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What Motivates Iago?

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In literature, there have been antagonists and villains that live a mark in the minds of people; however, there is none quite as well known and recognized as Iago from Shakespeare’s Othello, The Moor of Venice.  Shakespeare has drawn a clear image of a villain who is very nasty that even the term immoral does not do justice.  A better term to use for Iago would be amoral.

Iago is the most trusted advisor of General Othello.  Iago claims to have been unfairly passed over for promotion in the beginning of the play.  He expects to be promoted to the rank of Othello’s lieutenant; however, Othello favors Michael Cassio for the position.  Iago then plots to make Othello demote Cassio and bring the downfall of Othello himself afterwards.  In Act 2 of the play, Iago sets to work on his second plan after engineering a drunken brawl to make sure that Cassio is demoted.  Thus, this leads to Othello to believing that his wife, Desdemona, has an affair with Cassio.

Motives of Iago

The motives of Iago in doing such acts possibly include not being promoted, jealousy, insecurity, sadism, racism, sexual infidelity, sociopathy, and unacknowledged homosexual feelings.

An individual who is a sociopath may appear to be charming at times and usually establishes relationships with others.  However, these relationships are in name only.  A sociopath ends a relationship as he or she deems necessary.  The relationships, including marriage, are without meaning or depth.  A sociopath seems to have a natural ability to seek the weakness of other people.  He or she is ready to utilize such weakness in his or her own means through intimidation, deceit, or manipulation and finds pleasure from doing so.

A sociopath may be viewed as someone who is incapable of having true emotions.  He or she is quick to anger; however, he or she is just as quick to let anger go without keeping grudges.  Regardless of what emotion a sociopath claims to have, that emotion has no bearing on the future actions or behavior of the sociopath.

A sociopath is able to have a job that lasts for any length of time as he or she becomes bored easily and needs constant change.  He or she lives for the moment, disregards or forgets the past, and does not plan for the future.  A sociopath does not think ahead of the consequences of their actions.  In addition, a sociopath wants instant gratification or rewards.

On Iago being a sociopath, he deceives everyone in the play Othello and each character becomes a victim to his lies.  Iago plays everyone for the fool.  He uses people, lies to them, and kills an individual with who he pretends to be friends with.  He even kills his own wife in the play.  Iago personally sees to their deaths.  The “loyalty” of Iago turns on a dime and he allures whoever he believes he can control.  Montano, for example, is sweet-talked by Iago with regard to the drunken outbursts of Cassio; Montano to be injured by Cassio.  Iago appears to be making it up as he goes along, which is another indication of a sociopath, that is, impulsivity.  The soliloquies of Iago relate to the audiences what he believes he will do next.  Thus, Iago appears to decide almost in the moment to deceive to this person or take advantage of someone else.  Iago, in the play Othello, has manifested symptoms of antisocial personality disorder including lying or conning and aggression or use of weapon.  In terms of lying or conning, the following relevant quotes are presented:

Roderigo: I take it much unkindly that thou, Iago, who hast had my purse As if the strings were thine, should know of this.  (I.i)

Iago: Put money in thy purse. Follow thou the wars; defeat thy favor with a usurped beard. I say, put money in thy purse. It cannot be long that Desdemona should continue her love to the Moor — put money in thy purse…  (I.iii)

Iago: Thus do I ever make my fool my purse; For I mine own gained knowledge should profane If I would time expend with such snipe [as Roderigo] But for my sport, and profit.  (I.iii)

Iago: He [Othello] holds me well: The better shall my purpose work on 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 – After some time, to abuse Othello’s ear that he [Cassio] is too familiar with his wife.  He hath a person and a smooth dispose …framed to make women false.  The Moor is of a free and open nature that thinks men honest that but seem to be so; and will as tenderly be led by th’nose as asses are.

In terms of jealousy and insecurity, whenever there is opportunity to deceive, use, or kill someone, Iago takes it.  He may not intend for Othello to kill Desdemona.  Iago seems to want to hurt Othello mentally and does not really understand the feelings of Desdemona into the equation until he decides he lovers her for her unknowing capability to help his cause.  However, even if he does not mean for Othello to kill Desdemona, he Iago does not seem to care whether people died in his wake of destruction.  He considers death as part and parcel, shrugs it off, and turns to the next victim.

Iago does seem to desire certain things including revenge for a rumored betrayal by Othello and a higher position.  Revenge to Othello is indicated as Iago would be severely suspicious and distrustful as that of a sociopath, to the point of being overly aggressive and threatening with the use of weapon.  The following passages show this tendency:

Iago: “….I have already chosen my officer.”  And what was he?  Forsooth, a great arithmetician, One Michael Cassio, a Florentine A fellow almost damned in a fair wife, That never set a squadron in the field, Nor the division of a battle knows More than a spinster…Mere prattle, without practice Is all his soldiership. But he, sir, had th’election; and I, of whom his [Othello’s] eyes had seen the proof At Rhodes, at Cyprus, and on other grounds Christian and heathen, must be leed and calmed by debtor and creditor. This counter-caster, He, in good time, must his lieutenant be, and I — God bless the mark — his Moorship’s ancient. (I.i)

The final major motive that Iago presents in the first two acts of the play is his hatred for Othello on not being promoted.  Iago says twice “I hate the Moor” (I.iii).  On why exactly does he hates the Moor is uncertain.  It may be because of his racist tendencies, which were clearly depicted in using insulting terms for Othello such as “the devil,” “an old black ram” and “a Barbary horse.”  Then again, the hatred of Iago may have been rooted from his other reasons and serves to establish on his spiteful nature.

However, what Iago wants more than anything is to destroy and hurt people.  He rationalizes and his motives carry equal weight because for him, they are interchangeable.  As Othello insists upon, a normal individual would prefer to have a proof of the infidelity of his wife.  On the part of Iago, he impulsively decides to assume that Emilia is dallying with Othello.  He does not truly care for his wife because he is not capable of feeling that way for her as Othello or Rodrigo feels for Desdemona.  Iago knows no other way to establish relationships with people than through power and destruction.  He simply wants to destroy the lives of those around him.  There are instances that Iago even blames others for his evil, thinking that the people around him are responsible for his revenge.  Iago kills, deceives, and manipulates for the reason that he can.


Iago himself has stated in the exposition scene in Act 1 that his primary motivation is bitterness at having been passed for promotion to the top position.  The tendency of racism in Iago, his supreme confidence in his ability to give Othello’s downfall, and escape detection all exhibits his potential motives.  Later in the play, it is revealed that Iago suspects his wife of infidelity with both Cassio and Othello.  However, none of these motives is identified as the main source of his harsh, if not, brutal actions.

The most pronounced problem that Iago presents as a character in the play is the reconciliation of his malignant, conniving behavior with the high regard that he has earned from Cassio, Othello, and others who trust him completely.  Iago only reveals his bitter side in his soliloquies as well as in other occasional situations in the play.  Somewhere else, Iago is friendly and charismatic.  In fact, the pieces of advice that he gives to Othello and Cassio is superficially logical and reasonable as he says: ‘And what’s he then that says I play the Villain?’ (II.iii.310)


Davidson, Gerald C., Neale, John M. & Kring, Anne. Abnormal Psychology 9th ed. New York: Wiley. 2003.

Kitteridge, Lyman. The Tragedy of Othello. Toronto: Blaisdell Publishing, 1966.

Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice. The Oxford Shakespeare The Complete Works. Eds. S. Wells, G. Taylor. Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press. 1966.

Zimbardo, Philip. Psychology and Life. New York: Harper Collins, 1992.

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