The True Beast in Othello
"What is left when honor is lost?" This maxim from first century BC plays a pivotal role in Shakespeare’s play Othello. The question serves as a basis for the struggle between Othello and Iago. Both men are engaged in a battle over Othello’s honor. Iago is intent on destroying Othello’s sense of honor and reducing him to a bestial state. Iago views Othello as a beast masquerading in warrior’s dress. He wants to return Othello to what he believes to be his natural bestial state, and he realizes that to achieve this goal he must dupe Othello into violating his code of honor. Ironically, as Iago tries to unmask Othello’s bestiality, it is the beast within Iago that is exposed.
From the beginning of the play, Iago’s view of Othello as a beast is obvious. Iago repeatedly describes Othello in terms of animals. When Iago attempts to incite Brabantio’s anger, he does so by referring to Othello in vulgar, bestial terms. He says to Brabantio, "Even now, now, very now, an old black ram / Is tuping your white ewe" (1.1.89-90). He continues with, "you’ll have your daughter cover’d with a Barbary horse; / you’ll have your nephews neigh to you; / you’ll have coursers for cousins and gennets for germans" (1.1.110-114). He even exclaims to Brabantio that "your daughter and the Moor are now making the beast with two backs" (1.1.117-118).
Each of these animalistic phrases could be viewed only as Iago’s attempt to anger Brabantio if it were not for the fact that Iago also refers to Othello as an animal when he is alone. In his soliloquy at the end of Act 1, Iago says that Othello "will as tenderly be led by th’nose / As asses are" (1.3.395-936). He again refers to Othello as an ass in Act 2: "Make the Moor thank me, love me, and reward me, / For making him egregiously an ass" (2.2.302-303). Whether alone or accompanied, Iago’s views on Othello are clear; he sees him as "an erring barbarian" (1.3.350) who can be duped into committing murder.
Iago’s reasons for wanting Othello to murder Desdemona are never satisfactorily explained. As Iago himself says, "What you know, you know" (5.2.306). He gives various reasons for wanting to destroy Othello, but none ring completely true. He is disgruntled because of Cassio’s promotion over him. He suspects Othello of bedding his wife. But why is he determined to have Othello murder Desdemona? His plot seems based on sport rather than reason. Iago truly hates the Moor, but his hate is not grounded in any firm reason. As the play progresses, Iago’s motive never fully crystallizes, but his determination to dupe Othello into murder, thereby destroying his sense of honor, grows stronger.
Early in the play Iago realizes that Othello’s idea of honor is intertwined with his concept of justice. Othello, more than any other character in the play, is obsessed with justice. Iago recognizes this; he realizes that for Othello to become a beast he has to violate his sense of justice. With...