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What is Iago's motivation in ruining Othello's life? This question has puzzled readers and scholars for centuries. Iago is a fascinating, complex character who can't be analyzed in simple terms. Like many people you meet, Iago can be mysterious and baffling. Just when you think you understand him, he does or says something completely mystifying. Shakespeare was obviously fascinated by the man-he gave Iago more lines than any other character in his work-more than Hamlet, King Lear, or Othello.
Here are some of the facts we know about Iago: He is a 28-year-old Venetian who is Othello's "ancient" or "ensign," a comparatively low-ranked commissioned officer. He seems to have no history of dirty deeds; in fact, almost every character in the play calls him "honest." (The word is applied to Iago 15 times in the play.) He's married to Emilia, a salty outspoken woman; they seem to tolerate each other. If theirs was a love match, we're never told, and it's difficult to guess.
Let's look at some possibilities that might explaining Iago's behavior.
1. He loves evil for evil's sake. Some characters in Elizabethan drama are just thoroughly bad; they were born that way. From this point of view, Iago needs no motive. He simply loves to see people suffer.
2. He is motivated by jealousy. In the play he expresses openly his jealousy of Cassio and Othello. He is jealous of Cassio's job and of Othello's success as a soldier and with Desdemona.
3. He is seeking revenge. The rumors that Othello has slept with Emilia and the possibility that Cassio has also slept with her hurt Iago's pride and make him want to see both men ruined.
4. He is motivated by a force he simply doesn't understand. The reasons he offers throughout the play are often contradictory. Iago snatches at whatever excuse he can to justify his horrible behavior.
As you look over the text, try to decide which of these (or other) reasons explain Iago. Remember that his motives may overlap. If there were a simple way to explain Iago, he wouldn't be the intriguing character that has appalled and thrilled audiences for hundreds of years.
Iago does have qualities on which everyone can agree. Here are some of them:
1. He is a wonderful actor. For years, he has fooled everyone into thinking he's honest. Even if Emilia suspects him of being a rascal, she has no idea that he's truly evil. You've seen newspaper reports about the mild-mannered person who suddenly is discovered to be a mass murderer; neighbors who are interviewed often say, "He was the nicest person, so polite and friendly! I can't believe he was capable of such a crime!" Friends of Iago would have said the same thing about him.
2. He is amoral. An amoral person has no moral standards at all. Iago never thinks twice about his behavior. He plunges ahead without a twinge of guilt or regret. Even when the innocent Desdemona becomes a victim of the plot, Iago has no pangs of conscience. He moves to satisfy himself, no matter who suffers. And he goes to his death without a word of regret!
3. He is highly intelligent. Iago plots his actions knowing how everyone will respond. His insight into the behavior of others is practically perfect; he can adapt himself to the personality of whoever he is with-from Roderigo to Desdemona to Cassio to Othello, knowing just how to "play" him or her. Ironically, the one person he misreads is Emilia; he doesn't suspect her loyalty to Desdemona outweighs her feelings for him.
4. He is an egotist. His opinion of everyone except himself is very low. He laughs at Othello's trusting nature, thinks Roderigo is a gullible fool, treats Emilia as a shrew, and scorns Cassio's honest virtues. The only person he respects is himself, and everything he does in the play is for the satisfaction of his own ego.
5. He is a cynic. He shows contempt for all conventional standards of decency. He is loyal only when it serves his own needs. He delights in dishonesty. He doesn't believe in romantic love, attributing it to a sexual itch. His opinion of the human race is so low that he allows innocent people to die without a word of regret.
6. He is extremely proud. Suspicions that Othello has slept with Emilia eat away at him. Othello's appointment of Cassio makes him furious. Iago sees anything that threatens his self-esteem as a personal insult, which must be avenged. He isn't angered by the thought of Othello in bed with Emilia because he loves her, but because another man has gotten the best of him!
Villains in literature are always a source of scary fun. Shakespeare, fortunately, has created in Iago more than just a villain. Iago is a complex character who combines enormous intelligence with an impulse to see others suffer. We may get a vicarious thrill as we watch him operate, but feel a great sense of relief when justice is finally served.