It’s a question that has vexed theatre goers for generations: Why does Iago make it his life’s mission to destroy Othello and bring down everyone else around him?

At the end of the play, Iago’s web of manipulation and murder is finally exposed to the other characters. Yet he leaves us with nothing more than this:
Demand me nothing. What you know, you know.
From this time forth I never will speak word.

Make no mistake, Iago has earned his reputation as one of theatre’s most notorious villains. Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro describes Iago as “…a tsunami of evil that passes through the play,” and says Iago’s actions are akin to “someone who is performing brain surgery without anesthesia”. When audiences witness Iago’s treachery, they can’t help but ask what has driven him to this.

Pure evil

In Shakespeare’s day, morality plays often included characters who personified moral qualities like the Seven Deadly Sins. So one explanation for Iago’s despicable behaviour is that he is simply bad to the bone; created by Shakespeare to show audiences what Envy might look like in human form.

That might correlate with a point made about Iago in the 19th Century by poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, describing the “motive-hunting of a motiveless malignancy”. Or as critic Jan Kott put it more than a century later: “Iago hates first, and only then seems to invent reasons for his hate.”

Today, we might describe somebody like this as a psychopath or sociopath; lacking emotion and incapable of empathy for those around them. Iago doesn’t appear to show any love for his wife Emilia, for example, nor any sympathy for the victims of his malice.

But Peter Evans, who is directing the 2016 Bell Shakespeare production of Othello doesn’t buy this: “I think Iago understands jealousy perfectly. The brilliance with which he infects Othello’s mind could only come from somebody who has experienced that jealousy themselves. Iago is not a sociopath without feeling. I think he has a lot of feeling.”

Thwarted ambition

Few people know the inner workings of Iago’s mind better than those who have played him on stage. Yalin Ozucelik is Bell Shakespeare’s Iago this year. When asked about the character’s motives, Ozucelik points out: “The play starts with Iago saying to Rodrigo that he wants revenge on Othello for promoting Cassio instead of him. He says, ‘Three great ones of the city (In personal suit to make me his lieutenant)’. If what Iago says is true, then that’s a great embarrassment for him. Despite all the closeness that Othello has shared with him in battle, he’s been overlooked.”

Ewan McGregor concurs. He played Iago in the UK in 2007-8 and said at the time: “He’s fought with Othello in many different places in the world and I think Iago feels very strongly that he is the natural right-hand man.”

From what we know and hear of Cassio, it’s likely that he’s from a wealthier background than Iago. When Iago describes Cassio as a ‘mathematician’ he is perhaps alluding to him being something of a desk soldier from the officer class. From Iago’s point of view, Cassio has an unfair advantage over him just by fluke of birth. No wonder that this privileged rich boy would be promoted to lieutenant.

This military universe is vital to our understanding of Iago’s motives, says McGregor: “I think men in battle have an emotional connection with each other that I don’t think you get anywhere else… I think it’s like being in love. And the fact that Othello’s overlooked [Iago] – it’s like he’s smited Iago’s love and from then on he allows his hate to build.”

Thwarted affection

Iago wants to be the person closest to Othello, but there is a thin line between love and hate. Not only has Cassio supplanted Iago on the battlefield, but Othello’s attention is now focused on his new wife Desdemona too. To add insult to injury, Desdemona joins the men on their next military mission in Cyprus. Iago is furious, but realises that he can replace both Cassio and Desdemona in one devious stroke – by making Othello believe that Cassio and Desdemona are having an affair.

Some directors have sought to interpret Iago’s love for Othello as more than just platonic. Tyro Guthrie’s 1938 production did so at a time when Freudian interpretations of Shakespeare were all the rage, with Laurence Olivier as Iago.

Shakespeare scholar Marjorie Garber describes the climactic moment in Act 3 Scene 3 where Othello resolves with Iago to kill Desdemona and Cassio: “That is like a wedding on stage between Othello and Iago,” she says. “Othello has been completely bamboozled by Iago, and says ‘Now art thou my lieutenant’ and Iago says ‘I am your own forever’. That is kind of like a wedding vow. It’s often produced on stage nowadays with them both kneeling or them both holding hands.” However, Garber adds: “To say that it is homoerotic is not interesting one way or the other, because it is simply erotic. Iago’s relationship with Othello is very, very deep.”

Eroticism and sex is certainly an obsession for Iago but it is never joyous. He describes sex in base, bestial terms and continuously degrades it. At different points in the play, he airs suspicions that his wife has slept with Othello and with Cassio, though the audience witnesses no evidence of the kind. For Iago, sex is a corrosive and disgusting force, not to be trusted.

Raising the stakes

So there is a combination of possible motives that may start Iago down the path towards his despicable work. “But none of these potential motives seems either dominant or adequate enough to explain the absoluteness of his evil,” according to Shakespeare scholar Stanley Wells.

Perhaps some of these motives are enough to start Iago gambling; taking calculated risks to bring Othello down. Iago begins betting, loses at first, then gets on a winning streak, and finds it impossible to stop. That would explain why he drags everybody else down, even after Othello has been brought to his knees, and named Iago as his lieutenant.

Peter Evans says Iago is a chancer: “It’s his ability to get away with stuff that just allows him to go to the next level and the next level. He thinks he’s a mastermind genius, but he’s actually petty-minded and not as smart as, say, Richard III. Iago is much messier. At every turn, he almost doesn’t get away with it.”

Yalin Ozucelik says Iago’s self-delusion runs deep. “He has a very high opinion of himself. He thinks there are two types of people in the world: the abusers and the abused. It’s very cut and dry for him. Mixed up in that is a huge sense of his own omnipotence or authority.”

In one sense, the play can be read as Iago’s quest to prove his world view is correct. Othello and Desdemona believe in higher virtues, such as loyalty and love, while Iago believes that people are just animals, where the weak suffer and only the strongest survive.

In many ways, the play’s conclusion vindicates Iago’s philosophy. He manages to destroy those around him who he considers to be foolish or weak. But there is a bleak irony for Iago here too, as Jan Kott points out: “Iago sets all the world’s evil in motion and falls victim to it in the end.” Iago has proved himself right, but in doing so he has doomed himself as well.

The 2016 Bell Shakespeare production of Othello is being performed in Melbourne, Canberra and Sydney – and is touring nationally – until 4 December 2016. See details here.

Andy McLean is a Sydney-based copywriter who grew up in Stratford-upon-Avon. He frequently tweets and shares Shakespeare minutia from @1andymclean



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