Cinthio’s equivalent of Iago did not hate the Moor at all, but deceived him in order to revenge himself on his wife for her refusal to commit adultery. It was only after having her murdered that the Moor, regretting the deed, turned on its instigator and demoted him, and they then began, to hate each other. In Shakespeare, Iago’s hatred, which fills the entire play from line seven to the end, is one-sided, obsessive, and single-minded. Yet Othello, like all the other characters, has no reason to suspect its existence. Cassio and Roderigo are of marginal importance to Iago. Desdemona is simply the best means of getting at Othello ; and Roderigo, like Cassio, a means of getting at Desdemona. To Cassio, Othello’s only friend, Iago extends the same fantastic suspicion of adultery with Emilia : ‘For I fear Cassio with my night-cap, too.’ That too is revealing. If Iago has an obsession about sex it is clear that Othello is somewhere at the centre of it.
Although criticism will perhaps never be able to suggest an adequate motivation for Iago’s hatred of and malice towards Othello, one striking element of it, which is often overlooked, may be pointed out. Iago seems to hate Othello because he is a Moor––an alien in Venice, and a man of outlandish race and complexion who has sought to be on par with Venetians by embracing Christianity, and by making himself militarily indispensable.
There is something strongly obsessive, irrational, but powerful, underlying Iago’s intense antipathy towards Othello and the improvised reasoning with which he justifies it, continually presses up towards the surface of his language. It breaks through into action at the opening of the play in order to give the audience the key to his character. After this its energies go into the intrigue that will bring the hated object and all its associates to destruction ; but it often nearly betrays itself. Iago’s ‘motive-hunting’ has been much discussed, but the fact is that he never gives a direct reason of any kind for his hatred. He tells Roderigo the story of Cassio’s appointment and then asks whether this gives him any reason to love the Moor ? Later he reflects : ‘I hate the Moor ; And it is thought abroad that ‘twixt my sheets/He’s done my office’––the hatred and its possible cause are unconnected. Again he tells himself : ‘The Moor, howbeit that I endure him not,/Is of a constant, loving, noble nature’, where this phrase ‘I endure him not (‘I just can’t stand him’)’ is even more revealing than ‘I hate’, especially when accompanied by an acknowledgement of his true qualities. ‘I have told thee often, and I re-tell thee again and again, I hate the Moor.’ Iago’s mind broods constantly over Othello’s colour. After the disembarkation at Cyprus, when Cassio drinks ‘To the health of our general’ Iago drinks ‘to the health of black Othello’. But it is in conversation with Othello himself that the hidden disgust most nearly betrays itself. One exchange is of particular importance. Othello’s trust in Desdemona is just beginning to waver :
Othello. And yet, how nature erring from itself––
Logo. Ay, there’s the point : as––to be bold with you––
Not to affect many proposed matches
Of her own clime, complexion, and degree,
Whereto we see in all things nature tends––
Foh ! one may smell in such a will most rank,
Foul disproportion, thoughts unnatural.
But pardon me––
Iago is, in effect, only repeating what Brabantio had said in council.
Iago uses on Othello ally the witchcraft which the latter is accused of having employed against Desdemona. His weapon is systematic unreason, magic. Brabantio’s first assumption on learning that his daughter had fallen in love with a Moor was that she must have been corrupted by sorcery. The Duke’s council soon realizes that mutual love was the only ‘witchcraft’ in the case. Shakespeare is careful to show that the advances came equally from both sides, though at first he plays down the sensual element in Othello’s love because men from hot climates were traditionally hot-blooded and this must be supposed of Othello. It is not their union but their disunion that is effected by ‘drop or minerals’, as the imagery now begins to demonstrate. Iago curbs Roderigo’s impatience by reminding him that ‘we work by wit and not by witchcraft’, meaning ‘the job cannot be done without planning’ ; but in this most ironical of Shakespeare’s tragedies the statement carries an opposite implication : ‘I work by witchcraft, not by reason.’ The degrading of Cassio in Act II is a kind of symbolic rehearsal of the method Iago will use with his principal victim. Betrayed into drunkenness and senseless violence, Cassio cries in self-disgust : ‘To be now a sensible man, by and by a fool, and presently a beast !’ The ‘medicine’ that to ‘unwitted’ Cassio was alcohol ; the drug used on Othello will be more subtle and instead of wine into his mouth Iago will poor pestilence into his ear, but the sequence of results is to be identical. ‘The Moor already changes with my poison’, Iago says after his first insinuations, and he knows that the victim has no antidote against this poison.
For all the cunning devilry of Iago’s plots, Othello is able to recover, in large measure, his human dignity before he dies. Iago’s aim has been not Othello’s overthrow but his total degradation as a human being : that he should kill what he loved most, in jealous madness, with his own hands. This aim is almost realized. At least once Othello has broken down into actual madness under Iago’s mental drugs ; he has solemnly dedicated his heart to hatred and vengeance ; and in his insults to Desdemona he has become indistinguishable from the bond-slave Brabantio once compared him to :’A beggar in his drink could not have laid such terms upon his callat.’ Yet he does not actually commit the murder is jealous revenge but as an act of objective justice, even of civic and religious duty. In a way this makes it worse ; but it means that Iago has already partly failed. Othello kills in persisting love, not hate. The action has restored his self-command and reasserted his public responsibility at the expense of his private inclination. In Desdemona’s actual presence, instead of behaving like a mad beast he has to force himself to go through with it. When he says, weeping over the girl he intends not to murder but to sacrifice,
This sorrow’s heavenly ;
It strikes where it doth love.
he is recognizably trying to administer the same impersonal justice as when he dismissed Cassio :
Cassio, I love thee ;
But never more be officer of mine.
There too, ironically enough, he had been tricked into his act of justice, and here it is a horrible delusion, as Desdemona tries to tell him with her unanswerable ‘That death’s unnatural that kills for loving’ ; but from now on Othello is deluded but responsible, capable of summing himself up with complete self-awareness after his enlightenment as ‘an honourable murderer’.
Othello’s suicide is also an act of justice, and could, have been dictated by the realization that the state might well pardon him because of the extenuating circumstances. At least that is how Othello seems to understand the position, for as soon as Lodovico’s decision is announced he says :
I have done the state some service, and they know’t––
an ironic repetition of his confidence in Act I that his usefulness to the state would outweigh Brabantio’s objections to his marriage: ‘My services which I have done the signiory/Shall out-tongue his complaints.’ He can hardly be ‘cheering himself up’, as T. S. Eliot oddly interprets. He is recognizing, and rejecting, the possibility of avoiding the death-penalty. He refuses to throw himself on the mercy of the Venetian senators, even though the most powerful of those that might seek vengeance on him, Brabantio, is known to have died. Instead, he repudiates the deed––for which his sterile tears flow like the secretions from trees in his native Africa that can restore life to the phoenix––and also, dissociates himself from those who would judge him for the deed. They are offered, almost contemptuously, ‘a word or two before you go’. Othello is now seeing himself and his social environment with complete objectivity ‘Speak of me as I am ; nothing extenuate,/Nor set down aught in malice,’ and his own comments are not expressed subjectively but in detached clear-cut images. Whether it is to the ‘base Judean’ of the Folio or to the ‘base Indian’ of the Quarto that he compares himself, Othello’s final image of his relationship with Desdemona is of a white pearl in a black hand.