Multiple Iago - The Character and Motives of Iago in Shakespeare's Othello

Seminar Paper, 1999
15 Pages, Grade: 1,0



1. Introduction

2. The temptation scene – Iago`s techniques of infiltration

3. “Honest“ in Othello
3.1 “Honest Iago” – his simulation of virtues as a part of his deception
3.2 Iago – the bluff soldier

4. Conclusion

5. Bibliography

1. Introduction

There has been a long critical debate about the figure of Iago in Shakespeare`s

Othello and especially about his motivation.

Most complex of all for actors and critics is the Iago problem. This villain is much more dangerous than Cinthio`s. He not only betrays the Moor and the Captain (Cassio); he injures everyone in his vicinity. How can so evil a man be plausible? How can he win the confidence of so apparently noble a man as Othello? And more important, what is his motivation? Why should any man hurt others so much? Is he simply a dramatic mechanism? A symbol of the devil? The devil himself? Or is he in fact a good man who has been provoked to revenge by wrongs done him? Was he unfairly denied promotion by Othello? Cuckolded by him? By Cassio? Finally, how can a character who does so much wrong involve audiences so deeply in his fate?[1]

The controversy has produced many different views and, rereading them, one could get the impression that Iago has become a real person with real traits of character and that he is responsible for what he has “done”, and some critics withdraw more and more from the original text. Therefore any consideration of Iago`s or any other character refers to his “character” as a stage personage in Shakespeare`s Othello.

After seeing the bulk of literature written on the character of Iago, one tends to agree with Adamson :

So many critics over the years have made so much sense (not to mention nonsense) of Iago that one naturally hesitates to dig over the plot again.[2]

Criticism on Othello is very diverse. Following are a few examples of the manifold interpretations of Iago`s character.

It was Samuel Coleridge who coined a famous phrase (“motiveless malignity”) when talking of Iago`s soliloquy at the end of Act I:

The last speech, [...] shows the motive-hunting of motiveless malignity – how awful! [...] He is a being next to the devil, only not quite devil [...][3]

Is he perhaps simply the embodiment of absolute evil and hence needs no motives? Or, put another way, are the motives he gives mere rationalizations for the evil impulse within him? Is he in love with his own artistry, taking immense delight in his own ability to manipulate others, something that is sufficient satisfaction in itself?

Or is he a descendant of the Vice of the morality plays[4], not to mention Iago as Machiavel, who is lacking ethical or spiritual values?[5]

Or, as Babcock puts it, is he compensating the constant feeling of social inferiority by manipulating his superiors? Is he tired of being patronized by persons like Cassio, who is socially superior to him but “never set a squadron in the field”? (1.1.21)[6]

There has even been an argument about Iago being latent homosexual, which is summarized by Hyman (1970).

Rosenberg refutes all of those “proposed solutions of Iago`s character”. He develops the image of an “inner” Iago and an “outer” Iago, his inner life as revealed by his soliloquies.[7]

In this paper the interactions between Iago and Othello and between Iago and Desdemona shall be considered thoroughly focusing mainly on Othello in the seduction scene and Desdemona chiefly in scene 2.1.

First, attention will be drawn to the temptation scene in which Iago participates actively. His manifold techniques of infiltration will be revealed and analyzed.

Furthermore, not only his tactics of deception contribute to his success, but also his “attaching the issue of honesty to himself”.[8] He creates an ‘outer’ Iago for the other characters to see, concealing both his malevolence and his virtuosity in deception. Nobody is to know how shrewd he really is, for he adds the dimension of the ‘blunt soldier’ to his outer character, which will be discussed in part 3.2.


[1] Rosenberg, Marvin. The Masks of Othello: The Search for the Identity of Othello, Iago, and Desdemona by Three Centuries of Actors and Critics. Berkeley: University of California Press. 1961, p.7. Rosenberg offers a convenient summary of some of the main views of Iago´s motivation and function as a character in Othello. (p.166-7) For a more comprehensive overview see Hyman, Stanley E.: Iago: Some Approaches to the Illusion of His Motivation. New York: Atheneum. 1970

[2] Adamson, Jane. “Othello” as Tragedy: Some Problems of Judgment and Feeling. Cambridge. 1980, p. 64

[3] Coleridge, S.T. “Marginalia on Othello”. In: Wain, John (ed.). Shakespeare: Othello. A Casebook. London & Basingstoke. 1971, p. 51-2

[4] cf. Watson, Thomas L. “The Detractor-Backbiter: Iago and the Tradition”. Texas Studies in Literature & Language. 5:546-554. Austin, TX. 1964

cf. Scragg, Leah. “Iago-Vice or Devil?”. Shakespeare Survey: An Annual Survey of Shakespearian Study & Production. 21: 53-65. Oxford.1968

[5] cf. Hyman, 1970, ch. 5

[6] cf. Babcock, W. “Iago – An Extraordinary Honest Man”. Shakespeare Quarterly, 16:297-301. Washington, D.C. 1965

[7] cf. Rosenberg, 1961, p. 172

[8] Heilman, Robert B. M agic in the Web: Action and Language in Othello. Originally published in 1956, Lexington. Reprinted in Westport.1977, p.46

Excerpt out of 15 pages


Multiple Iago - The Character and Motives of Iago in Shakespeare's Othello
University of Dusseldorf "Heinrich Heine"  (Anglistisches Institut)
Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet and Othello, the Moor of Venice
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Multiple, Iago, Character, Motives, Shakespeare, Othello, Romeo, Juliet, Moor, Venice
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M.A. Pia Witzel (Author), 1999, Multiple Iago - The Character and Motives of Iago in Shakespeare's Othello, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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