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Iago’s Underlying Motives: Homosexuality and its Role in Othello

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Villainy is often born from jealousy, insecurity, and paranoia. Iago from Shakespeare’s Othello, though dubbed as motiveless, is no exception; what starts as an optimistic heterosexual romance ends as a tragedy brought about by homoerotic envy, competition, and fear of emasculation. The play is centered around a military environment, which puts emphasis on traditional indications of masculinity such as physical prowess and belligerent disposition. The military ranks also imply men’s superiority over women, thus making femininity a sign of weakness. This consequently creates a homosocial expectation that Othello betrays by marrying Desdemona, thus catalyzing Iago’s jealous spiral and an ensuing paranoia of emasculation. Through his repulsion of women, contempt for Cassio, and his twisted seduction of Othello, Iago demonstrates an underlying homosexual desire that encourages him to manipulate Othello and drive him into causing the play’s infamous domestic calamity.

One of the most telling implications of Iago’s sexuality is his hateful attitude towards women, namely Emilia and Desdemona. In 2.1, he spews harsh insults towards his wife by calling her naggy to Cassio, saying “would she give you so much of her lips / As of her tongue she oft bestows on me / You would have enough” (2.1.105-106). He then calls the women “Players in your housewifery, and housewives in your beds” (2.1.111), implying that a woman’s only work is done during sex to imply promiscuity and discredit their domestic work. He has evident contempt towards Desdemona because of the marriage bed she shares with Othello; however, this hatred also spreads to Emilia, when he begins to “suspect the lusty Moor / Hath leaped into [his] seat…” (2.1.78-79). Not only is Iago concerned with how her potential infidelity could affect his reputation, but there is a deeper obsession connected to his relationship with Othello. In the article “Iago Psychoanalytically Motivated,” Stanley Edgar Hyman notes that cuckolding is an indirect form of homosexual intimacy because it is “two men symbolically uniting sexually by sharing the body of the same woman” (Hyman 372). Iago feigns anger towards Othello under the speculation that he potentially slept with his wife, when in reality, he is expressing an obsession with the idea of becoming intimate with the military captain, albeit indirectly. The accusation was sudden and not founded upon proof, demonstrating his lack of logic. Sharing a woman is also a more acceptable and masculine way of becoming homosexually intimate. Iago’s misogyny can also be attributed to the fact that marriage is a betrayal of the homosocial bond that being in the military curated. He has developed a resentment for women as a result of his stark loyalty to masculinity. Since women were not allowed to be in the ranks, it is an exclusive attribute that the men of the play share; it also gives him a reason to call women lazy. Treachery is a major component of the story that occurs through a domino effect; Iago’s masculinity feels betrayed when Othello marries a woman and promotes Cassio, and he therefore conjures a plot to betray Othello’s masculinity in turn.

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The play’s characteristic snake-like destruction of Othello’s relationships is not limited to his marriage. Iago’s envy of Cassio is indicative of his desire for Othello’s approval and affection, further confirming his underlying desire. Competition for a military position is a more masculine depiction of a love triangle; although attached to glory and an improved reputation, the true stakes of the promotion is Othello’s admiration. Initially, Iago is enraged because Cassio “…never set a squadron in the field / Nor the division of a battle knows / More than a spinster…” (1.1.21-22). Iago’s criticism of Cassio’s military ability can be seen as an attack on his manhood; by calling him inept on the battlefield, he is also calling him inept in the bedroom and in romantic pursuits. He is also equated to a spinster, an unmarried woman, which further emasculates him. Although Iago is successful in tarnishing Cassio’s reputation and getting him demoted, the threat still lingers when Othello admits to still loving Cassio, even after the slip-up in his behavior. In turn, Iago becomes frustrated and ultimately concludes that killing Cassio is the only way to eliminate the competition. Involving Cassio in the adulterous lie about Desdemona would convince Othello to hate him enough to take his life. Additionally, it would be satisfying for Iago to see his leader react with such disdain towards the man who took his promotion. It is also noteworthy that Cassio’s unwavering good name threatens Iago’s reputation in comparison; this fact is acknowledged when Iago says “He hath a daily beauty in his life / That makes me ugly” (5.1.19-20). By vocalizing his concerns about Cassio’s attractiveness, Iago is making it clear that he both notices and values the appearances of men. Interestingly, his use of the word “beauty” rather than “handsomeness” in an attempt to feminize Cassio and validate why he finds Cassio to be visually appealing. His jealousy is indicative of his fear of the feminine and being feminized, which causes him to project these feelings onto other military men. He is compensating for his homosexual desires by making himself appear more manly by stripping away the manliness of his comrades.

Iago’s actions throughout the story function as a sick and twisted seduction of Othello in order to tear him away from Desdemona. The Moor’s marriage is demonstrative of romantic love and is notably different from his relationship with Iago. The villain’s feelings can most accurately be described as desire or lust, because love would implicate warmth and selflessness, which are two traits he obviously lacks. Consequently, Othello’s attention is turned away from his military comrades out of heterosexual devotion to his wife. This idea enrages Iago, and his ultimate goal becomes to isolate Othello from everyone else through manipulation in order to earn his superior’s utter attention and admiration. This aggressive pursuit rewards Iago with a pseudo-marriage in 3.3, where the kneeling imagery and vows are reminiscent of a legitimate ceremony; this particular moment marks the point in the play when Othello’s loyalty changes from Desdemona to Iago. Othello makes this promise by saying, “I greet thy love / Not with vain thanks but with acceptance bounteous / And will upon the instant put thee to’t” (3.3.463-465). Iago’s most haunting line, “I am your own forever” (3.3.473), echoes one of the only truths he tells in the play – that he is eternally connected to Othello. This highlights the fact that the male-and-male relationship takes subconscious precedence over the heterosexual relationship. Iago has successfully called Othello’s masculinity into question, causing him to adopt a similar paranoia of emasculation. By instilling this insecurity into Othello, Iago becomes the catalyst to the play’s domestic tragedy: Othello murdering Desdemona and betraying their marriage. His justification for killing her is voiced just moments before the crime: “Yet she must die, else she’ll betray more men” (5.2.6). Interestingly, Othello’s ultimate resolve is to kill his wife in order to protect other men; this fact further confirms his loyalty to the homosocial bond that Iago was so desperate to rekindle. Iago’s manipulation also encouraged Othello’s subsequent repulsion of women, seen through the accusatory and harsh language he begins to use towards Desdemona. He asks her, “Are you not a strumpet?” (4.2.81) and “What, not a whore?” (4.2.84), implying sexual promiscuity through name-calling, which is reminiscent of Iago’s language in 2.1. Marriage is the ultimate symbol of unification; ironically, by the end of the play, Othello is more unified with Iago than he ever was with his wife. Iago was successful in encouraging the domestic tragedy, but loses all of his masculine attributes in the process: His wife, his honest reputation, and his military position.

Othello’s military atmosphere establishes complex gender dynamics that tie in with its underlying exploration of homosexuality. Especially considering the time period, masculinity was an incredibly sacred attribute in contrast to femininity, which was seen as weak, vulnerable, and useless. Social standing and combat experience were two aspects that heavily defined manhood in the time period, and they are called into question for Iago as the story unfolds. Iago’s villainy initially seems pointless. The readers are lead to believe that he is evil with no motivation; however, after exploring his behavior in relationship to the context of the story, it is clear that it stems from his deeply rooted masculine insecurities and jealousy. His hatred of women can be attributed to his fear of the feminine, which is expressed as utter repulsion. His jealousy of Cassio is explicitly caused by comparison and insecurity in his own masculinity. His drive to incite Desdemona’s murder is born from a sense of homosocial betrayal on Othello’s part, which he believes deserves to be punished; unconsciously, he also desires Othello, which in turn inspires the “seduction” of him to betray his heterosexual side. Ultimately, Iago’s treachery and sabotage curate the play’s overarching theme of envy and insecurity and result in the infamous domestic tragedy.

Works Cited

  1. Hyman, Stanley Edgar. “IAGO PSYCHOANALYTICALLY MOTIVATED.” The Centennial Review, vol. 14, no. 4, 1970, pp. 369–384. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/23737771.
  2. Shakespeare, William. Othello. The Norton Shakespeare. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt et. al. 3rd ed. 2 vols. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2008. 2: 380-454.

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Iago’s Underlying Motives: Homosexuality and its Role in Othello. (2022, Jun 29). Edubirdie. Retrieved February 4, 2023, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/iagos-underlying-motives-homosexuality-and-its-role-in-othello/
“Iago’s Underlying Motives: Homosexuality and its Role in Othello.” Edubirdie, 29 Jun. 2022, edubirdie.com/examples/iagos-underlying-motives-homosexuality-and-its-role-in-othello/
Iago’s Underlying Motives: Homosexuality and its Role in Othello. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/iagos-underlying-motives-homosexuality-and-its-role-in-othello/> [Accessed 4 Feb. 2023].
Iago’s Underlying Motives: Homosexuality and its Role in Othello [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Jun 29 [cited 2023 Feb 4]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/iagos-underlying-motives-homosexuality-and-its-role-in-othello/
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