Sometime around the year 500 B.C., Sun Tzu wrote in his iconic and timeless masterpiece The Art of War: “All warfare is based on deception” (Sun Tzu 15). To paraphrase Sun-Tzu, military strength does not equate to victory, but that the smallest and weakest of armies, when applying deception into combat, can overcome and defeat the mightiest foe. In Shakespeare’s Othello, the character of Iago, a faithful servant in his master’s army, plots against the play’s namesake general. Essayist Fred West in his article “Iago the Psychopath,” argues that Iago’s behavior displays his detachment from emotion, that Iago lacks self control and remains blinded by his own jealousy (West 31). In The Influence of the Audience on Shakespearean Drama, Robert Bridges calls Iago “stupid and dull… a poor and implausible character” (Bridges 23). Labeling “honest Iago” in such a simple category as a psychopath or an underdeveloped Shakespearean character, or, as too numerous articles and essays deem fit to state, that the personification of evil rests within the character, can be simply rebutted as lazy critiquing. Iago creates chaos among his enemies; he divides and conquers through deception. The seed of Iago’s motivation to destroy the life of Othello does not lay in insanity, nor in the simplistic notion that Iago personifies Satan or evil, but rather his actions remain consistent with a well-trained and well-disciplined soldier in the art of war. West disagrees with the personification argument and finds Iago to be more human than any other character within the play: “He was wonderfully shaped by Shakespeare into a first-rate dramatic character… with passions and frustrations… frustrations of a type so that psychologists in our time regularly encounter it” (West 27-28). West humanizes Iago further, stating that Iago exists as more than just another Morality Figure, that his motivations and intentions reflect symptoms of mental instability – a person detached from reality and whose actions are rash and impulsive. As an example of this, West cites the “spur of the moment” decision of Iago to raise Brabantio from his sleep rather than waiting for a more appropriate time (West 32). Iago says to Roderigo: “Rouse him, make after him, poison his delight. Proclaim him in the streets; incense her kinsman. And though he is in fertile climate dwell, plague him with flies!” (Othello I.i. lines: 67-71). West uses this scene to illustrate Iago’s impulsiveness, his lack of planning, and whimsical behaviors which are child-like in nature (West 31). West argues that Iago suffers from psychopathic behaviors; he weaves a web of medical jargon which insinuates that “honest Iago” needs a prescription of anti-psychotics to ease his troubled mind. But West ignores the events that led poor Iago to his destructive actions which exonerate him from supposed mental instabilities. At one point, before the opening scene of the play, Iago proved himself to be a worthwhile and amicable character. His actions within the military deemed him “honest Iago” to General Othello. It can be deduced that Iago found employment as a foot soldier in Othello’s army and that his experience and years of loyalty to Othello would grant Iago a certain level of respect from an Elizabethan audience (Rosenberg 147). Cassio, the bookish and erudite-learned “master” of warfare who never stepped foot onto a battlefield, would seem prudish and pampered in comparison to the rugged and callused-from-war Iago, so much that an audience should feel sympathy for the slighted Iago. After all, what a familiar tale: the experienced and older employee getting undercut from a promotion by a younger, eager, and green-horned upstart. Othello’s alleged extra-marital affair with Emilia also justifies the actions of Iago, another oversight by West. Shakespeare never confirms the truth behind Iago’s suspicions and leaves the topic easily debated. In order to cast Iago as a proper villain, it would be appropriate for Shakespeare to give the audience an obvious clue of the pair’s infidelity, yet this does not happen. And though Emilia seems cynical about fidelity and Othello quickly chastises her, this cannot be deemed as textual evidence of an affair (Rosenberg 148). A reader would have to look at the actions of Othello, as well as military-honed mind of Iago to find the moment where infidelity outs itself. When Iago, who earlier states that he does not require proof of his wife’s infidelity – that the truth can be proven by suspicion alone – cleverly suggests to Othello of Desdemona’s love affair with Cassio, he watches the moor’s reaction. Similar to Iago, Othello requires no proof, nor does he approach his wife or her supposed lover to confirm or deny the affair, instead, like “honest Iago,” Othello acts mercilessly and violently to those whom have offended him, and never questions his wife’s dishonesty. To “honest Iago,” Othello’s impulsive actions confirm his suspicion: Othello’s quickness to believe in his wife’s infidelities only confirms his own. If Iago personifies evil, and Othello represents the opposite, why do the two men react the exact same way when each man grows suspicious of his wife’s infidelity? Because both men behave exactly as two military men would. “To secure ourselves against defeat lies in our own hands, but opportunity of defeating the enemy is provided by the enemy himself” (Sun Tzu 19). Iago believes that, before the opening scene of the play, Othello cuckolded him and insultingly promoted a less-deserving military man to a position in which Iago feels he deserves. Iago reacts the same way that any military trained individual would: with deceptive tactics that confuse and lead to the eventual self-inflicted downfall of his opponent. The personification of evil, the devil, jealousy, or rage, does not rest in the character of Iago, nor does the visage of a psychopath. Rather, Iago reflects the precise and calculating mind of a militarily trained individual who conquers his enemy using the lessons learned on a battlefield. Iago earned his respect and honor before the play begins, as a confidant to his superior officer, Othello. Yet, Iago enters the play after his slighting, after the wooing and conquering of his wife, and after the lesser-deserving Cassio received the promotion which Iago, if his actions within the play do nothing but proven, highly deserves. The audience sees a man that they can identify with: a person who toiled long to come to nothing. An Elizabethan audience would relate to the humanity of Iago, and they would find sympathy in him. Iago does not tempt Othello into a downfall, nor does he create Othello’s tragic end, the responsibility for Othello’s descent falls directly on Othello; because he lacked the meticulous planning, patience and the military tactical skills of the slighted, honest Iago.
Work Cited Bridges, Robert. The Collected Essays, Papers, & c. of Robert Bridges. “The Influence of the Audience on Shakespearean Drama” Vol. III London: Oxford University Press, 1930.
Rosenberg, Marvin. “In Defense of Iago.” The Shakespearean Quarterly 6.2 (1995): 145-158.
Shakespeare, William. The Riverside Shakespeare. “Othello” Ed. G. Blakemore Evans and J. J. M. Tobin. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1997.
Sun Tzu. The Art of War. Trans. Lionel Giles and George Stade. Barnes and Nobles Classics, 2006.
West, Fred. “Iago the Psychopath.” South Atlantic Bulletin 43.2 (1978): 27-35.