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Iago and Sexuality in Othello
Transcript of Iago and Sexuality in Othello
Sexuality and Interpersonal Relationships
Then what can be inferred about Iago's character, motives, as well as his internal conflicts?
But what do we know about Iago himself?
- How Iago sees himself in relation to others
Othello is one of Shakespeare's greatest works. It tells the tragic story of Othello, "the Moor," just recently married to Desdemona. The story's narrator and antagonist, Iago, sets about manipulating Othello and his peers in ways that end disastrously in true Shakespearian fashion.
Although Iago is a rather guarded character, the audience can certainly infer quite a lot about his personality from his relationship with others.
As a "Mind Reader":
As a playwright
Throughout the play, Iago is in a constant state thinking and plotting:
According to Paul Celafu, this is because Iago is attempting to predict the actions and motives of his peers, being a "mind reader," so to speak.
He never shrinks from making bold assumptions about others, such as Othello or Cassio, because he is certain he is right.
However, Celafu argues that in some ways, Iago is a victim to his own mind. He states that, "'Iago's most remarkable gift is his insight into human nature.' Cognitively overloaded, Iago is as much the victim as he is the exploiter of the imagined intentions and beliefs of those around him" (265-66).
Through his constant state of over-thinking and predicting others' - namely Othello's and Cassio's - thoughts, he has to make his peers out to be caricatures in his mind rather than accept them as three-dimensional human beings.
Gradually, Iago develops a sort of perverse fascination with watching his "plot" play out.
Iago consistently distances himself from the events of the play unless dealing with Othello directly.
Celafu quotes Calderwood, stating that this is because, "Iago is 'an amateur of tragedy in real life [...] staging scenes and manipulating people, in creating illusions, [and] in improvising to meet occasions.' Iago is indeed a playwright" (Celafu 268).
As said previously, Iago creates various caricatures of his three-dimensional peers in order for his imagined "play" to make sense in his head. Othello is a brutish, neglectful villain who has made Iago into a cuckold - whether or not the latter is an actual motive will be argued later - while Desdemona, like most of the female "characters" in Iago's mind, a heartless, wanton woman whose nature is built on selfishness, laziness, and deceit (Arogundade).
[to Cassio of Emilia] "Sir, would she give you so much of her lips of her tongue she oft bestows on me. You'll have enough."
[to Desdemona of women] "You rise to play and go to bed to work" (Act II, Scene I).
However carefully Iago is to stay a distance away (as a playwright should from his work), he relinquishes his duty as playwright when it comes to dealing with Othello face-to-face. It's in those situations that Iago plunges himself into the middle of the plot, inserting himself as a character.
Much of Iago's excessive over-thinking stems from his own anxiety and lack of internal understanding.
Celafu argues that Iago's "mind reading is a psychological handicap" (266).
Iago constant need to track his "characters," Celafu states, has much to do with his inability to track his own mind." Iago doesn't understand himself or his own motives, so he compensates by attempting to predict the actions and thoughts of Othello, Cassio, and Desdemona.
Because of his own internal anxiety, Iago exacts his revenge by bringing Othello to his level and making him question and attempt to predict the motives and actions of others just as Iago does (Celafu 277).
Edward Pechter states that, "Iago's obsessive mind reading derives from his conviction that he is diminished by the mere existence of others" (295).
One could even go so far as to say that his assumptions about others reflect how he sees himself. Despite his self-assured persona, Iago thinks quite lowly of himself compared to Othello or Cassio. For instance, in Act V, Scene I, he states, "[Cassio] hath a daily beauty in his life that makes me ugly."
Iago is undeniably jealous of Othello as well because of his character - rather than simply physical appeal as with Cassio - Othello is a man of great importance and "fullness of being," something Iago lacks and pines for, which is in part why Othello is Iago's primary target(Celafu 270). Despite Iago's hatred for "the Moor," Iago takes much stock in the latter's opinion of him, which is why he listed Cassio's promotion over himself as a possible motive.
Iago's mistrust of others' seems to stem from a low opinion of himself in comparison to others.
What are Iago's motives throughout the play?
Iago's Sexuality and His Relationship with Othello
One of the main criticisms of Iago's actions is that he lacks a motivation.
During the first act, Iago reveals that his motivation for betraying Othello is that he promoted Cassio to lieutenant over him; however, it's not long after that he backtracks and says that his motivation is instead that he believes Othello has slept with his wife, Emilia, as shown here
Despite his attempts to convince his audience of his motives, however, the viewer can't help but take note of his indecisiveness. Is it that Iago simply doesn't have a motive to begin with? Or is it that Iago has a motive he refuses to reveal to the audience and acknowledge himself (besides petty jealousy)? Many critics believe it is the latter.
Homoeroticism and Obsession
Iago's obsession with destroying Othello seems to be inspired by an unusual love/hate relationship.
Celafu argues that Iago is sadomasochistic in his relationship with Othello. There are times within the play, and specifically in the 1995 film adaption, where Iago's words and actions contradict each other.
As the events unfold, Iago's actions indicate that he desires Othello through homoerotic undertones he himself may not even realize are there and through implications brought up by other characters.
Throughout the play, Iago's actions are supposedly inspired by his hatred for Othello; yet when he fulfills his first supposed motivation (becoming lieutenant), he doesn't discontinue his plan for revenge.
At the same time however, he never fulfills the second motivation, which is sleeping with Desdemona after Othello supposedly cuckolded Iago - "wife for a wife."
Both of these factors indicate that there is a deeper motivation for Iago - one that drives him to keep going. As Robert Matz states (quoted by Celafu), "It is indeed Othello [...] who is the primary object of Iago's desire" (Celafu 283). Whether or not Iago has acknowledged and realized his desire for Othello is subjective, but the above factors point to this being Iago's true motivation.
"What handkerchief? Why, that the Moor first gave to Desdemona; That which so often you did bid me steal."
This scene, both in the play and film adaption, serves two purposes: The first being that it implies that Iago has been obsessing over Othello for some time, quite possibly before the events of the play, as implied by Emilia (Cefalu 284).
Its second purpose is that it is one of the first indicators of not only Iago's desire for Othello but also his desire to be desired by Othello. The handkerchief was given to Desdemona by Othello as a symbol of his desire and love for her. The fact that Iago wants this symbol for himself is telling of his true feelings.
The scene from the film adaption, as seen above, seems to indicate to this same conclusion as well. The act of Emilia dragging the handkerchief along Iago's face as if to tease him while reciting the above quote only further supports this argument. Interestingly enough, this is also the first time in the film the audience sees Iago display any signs of sexual desire, and this only comes about through obtaining a symbol of Othello's desire
The second indication of Iago's desire for Othello comes in Act III, scene III when Othello is demanding proof from Iago that Cassio is having an affair with Desdemona. Iago then fabricates a story how, one night, Cassio awoke Iago whilst having an erotic dream: "In sleep I heard him say 'Sweet Desdemona, Let us be wary, let us hide our loves;' and then kiss me hard[;] then laid his leg over my thigh, and sigh'd, and kiss'd[.]"
Once again, Iago hints that he wishes to be in Desdemona's places, and that he himself desires Othello. Although Iago may or may not notice the homoerotic implications of his story, it supports the idea that Iago wishes to be the object of Othello's desire and jealousy (Cefalu 283).
Sexual Anxiety and Sin
As Ben Saunders argues, many times, Iago refers to physical illness in conjunction with sexual desire, specifically desire acted upon (155). For instance, in Act II, Scene I, Iago states that he imagines Desdemona acting on her own sexual desire as, "her delicate tenderness will find itself abused, begin to heave the gorge..." Saunders argues that this indicates one of many instances through the play where Iago becomes disgusted at the idea of excessive desire acted on.
This indicates that Iago has an unhealthy understanding of sexual desire. Later on in the same scene, Iago says of Othello, "For that I do suspect the lusty Moor hath leaped into my seat, the thought whereof doth like a poisonous mineral gnaw my inwards" (Pechter 298).
In many ways, Iago seems to be experiencing what Saunders calls "sexual anxiety." Although the exact reason why Iago has such an unhealthy understanding of sexuality and desire is unknown, a possibility may be that he believes it to be a sin (Saunders 157).
He typically sees sex as a tool for manipulation or revenge, such as his original plan to cuckold Othello, "wife for wife," or the film adaption's "handkerchief" scene. Outside of that, it seems to be either a sin or an excess worthy of disgust.
Finally, a last indicator of Iago's true motives is in Act III, Scene III. A kneeling Othello vows to take revenge on Desdemona for cuckolding him. Iago then knees in front of him, taking a vow himself of loyalty and devotion to Othello. This is seen by many as a sort of perverse "marriage" ceremony, even going so far as following the same ritual. As one marriage is "ending," with Othello vowing to kill Desdemona, another "marriage" is forming between Iago and Othello (Arogundade).
This scene differs from most of Iago's scenes in that it seems to be one of the few where he expresses genuine feelings with little to no deceptive undertones or asides to the audience.
Furthermore, the film adaption of this scene also indicates the same notion. Throughout the film, Kenneth Branagh (Iago) periodically looks to the camera while acting in a persona as an indication to his falsehood; he'll usually do this with a scoff or a grimace. During this scene, however, there is no such look. He looks to the camera for a split second while embracing Othello as if to do one of the above actions but he looks away before crying out, "I am your own forever." This seems to a clear-cut confirmation of Iago's (perverse) love and desire for Othello.
Arogundade, Ben. "Homosexuality in William Shakespeare's Story, Othello: Is Iago Gay?" /Arogundade./ 3 Dec. 2013. Web.
Cefalu, Paul. "The Burden of Mind Readng in Shakespeare's Othello: A Cognitive and Psychoanalytic Approach to Iago's Theory of Mind." /Shakespeare Quarterly/ Fall 2013: 265-294. Print.
/Othello./ Dir. Oliver Parker. Perf. Kenneth Branagh, Laurence Fishburne. 1995. Film.
Pechter, Edward. "'Iago's Theory of Mind': A Response to Paul Cefalu." /Shakespeare Quarterly/ Fall 2013: 295-300. Print.
Saunders, Ben. "Iago's Clyster: Purgation, Anality, and the Civilizing Process." /Shakespeare Quarterly/ Summer 2004: 148-176. Print.