plot points that are revealed in Othello, and cast Iago as a victim before anyone else. While Othello is respected and loved, and Cassio is trusted, Iago is only given the lowly position of "his Moorship's ancient," or flag-bearer.

An obvious refutation of Iago as the protagonist stems from the most obvious of places: with the other examples of Shakespearean tragedy, Hamlet, King Lear, and Macbeth are all named for the protagonists that give insightful monologues that reveal their inner turmoil. If Shakespeare had intended Iago as the principal character, why is the play entitled Othello?A possible explanation is Iago's nature of robbery. Anytime he refers to Roderigo in his soliloquies, Iago dismisses the Venitian as an idiot from whom he can extort money, proclaiming, "For I mine own gained knowledge should profane if I would time expend with such a snipe but for my sport and profit." Desdemona's handkerchief is stolen by Emilia, but because "My wayward husband hath a hundred times wooed me to steal it." Even Cassio's rank of lieutenant is taken and presented to Iago in Act III due to his treachery. Eventually, Iago commits the supreme theft of life by killing defenseless Roderigo, and then his own wife. Shakespeare may have entitled the play The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice to show that the tragedy belongs to Othello, even though the control of the play is stolen by Iago.

If Iago is considered the protagonist of Othello, then which character would be considered the antagonist? Clearly, Othello himself would be the primary candidate, but Cassio would also serve as a suitable antagonist to Iago. While the general is responsible for promoting Cassio and ignoring Iago's bid for lieutenant, Cassio himself is the actual obstacle to Iago's resolution. Both are preyed upon and fall victim to Iago's devices, as well.

It however becomes clear that Iago's antagonist is Othello, because an important aspect of the position is to cause some fundamental change in the protagonist. Cassio obstructs Iago in his goals, no doubt, but Othello evokes the sinister nature of Iago's revenge and drives him to commit terrible acts. Every time Iago speaks of Othello, he repeats, "I hate the Moor," in every act. This repetition is like a mantra for Iago, as if to convince himself habitually that Othello is his enemy, and to justify his actions. If Cassio was the antagonist, Iago would certainly have mentioned hating him as well.

The changes in Iago are clearly Othello's doing, as well. Iago was, presumably, a good and decent soldier in Othello's army before the beginning of the play. Otherwise he would have been dismissed, as Cassio was for a drunken misunderstanding. Othello's decisions as the general, including promotion of Cassio, may have given some disease to Iago's good nature. While this change is speculation, there is another alteration to Iago through the course of the play. From the very beginning, Iago speaks at great length about his hatred, his revenge, and his brilliantly orchestrated scheme. This never ends, even when killing Roderigo, but eventually Iago sees his plan played out in full with the deaths of Othello, Desdemona, and even Emilia. His final speech reveals a change in his behavior. He states, "Demand me nothing. What you know, you know. From this time forth I never will speak word." That is his last dialogue in the play. This is a complete reversal of Iago's character. The events of the play have brought him the decision to never speak again, which violates his very nature to talk and sling insults and weave great webs of deception.

On the subject of the conclusion of Othello, a notable difference in Shakespeare's style is present. If Iago is in fact the protagonist, why is his death not the resolution of the play? Hamlet's death marked the end of the story, as did Lear's and Macbeth's. Also, these tragic protagonists always died on-stage or were specifically depicted in death. Why is Iago instead carried off after being granted the final word on his fate?In keeping with Iago's unorthodox tenure as protagonist, the conclusion is more subtle and implied. Iago will obviously not live long with the crimes on his head, but Shakespeare decides instead to show his "death" as the demise of his silver tongue. As previously referenced, Iago decides to never again speak, an odd idea for a man so skilled at verbal persuasion. Almost a suicide as profound as Othello's or Oedipus, Iago cuts his only somewhat admirable trait from society and withdraws inward.

In any conflict, the positions of hero and villain can only be set when a certain point of view is prescribed to the conflict. In fact, many truths that society clings to are based on individual points of view, and Othello is a play that is based, in large part, on Iago's perceptions and motivations. Though there is little sympathy made for him, and his arrangement as the diabolical villain is cemented in place, empathy can be achieved for Iago if his viewpoint is thoroughly explored, as it is. On top of that, the positions of hero and villain are irrelevant in the face of who presents the story to a reader or audience, as the protagonist. That is Iago.

With any idea about Shakespeare's plays, no matter how convoluted or over-reaching, it is probable that Shakespeare crafted the idea first. This is easy to believe with regards to Iago as the protagonist, because there is such rich detail surrounding him, and most of the play is devoted to his twisted mind. It cannot be an accident that he is the most detailed and human character in Othello. Shakespeare did not write such accidents.

WORKS CITEDShakespeare, William. Othello. The Riverside Shakespeare. Ed. G. Blakemore Evans. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974. Print