Friday, 2 August 2013

What's Iago's Beef? Why Does he Want to Ruin Othello?

What's Iago's motive? | Edwin Booth as Iago
Iago is one of the greatest villains in literary and dramatic history, but is it possible that he is motivated by nothing more than evil? Would he be as fascinating if that were the case?

The name ‘Iago’ is synonymous with villainy and evil. He is without doubt one of Shakespeare’s most popular antagonists, but what do readers or audience members learn about this dastardly character?

Most importantly, what can we unearth about what it is that drives his seemingly insatiable desire to destroy Othello?

What Does Iago Tell Us?

Well, he tells us a lot. But he doesn't really get into the nitty-gritty of why he's hell bent on ruining Othello. Yes, we know there's professional jealousy at play. And maybe a good old fashioned dose of racism, too. Is that enough cause to destroy someone so absolutely, though?

It seems fair to say, Iago’s motivations are intentionally obscure and his final words certainly confirm this notion, “Demand me nothing: what you know, you know: From this time forth I never will speak word.”(V.ii). Of course, largely due to his naiveté and willingness to trust absolutely, Othello doesn't actually ‘know’ anything of Iago's true nature.

Was Shakespeare in a rush to finish? Was he just too lazy to write a thorough explanation? Or is this uncharacteristically silent Iago a deliberate change from the verbose, soliloquising man we think we've come to know?

In any case, given that Iago doesn't want to provide a motive, it might be argued that he does what he does simply because he can. However, this view of things is much too simplistic for my liking.

Does Iago's Ambition Drive him to Ruin Othello?

One of the most obvious reasons for Iago to plot against Othello is ambition. It's certainly enough to kill for (just ask Macbeth), so a few lies and a bit of betrayal is minor in comparison - bear in mind, Iago doesn't plan for things to pan out quite the way they do.

He is undoubtedly a Machiavellian character and it is clear that Othello’s decision to promote Cassio ignites a rage within him, “Cassio's a proper man: let me see now: To get his place and to plume up my will In double knavery – How, how? Let's see”(I.iii). It is from this point that Iago begins to formulate a plan to earn what he deems his ‘proper place’ by destroying Cassio.

At this stage of the game, it seems almost as if the only motive Iago has is to take Michael Cassio’s position. So, it could be claimed that, in fact, the aim is not to destroy Othello at all. In other words, Othello’s downfall is merely a side effect of Iago’s plot.

But, as Peggy Lee asks, is that all there is? Surely not.

Does Insecurity and Romantic Jealousy Drive Iago? 

Is Iago seeking revenge because Othello has had
an affair with Emilia?
Iago’s plot seems far too deliberately inclusive of the destruction of Othello for it to be collateral damage.

So what's his beef against Othello?

One reason Iago could have for wishing to ruin Othello is sexual jealousy. In one of his many soliloquies, Iago tells us that he suspects his wife, Emilia, has had an affair with Othello, “But partly led to diet my revenge, For that I do suspect the lusty Moor Hath leap'd into my seat…”(II.i) 

In fact, if Iago's to be believed, Emilia didn't stop there. He is even of the opinion that she and Cassio have had (or at least may have) an affair, “For I fear Cassio with my night-cap too…”(II.i).

Now, it is made clear that both Othello and Cassio have quite a way with the ladies. So, it's not beyond the realms of possibility from that point of view.

Additionally, Emilia doesn't seem too averse to dabbling with infidelity, as she tells Desdemona that she would never be unfaithful in daylight, but "I might do't as well i' the dark."(IV.iii)

However, it's only fair to add that she tempers that by saying, “Marry, I would not do such a thing for a joint-ring, nor for measures of lawn, nor for gowns, petticoats, nor caps, nor any petty exhibition; but for the whole world,-- why, who would not make her husband a cuckold to make him a monarch?”(IV.iii)

Therefore, despite Iago’s suspicions, it seems that Emilia has remained faithful. At least that's my hunch - like so much of the play, it is something that we can never be sure of one way or the other.

So, Why Does Iago Want to Destroy Othello?

The mystery of Iago's motives is part of his appeal
Kenneth Branagh as Iago in Othello, 1995
The fact of the matter is, we can't really know. Perhaps it's one of the reasons he gives us, maybe it's a combination of them - or they might be the 'excuses' he uses to justify his actions, both to himself and to us.

Because he refuses to say, we'll never know for sure. We're left to draw our own conclusions, and that's unquestionably part of his appeal.

For more on Othello, take a look at Is Othello a Tragic Hero? and Is Desdemona a Helpless Victim?


  1. Iago has little evidence as to why he wants to destroy Othello but it is mentioned in act 1 scene 3 that Iago had heard a rumour that Othello had slept with Iago's wife "i hate the moor. And it is thought abroad that 'twixt my sheets. He's done my office"

    1. Hi there,

      Yes, indeed - he accuses Emilia of being unfaithful with both Othello and Cassio. The comment is made in kind of an offhand way, though. It's tacked on as something of an afterthought, which implies that, even if it's true, Iago's not really that bothered.

      However, because Emilia says she wouldn't cuckold her husband, except to make him a king, it seems unlikely that she has leapt into bed with Othello. My hunch is that it's just an idle rumour that Iago's jumped on to give weight to his case.

      Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to comment.

  2. Is it possible that Iago maybe have an unknown infatuation for Othello? a homosexual love? His frustration and obsession drives him to end othello. In the beginning he says his main motivation is to get the lieutenant ship and to destroy Cassio and he achieves this yet he doesn't stop. He sets out to destroy the marriage between Desdemona and Othello. He had been asking for the handkerchief that was owned by Othello (which is a mark of trust and loyalty in a relationship) from Emilia for a long time it seems, even before he plans his conspiracy. He, often speaks of sex in a vulgar manner and always seems to drag Othello when he comments on anything sexual. Nonetheless this theory is one with little evidence so i proceed onto my NEXT theory which is that Iago is the perfect villain. He does not need any reason to destroy someone, his psychotic mentality and sadistic nature is what drives him, he derives pleasure from seeing others in pain, especially Othello and Cassio as they are from a higher class in society. He fears social isolation and wants these two out of the picture.

    1. Hello Nisara,

      I must admit, I'd never considered that Iago might be infatuated with Othello. He mentions hating him so often, but it didn't occur to me that that could be 'protesting too much'. And, of course, there is a school of thought that you can't really hate someone unless you also love them. So... maybe! As you say, we don't have much to go on, but it's not an outrageous leap to suggest it's possible.

      As for him being the perfect villain, I agree. He, ultimately, doesn't need a reason, because he's just a psychopath. We search for a motive, forgetting his brain doesn't work the same way as the rest of us. It's credit to Shakespeare's talents (because, given the deeply touching things he writes, he can't have been a psychopath) that he's able to make this man so real to us.

      Thanks for your comment. Interesting thoughts and great discussion!

      Best wishes,