Looking at Othello simply, we can see how Iago is a true villain–so caught up in his jealousy that he vows to seek revenge instead of just accepting that he was just not the right person for the job. But is he really the villain in the play? Iago lied. He slandered, he manipulated, he gossiped–and these are villainous actions, indeed. However, they are merely tools. We may feel sorry for Othello for being tricked so deeply that he killed his wife out of anger, but he brought it on himself.
Othello is not an emotional man–as a leader in the war against the Turks, fighting with violence (not words) is the only thing he knows. So it makes sense that he is quick to do harm to Desdemona when he believes she is cheating on him (such as slapping her in front of other people, suffocating her via pillow). Not that these actions justify his beliefs, but they explain them. Now, Othello believed Iago when he was lying through his teeth, but only through the actions that Iago believed he saw, such as when Iago believed he saw Cassio and Desdemona kissing, not by things Iago knew for sure. Through careful manipulation, Iago put all these ideas into Othello’s head, but Othello was the one who reacted without even trying to hear Desdemona’s side of the story. She didn’t know what Othello was thinking for almost the entire duration of the play. That’s why when Desdemona kept asking why Othello was so angry with her, he never actually came right out and said, “I have reasons to believe that you are cheating on me with Cassio.” He was just like, “Don’t act like you don’t know what you did, you whore!” every single time Desdemona tried to get him to explain what was bothering him. How was Desdemona supposed to explain herself if Othello never gave her anything to explain? In this twist of dramatic irony, I felt myself becoming angry with Othello, not for believing Iago’s lies, but never explaining his suspicions to Desdemona.
But why should he, when she already knows what she’s done? But even when Desdemona finally got a hint as to what was making Othello so angry, she still couldn’t explain her side of the story because Othello completely flat-out refused to believe her. Not only her, but anyone else. And because he refused to listen to anyone but Iago, he let his emotions get to him and killed Desdemona. Iago may have destroyed Othello psychologically, but Othello was never forced to accept Iago’s suspicions at face value. He must have already had some suspicions in his head beforehand about Desdemona cheating on him because they basically come from different worlds. Desdemona’s a young, beautiful woman, the daughter of a senator. Othello’s an old (middle-aged?) Moor who’s fought battle after battle since he was a child. He must be wondering why Desdemona loves him so much–it can’t just be because of his heroic efforts in the war, can it? Othello’s concerns about Desdemona’s love for him are never explicitly stated, but they are implied by the other characters (Iago, mostly) because they are so different. His insecurities may also be another tool that drives him to this violent jealous suspicion. And because he never investigates it, just accuses, he is the true antagonist. Man vs. himself.
But let’s recap here:
What did Iago do? I believe your wife is cheating on you, compadre. Hey, I may be wrong, but there’s all this evidence here that juuuuuust might point to her infidelity, like Cassio having your family heirloom, that beautiful handkerchief that was passed down in your family for generations, that you gave to Desdemona. And yet she must have just gave it away to Cassio like it meant nothing to her. But again, this is just what I think. It may not be true. Just like my suspicions of Cassio lying with her in bed may not be true. Again, don’t look into it too much. But do keep your eyes open. Because, you know, she’s a Venetian woman, and you know how they are.
What did Othello do? Oh, Iago! Iago, you honest, straight-forward man! I would kiss your honest feet if I could to honor your honesty! Your suspicions do sound implausible, but yet they also sound possible at the same time. Oh, no. Maybe you’re right. Desdemona! What is the meaning of this, you whore? Don’t act like you don’t know what you did you lying, stinking whore! What do you mean what do I mean? I don’t need to explain anything! You know exactly what you did! Why did you give that drunkard Cassio my handkerchief?! Why are you cheating on me? Is it because I’m not young and white like all the other Venetians? Stop crying, you whore! You know what, forget it. There’s nothing you or anyone else can say to change my mind. I am forever heartbroken. And for that, I must kill you. You’re so beautiful, but you’re a whore, and I must kill you as punishment! Goodbye. *Smothers with pillow*