Appearance and deception

Iago’s deceptiveness

Iago is a character who always chooses the shadows rather than direct exposure. His first appearance in Act 1 Scene 1 is incognito. He allows Roderigo to identify himself to Brabantio but disappears before Desdemona’s father comes out of his house. Already Iago is playing a double game – telling tales on Othello to Brabantio, whilst maintaining Othello’s trust in him as a loyal soldier to his commanding officer. 
Iago is motivated by his anger at being passed over for promotion and wants revenge. His enigmatic comment to Roderigo: 
Were I the Moor, I would not be Iago:
In following him, I follow but myself;
    .. not I for love and duty,
But seeming so, for my peculiar end:
      .. I am not what I am.     
suggests from the outset that he intends to hide his true character and to manipulate situations to his own advantage (and Othello’s disadvantage). Although clearly not content with his current position, Iago instinctively knows that he must maintain an appearance of humble servitude and honesty if he is to succeed. 
His cautiousness is soon justified, when Othello entrusts his new wife to Iago’s care on her voyage to Cyprus, confident of Iago’s honesty and capability. And Iago’s reputation as an honest man survives throughout the play until the last 150 lines, when Emilia finally unmasks him as an unscrupulous villain.

Roderigo: the deceiver deceived

Roderigo is one of Othello’s fellow officers, yet has designs on Othello’s wife. To be fair, he had pursued Desdemona before Othello was even on the scene – but having been rebuffed by her father (as we discover in Act 1 Scene 1), and then learning of her marriage to another, he should have honourably relinquished his quest for Desdemona. However, he seeks still to attract her attention, attempting to seduce Desdemona with gifts intended to sway her affections in Roderigo’s favour.
We have little compassion therefore, when Iago fleeces Roderigo. The rich young fool has clearly given Iago much of his money and continues to do so in spite of all the evidence that his supposed ‘gifts’ are having no effect whatsoever. The irony is that Roderigo often has misgivings and tells Iago that he is giving up their scheming because he doesn’t trust Iago:
ROD:  Faith, I have heard too much, for your words and performances are no kin together.
IAGO: You charge me most unjustly.
ROD: With nought but truth. (Act 4 Scene 2)     
However, Iago manages to deceive and dissuade him time and again. This includes persuading him that Desdemona really loves Cassio and so to quarrel with Cassio to get him sacked, and then finally to murder Cassio as the only way to keep Desdemona in Cyprus and fall in love with him!
‘Honest’ Iago manages to maintain his deception right up until the moment when he stabs Roderigo. What he does not realise is that the wound is not immediately fatal, and that, undeceived at last, Roderigo exposes Iago with the truth:
.. even but now he spake,
After long seeming dead, Iago hurt him,

Iago set him on. (Act 5 Scene 2)      

Desdemona’s sincerity

Desdemona is blissfully happy in her marriage to Othello and is enchanted by his tales of adventure and danger. Whether she gets to know him at a deeper level is unknown, but she is totally unprepared for his anger and secretiveness when it appears. 
Desdemona believes others must share her warm and generous integrity. Thus she believes she can change Othello’s mind about his dismissal of Cassio because she knows how valued a friend he was to both of them during their courtship. When Othello interprets her attempts to reconcile them as motivated by her adulterous love for Cassio, she is totally bewildered:
Emilia:       Is not this man jealous?
Desdemona:      I ne’er saw this before.
                 Sure there’s some wonder in this handkerchief.
                 I am most unhappy in the loss of it. (Act 3 Scene 4)     

Dangerous openness

The problem for Desdemona is that she is too open with her feelings. Because she remains faithful throughout the play, she has no reason to deceive or hide them. Ironically, it is her innocence and easy physical affection which makes her husband convinced of her unfaithfulness. Onlookers observe her ‘paddle with the palm’ of Cassio, and although even Roderigo understands this is acceptable Venetian courtesy, it becomes fuel for jealous eyes. But with Desdemona we get what we see; there is no guile or deception with her. The two instances when she tells an untruth (about the handkerchief and the identity of her killer) are motivated by her love for her husband rather than inherent duplicity.

Othello’s deception

He is totally deceived by Iago’s apparent loyalty and trustworthiness; several times he refers to his honesty, for example in Act 1 Scene 3:
So please your grace, my ensign.
A man he is of honesty and trust .. 
      Honest Iago,     
Iago maintains this appearance throughout the play. In the epic Act 3 Scene 3, Othello never once sees through the deceitful lies and insinuations Iago tells him, even when they become progressively more incredible. On the contrary, Othello once more speaks in a soliloquy of his complete trust in him:
This fellow’s of exceeding honesty,
And knows all qualities with a learned spirit
Of human dealings.     
At the end of the scene, in a breath-taking act of hypocrisy, Iago kneels in prayer with Othello to swear allegiance before the natural elements (as opposed to the purity of heaven to which Othello prays):
Witness that here Iago doth give up
The execution of his wit, hands, heart 
To wronged Othello’s service. Let him command,
And to obey shall be in me remorse,
What bloody business ever.
I am your own for ever.    


In Act 3 Scene 3, Iago makes a telling comment about the value of personal integrity:
Men should be what they seem,
Or those that be not, would they might seem none.     
He correctly identifies the need to be the same in character as in appearance, so that ‘what you see is what you get.’ Of course it is ironic that this is said by Iago, who deceives everyone, but he also makes two speeches that illustrate the same truth. In Act 2 Scene 3, he says to Cassio:
Reputation is an idle and most false imposition, oft got without merit and lost without deserving. You have lost no reputation at all unless you repute yourself such a loser.     
It is certainly true that a good person can have a bad reputation, and vice-versa, and therefore Iago cynically argues that it doesn’t matter whether you have a good reputation or not. But unlike Cassio, who wants his reputation restored for honest reasons, Iago is intent on keeping his good reputation so that he can keep deceiving people. With deep hypocrisy, he poses as someone who cares about his honour: 
Good name in man or woman, dear my lord,
Is the immediate jewel of their souls.
Who steals my purse steals trash; .. 
But he that filches from me my good name
Robs me of that which not enriches him
And makes me poor indeed. (Act 3 Scene 3)    
But he is jealous of his good reputation only so that it serves his villainous ends. Othello, like several of Shakespeare’s plays, clearly illustrates that appearances can be deceptive.
Scan and go

Scan on your mobile for direct link.