Iago as director.
I have long wondered about the nature of Iago’s relationship with the other characters in the play and his consequent relationship with the audience. It seems odd that it not the title character who is allowed to reveal his inner thoughts to us as we watch. Indeed, unusually perhaps for a tragedy, we are rarely privy to Othello’s thoughts. Iago, on the other hand is given ample opportunity to address us and to explain every detail of his mind as he develops his plots.
What is the effect of this? As the audience of a tragedy, we are meant to engage with the tragic hero as he reveals enough of their character for us to spot a flaw and to revel in the inevitability of the downfall that will befall him. This play is different. We are given the opportunity to hear the thoughts and desires of the evil catalyst of the downfall. Consequently, the whole play takes on a kind of dramatic irony for the audience as we are impotent to prevent Othello walking blindly into the web woven by Iago.
Iago operates in a sequence of “plays within the play”, in which he stage manages both the audience response and that of the protagonists. Consider these moments: The duping of Roderigo and the organisation of Brabantio as a senex iratus; the continual playing of Roderigo for his own ends, filling his purse for his own benefit; the asides as most scenes end, designed to let us see Iago’s thoughts develop; the arranging of the drunken brawl and the failure to “clear” Cassio; the dream; the peeping-Tom scene in which not only does Iago manipulate Cassio, but he copes with and makes a benefit out of the sudden appearance of Bianca; the entire series of scenes in which he poisons Othello’s mind to Cassio; the handkerchief (pause and consider how many hands this handkerchief goes through, yet Iago is always in control of the situation); Othello’s eventual decision to murder Desdemona. All are orchestrated by Iago and we see him do it. We are, though, impotent to act and it is this that makes the play so enthralling. Unlike Lear, we do not see the bad decisions of a ruler bring about his downfall, rather we see the evil machinations of Iago that all fall for. We long to cry out and stop the reaction to protect Othello and Desdemona, but we can’t. We are hooked and, almost as accomplices, are forced to watch Iago unfold his schemes.
Iago arranges things so that, by the time Lodovico appears, Othello is sufficiently credulous of his slanders that he believes all Venetians to be lying actors and is able to perceive Desdemona as the “whore of Venice”. He is as far removed from the magisterial tone he adopts in Act 1 as he is likely to be. He is prepared to make a public spectacle of himself infront of the ministers of state. Why? Is he simply showing that Iago’s poison is working and that the Venetian court no longer holds any respect in his eyes?
Iago is given every opportunity to involve us. He appears in every scene of the play except, 2.ii and 3.ii (transitory scene changes) and 4.iii the “willow” scene. It is interesting that Shakespeare dispenses with Iago gradually as the play unfolds. His scheming gathers its own momentum and the spring can simply be allowed to fly open of its own accord. After the winding up of Othello throughout act 3, Iago barely speaks once Othello has seen the Cassio/Iago exchange – his single word utterances (4.i 170ff) are all that is required to keep Othello at bursting point. From this point the outcome is inevitable, we do not need Iago to explain himself and Othello’s anger is such that his fury will only be abated by bloodshed.
One of Iago’s skills is in keeping characters apart. He can ensure that Othello never questions any of those directly implicated in his plots. Consider the fact that in the 800 or so lines (starting in 3.iii) that Iago uses to wind up Othello, Desdemona is on stage for barely 200. We, as the audience, long for them to talk. Iago ensures that they do not. It is wonderful that when finally they are together in Act 5, we long for them to be interrupted!
Only in act 5 does Iago’s brilliance let him down. He has to risk stabbing Roderigo publicly since suddenly all his carefully separated characters begin to appear in the same place at the same time. He starts to panic and his language breaks down. At the same time Othello grows in stature. His language as he approaches murder is the absolute opposite of Iago’s. He reverts to the magisterial figure that charmed the senate in the first act. He is truly a man of action. His world collapses, however, as Desdemona awakes. Once again he is the outraged cuckold. We long for interruption of the long awaited bedroom scene. Only Emilia will arrive, loyal to the end, but she is too late. Here is the moment of Iago’s failure. He has separated Desdemona and Othello throughout the play but has underestimated his own wife- mysogeny?- and she will be his undoing. He has included her in his scheming with no thought for her position and feelings. This will be his undoing. As the play moves to its conclusion, Othello and Desdemona are indeed alone and the rage that Iago has planted will rise and cause murder – the more Desdemona pleads, the guiltier she seems. This is Iago’s doing. He has overlooked someone closest to him as his schemes reached ever higher. He is reduced to frantic action and hurried speech as his time runs out.