Iago is a “moral pyromaniac.” Harold C. Goddard writes that Iago consciously and unconsciously seeks to destroy the lives of others, especially others with high moral standards (Goddard 76). However, Iago is more than just a “moral pyromaniac,” he is a moral pyromaniac whose fire is fueled by pure hatred.
He is a hungry powermonger whose appetite for destruction can only be satisfied after he has chewed up and spat out the lives of others. Iago lusts for power, but his sense of power is attained by manipulating and annihilating others in a cruel and unusual way.
Iago prepares and ignites his victims and then watches, with an excitable evil in his eye, as his human pyres go up in flames. Iago undeniably has an unquenchable thirst for power and domination.
Critics such as M. R. Ridley believe that the ability to hurt is the most convincing display of one’s power (Ridley lxi). Iago has a deep, inbred desire to cause and view intolerable suffering. The power of Iago is exercised when he prepares and then implements an evil plan designed to inflict man with the most extreme amounts of anguish possible.
Iago controls the play, he brilliantly determines how each character shall act and react. He is a pressing advocate of evil, a pernicious escort, steering good people toward their own vulgar destruction. Iago must first make careful preparations in order to make certain his fire of human destruction will burn with fury and rage.
He douses his victims with a false sense of honesty and goodness. And, as do most skillful pyromaniacs, Iago first prepares his most important target, Othello: Though in the trade of war I have slain men, \ Yet do I hold it very stuff o’th’ conscience To do no contrived murder. I lack the iniquity. . .\ I had thought t’have yerked him under the ribs\ . . .\ . . .he prated\ And spoke such scurvy and provoking terms\ Against your Honor (I, ii 1-10).
These sentences are obvious lies (to the reader), but they are crucial to the saboteur because they present Iago to Othello as a brave, loyal, and moral person. Iago indirectly and cleverly portrays himself as a man ready to fight and brave enough to kill; yet, he also wants Othello to believe that he would not kill without just reason. Iago pretends to be so loyal as to be tempted to kill any slanderer of Othello. It is evident that Othello has complete faith in Iago’s claims as he states “thou’rt full of love and honesty” and “O brave Iago, honest and just” (III, iii 136\IV, i 34).
Iago douses more dishonesty onto other characters such as Cassio who trusts Iago: “You advise me well\. . .\ Goodnight, honest Iago,” and Desdemona who calls Iago “an honest fellow” (II, iii 346\355\5). Iago’s deceitfulness is best epitomized by his ability to continually dupe Roderigo into serving his own insidious desires. Iago, always the careful pyromaniac, successfully pours his fuel of deceptiveness onto the victims before he lights his match. Once his victims are cloaked in misconception and dripping with innocence, Iago can ignite his scrupulously prepared fire.
His evil creation is ready to burst into flames, “it is engendered. Hell and night\. . .bring this monstrous birth to the world’s light” (I, iii 446-447). Iago is the ultimate opportunist, he knows exactly where and when to strike. He is fully aware that he can most malignantly destroy Cassio through dishonor, Othello through jealousy, Roderigo through naiveté, and Desdemona through purity. Iago is able to intoxicate Cassio, who has “very poor and unhappy brains for drinking,” and, thus, dishonor him (II, iii 34).
Iago pretends to be Cassio’s good-old-drinking-buddy, but actually intends to embarrass him. Iago, the pyromaniac, proudly watches as Cassio goes up in flames: “I have lost my reputation\. . .and what remains is b*stial” (II, iii 282-283). Another log is thrust into the fire when Iago remarks that reputation, which Cassio has devoted his whole to building up, is “an idle and most false imposition” (II, iii 287). Iago seems to get a kick out of the amount of suffering he is able to cause. Iago completes his mission as an amateur pyromaniac, he has scorched his first piece of furniture, but now he must become a professional arsonist and burn down the entire house.
Iago concentrates on destroying Othello by turning “virtue into pitch\. . .out of goodness make the net\ That shall enmesh them all” (II, iii 380-383). Iago, the fire-breathing villain, continues his “bloody business” by tormenting Othello with specific, and often times vulgar, descriptions of Desdemona’s alleged sexual exploits with Cassio. (III, iv 532).
Iago provides everything but “ocular proof,” and eventually Othello becomes so distraught and enraged that he falls into a seizure. Iago continues to add fuel to the fire until Desdemona and his own wife have been murdered, Cassio and Roderigo seriously wounded, and Othello has killed himself.
Iago lives only for the death of others. His inner fire is fueled by hatred and blood. Othello tries to kill Iago but he “cannot kill thee” (V, ii 337). Othello tries to fight fire with fire when he stabs Iago. Iago is a “demi-devil,” a “pernicious caitiff,” a human sphere of maliciousness who cannot be killed by hate, for hate is what he lives for (V, ii 368\375).
Harold Goddard believes that if Iago were of less intelligence, he would have been a true pyromaniac (Goddard 76). A dull-witted Iago might light fires in forests, rather than in the minds of men. An unintelligent Iago may enjoy watching trees ablaze and seething, rather than men. Goddard insists that Iago exhibits “dozens” of the characteristics of the typical pyromaniac (Goddard 76).
His “secret joy” of observing his inferno in progress is the most obvious (Goddard 76). As Goddard states, the true motive of Iago is his “underlying condition.” He is a “moral pyromaniac” and cannot help himself. On several occasions, Iago consciously realizes that what he is doing is evil and desperately searches for motives.
However, the “reasons he assigns for his hatred in the course of the play are not so many motives as symptoms of a deeper underlying condition.” (Goddard 75). M. R. Ridley states that Iago’s actions are so vulgar and evil that only an “incarnate fiend” could apply them (Ridley lxi). Because Iago’s actions are so evil and his lust for power is so great, they must be innate characteristics of a deranged man. No man could possibly learn to be as evil as Iago or to enjoy the demise of others as Iago did.
Iago was born a “moral pyromaniac” and will enjoy suffering as long as he lives. Heaven for Iago is Hell. Iago continually seeks power through the destruction of others. He is inflicted with moral pyromania and is driven by an inborn urge to disgrace and demolish mankind. The ultimate goal of Iago and of every “moral pyromaniac” is to crush the spirits of others and to corrupt all that is virtuous. Iago succeeds by reaping havoc upon a group of moral and kind people. He may even enjoy his punishment: torture.
Iago’s motivation is not a motivation at all, it is a disease; a disease that can only be cured in Hell. As long as Iago exists on earth, there will always be another house to burn, another life to inflame.
Goddard, Harold C. The Meaning of Shakespeare. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960. 75-76. Ridley, M. R. Othello. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1959. lx-lxiii. Shakespeare, William. Othello. New
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