Honesty and Evil That Distinguishes between Shakespeare’s Book Othello and Poe’s Book The Cask of Amontillado

Othello’s Iago is called a master manipulator and Machiavel, a man with no real motive to destroy the lives of his commander and wife. Why does Iago act the way he does? Is it because he is pure evil, or was there something substantial behind his actions? In contemporary society, evil sometimes emerges in the most surprising and shocking forms. For instance, take the Columbine shooting in 1999 where two students took the lives of 13 others before killing themselves. What motive did these young men have for ruining the lives of countless others? While I certainly do not condone these actions, I believe that it was not a motiveless crime — much like Iago’s behavior in Othello. It was borne of real injuries sustained, of real human needs denied.

Much like Montresor, in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado,” Iago vows revenge for the “the thousand injuries” he had suffered at the expense of Othello and of society at large (191). In Poe’s tale, Fortunato belittles Montresor in an implicit way — making the sign of the Masons which he knew that Montresor would not understand. Much like Montresor, Iago is constantly belittled throughout Othello.

An Extraordinary Honest Man,” an article

written by Western Babcock for the Shakespeare Quarterly, the implicit insults to Iago’s character are explained. “That Shakespeare was careful to make a distinction between you and thou is shown by analysis of his uses of the two words in Othello. […] [Thou], thy and thine are applied to lago 55 times throughout the play. In contrast, thee is used to Cassio but once” (299). Of course, in Shakespeare’s day, “you” was the formal, used when addressing people of equal or greater station, and “thou” was the informal. According to this evidence, Iago must have been smarting (probably for a while, even before the play started) from the constant implications that he was not as good as everyone else.

Psychologically, the intelligent Iago has needs that are unmet. According to

Deviance, Terrorism And War by John Burton, eight basic human necessities determine personal motivations and behaviors. These needs are: the need for others’ response, stimulation, security, recognition, distributive justice, the need to appear rational, need for meaning to be deduced from consistent response, and the need for a sense of control (72). Where Iago lacks one of these basic human necessities, he lashes out in order to gain them from those around him. Of the eight, one of the needs he seems to have is the need to appear rational. While his motivations may not seem clearly defined, he at least maintains that appearance of rationality to his peers throughout the majority of the play. The other does not seem to lack is “the need for meaning to be deduced from consistent response.” He seems to understand the meaning behind the consistent responses from others, but even this has its negative connotations.

It seems from the beginning of Othello that Iago had not received the type of response he wanted from others. He expresses his rage in the first act when he says, “I know my price, I am no worse a place.” He got passed over for promotion by Othello, and had to watch as Cassio got the spot he so desperately wanted. And, to add insult to injury, it seems that no one else is cognizant of the blatant snub, as if lago were never even in the consideration for the promotion. Writes AC Bradley in his essay “Othello,” “In his first words in Act I, we are invited by Iago to ‘abhor him’ (1). It seems that Iago greatly desires people to feel an intense response to him, just to get any response; he is simply tired of being ignore be d. By craving others” hatred, he acts in a deliberately malicious way in order to gain this missing basic human need.

Barbara A. Shapiro writes for The Johns Hopkins University Press in an article called “Psychoanalysis and the Problem of Evil,” “Iago alludes twice to his suspicions that both Othello and Cassio may have slept with his wife: ‘I do suspect the lusty Moor / Hath leaped into my seat’

(2.1.295-6); and only parenthetically, ‘(For I fear Cassio with my nightcap too)’ (2.1.307)” (1). Iago is unsure of his wife’s honesty. But why? It seems that he is not getting the stimulation he desires. His wife is very much alive: animated, sincerely engaged with the happenings around her, and satisfied with her position in society, just like Othello and Cassio. Iago seems out of the loop, not only invisible, but also comparatively dead inside within his social circle. He desires the same sort of stimulation, but has not received it. For this reason, he seeks it out in a perverted way, looking for a way to substitute for this need. Iago does this by referencing the dark side of others’ sexuality, first by conjuring up the images of “the beast with two backs” and “an old black ram” who is “tupping [Brabantio’s] white ewe,” and then by referencing the marital bed of Othello (“happiness to their sheets”). The language he uses represents his unmet need for stimulation.

John C. McCloskey, in his article “The Motivation of Iago,” writes, “Intellectual, crafty, subtle, and efficient as he is, Iago cannot, however, control his jealous suspicion” (26). Jealousy is the tool that lago uses to undo Othello, and Iago knows that it will work because of Othello’s insecurities. How would he know this? Because Iago has the exact same insecurities without anyone bringing them to the surface. The fact is he does not feel like he has a sense of security: not with his wife, and not with his comrades, and certainly not with his job. Beyond not getting the promotion, his job involves a very real relationship with death; any moment during battle could very well be his last. This basic human need is unmet, and he lashes out causing Othello to doubt Desdemona’s chastity, because he wants Othello to feel what is in his own heart all the time.

John W. Draper writes in his essay, “Honest Iago,” “Until the very end of the play, the talk and actions of all the other characters constantly imply that Iago has always been all that one

could wish in a courageous soldier, and esteemed companion, and a man of honor. Emilia, who should have known his inmost character, even at the dénouement, can hardly credit his part in the tragedy” (725-726). According to this observation, Iago seems like the pinnacle of a great man. It seems strange that he was not picked for the promotion that Cassio received based on this evidence. Cassio, younger and with less self-control, is recognized while Iago is completely passed over and ignored. It is obvious that Iago lacks the proper recognition that his otherwise (until that point at least) upright character deserved. Therefore, it makes sense that he would try to win Cassio’s position; he is only trying to provide a need that has been denied him.

Iago says, concerning Othello, “Nothing can or shall content my soul / Till I am even’d with him, wife for wife.” Iago deeply suspects, and perhaps genuinely believes, that Othello and Emilia were sexually involved with each other. Then Othello becomes husband to one of the most beautiful women in Venice. It is easy to see why Iago would question exactly how fair the circumstances were. It seems he desperately and inwardly needed justice in his life — it being a basic necessity unmistakably absent. Scholar Alexander G. Gonzalez, in an essay about Iago writes, “When Othello is deliberating the means of Desdemona’s death, Iago commands him, ‘Do it not with poison’; rather, ‘Strange her in her bed, even though bed she hath contaminated”” (37). The reason Iago does this is to obtain distributive justice. By manipulating Othello into executing his innocent wife in her bed, Iago ensures that Othello will have the same unpleasant associations that Iago has about his “contaminated” bed. The means by which he got Othello to believe this lie also insured for distributive justice: he took down Cassio with the same plot, securing justice for how wronged he believed he was.

One of the most often applied adjectives to Iago is the word “honest.” He seems to understand the meaning behind this consistent response toward him. Writes Western Babcock,

“In Elizabethan and in more recent usage, the word honest, when used as an appellation with a person’s name, carries a tinge of condescension. Honest Jim, or Honest Old Tom, or Honest Iago implies that the user of the appellation feels socially superior to the one so-called” (297). Iago is consistently referred to by the others as “thou” instead of the more formalized “you.” This slight was not taken lightly by Iago. How could he show those so-called “superior” people that he was not the inferior person they thought he was? The answer is simple: by bringing them down to his level, which he easily does. “Iago is making characters speak and act like himself throughout the play” (Gonzalez 37). Had lago been ignorant of the small slights others seemed to heap on him, he would not desire the vengeance that destroyed the superiors who snubbed him. If he had lacked the comprehension of the meanings behind the consistent responses this seventh basic need his bitterness would likely be nonexistent.

Writes Marvin Rosenberg in his book Masks of Othello: The search for The Identity of Othello, Iago, and Desdemona by Three Centuries of Actors and Critics, “Iago is a silver-tongued charmer who manipulates his victims like pawns. Rather than directly challenge those who oppose him, he leads them to believe that he is their only friend, while secretly instigating their ruin. This game feeds his immense ego, satisfying his desire for an almost God-like power” (58). The reason that Iago craves this ultimate power is because he has been made to feel powerless. The last basic human need — control — had been too long denied Iago. While he certainly “knows his price,” his ego is not overwhelmingly immense as suggested by Rosenberg. Dr. Greenfield of the American Psychiatric Association rights concerning people like Iago, “Research indicates that chronic targets of peer harassment become increasingly withdrawn and depressed.” A small percentage of these react with “hostility and aggression” (1). In the first scene lago is malcontent, it is implied that he has been feeling that way for while — becoming depressed. Finally, the straw that breaks the camel’s back Cassio’s promotion puts him over the edge into “hostility.” Iago realizes what he had suspected all along that he could not turn Othello’s “preferment” to himself; he does not have the control, so he behaves in a way that will get him that control that he believes he deserves.

Iago was not acting on a whim when he planned to take down his peers; he did not do it because there was nothing else to do. It was not motiveless. Iago had been dealing with feelings of inferiority for quite awhile, and it was the blow of the Cassio promotion that pushed him over the edge. Had not Cassio been promoted, Iago would still be in a state of silent suffering, and would not have actively planned the destruction of those nearest to him. His behavior was determined by the absence of six basic human needs: necessities denied him by the other characters. Iago is essentially a broken person who tried to fix himself, but instead of building himself up, he focused on taking everyone else down, though malicious, the motivation behind his actions can be perceived as having several causes.

Works Cited

  1. Babcock, Weston. “Iago — An Extraordinary Honest Man.” Shakespeare Quarterly 16.4 (1965): 297-301.
  2. Western Babcock is an educator and writer well-versed in the studies of Shakespeare, and he addressed the intended audience of people familiar with Shakespeare’s works in his article. The article contained a detailed analysis of Iago’s motivations, with knowledge of the nuances of Shakespearean dialogue and vocabulary. As I was reading Othello, I was constantly aware of the uses of you versus thou, and was pleased that this article elaborated on that; the entirety was important my paper as it digs deeply into the motivations of Iago.
  3. Burton, John W. Deviance, Terrorism and War. New York: Palgrave McMillan, 1997.
  4. This book goes into the psychological reasons people commit acts of terrorism, and what are the conscious and unconscious reasons for what we do. I found a great way to apply Iago’s motivations in a psychological aspect.
  5. Draper, John W. “Honest Iago.” PMLA 46 (1931). 05 Dec 2005
  6. I love how this article cut to the heart of the matter, really capturing the character of Iago, without being overly biased one way or the other.
  7. Gonzalez, Alexander G. “The Infection and Spread of Evil: Some Major Patterns of Imagery and Language in Othello.” South Atlantic Review 50 (2005). 01 Dec 2005
  8. The source relied mainly on imagery and language, but provided useful insights behind Iago’s motivations sometimes.

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