The majority of the characters in Shakespeare’s Othello, view Iago, the play’s antagonist, as “most honest” (II, ii, 7) and laudable; however, as readers, we perceive him in a completely different way. There is a clear dichotomy between two perceptions of the same character. In the reader’s perspective, Iago is an extremely powerful manipulator who feasts on being in a state of control and superiority. Although Othello is the general of the Venetian army and protagonist of Shakespeare’s Othello, Iago not only has more lines than the main character, but is responsible for inciting the tragic action of the play. Thus, making this work of literature a true and fulfilled tragedy. Many consider Iago to be one of Shakespeare’s most wicked villains due to his genius in duplicity and proficiency in verbal manipulation. The play’s puppet master focuses largely on plotting against the tragic hero, Othello. When ruminating upon this intricate, yet paramount character, one essential question comes to mind: “What is Iago’s motivation for plotting against the characters in the play and for inducing such tumultuous situations?” The measures that Iago takes in order to fulfill his plan act as the stepping stones for the final act, also known as the scene of pathos, in which Othello murders his wife, not long before he recognizes his tragic flaw and realizes that his wife was true to him all along. It is difficult to pinpoint one distinct reason that explains Iago’s motivation for all the evil acts he commits throughout the play- rather, it is a number of factors that attribute to his animus. However, based off the clues provided in the play, the reader is able to highlight several elements that actuate Iago to commit such atrocious acts. Specifically, Iago’s jealousy of Cassio’s promotion to lieutenant, rumors of Othello’s affair with Iago’s wife, and factors leading to psychological satisfaction, are Iago’s primary motivations for perpetrating chaos throughout the play.
The play opens with a dialogue between Roderigo and Iago in which the reader is instantly made aware of Iago’s jealousy towards Cassio’s promotion to lieutenant. Iago claims that he is upset because he believes that Cassio is not worthy of his upgrading since the he is inexperienced and lacks qualifications. Iago states that he is more fit for the job and that the Moore is wrong for choosing Cassio as lieutenant rather than Iago. Iago mentions that Cassio never even fought in a battle, he has only studied them. This comment further emphasizes Iago’s belief of Cassio’s incompetence and lack of skill for the position. Iago declares, “Michael Cassio, a Floretine, a fellow almost damn’d in a fair wide, that never set a squadron in the field, nor the devision of a battle knows more than a spinster, unless the bookish theoric, wherein the toged consuls can propose as masterly as he” (I, i, 20-26). This citation makes Iago’s jealousy towards Cassio blatantly clear. Furthermore, in Bernard J. Paris’ analysis, the author writes, “The promotion of Cassio is for Iago a bitter defeat which threatens his self- esteem, his value system, and, indeed, his whole strategy for dealing with life. He has played the role of faithful servant in order to advance his own interests, and he has had an immense pride in his cleverness and in the success of his duplicity. But his scheming has, in fact, failed. Othello has benefitted from his service but has given the reward which he was expecting to someone else. Iago, the exploiter, has been exploited. Iago experiences this as a profound humiliation which calls into question his cleverness, his manipulative ability, and the whole system of rationalizations by which he justifies his code of egoism and deception.” The author brings up an interesting point: Iago feels destined to be lieutenant is because of his long-term loyalty to Othello. It also becomes evident that the schemer has failed in his plan since rather than him receiving praise and reward for his dedication to Othello, someone else, who he believes deserves it less, received it. Clearly, this event gives the antagonist a reason to be resentful towards Othello.
The major themes of the play relate to love, sex, and jealousy. These themes are at the root of much of the drama and disruption that occurs within the play. There are several instances in the play in which one character suspects another of having an affair with his wife. More often than not, these thoughts, leading to uncontrollable jealousy, are provoked by Iago. For instance, Iago is able to convince both Othello and Roderigo that Michael Cassio is having an affair with Desdemona, which is completely untrue. However, at one point in the play, Iago reveals his suspicion regarding a romance between Othello and his wife, Emilia. Iago declares, “For that I do suspect the lusty Moor hath leap’d into my seat, the thought whereof doth like a poisonous mineral gnaw my inwards; and nothing can or shall content my soul till I am even’d with him, wife for wife; or failing so, yet that I put the Moor into a jealousy so strong that judgment cannot cure” (II, ii, 284-291). This quote is essential to the play. Not only does it reveal a primary motivation for Iago’s egregious doings, but it also explains Iago’s central, master plan. Iago reveals that he intends to sleep with Desdemona, Othello’s wife, to get revenge for what he supposes Othello did with his own wife. However, the antagonist claims that if he cannot accomplish this, then he will make Othello jealous to the point where he can no longer control himself. The latter ends up being his ultimate goal. As a result of Iago’s actions, Othello’s jealousy grows so insatiable that it drives him to murder his wife at the end of the play. Therefore, Iago’s supposition of an affair between his wife and Othello instigates him to commit brutal acts.
It is revealed in the play that another reason Iago decides to wreak havoc is for his own entertainment. Iago directly states, “If I would time expend with such a snipe but for my own sport and profit” (I, iii, 376-377). In context, Iago is saying that he is using his “fool”, referring to Roderigo, for the purpose of profit and simply because he finds it comedic, or entertaining to him. Essentially, the villain is saying that observing others struggle and attempt to obtain what he knows is herculean, is of delight to him. What exacerbates this, in a moral and ethical sense, is that not only is Iago enjoying being a witness to these events, but he is promoting them and doing everything in his power to make it more difficult for the individuals he is controlling, his “pawns”. The fact that Iago provides no such reason or logic describing this particular motivation makes the audience question whether or not Iago is pure evil at his roots. Iago makes the reader aware that one part of the reason for which he perpetrated such nefarious acts is simply for his own pleasure. This may provoke the reader to question if there are more psychological aspects defining this motivation, such as the desire for power and dominance.
For one, based off personal experience and from witnessing others, humans have a congenital desire to constantly be entertained. Evidently, seeing others struggle and be in pain is appealing and diverting to Iago. As each of us find pleasure in different activities and hobbies, Iago appreciates manipulating those around him, seemingly coming off as a sadist. Additionally, humans have a natural desire for power and control – simply, being dominant. As stated in an article written by Association for Psychological Science, “People instinctively prefer high to low power positions,” says M. Ena Inesi of London Business School. “Similarly, it feels good when you have choice, and it doesn’t feel good when choice is taken away.” Inesi and her coauthors suspected that the need for personal control might be the factor these two seemingly independent processes have in common. Power is control over what other people do; choice is control over your own outcomes.” This trait comes from years and years of evolution. Iago makes this tendency clear through his abuse of it. Just as the play starts, Iago is already complaining that he has lost his place in the social hierarchy because he was not promoted when the slot opened for lieutenant. He uses manipulation, mainly verbal, to obtain what he wants. He tells individuals what they want to hear and uses them for his own benefit. For instance, in order to prevent Roderigo from committing suicide so that he can be used for Iago’s plan, Iago provides Roderigo with false hope by assuring him that Othello will eventually get tired of Desdemona, and when the woman gets older, she will realize that she does not truly love the Moore. The manipulator affirms, “Now for want of these required conveniences, her delicate tenderness will find itself abused, begin to heave the gorge, disrelish and abhor the Moore. Very nature will instruct her in it, and compel her to some second choice”(II, i, 223-227). Hearing this, Roderigo tells Iago that he is changed. Iago’s art in rhetoric is a very powerful means of exploitation for him; hence, he is commonly labelled as Shakespeare’s most wicked villain. Iago is able to manipulate his victims with ease with minimal effort, further proving his tendency to take measures in order to make himself feel superior. Iago’s will to be in a state of control and dominance is a more internal and less obvious motivation for Iago’s actions.
Arguably, another major motive for Iago relating to psychology and the character’s way of thinking, is derived from his preconceived prejudices. Iago plots against Othello due to his difference in race. Racism is an underlying theme in Othello. Othello is an African male in charge of a mostly caucasian army. He is chosen to be the general because he is proficient in his duties. However, the notion of his superior capacities is difficult to grasp for several characters, one of which being Iago. Iago refers to Othello in crude and derogatory terms, frequently with the use of aspersions, based off nothing more than his ethnicity. In attempt to expose Othello and get him demoted, Iago and Roderigo pay a visit to Barbantio, Desdemona’s father, in attempt to make him aware of the situation. Iago boldly claims, “Your heart is burst; you have lost half your soul; even now, now, very now, an old black ram is tupping your white ewe”(I, i, 88-90). In this manner, Iago notifies the senator that his daughter is having an affair with the Moore. This expression is excessively cruel and crude. The play is set during a time period in which people of colour were seen as inferior and were often criticized. The reader can infer that Othello being both of African descent, and one of the only outliers in a predominantly white society, was seen as an outsider. From this perspective, Iago may want Othello to be demoted simply so that people of caucasian background could take over the higher rankings. This motivation is further ratified in the play’s introduction, “Another motive follows fast upon the exposition of this reasonable disappointment, but this one is wholly irrational: Iago hates Othello because he is black. In the presence of his general, Iago appears to be loyal and respectful: behind Othello’s back, he loses no opportunity to abuse or diminish him. This is the reaction of one who, because he feels himself to be inferior, tries to reduce everyone to his own level” (xi). Iago’s bias towards Othello due to his difference in race, compared to the majority, assists to explain the antagonist’s motivation for conspiring against the general.
Iago is motivated to cause harm to those around him because Cassio is promoted to lieutenant rather than him, he hears rumors of Othello sleeping with his wife, and for pure psychological satisfaction. All of these elements together provide a logical answer as to why Iago commits the acts he did. The fact that Shakespeare does not provide the audience with one clear motivation for Iago’s doings makes the antagonist such a fascinating character. This gives room for the reader to analyze the varying elements in the play that may motivate Iago and decide which motivations are chief, which ones are apparently present, and which can be inferred. In essence, it is Iago’s talent for manipulating and exploiting the desires of those around him that makes him such a powerful, yet heinous figure.