Thoughts on “Othello” by William Shakespeare: Iago as the Serpent

It was a while since I last read this play. If I’m going to be honest (a theme that is prevalent in Othello), I never found this play to be as great as the other tragedies with which it is ranked. I always found it difficult to empathize with Othello as a tragic character. He forms his opinions and takes action based upon hearsay and circumstantial evidence (at best). But that said, of all the times I have read this play and seen it performed, I got the most out of this reading.

I took a lot of notes while reading, and considered some of the obvious things to write about: interracial marriage, black and white as they relate to good and evil, truth and honesty, envy and jealousy. But I decided I would focus on something different, specifically, the connection between Iago and the serpent in the Garden of Eden myth.

Near the end of the play, Othello sees Desdemona as the symbol of Eve, who he believes to be the downfall of man.

It is the cause, it is the cause, my soul.
Let me not name it to you, you chaste stars.
It is the cause. Yet I’ll not shed her blood,
Nor scar that whiter skin of hers than snow,
And smooth as monumental alabaster.
Yet she must die, else she’ll betray more men.

(Act V, scene ii)

What Othello fails to realize is that lies and deception are the root cause of the proverbial fall of man from grace, and lies and deception are embodied in Iago. It is later in the scene, after Desdemona’s death, that Iago’s wife Emily exposes Iago’s lies.

You told a lie, an odious, damnèd lie!
Upon my soul, a lie, a wicked lie!

(Act V, scene ii)

Toward the conclusion of the play, the final connection between Iago and the serpent in Eden is solidified.

LODOVICO

Where is that viper? Bring the villain forth.

OTHELLO

I look down towards his feet; but that’s a fable.—
If that thou be’st a devil, I cannot kill thee.

(Act V, scene ii)

Othello is looking down to see Iago’s feet, since in the biblical story, God punishes the serpent by removing its legs and making it slither on the ground.

And the Lord God said unto the serpent, Because thou hast done this, thou art cursed above all cattle, and above every beast of the field; upon thy belly shalt thou go, and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life.

(Genesis 3:14)

While this is still not in my list of top Shakespeare plays, I have gained a new level of appreciation for it. If anyone knows of a good film version, let me know. The performances I have seen have been weak. Possibly watching a solid production would sway my opinion on this play.

8 Comments

Filed under Literature

8 responses to “Thoughts on “Othello” by William Shakespeare: Iago as the Serpent

  1. I have seen Othello twice, live performances and film and TV versions. I sympathise a lot with Othello, although I do not condone wife killing for any reason. Othello is the victim of Iago’s envy on many levels. Envy is such a destructive force and it can make people irrational if not mad. I believe Othello although successful is rather insecure hence his falling for Iago’s serpentine whisperings in his ear. I think Othello is a good psychological drama.

    • Hi DQ. Thanks for your thoughtful comment! I totally agree that envy is a destructive force, but Iago’s envy seems to be directed towards Cassio, who got the position he wanted. There is a different kind of hatred that he has for Othello. I also agree w your assessment of the play as a psychological drama. I sense that Othello was secure in the beginning, but loses his confidence. So yeah, an exploration of how people can allow their confidence to be eroded. Great comment!! Hope you have a wonderful holiday 😀

  2. I saw James Earl Jones as Othello and Christopher Plummer as Iago a long time ago. The play was powerful with those actors. I saw it at Ford’s Theater in DC. This is a review from New York. https://www.csmonitor.com/1982/0209/020900.html
    Othello is so complex emotionally., and the cast was able to grasp every aspect of it.

  3. Thanks for the insightful review. It helped me remember this one. I think re-reading Shakespeare as an adult (I read most of him as a student) makes you appreciate him more. I did see a live performance of Othello – at the Metropolitan Opera. I don’t remember much of it because I was a young, silly girl, on a date, believe it or not, but I do remember the production having amazing scenery!

    • Now THAT is a hot date! 😀 The only stage performance I recall seeing was a god-awful amateur production that I walked out on during intermission. Nothing like seeing Midsummer Night’s Dream at Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford, or Macbeth at the Sydney Opera House. Those were performances that stood out for me. Have a happy new year.

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