No, ladies and gentlemen. I believe one of Shakespeare's greatest villains is also a character who followed through the course of creation in the same area as Sir John Falstaff of King Henry IV Part I and Shylock of The Merchant of Venice. He's a character who gained a life of his own that he stole the pen away from the Bard himself!
That villain, on the subject of Othello, would be none other than the infamous Iago. I believe no other villain in Shakespeare's writings would have single handedly manipulate the protagonist towards tragedy. Iago is a racist and a sexist whose sinister nature allows him to use his cunning to the fullest. He has more lines than the other characters in Othello and rival's the title character's presence.
But what would motivate Iago to move as the antagonist? At first when I read the play, Iago appears to feel he was denied promotion from his general, Othello. Other people who studied Iago have come up with their own reasons why he enjoys trickery and emotional destruction (homosexual love for Othello, sadistic tendencies, high intelligence, etc.) but Shakespeare I believe wrote Iago initially to play the role of the hand that manipulates the scenes. If Iago were observed on a level outside his character and persona, he would symbolically resemble Fate's cruel hand moving events towards the worse for Othello and company.
Iago is highly successful in his mission to ruin lives and possibly has more reasons for revenge other than his role and and bigoted, jealous personality. We can see how Othello might have been viewed as an outsider for his time based on Moorish roots and why Iago, ironically his trusted ensign, could be racist due to his superior receiving more respect and acclaim. Yet could Iago had more reasons for possessing so much hatred and destroying the lives of everyone around him? The reader is free to interpret and decide.
Many actors have portrayed the vile Iago. Andy Serkis, best known for portraying Gollum in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, gave his take and interpretation on the villain:
"There are a million theories to Iago's motivations, but I believed that Iago was once a good soldier, a great man's man to have around, a bit of a laugh, who feels betrayed, gets jealous of his friend, wants to mess it up for him, enjoys causing him pain, makes a choice to channel all his creative energy into the destruction of this human being, and becomes completely addicted to the power he wields over him. I didn't want to play him as initially malevolent. He's not the devil. He's you or me feeling jealous and not being able to control our feelings."
Iago in a way is tormented by his desire for power and revenge:
"It seems not meet, nor wholesome to my place,
To be producted-as, if I stay, I shall-
Against the Moor. For I do know the state,
However this may gall him with some check,
Cannot with safety cast him; for he's embarked
With such loud reason to the Cyprus wars,
Which even now stands in act, that for their souls
Another of his fathom they have none
To lead their business; in which regard
Though I do hate him as I do hell pains,
Yet, for necessity of present life,
I must show out a flag and sign of love,
Which is indeed but sign. That you shall surely find him..."
Iago gives out several monologues expressing his intentions, but he also subtlely conceals them through speech:
"And what's he then that says I play the Villain?" Apparently, Iago enjoys his vengeance a little too much!
So Iago plans his revenge against Othello which succeeds in many ways:
- Iago plans for Othello to demote Michael Cassio who earned the higher promotion instead. He manipulates Cassio into a drunken fight securing his demotion. He also plots another fight for Cassio to "lose," only this time it is against Rodrigo. Rodrigo ends up dying by Cassio's hand while Cassio suffers an injury.
- Iago's greatest offense comes from convincing Othello that his beloved wife Desdemona had been having an affair with Cassio behind the general's back. Iago has his wife Emilia steal Desdemona's handkerchief away. Iago misinforms Othello that Desdemona's handkerchief was given to Cassio, instigating an idea of the false affair. Othello ends up accusing Desdemona of sleeping around behind his back and smothers his wife with a pillow. Desdemona's death and uncovering her innocence drives Othello to despair and suicide, allowing Iago's revenge to conclude in a full bitter circle.
The reason why Iago is a great villain in Othello (and the greatest villain in Shakespeare's rogue's gallery) is because Iago possesses the capability of existing with us right now in this crazy twenty-first century. There will be a great figure utilizing great power with another figure below to plot the power house's demise. There will just be that person who will always hatch a plan when no one expect it to happen, who will escape suspicion while causing significant physical and emotional damage in the long run. Iago will remain fresh in people's minds as he is a villain who may endure for years to come.
P.S.: I have also decided to show a video to further illustrate Iago's villainy. This guy in the video recites Iago's dialogue from Act I Scene II in Othello. All I have to say is that the fedora and the cigarette make nice touches to this interpretation of Iago's malice.