Iago’s Motiveless Malignity
Iago is probably the most sophisticated of a long line of Shakespearean villains, and he shares certain characteristics with Richard III in the early tragedy of Richard III (1593), Don John in the comedy Much Ado About Nothing (1599), and Claudius in Hamlet (1601). Iago revels in his ability to dissemble and destroy. But while Iago to some extent enjoys having an audience (Roderigo) and outlines his plots clearly, he is also rather mysterious and unfathomable, especially when he refuses to speak at the end of Othello. The pertinent question here is: What is the real motive of Iago’s action? It appears difficult to discover any, perhaps, he has none. Brandes succinctly puts it, ‘ This demi-devil is always trying to give himself the reason for his malignity, is always half fooling himself by dwelling on half motives, in which he partly believes, but disbelieves in the main! And, Coleridge has aptly designated this action of his mind as, ‘the motive hunting of motiveless malignity’. That is ‘Iago is a being who hates good simply because it is good and loves evil purely for itself. It springs from a motiveless malignity’ which implies ‘a disinterested delight in the pain of others’.
So, what motivates Iago? Professional jealousy is his initial motive for disgracing Cassio, but he also admits that he is personally envious of the ‘daily beauty in the lieutenant’s life. In addition to this, he says that he believes Cassio has committed adultery with his wife, Emilia. Iago’s relationship with Roderigo is driven by callous acquisitiveness and when his ‘course becomes a dangerous inconvenience, he kills him. His motives for destroying Othello’s happiness are also driven by negative impulses. Iago is eaten up with sexual jealousy. He says he hates Othello because he suspects the general has “twixt my sheets… done my office.’ After the soliloquy in Act I, Scene I, it comes as no surprise to hear him say, ‘nothing can, nor shall content my soul,/ Till I am evened with him, wife for wife.’ Walter Raleigh sums up, ‘His main motives are motives of every day – pride in & self, contempt for others, delight in responsible power.’
These are the apparent motives of Iago’s actions against Othello and Cassio and propelled by these motives he works out to ruin. A.C Bradley, however, warns us to believe Iago, for he is a great liar and hypocrite. Bradley holds that Othello is Justified in appointing Cassio as his lieutenant. It is Cassio Who is appointed the governor of Cyprus after his death. He thinks that Iago’s claims for the office of lieutenant are not justified, for he is a young man of twenty-eight years only. His experience as a soldier is, therefore, Limited. He had no respect for morality, love, and virtue, so the illicit connection of his wife Emilia with either Othello or Cassio cannot move him to act in the way he does. The reason which he advances for his actions is false. He wants to justify his villainy before the audience. But these reasons are too weak to make Iago take the dreadful actions which he takes against his victims.
In fact, Iago’s malignity is deep-seated. It is based on envy and jealousy. He cannot tolerate the sight of happy persons. He cannot tolerate the joyous conditions of Desdemona and Othello. He must spell ruin in their lives. This malignity of Iago is well brought out in his remark –
O, you are well turned now!
But I’ll set down the pages that make this music
As honest as I am.
Later on, he takes morbid delight in laying out his plan for ruining Cassio and Desdemona?
In sum, Iago is actuated by malignity and evil-mindedness. It is his nature to take delight in torturing and tormenting his victims. The more they groan under pain, the greater becomes his joy. This is the malignant nature of age, and to justify the malignancy of his nature he hunts motives. Even if there had been no motives to guide him in revengeful actions against Othello, Cassio and Desdemona he would have proceeded against them merely for the joy of watching their ruin and discomfiture.