Iago’s Possible Motives in Shakespeare’s Othello

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Iago is a master manipulator and seems to thoroughly enjoy it. He is like a puppet master, controlling all the other characters. The only time we see his true side is during his soliloquies, but even then he sometimes lies (like when he talks about Othello having an affair with his wife. He knows it untrue, but gives this as a reason for his manipulation of Othello anyway; perhaps because he thinks he needs some sort of justification). The reasons for his attack on Othello are unclear and often debated. In the last scene, Othello asks ‘why he hath thus ensnar’d my soul and body?’ to which Iago will not satisfy him with an answer, saying simply ‘demand me nothing; what you know, you know./From this time forth I will never speak a word’. As Iago’s motives are never explained, it is up to the viewer to interpret it for him/herself. However, here are some of the more common explanations people have come up with, and reasons why I think they are wrong. 

Jealousy

Some people argue that Iago’s reason for his awful plot is because he believed Othello was having an affair with his wife. I even read one article that suggested he may be homosexual and in love with Othello, jealous of his new wife Desdemona. In his soliloquy at the end of Act I Scene III, he says “And it is thought abroad, that ‘twixt my sheets / He has done my office”. This shows that there is a rumour that Othello has slept with Iago’s wife., but gives no evidence.

Why it’s wrong there is no evidence towards this at all. The rest of the play makes it clear that none of this is true; Othello and Iago’s wife are not even vaguely interested in one another, and no one thinks otherwise. Iago is lying again, both to us and to himself, and he knows it. He says, “I know not if’t be true; / But I, for mere suspicion in that kind, / Will do as if for surety”

Race

From the very first scene, we hear a great deal about Othello’s race. Iago refers to him as a ‘thick-lips’, (relates to his physical appearance) a ‘lascivious Moor’ (relates to his race and sexuality) and the devil (refers to his colour and apparent lack of morals), all in the first scene. This is before we have even had the chance to meet Othello. Othello is constantly referred to as ‘the Moor’, a derogatory term for dark-skinned people. He is also likened to an animal because of his race, with lots of bestial imagery used, as when Iago calls him a ‘Barbary horse’ (this is a horse from Africa and alludes to Othello’s physical appearance and strength) and an ‘old black ram’. He is also compared to a beast, ‘they are making the beast with two backs’.

Why it’s wrong I believe that this racial stereotyping is Shakespeare’s way of highlighting the stereotypes believed by the Elizabethans to show that they are untrue. To do this he creates a black character who is a highly ranked naval officer- a very poised, dignified, well-spoken man.  However, I do not believe this play is about race, and I do not think it one of Iago’s incentives. Although Iago uses Othello’s colour as a reason Desdemona will leave him to Roderigo, he is simply saying what he knows Roderigo will believe, not displaying his own racism. Iago plays by his own rules, we only ever hear what he really thinks during his soliloquies. During these, he does not mention Othello’s race, so it is safe to say that race is not an issue for him, and not the reason for his plotting.

Class envy

Othello is a black man, often looked down upon due to his colour. However, he holds a high rank in the navy. In the first scene, Iago expresses his dislike for both Othello and Cassio because both of then are more highly ranked than he is. He believes that Othello should not be higher than he is because he is a Moor, and therefore of a lower class than Iago. Also, Othello has just given Cassio a promotion, a promotion that Iago was hoping to gain himself. Iago is an egocentric man, and believes he should have been promoted over Cassio, saying ‘I know my price, I am worth no worse a place’.

Why it’s wrong yet again, Iago is trying to manipulate Roderigo. We can never quite tell whether he is lying or telling the truth. As it does not come up again in the play, we can assume it is untrue. Although Iago does hold himself in very high regard, his reason for his extensive plot is not likely to be because of this.        

Entertainment

One of the most agreed reasons is that his motive is entertainment, which for the most part seems true. He enjoys playing with people’s emotions, desires and fears. The feeling of being in control is obviously one of the main reasons he manipulates people. As well as this, he enjoys being able to predict what the other characters such as Othello and Cassio will do. He is the ring-master, he leads them. He manipulates and twists them, tangling them into a big sticky web that they cannot get out of. He enjoys it, it is simply a game to him. He doesn’t care about anybody else’s feelings, and doesn’t care what happens to others- he just want to exercise the control he has over people.

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