innate depravity, drives him to inhuman extremes. Parallels with Kurtz in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness seem appropriate.

Othello’s love for Desdemona, on the other hand, is unchanging. His love is as strong when he kills her as when he serenades her. In his relationship with her, this man of contradictions is best understood:

Excellent wretch! Perdition catch my soul

But I do love thee! and when I love thee not

Chaos is come again(3.3.90-93)

Desdemona is for Othello the absolute of beauty, virtue and purity and he has united himself to her absolutely. Doubt her and he must doubt himself; destroy her image and his own is shattered; break her integrity and he disintegrate; kill her and he must kill himself. The agony for him is that he still sees this perfection but is convinced at the same time that it is false. The challenge is equivalent to that posed by Othello: he is black but can you see him as white? Othello manages. He knows Desdemona to be white and pure but at the same time knows – that is, he convinces himself totally – that she is black and false. The "sense aches" indeed (4.2.69). Her protests "cannot remove or choke the strong conception / That...groan[s] withal" (5.2.55). This is"the pity of it" (4.1.193).


In many ways, Iago seems to be one of the most transparent characters in the play. He might not be what he seems as far as the other characters are concerned, but the audience enjoys the privileged strip show of Iago’s intricate plot as he weaves his mesh around the rest of the unsuspecting cast. The audience see of all his guises: the honest soldier, ancient and adviser; the fat controller, directing the likes of Roderigo with facile contempt, treating the more astute characters with playful charm; the resentful malcontent revealing all in his soliloquies. But he is far from transparent, especially when he most appears so. The more we "see" of him, the less we understand. Othello we see talking of himself, his background, his life, in his relations with the other characters, playing over a much larger emotional range. Iago is much more confined. Whilst he has a number of guises, the driving force beneath them remains stable and mysterious.

This can be seen, if not in the text, in the disagreements between critics. Most will agree with Coleridge that he is a character of "motiveless malignity"2. Is he from the first scene to the last hated and despised as Dr. Johnson would argue?3 Or does he somehow manage to elicit a more sympathetic response as Charles Lamb suggests: "we think not so much of the crimes which [he] commit[s], as of the ambition, the aspiring spirit, the intellectual activity which prompts them to overleap these moral fences."?4

W.H. Auden refers to him as "the joker in the pack...practical joker of a peculiarly appalling kind"5. His humour, though, is never directed against himself, nor is it ever innocently playful. It serves, rather as another decoy, distracting us from a deeper understanding of his character than that which he reveals to us. It is a humour in which he couches his cruel visionary taunts and in which he reflects his superiority over the likes of Roderigo.

What of his motives? There are many and they are varied but do not seem to add up to anything more consistent. The first is his resentment of Cassio, who was chosen over and above him as Othello’s lieutenant. There is his hatred of the Moor, "as loving his own pride and purposes...Horribly stuffed with epithets of war" (1.1.11-13). Then there are motives that are not expressed in such a clear fashion. These hidden motives, the multi-faceted chip that he wears on his shoulder, which is seen as much in his relationships with the other characters as in his soliloquies.

He resents privilege; he is disgusted by the "courtesies" of the Venetian upper classes, and what he sees to be their condescending patronage of him. "Thou art a villain!" cries Brabantio to the voice hidden in

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