‘All things may corrupt when minds are prone to evil’. 1 Evil is an abstract notion, yet we are subconsciously aware of it everyday, seeking to avoid it at all costs. Evil, intrinsic yet detrimental to the morality of mankind, has been used by playwrights for centuries to engage and captivate audiences. Shakespeare perhaps best uses this notion in his tragedy, ‘Othello’. Critics today still applaud Shakespeare for his exploration of the human nature and the psychological complexity present throughout Othello.
Ben Jonson, a contemporary of Shakespeare, also uses the notion of evil to great effect in his satire ‘Volpone’. I will explore and compare the presentation of this extremely broad concept in both plays. “In no other play has Shakespeare concentrated evil in such a blatantly wicked character”2. Evil is presented in ‘Othello’ entirely through the character of Iago. He is conniving, ruthless, vain, harmful, deceitful, egotistical and obsessed. This Machiavellian character, who resembles a devil incarnate, encapsulates the notion of evil.
It is through his actions, and his ability to deceive that evil spreads through ‘Othello’ like a malignant force, corrupting all in its way. If Iago is removed from the play, then Othello and Desdemona would have married and Emilia, Cassio and Roderigo may still be alive. St Augustine described evil as the ‘privati boni’ (the absence of the good) and Iago philosophically represents evil in this way as he completely lacks good. However, when faced with such evil critic Coleridge stated, “‘Without the perception of truth, it is impossible to understand the character of Iago”.
He also argued that 1 Ovid, Roman poet (43 BC – 17 AD), 2 Mark Mussari, Shakespeare Explained – Othello, Shakespeare presented ‘A being next to the devil’. This early nineteenth century view shows the confusion around Iago but it was one of the play’s earliest critics, Thomas Rymer, who first stated that ‘Othello’ was “the most lamentable play that ever appear’d on stage”. From the early Elizabethan perspective to our perspective today, one could argue that the evil presented through Iago is little more than a literary device, impossible to understand.
If all one can see, as Coleridge put its, is “motiveless malignity”, then little moral message can be extracted from the play. Through the characterisation of Iago, the evil act of deception and the alternation between appearance and reality become key concepts. Iago reveals to the audience his evil intentions through his soliloquies. He states in one, “Hell and night/ Must bring this monstrous birth to the world’s light”, meaning that his scheme is so great that something incredible is required to reveal it to the world.
It is through Iago’s soliloquies and interaction with the audience that one feels Iago takes enjoyment in spreading evil. It was Nevil Cognil who attributed this wicked enjoyment to the jealousy Iago felt, “Psychologically, Iago is a slighted man, powerfully possessed by hatred against a master who has kept him down, and by the envy for a man.. who has been promoted over him”. More modern critics have tried to find some motivation for Iago’s evil, such as homosexuality or even race.
Australian critic Germaine Greer is one such example, she wrote “Iago is still serviceable to us, as an objective correlative of the mindless inventiveness of racist aggression”. Once the deception begins in ‘Othello’, evil takes hold and corrupts like a cancerous force. This spread of evil can be chartered clearly through Othello’s deterioration of language. He begins by using poetic language which includes imagery of nature and the sea. For example, in Act 2 Scene 1 Othello says, “May the winds blow till they have waken’d death! And let the labouring bark climb hills of seas”.
But as Iago is able to plant the seed of doubt concerning the infidelity of Desdemona in Othello’s heart, we as an audience are able to see a change in the mannerisms and personality of Othello, and as Iago’s “poison” takes effect, Othello starts to deteriorate and become ‘ill’ with foolishness and naivety, ‘Work my medicine, work, work”. Othello becomes manic, blinded by love and a lack of self-worth. At the end of the play, we can clearly see the effects of Iago’s evil, as Shakespeare links back to the Venetian society to show how Othello has changed and become unrecognisable, ‘My Lord this would not be believ’d in Venice”.