Dissecting Iago’s Villainy

Iago, it is commonly held, is Shakespeare’s most evil character, the portrait of evil itself. He also happens to be one of my favorite characters. 

When looking at why Iago is such a truly terrifying villain, we have to first define what makes a good villain.

A scary villain is one that can TRULY beat your protagonist.

A scary villain is one that can TRULY beat your protagonist. Click To Tweet

Not only must he be as evil as your protagonist is good, but your villain must also have the ability to beat him. Your readers should constantly be asking “HOW will this good guy defeat him? Will he? Omigod, what if he doesn’t?”

We’re often taught that a good villain is one in which you understand her motivations and background, and while you may not have made the same choices, you understand where she’s coming from. A good villain, so it goes, is someone you would like to see redeemed, someone who, if the hero saves her–brings her back from the dark side–you’d be glad to see it.

This has led to modern stories offering an explanation for the villain’s behavior. Such an explanation gives us hope. It explains away actions and assures us that what happened was within reason (for that person) and not some random act for which there is no preventable cause. In a way, an explanation restores order to the universe.

But when confronted with no explanation, no reason behind the villain’s actions, it becomes not just bad, but evil

In Othello, Shakespeare offers little to no explanation for why Iago is the way he is.  Was Othello sleeping with Emilia, Iago’s wife? Or was that just another lie Iago cooked up?

“I hate the Moor, and ’tis thought abroad that ‘twixt my sheets he has done my office.” -Iago

Is this the reason behind Iago’s hatred? Or simply a stretch of modernity to justify Iago’s actions?

What if it had been different?

What if Shakespeare had given Iago words to explain away his behavior? Would that have made a difference in how we perceive him? Would that have added to or taken away from his villainy?

Iago uses his words to manipulate the other characters to perform acts they would probably never have done otherwise. He persuades Rodrigo to do his bidding, Emilia to give him Desdemona’s kerchief, and Othello to murder his true love. If Shakespeare had used Iago’s words to justify his actions, would that have changed the nature of his villainy? 

Every other villain in Shakespeare is given a reason behind his malice. Claudius and Lady MacBeth are driven by greed and lust for power, while Richard III is persecuted for his deformity (“I am determined to prove a villain”). And in most cases, each villain is defeated through his/her own guilty conscious.

Not Iago. 

He shows no remorse for his (seemingly) unjustified actions, and in fact seems to relish the disaster he makes of other people’s lives. 

At the end, Othello demands an explanation for Iago’s actions, but Iago refuses: “Demand me nothing. What you know, you know./From this time forth I never will speak word.”

Demand me nothing. What you know, you know./From this time forth I never will speak word Click To Tweet

And so he doesn’t. A just punishment for someone who has used his words to get what he wants? Or one more victory by offering no one an explanation for his behavior?

What do you think?

What are other ways in which a villain is truly terrifying?

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