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The character of Iago is of extreme and pivotal importance to the play as a whole. His character is brilliantly defined, giving him a quality that other characters in the story do not possess. Iago's ability to project a conflicting quality or emotion to the other characters enables him to exploit them. It is this quality that Shakespeare bestows on his villain which enables him to dictate the plot so brilliantly.
It is due to the interdependence of the play's characters that Othello allows individual characters to falsely attribute their own characteristics to others. What one character projects onto another is adopted by that other character. While Iago is enmeshed in a matrix of projection with the rest of the play's characters, he also consciously distances himself from the community enough to observe and manipulate others. For this reason he is able to resist other character profiles and yet be able to impress his own persona on his victims. It is precisely Iago's awareness of the operation of this mechanism that makes him both the play's perfect villain and the play's most influential character. The action of Othello is staged within a matrix of individuals bound to one another with bonds of trust, where one individual sets himself apart (inwardly) to serve selfish, narrow ends. Othello is a play depicting each person's individualistic desires against the community as a whole; much akin to the way a shark attacks a school of fish.
Iago's strength lay in the fact that while he projects his inward bitterness outward to those around him, others project their own positive qualities onto Iago. Iago identifies Othello's vulnerability in his "free and open nature . . .That thinks men honest that but seem to be so" (1.3.400-1). His comment relates directly back to Othello's statement to the Duke, "Please your Grace, my ancient. A man he is of honesty and trust" (1.3.286-7). Here we see Othello projecting his own characteristics - honesty - onto Iago, and Iago taking note of this tendency and planning to take advantage of it.
Iago's recognition of Othello's trusting nature, however, allows Iago to project his suspicions onto Othello. The scene in which this takes place, the "temptation" scene, is driven as much by Othello's view of Iago as it is by Iago's suggestions. Early in the scene Othello says the following to "force" Iago to speak his mind, "I think thou dost; / And, for I know thou'rt full of love and honesty.
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The same phenomenon is at work in Iago's relationship with Roderigo, although it is evident only in the speed with which Roderigo is willing to adapt Iago's point of view. The play's opening lines consist of Roderigo's complaint that Iago is withholding his feelings. Iago employs the same technique with Roderigo that he does with Othello in Act 3. In both cases Iago's self-judgment serves as the means by which his listener is prepared to accept Iago's comments as truth - "nothing this terrible could be true." Iago says to Roderigo in Act 1, "If ever I did dream of such a matter, Abhor me" (1.1.5-6), and drives Othello almost mad with the impression that, "As if there were some monster in his thought / Too hideous to be shown" (3.3.121-2). This is the source of Iago's strength. Iago's true character, one so foreign to the trusting natures of the people surrounding him, places him above suspicion even while he does reveal the monsters "in his thought."
As evidenced throughout Othello, the projection of Iago's character is a pivotal driver to the progression of the plot. He is the perfect villain created by Shakespeare, a character of great deception and one with the ability to mask himself and yet mesh reality with intangibles. He deceives Othello by exploiting his "free and open nature" and subsequently tricks Roderigo by exploiting his lust for Desdemona. It is only imperative that Iago be the sculptor of Othello. Iago's complexity and diversity enables him to dictate the crucial scenes in the play and therefore be the paint for Shakespeare's canvas.