Iago (and Desdemona)

Yesterday, I floated the possibility that Desdemona is a kind of symbolic cipher at the center of Othello, a hole which all the other characters could fill with what they needed, wanted, or desired.

If that’s the case, what’s Iago?

I’ve read commentary that posits Desdemona and Iago as sort of the good angel / bad devil pair who fight over the soul of Othello.

Credit: TVTropes.org

only I’m not sure if I buy this… there really isn’t much of a battle. Othello loves Desdemona, is practically enthralled by her, then–after a single scene and two conversations with Iago–feels betrayed by her, hates her, decides to kill her.

I’ve heard people refer to Iago as this devilish entity, malignant, almost pure evil. And he is pretty bad: he’s out to destroy, or achieves the destruction of, just about every major character in the play… hell, he even advocates the drowning of “cats and blind puppies!” (I.iii.335-36); what kind of sick bastard does that? Only there’s one problem with this theory: unlike the other uber-villains in Shakespeare (Richard III, Edmund, Tamora and Aaron [and one could argue Macbeth and Claudius]), Iago survives the play (yes, I know Aaron technically survives Titus Andronicus, but he will not survive the punishment doled out at the play’s end). Shakespeare can be a pretty strict moralist in the tragedies, and he doesn’t give Iago full punishment.

So if not tragic, is Iago rather an almost comic figure, a mustache-twirling villain, one that should be brought down (and is but only after it’s too late)? Doesn’t the first half of the play’s pivotal Act Three, Scene Three, set up Othello as kind of a comic cuckold (so easily turning against Desdemona)? In a sense, he’s like Ford from The Merry Wives of Windsor…only in that play, no one dies, and Falstaff gets his comeuppance (he gets stuck wearing the horns).

In the bizarr-o version this play, The Real Unhappy Huswives of Venice, Ford finds Falstaff in the buck basket, then kills both Falstaff and his (innocent though playful) wife. In this play, Othello, there are deaths: two at the hands of Iago (Roderigo and Emilia), two at the hands of Othello (Desdemona and himself). And Iago survives the play.

Is this a case of Shakespeare the moralist NOT being a moralist, in a sense giving us something closer to real life, where the good aren’t always saved, the bad are not always punished, and the rest of us are always left wondering what the hell just happened?

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