Sympathy for the devil - Iago and his popularity

10:00 AM

Othello is one of my favorite Shakespeare plays. An interesting topic for reflection is how can the audience side with Iago - the play's wicked villain - and dislike Othello.

I mean, think about it. Iago is not trustworthy. He makes Othello and Roderigo believe he is on their sides, when in reality he is manipulating both.

He doesn’t really act, he spends most of the time convincing people to act in a way that favors his objectives. He lies constantly. He is dubious in his answers and does not take full responsibility for his actions.

Even his motivations are not consistent. At one time it is because he wants Cassio’s position and because Othello has slept with his wife. Later on, it is because Cassio has also slept with his wife. 

Othello, on the other hand, has a high position in Venetian society due to his success in the army. When facing accusations, he seems very calm and in control. He manages to deliver a powerful and eloquent speech to convince the Duke and Brabantio about his fair play towards Desdemona. 

So, how is it possible for us to like Iago and dislike Othello? 

Firstly, on the universal sphere, encompassing viewers of any time or any place, the reason is that men are attracted to the devil. I subscribe to Martin Lings’ interpretation that Iago represents the devil and Othello represents the human soul. He says that “After Iago (…) there is no other single character of whom it can be said that allegorically he stands for the devil.” 

Lings comments on how Iago hates other people’s virtues and how his purpose is to separate him from Desdemona, who according to Lings, represents the Spirit. Not only does Othello refer to him as the devil when trying to kill him, but Iago’s only power is his lies. This is another characteristic of the devil - he has no real power over men, only the one of using lies to convince men to sin. 

As Martin Lings has put it “the devil is always at men’s elbow, bent on leading him astray.” We can see this is the way Iago interacts with all other characters of the play: he cunningly convinces Roderigo over and over to participate in his schemes, he lies to Othello and fabricate false evidence of Desdemona’s betrayal, he convinces Cassio to drink, Emilia to steal Desdemona’s handkerchief. 

So, Iago could be considered attractive in the same way that the devil could be considered attractive. Mankind, since the Original Sin, has felt drawn to the power of evil and to its own power of committing evil deeds. People even try to rationalize the wrong things they are doing the same way Iago does. We convince ourselves that our evil doings are correct.

On the documentary "Making Shakespeare", Germaine Greer states that “we could all be Iago”. Ok, but on a daily basis we are much closer to being Roderigo, the “fallen man as such, impotently and inescapably caught as he is in the devil’s clutches.” 

Secondly, if we look at modern audiences, the reason is that in our particular modern culture evil is considered attractive and it is portrayed in a good way. Many would see Iago as an ambitious character, a bold and courageous non conformist, who used creative methods to achieve what he set out to do. 

While analyzing nihilism in modern pop culture, Thomas Hibbs states that we consider evil “alluring and awesome” . Hollywood and the media cultivate “villains by raising them to the status of celebrities” and the media is fascinated with evil, creating “cult heroes out of murderers”. 

Modern audiences have grown accustomed to interesting evil villains and are suspicious of heroes and of any noble values. So, modern viewers can very easily like Iago and think Othello is a fool that fell prey to a smarter, superior man. 

In a universal sense, people are drawn to evil and characters that embody it. In modern culture, viewers are conditioned to seeing evil as attractive and glamorous and to regard good characters as morons.

The Sacred Art of Shakespeare by Martin Lings. Vermont: Inner Traditions International, 1998. pp. 59
Shows about nothing.  Nihilism in Popular Culture from The Exorcist to Seinfeld. by Thomas Hibbs Dallas: Spence Publishing Company, 1999. pp. 110, 119-120

Have you read or watched Othello? What do you think Iago appeal is?

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  1. Maybe this iswhy people in Brazil votes for politicians who steal but "do things". I like Othello very much, though have never seen the movie (I like Kenny Brannagh). I don't know the dates of the plays, but "Much ado about nothing" have a hint of Iago in Don Juan, Don Pedro de Aragon's half-brother. Ah, yes, I just love the word "moron".

    1. I actually liked this version with Laurence Fishburne and Kenneth Branagh. I'm not sure if it's such a great one, though, because I haven't seen any others. But if you like Branagh you can expect him doing an amazing job - as he always does with Shakespeare. xx

  2. Bob Hoskins does a magnificent Iago. Hopkins's Othello's not so great.

    I believe people have an inherent admiration for great skill--regardless of what it is. If you look at "Othello" in a strictly skill-based mindset, you find that Iago is far more skillful in his work than Othello is at his.

    1. I must check these other versions. I can't imagine Bob Hoskins as Iago!

      That's a pretty interesting point you raised. Granted, Iago is very skilled. But I've always thought Othello was very skilled as well, which explained his prestige and position in Venitian society. Next time I re-read the play I'll keep this in mind! Thanks for the visit!

  3. Ohh, I looove this post. While I rarely side with villains, I think that they are absolutely the more engaging characters because they are frequently more round than heroes. Good is boring--conflict drives stories, and villains drive conflict.

    You're right though, that there is something very interesting about the "lovable villain." In my post today I mentioned Dexter, which I think is a perfect example. He's a serial killer, but I'm always rooting for him. There are other cases where a work of fiction can get me to engage with characters or circumstances that would otherwise be abhorrence. For example, I want George Michael and Maeby to get together on Arrested Development!

  4. I actually side with the villains quite often. Not intentionally, it just happens.

    Dexter is a very interesting cultural phenomenon, don't you think? I can't say much because I've never really watched Dexter (I'm scared of it!) but it seems to blur the line between hero and villain.

    I'm really glad you enjoyed the post!


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