Othello, like any other Shakespeare tragedy, ends with a multitude of deaths. One person who manages to avoid this fate is Iago; his villainy is revealed and he is physically assaulted by Othello, but he is still alive at the end of the play. At first glance it seems curious, if not downright cruel, that Shakespeare would let this purely evil character walk away from all the bloodshed that he helped to create. In reality, however, his ultimate punishment – to be stricken of his ability to twist and manipulate people to do his bidding – is a death of sorts, and one that is likely even more painful to him than an actual death would be.
Throughout the entire play, Iago has used his words to deceive other people. He has shown the ability to deploy this technique in multiple different ways, whether with a subtle approach (like we see with Othello) or a more headstrong one (as we see with Roderigo). The only times we see him express any kind of satisfaction are when he pauses to note that his deceptions are working; beyond these moments, he does nothing to suggest that he cares about anything or anyone. His skills of manipulation are the entire basis by which he is defined, both by himself and by us. When Roderigo bemoans his inability to let go of his love for Desdemona, Iago refutes him: “’Tis in ourselves that were thus or thus./Our bodies are our gardens, to the which our wills are garden/ers” (1.3 316-318). This statement is representative of Iago’s entire being; he shapes himself depending on whatever approach will lead to him getting what he wants, and virtually all of the characters in the play suffer as a result of his ability to do so.
Iago’s true punishment at the end of the play, then, is that he loses this ability which has gotten him so far. Now that his villainous intent has been exposed, his words have lost all the power they once had. And based on what we know of him, such a loss is equivalent to losing all of his joy and motivation to live. When Othello demands an explanation for Iago’s actions, he refuses to provide one: “Demand me nothing. What you know, you know./From this time forth I never will speak word.” (5.2 309-310). And indeed, those words are his last ones in the play. When stripped of his ability to create an illusion for himself, Iago chooses absolute silence over using his diminished words. Graziano suggests that Iago will be tortured, but such an act is unnecessary; the real torture will come the next time he finds himself in a position where he would like to manipulate a person or a situation and is unable to do so.
It is common for the evil characters in Shakespeare tragedies to receive their comeuppance in death. But such a fate can occasionally be too predictable, and there are other ways to punish such characters for their sins. Shakespeare takes such an approach in crafting Iago’s downfall; instead of granting him death, he instead places him in a position where he is destined to be a shadow of his former self. Such a punishment is a worthy one for a character of Iago’s villainy.