As villain in Shakespeare?s play Othello, Iago has two main actions. They are to plot and to deceive. Iago hates Othello for two reasons. He believes that Othello made love to his wife, and Iago is mad that Cassio was chosen to be Lieutenant instead of himself. From this hate comes the main conflict of the play. Iago plans to ruin Othello by carrying out a plan based on lies and deceit. This plan will make Iago the only person that Othello believes he can trust, and Iago will use this trust to manipulate Othello. First, Iago plans to remove Cassio from his position as lieutenant so that he himself take over Cassio?s position as confidant and Lieutenant to Othello. Then Iago hopes to convince Othello that Cassio and Desdemona are having an affair. If Iago?s plan unfolds properly, he will be granted the revenge that he believes he deserves.
Iago?s plan and his motives are disclosed through a series three of conversations. He speaks with Roderigo twice and Cassio once. These three conversations show how Iago manipulates others to gain his own ends, and they also give motives for Iago?s behavior. The conversations all follow the same pattern. Iago first speaks with Roderigo and Cassio to forward his plan, and then Iago has a soliloquy in which he discusses his motives. Iago states that the reasons for his hate are that Othello slept with Emilia and Cassio was chosen to be Othello?s Lieutenant. However, Iago?s actions lead to ends that do not revenge his given motives. Coleridge calls Iago?s actions “the motive-hunting of a motiveless malignity” . In other words, Iago?s only reason for destroying Othello is that Iago is an inherently bad person. The conversations that Iago has with Roderigo and Cassio show that Iago invents reasons for his actions against Othello, so that his own selfish ends can be met.
Iago?s first dialog with Roderigo serves as an introduction to Iago?s plan. In this scene the reader learns that Roderigo is in love with Desdemona, because he threatens to drown himself when he learns that Othello and Desdemona are engaged. Uses Roderigo?s weakness to help him remove Cassio from his lieutenant position. Iago tells Roderigo to “put money in thy purse” (333) . Iago believes that Othello and Desdemona will not be together for a very long time since Othello is a Moor and Desdemona is an aristocrat. Iago urges Roderigo to earn money now so that he can be an eligible suitor when Desdemona is looking for another husband. This conversation and the soliloquy following it introduce the two different sides of Iago.
Iago tells Roderigo what he wants to hear in order to enlist his help. However, in the following soliloquy the reader is introduced to what Iago really has planned. He states that he would never associate with someone like Roderigo except to gain his own ends. “Thus do I ever make my fool my purse–/ For I mine own gained knowledge should profane/ If I would time expand with such a snipe/ But for my sport and profit” (365-368). Iago feels that Roderigo is a foolish man who exists only for Iago?s use or “sport.” This idea a strengthened by the word “snipe”. The Arden Shakespeare defines snipe as “fool” (p. 159) and states that the word meant “gull or dupe” (p. 159) before Shakespeare. These definitions emphasize the fact that Iago feels no respect for Roderigo and is manipulating Roderigo only to further his plan.
In the same speech, Iago?s real plan is revealed only to the audience. Iago wants to convince Othello that Cassio and Desdemona are in love. They are the two people that Othello trusts, and if Othello believes that they have turned on him, this will lead to his downfall. Iago plans to tell Othello that Cassio and Desdemona are having an affair. Cassio is a ladies man, and Iago believes that Cassio?s charm makes women fall in love with him. Iago will make the innocent flirtations of Cassio and Desdemona seem like secret love to Othello. “After some time to abuse Othello?s ears/ That he is too familiar with his wife/ He hath a person and a smooth dispose/ To be suspected, framed to make women false” (378-380).
Iago planted a seed of hope in Roderigo, and the next time they speak Iago uses this hope to turn Roderigo against Cassio. In this scene Iago tells Roderigo that “Desdemona is directly in love with [Cassio]” (215). From there previous discussion, Roderigo believes that he will be with Desdemona when she is no longer with Othello. Here, Roderigo learns that he has competition, and this information is given to Roderigo only because Iago hopes that Roderigo will initiate a fight with Cassio. This fight will get Cassio in trouble and hopefully remove him from his position. Cassio is not an agressive soldier like Iago, and he has to be tricked and provoked in order to fight. When Cassio fights with Roderigo, Iago will create a riot in Cyprus and blame the cause on Cassio. Cassio?s uncharacteristic agression is what ultimately removes his from his position as lieutenant.
Sir, he?s rash and very sudden in choler, and haply may strike at you. Provoke him that he may, for even out of that will I cause these of Cyprus to mutiny, whose qualification shall come into no true taste again but by the displanting of Cassio (261-264).
The New Arden Shakespeare defines “qualifications” as “condition, nature or pacification” (180) and uses the word “trust” instead of “taste”. When “taste” is used, the line says that the people of Cyprus will not feel comfortable with their nature until Cassio is removed from his position. In contrast, when “trust” is used, Iago?s words say that the people of Cyprus will not be able to trust authorities again until Cassio is no longer Lieutenant. While Cassio is fighting, Iago is using the violence to create a riot in Cyprus and unnerve the people. Cassio is blamed for this riot, and order cannot be restored until he is no longer Lieutenant. The word “trust” makes more sense in this sentence, because Cassio lost the trust of the masses when he acted with aggression. He was always a well mannered and peaceful man, and now the people of Cyprus do not know who he really is.
In the soliloquy following Roderigo?s exit, Iago reveals the real reasons for his plotting against Othello. Iago says that Othello slept with Emilia, Iago?s wife, and he feels that he must even the score with Othello by sleeping with Desdemona. If Iago fails to woo Desdemona, he plans to prove to Othello that Cassio and Desdemona are having an affair. Iago hope that this information will make Othello forever jealous.
For that I do suspect the lusty Moor/ Hath leapt 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 evened with his, wife for wife–/ Or failing so, yet that I put the Moor/ At least into a jealousy so strong/ That judgement cannot cure (282-288).
This soliloquy shows that Iago has no real motives for his actions. To substitute for real motives, Iago treats rumors like they were facts and invents situations that never happened in order to suit the ends he wishes to achieve. The Furness Variorum Edition points out that Iago admits in his first soliloquy that the affair between Othello and Emilia is only a rumor (p.120-121). “And it is thought abroad that ?twixt my sheets/ he has done my office. I know not if?t be true/ But I, for mere suspicion in that kind/ Will do as if for surety” (369-372). Iago has no reason to hate Othello, but because he is an evil person Iago wants to ruin Othello?s life. Iago heard a rumor that Othello had slept with Emilia, and he declares that he will believe this rumor as if it were a fact.
By the time Iago says his second soliloquy, he has convinced himself that Othello and Emilia had an affair. He is able to say that Othello “hath leapt into my seat” (283) with such conviction because in his head Iago has made the rumor a fact. This shows that Iago has no motives for destroying Othello. He invents reasons why he hates Othello, and these reasons lead to the end that Iago envisions, not the logical end that these motives should reach.
In this soliloquy the hypocrisy of Iago?s motives and actions is also visible. Iago says that he wants to be even with Othello “wife for wife” yet he does nothing to try and get in bed with Desdemona. Instead of wooing Desdemona, Iago spends his energy on trying to break up the marriage of Desdemona and Othello. Othello did not break up Iago?s marriage by sleeping with Emilia; it is never proven that this even happened. Therefore, breaking up Othello?s marriage does not get Iago revenge in any way. The only way that Iago?s actions could be the result of his motives is if he is jealous of Othello for sleeping with Emilia. If Iago was jealous then making Othello jealous would be an appropriate form of revenge. However, Iago does not seem to regard Emilia as a wife, and he uses her to forward his plans in the same way that he uses Roderigo. Iago is not jealous of Emilia and Othello and, therefore, he acts without motive.
In the final conversation Iago is speaking with Cassio instead of Roderigo. Now that Cassio has been removed from his position as Othello?s lieutenant he is very vulnerable, and wants only to win Othello?s trust again. Iago pretends to be Cassio?s friend and uses Cassio to begin the second phase of his plan. Iago suggests that Cassio request the help of Desdemona to try and win back the respect of Othello. This is a good idea for two reasons. First, Desdemona is a person that cannot turn her back on someone in need, such as Cassio. Secondly, Othello is under Desdemona?s control. Othello loves Desdemona so much that if she believes Cassio to be trustworthy, Othello will believe it also.
Our general?s wife is now the general? Confess yourself freely to her. Importune her help to put you in your place again. She is of so free, so kind, so apt, so blessed a disposition, she holds it a vice in her goodness not to do more than is requested (292-298).
Iago?s hypocrisy is again illustrated here. In this passage Iago admires and respects Desdemona?s personality. However, as the New Arden Shakespeare shows, Iago attacked and ridiculed Desdemona in a previous conversation with Roderigo (p. 201). Iago tells Roderigo that Desdemona is unintelligent because she is enamored with a “pestilent complete knave” (239) like Cassio. Iago says this to infuriate Roderigo. By hearing Iago describe Desdemona as an average person Roderigo will want to prove him wrong. Roderigo will also want to win Desdemona from Cassio, who Iago described as unworthy of Desdemona.
When Iago again speaks of Desdemona, this time to Cassio, his opinion of her has changed drastically. Here she is described as “blessed” (297), when Iago made an issue of proving that Desdemona is not blessed when speaking with Roderigo. Iago speaks highly of Desdemona to Cassio so that Cassio will speak to her about Othello. Cassio thinks that Iago is “honest” (309) and trusts the advice that Iago gives. Iago acts in any way that helps him destroy Othello. Iago manipulates his words and uses Cassio and Roderigo as mere means to his own ends.
Iago makes it seem as if he is helping Cassio because he is a genuine friend. However, in the soliloquy following the reader learns the real reason why Iago is helping Cassio. Iago?s biggest aim is to ruin the marriage of Othello and Desdemona. If Cassio asks Desdemona for help and Desdemona speaks highly of him to Othello, it could appear that the two are in love. Iago plans to show Othello how often they are together and how close they are. Seeing this will make Othello jealous.
I?ll pour this pestilence into his ear:/ That she repeals him for her body?s lust/ And by how much she strives to do him good/ She shall undo her credit with the Moor/ So I will turn her virtue into pitch/ And out of her own goodness make the net/ That shall enmesh them all (330-336).
At this point in the play, Iago?s plan is underway. Cassio is no longer Lieutenant, and the evidence of the affair between Cassio and Desdemona is ready to be shown to Othello. This is a good concluding soliloquy, because it foreshadows what will happen. Iago will constantly show Othello that Desdemona and Cassio are deceiving him, while Desdemona will constantly tell Othello what a good man Cassio is. These two factors, plus Cassio and Desdemona always being together, will prove to Othello that Desdemona and Cassio are in love. Through much deceit and manipulation Iago will drive Othello into madness and ruin the lives of everyone.
Iago never gives a logical reason for ruining the lives of Othello, Desdemona and Cassio. Iago claims that Othello slept with Emilia, and he feels that he must have revenge. However, Iago never makes any attempt to sleep with Desdemona, and he never tries to revenge Emilia?s honor. Instead, Iago destroys Othello?s marriage, which is illogical given Iago?s stated motive. Othello did not ruin Iago?s marriage. Iago even admits that he is not sure if Othello and Emilia were ever together. Yet he uses this as a motive for revenge anyway, because this allows him to accomplish all of his goals. Iago becomes Othello?s Lieutenant, and destroys Othello?s marriage. Iago acts in this illogical manner because he is a naturally bad person who has no real reason to hate Othello. Iago changes his opinions and makes up events in order to ruin the lives of those around him. I ago is, as Coleridge said, “motiveless malignity”.
Furness, Horace Howard, A New Variorum Edition of Shakespeare: Othello.
Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Company, copyright 1886.
Sons, Ltd, 1997.
Shakespeare, William. “Othello.” The Norton Shakespeare. Ed. Greenblatt, Stephen et
al. W.W. Norton and Company: New York, 1997. Pp. 2100-2172.