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Shakespeare's Characters: Iago (Othello)

Driven by an overpowering lust for evil rivaled only by Satan, Iago grabs the title as worst Shakespeare villain hands down. On the surface, Iago's motive for wanting to destroy Othello could be one of several. The most obvious is that he has just been passed over for a promotion which has gone to Cassio. He confesses to Roderigo that this is the reason for his hatred; the reason for his desire to ruin Othello:

One Michael Cassio, a Florentine
(A fellow almost damn'd in a fair wife),
That never set a squadron in the field
But he, sir, had th' election ... (1.1.20-27)

Another motive, and possibly a stronger motive than the first, is Iago's jealousy of the Moor. Iago suspects that his wife, Emilia, has committed adultery with Othello:

... I hate the Moor;
And it is thought abroad that 'twixt my sheets
'Has done my office. I know not if't be true;
Yet I, for mere suspicion in that kind,
Will do as if for surety. (1.3.378-82)

Iago is also jealous of Othello's ability to woo the young and alluring Desdemona. It is possible that Iago has his own secret passion for the Moor's new bride, and he is enraged at the idea of the "old black ram" (1.1.88) attaining what he himself desires:

It cannot be that Desdemona should long continue her love to the Moor ... She must change for youth. When she is sated with his body, she will find the error of her choice. (1.3.340)

Although the aforementioned reasons give Iago adequate motive to want to destroy Othello, on a more profound level we see that lago's true motive is his blatant love of evil. Iago is using jealousy and anger as excuses to perpetrate evil. Even if Iago had received the promotion; even if he had no suspicions or jealous feelings, he would invent other motives to provide the framework for the diabolical mischief he must create. To Iago, the ruination of Othello is a game:

Let us be conjunctive against him. If thou canst cuckold him, thou dost thyself a pleasure, me a sport. (1.3.363)

Honour, loyalty, reverence, and fidelity - the highest and the holiest virtues of humanity - are but base commodities to be bought and sold. Iago is "an unbeliever in, and denier of, all things spiritual, who only acknowledges God, like Satan, to defy him" (William Robertson Turnbull, Othello: A Critical Study, 269). Iago has no conscience, no ability to perform good deeds. Iago is a psychopath, and is not capable of forming affectionate relationships or feeling guilt and concern over his behaviour. Unlike Othello, Iago does not have the free will to refrain from wickedness. His nature does not enable him to see the goodness in any one or anything; he is driven by a lust for evil beyond his control.


The following is an interesting excerpt from the famous lecture on Othello by A. C. Bradley:

Iago stands supreme among Shakespeare's evil characters because the greatest intensity and subtlety of imagination have gone to his making, and because he illustrates in the most perfect combination the two facts concerning evil which seem to have impressed Shakespeare most. The first of these is the fact that perfectly sane people exist in whom fellow-feeling of any kind is so weak that an almost absolute egoism becomes possible to them, and with it those hard vices — such as ingratitude and cruelty — which to Shakespeare were far the worst. The second is that such evil is compatible, and even appears to ally itself easily, with exceptional powers of will and intellect. In the latter respect Iago is nearly or quite the equal of Richard, in egoism he is the superior, and his inferiority in passion and massive force only makes him more repulsive. How is it then that we can bear to contemplate him; nay, that, if we really imagine him, we feel admiration and some kind of sympathy? Henry the Fifth tells us:

There is some soul of goodness in things evil,
Would men observingly distil it out;

but here, it may be said, we are shown a thing absolutely evil, and—what is more dreadful still—this absolute evil is united with supreme intellectual power. Why is the representation tolerable, and why do we not accuse its author either of untruth or of a desperate pessimism?

To read the full lecture please click here.


Related Articles

 The Flawed Villainy of Iago
 Lectures on Othello: Play Construction and the Suffering and Murder of Desdemona
 Lectures on Othello: Othello's Jealousy
 Stage History of Othello
 Othello: Plot Summary
 Othello: Q & A
 Quotes from Othello

 How to Pronounce the Names in Othello
 Cassio Character Introduction
 Othello Character Introduction
 Desdemona Character Introduction

 Othello: Essay Topics
 Shakespeare's Sources for Othello
 The Problem of Time in Othello