What makes a villain? There are a lot of ways you could answer that question. It’s everywhere in pop culture: Batman villains like Joker and Two-Face, Marvel villains like Ultron and Thanos, and your classic mean girl in a chick flick. We’ve seen just about every kind of villain under the sun. What draws us to a villain? Is it their backwards humanity or a capacity for chaos? Great villains have motive, real or imagined, known or unknown. The goal: bring chaos, destruction, and cause immeasurable amounts of pain.
I propose a quick jaunt back in time to one of the classics. I don’t mean Twain or Dickens. I’m talking William Shakespeare. He gave us some of the most iconic moments in our literary history: Hamlet holding Yorick’s skull contemplating his own mortality, and Romeo wooing Juliet from the garden beneath her balcony.
I will say this: none of Shakespeare’s stories are original. His plays are rooted in the tales that came before him, but what he did with those stories is incredible. His characters are rich, his comedies light yet deep, and his tragedies absolutely depressing.
Now, let us continue to one of Shakespeare’s greatest works: “The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice.”
Othello is a dark-skinned man living in a white world. Because he is a brilliant general, the aristocracy doesn’t seem to mind the tone difference, with only minor hints of skepticism when he marries a young woman named Desdemona.
At the play’s start, Othello’s ensign, Iago, explains to Venetian nobleman Roderigo that the reason he despises his general is because a younger man, a mathematician, was promoted to second in command. Soon after, Othello and his army are sent to the island of Cyprus to ward off an impending attack from the Turks and Desdemona accompanies him.
Once there, Iago methodically frames Cassio as a dishonorable man (specifically a raging drunk), and convinced Othello that Desdemona is having an affair with Cassio. Othello, driven to a jealous rage, kills Desdemona by smothering her.
Iago kills his unwitting henchman Roderigo and his own wife Emilia, once she reveals him as a villain to the nobles.
Othello takes his own life once he learns that Iago was feeding him lies from the beginning and that he’s killed an innocent woman, a woman who loved not wisely, but too well.
In the end we have four bodies and Iago is arrested to be tortured and more than likely executed. What specifically sets Iago on this course? He doesn’t get what it seems he wanted from the beginning: a recognition for his service beyond words. Othello is dead. Iago is in prison.
There are a couple of reasons that could contribute to his motivation. From the outset, it would appear that betrayal and petty jealousy motivate Iago. He despises Cassio for his status, and he feels betrayed by Othello. His reasoning: the lieutenancy should go to an experienced soldier.
In my mind this is not enough to justify destroying a man’s life and causing the death of four people. There is a brief mention in one of Iago’s monologues that he hates Othello because the Moor might have slept with his own wife, Emilia. There’s no mention made of this ever again in the remainder of the play. So what is Iago’s justification?
Here’s the really interesting part: we don’t know why Iago did what he did. We can guess, but that’s all we’ll ever be able to do because Iago says nothing when asked to give a reason.
This is why I believe that Iago is the truest villain Shakespeare ever wrote; all he wanted was to see the world burn.