In Shakespeare's 'Othello' is Roderigo a Victim or Villain?
The very first scene of ‘Othello’ sees a distressed Roderigo discussing how Iago has failed to carry out their plan to get Desdemona to marry him, something which Roderigo has been paying Iago to do, seen in the line “Iago, who hast had my purse”. Iago uses Roderigo’s ignorance to “line his pockets” and as one of many excuses to bring Othello down. Roderigo is a member of high-class society, certainly one much higher than that of Iago, who is revealed to resent the class system or, more accurately, his place in it “were I the Moor I would not be Iago”. This means Iago has no moral issues about taking advantage of Roderigo’s wishes, making him a victim of Iago’s schemes. Roderigo is to be pitied during the beginning scenes of the play as he is ultimately clueless and is unknowingly used by Iago as a vessel to help him get what he wants. By the end of Act I, it is clear that Roderigo is engulfed in an unrequited love for Desdemona, so strong that he wishes to drown himself as “to live is torment” after finding out she truly loves Othello. It is hard to feel anything other than sorrow for him as his plan was fuelled by love and at this point in the play his intentions seem honourable.
Despite his initial portrayal of being an easily manipulated and foolish character, Roderigo displays a dominating presence in terms of his views towards women. The fact that he chooses not to speak directly to Desdemona about his love for her shows that he does not value her opinion or wishes when it comes to their being together. It was normal for men of the Jacobean period to view women in this way, they were owned by their fathers until they were married off to a husband who would then own them until they died. Jacobean men felt like they needed to keep their wives in line by making decision on behalf of them and dictating how they lived their lives. For Roderigo, the opinion of a working-class male matters more than that of his future wife’s, which is shocking nowadays but would have been widely accepted at the time of the play’s production. The reason it is significant is because it directly contrasts with Othello’s view of Desdemona. The Othello of the first few scenes sees his wife as her own person, “letting her speak” and asking others to “hear her speak”. Not only does he express a more contemporary attitude to marriage, but he broadcasts it to his peers. Now, Roderigo’s methods appear more ‘old-fashioned’ and faulted and so the audience can see the more dislikeable side of his character.
On the other hand, an example of Roderigo as the victim is given in Act IV Scene II in which he confronts Iago, having “wasted himself out of his means”. This is a major growth in his character as he has been aware of Iago’s deception towards others but not towards him, until this point. Everything said by Roderigo about Iago in this interaction is entirely correct but unfortunately the play’s antagonist is able to bring the situation back in control by convincing Roderigo that everything is going to plan. He even takes advantage of Roderigo’s doubts by recruiting him to kill Cassio, informing him that he would be “doing yourself a profit and a right” when in reality Iago is the only one to gain something from his death. It is a shame that as Roderigo finally finds the ability to stand up for himself and realise his place, he is immediately twisted into submission through Iago’s lies. This brief lapse in his yielding to Iago serves as proof that Roderigo is indeed capable of thinking for himself, and therefore highlights the power and control that Iago holds at this juncture in the play.
Roderigo is clearly both a victim and a villain, whether he is a victim of his own villainy is another question worth considering. It is a common trope of drama for a character to get his or her comeuppance as it gives the audience a sense of satisfaction. I think this idea fits very loosely with Roderigo’s plotline as it can definitely be viewed as applicable, but his character is not significant enough for it to be seen as important in ‘Othello’ as a whole. Nevertheless, it should not be completely disregarded. Shakespeare wrote with intent so it is likely that he would embed this device in a less notable character to still convey the feelings of satisfaction to the audience without it taking away from the main premise of the drama. When Roderigo is eventually killed by Iago in Act V Scene I, he is made aware of Iago’s trickery with his dying words, “O damned Iago! O inhuman dog!”. Unfortunately, it is too late for Roderigo as he promptly faints and never regains consciousness.