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Understanding Shakespeare`s Iago

An article to help A Level students with Shakespeare`s motiveless malignity

Date : 29/08/2017


Author Information

Uploaded by : Ankit
Uploaded on : 29/08/2017
Subject : English

Iago is the very disturbing villain of Shakespeare`s Othello. In Iago`s case, the destruction he goes on to cause is not the scariest thing about him. The scariest thing really is the question the audience are left with, all the way through, is

`Why is he doing this!?`

Described as critic A.C Bradley as `inexhaustible` this question is never going to be easy to answer, and may not even have an answer, no matter how many Iago gives the audience. That said, there are ways that we can try to understand Iago, and understand how he spreads havoc in the play, contaminating Othello`s love, and then corrupting it into maddening sexual jealousy.


`The Malcontent` is a type of character found frequently on the Elizabethan and Jacobean stage (Othello was written in 1603, the first year of King James` reign). As the name implies, what makes a malcontent a malcontent is their dissatisfaction, usually with their social and political position in the world. Iago tells us this is the reason he`s after Othello at the beginning of the play, but we don`t believe this for long.

Iago the Villain

Shakespeare`s villain does not only seem to be dissatisfied with his social position, but his position in the world of the play too, the world created by Shakespeare. Through his soliloquies and asides, we feel like Iago is looking into the play with us, almost like a narrator making scathing comments about the characters. Shakespeare`s character even says directly too us `I play the villain`. One of the interesting things that goes on in plays is that though the audience and the characters/actors share the same physical space (i.e the theatre hall), the characters usually aren`t aware that the audience is there, unlike the audience who can see and hear the characters. But, by acknowledging that he is in a play, Iago shatters the fourth wall and we feel like we can get caught in his web of deception like all the other characters in the play. When a play refers to itself like this it is called metatheatre.

Iago the Playwright

Iago`s control over other characters like Othello and Roderigo suggests that rather than villain, Shakespeare sometimes presents him to be like a playwright himself.

Like a playwright, Iago has control of Other character`s language, most explicit in his corruption of Othello. Othello`s language is renowned for being beautiful, written in the musical blank verse. Iago turns this into fractured grammar and utterances of hate. Othello goes from poetic descri ptions of `hills whose heads/ touch heaven` to the cliched curse of `death and damnation!`, that reverberates emptily in the alliteration. The climax of Iago`s corruption of Othello happens in Othello`s psychological break down ` Noses, ears and lips`, an image of a mutilated body as well as mutilated, ungrammatical language. Shakespeare even gives Iago the power to turn objects in the play, like Desdemona`s handkerchief, into props for his own plot. In this play, Iago definitely controls the action!!

Iago`s delights in his manipulative web as a playwright does in his creation. But Iago twists the notion of creativity, his creation is utter destruction ( like most Shakespearean tragedies there`s a pretty big body count at the end...)


Iago is made even more disturbing by his overtly sexual imagery. His `beast with two backs` illustrates this point pretty strongly! This animalistic and plosive heavy descri ption demeans Othello on a racial basis, as well as horrifying Desdemona`s father. Iago has the self awareness that sexual jealousy is a `poisonous mineral` that `gnaws my innards`, like a physical disease. You`re probably not surprised, given what you know about Iago so far, to hear that he works out he uses this as a weapon on other characters. This is again seen through Othello`s language, calling Desdemona a `sweet woman`, then later on `impudent strumpet`. Though the plosives and assonance linger, Desdemona`s purity has been corrupted. Disturbingly, Iago never seems to say the words himself, only through others. In Act I Scene 1, the audience in Shakespeare`s time may have seen Iago as a safeguard to Desdemona`s sexual purity. Later on, we see that he creates her as nothing more than sexual object, to be traded for Roderigo`s money and exploited for revenge.


First it seems Iago`s motive is rational, being professional jealousy, like most malcontents. As he tells Roderigo `preferment goes by letter and affection`. Is hurt pride his motivation? Then he parodies Othello`s powerful status, despite being a Moor, in `his Moorship`. Yet another reason is lust, claiming Othello has `leapt my seat`. The problem with Iago might be that he gives the audience too many motives in his soliloquies, none of which hold true. This is an important point to note, as usually playwrights use soliloquies to reveal what characters are really thinking.

Iago`s multiplicity of motives does not clarify, it conceals. Even when we think we`re getting in his head, we really aren`t. And if we do find it, what is scariest of all is not what is there, but what isn`t. The problem of Iago is above all summarized in `I am not what I am`, as if he is going to tell us his identity, then negates it with no explanation. This happens again at the end of the play, where Iago says ` You know what you know`, refusing to speak. The similar construction shows the audience that in reality they`ve made no progress in understanding Iago, in his world language and meaning do not connect. With no closure, Iago is disturbing long after the play has ended.

This resource was uploaded by: Ankit

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