In Shakespeare’s Othello, the character Iago, Othello’s lieutenant, is the cause of all the tragedy which comes to pass as the play progresses. Iago is the antagonist of the play, but rather than being the direct opponent to the tragic hero, Iago is a manipulator, opposing Othello not directly but through other characters whom he tricks into acting for him. In the first scene of the play, Iago gives the audience warning that he is not all that he seems when he says, “I am not what I am.” (I,i,65) He is first seen in this scene appearing to help Roderigo, a suitor to Desdemona, who has run off with Othello, the Moorish general of the Venician army. Iago hates Othello for another reason. Instead of choosing him to be his lieutenant, Othello chose Cassio, another foreigner, and relegated Iago to the position of his ancient. When Roderigo asks why Iago continues to serve Othello, in spite of how the general has treated him, Iago replies, “I follow him to serve my turn upon him.” (I,i,42) He goes on to give an example of how he intends to serve him, by acting like the perfect servant, while secretly enriching himself, and later says, “In following him, I follow but myself.” (I,i,58) From this, one might think that he is still fairly straightforward in his plans, that he merely intends to betray Othello at some later date. However, in the third scene, he shows the audience his ability to manipulate people, when he convinces Roderigo to follow him to Cyprus and to bring all of his money, presumably to win back Desdemona. After Roderigo has left to do what Iago has suggested, Iago says, “Thus do I ever make my fool my purse.” (I,iii,37 y9) Later, in Act IV, we find that Roderigo has been giving jewels to Iago to give to Desdemona, which Iago, it is implied, has sold for his own uses. Thus, it is seen that Iago is merely using Roderigo to further his own ends, just as he said he was only serving Othello to serve himself. Also at the end of the third scene, Iago sets forth his plan to take Cassio’s position, by telling Othello that his lieutenant “. . . is too familiar with his wife.” (I,iii,402) It also comes out in this speech that he suspects Othello of committing adultery with his wife.
Shakespeare’s tragedy Othello treats the audience to considerable heroism, not only from the hero and heroine but also from unexpected characters.
Kenneth Muir, in the Introduction to William Shakespeare: Othello, explains how the consensus of the characters in the drama testify to the heroism of the general:
The testimony of all the main characters in the play is decisive. Brabantio loved him; Lodovico speaks of him as ‘the noble Moor’ ‘once so good’; Cassio, who has good cause to hate him, addresses him as ‘Dear General’ and speaks his epitaph: ‘he was great of heart’. The Duke declares that he is more fair than black. Montano is delighted to hear of Othello’s appointment as Governor. But the most significant testimony to Othello’s character comes from the one man who hates him. Iago confesses that the state ‘Cannot with safety cast him’ because ‘Another of his fathom they have none’. (29)
A character’s attitude toward the most fearful foe – death itself – is unquestionably a criterion for judging a heroic type from a non-heroic type. Helen Gardner in “Othello: A Tragedy of Beauty and Fortune” considers Iago’s wife Emilia to be a true hero of the play because of her fearless outlook on death itself:
Emilia’s silence while her mistress lived is fully explicable in terms of her character. She shares with her husband the generalizing trick and is well used to domestic scenes. The jealous, she knows,
are not ever jealous for the cause
But jealous for they are jealous.
If it was not the handkerchief it would be something else. Why disobey her husband and risk his fury? It would not do any good. This is what men are like. But Desdemona dead sweeps away all such generalities and all caution. At this sight, Emilia though ‘the world is a huge thing’ finds that there is a thing she will not do for it. By her heroic disregard for death she gives the only ‘proof’ there can be of Desdemona’s innocence: the testimony of faith. (145)
At the outset of the play Iago persuades the rejected suitor of Desdemona, Roderigo, to accompany him to the home of Brabantio, Desdemona’s father, in the middle of the night. Once there the two awaken the senator with loud shouts about his daughter’s elopement with Othello.