What is Iago’s motive?

What is Iago's motive?I first experienced Othello in high school. I remember the teacher explaining to us that Iago’s motive isn’t what we think it is. He may say, “I want revenge because Othello slept with my wife,” but that’s just his justification for his actions. The real reason is that he’s the embodiment of pure evil, and that’s what makes him such a scary character. He has no reason for doing the things that he does.

It makes sense, and I like that interpretation. It makes Iago more interesting. I’ve never really questioned it.

When did this become the accepted interpretation?  Iago gives us a motive:

I hate the Moor:
And it is thought abroad, that ‘twixt my sheets
He has done my office: I know not if’t be true;
But I, for mere suspicion in that kind,
Will do as if for surety.

He does say, “I don’t even care if it’s true,” which I suppose is evidence, but it could just as easily mean that Iago is the jealous type and doesn’t even want the rumor circulating that he’s a cuckold. He’ll later go on to imply that Cassio slept with his wife as well (“I fear Cassio with my night-cap too”) so maybe that’s just his thing.

Then there’s the racism angle.  Iago goes right for the racist epithets when he’s trying to get Desdemona’s father upset:

Even now, now, very now, an old black ram
Is topping your white ewe.

the devil will make a grandsire of you:

you’ll have your daughter covered with a Barbary horse;
you’ll have your nephews neigh to you; you’ll have
coursers for cousins and gennets for germans.

(I’ve always attributed the “thick lips” comment to Iago as well, but that’s actually Roderigo.)

So is Iago racist? Is that why he hates Othello, because of the color of his skin? Or, again, is he just saying these things because he knows they’ll drive Brabantio crazy?

 

I get how we can read between the lines and paint a picture of an Iago that says and does exactly what he needs to get what he wants, without ever actually explaining why he wants it. I’m wondering when that became the standard interpretation of Iago’s motive, and whether there are other clues in the text to support it?  Why don’t we just say Iago is paranoid and call it a day? How come we watch the play and say, “Whoa, that dude is evil” instead of “Whoa, that dude is nuts”?

 

What lie does Iago tell Montano about Cassio?

But is he often thus?
Governor Montano falls for Iago’s lies.

Othello has appointed Cassio to the job that Iago wanted. It is Iago’s ultimate plan to bring about the downfall of Othello, but he’s not above ruining Cassio’s career at the same time. In Act 2 Scene 3, Iago gets Cassio drunk and then plants the idea in Governor Montano’s head that Cassio is an alcoholic, and that he worries about the trust Othello has put in him:

Iago You see this fellow that is gone before;
He is a soldier fit to stand by Caesar
And give direction: and do but see his vice;
‘Tis to his virtue a just equinox,
The one as long as the other: ’tis pity of him.
I fear the trust Othello puts him in.
On some odd time of his infirmity,
Will shake this island.

Montano But is he often thus?

Iago ‘Tis evermore the prologue to his sleep:
He’ll watch the horologe a double set,
If drink rock not his cradle.

(Literally, Iago is saying “You’ve seen the virtues the man has to offer, but now you realize he’s got just as many vices.” He then goes on to suggest that Cassio drinks himself to sleep every night.)

The truth of the situation is that Cassio is a lightweight drinker and he knows it. When Iago first offers him wine he responds , “I have very poor and unhappy brains for drinking” and “I have drunk but one cup to-night, and…
dare not task my weakness with any more.” What Cassio does not realize is that you can’t tell Iago something like that. He’s going to use it against you.

Why does Iago hate Othello?

The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice actually opens with Iago and Roderigo discussing this exact subject, though the audience does not yet realize the subject of their conversation:

Roderigo. Thou told’st me thou didst hold him in thy hate.

Iago. Despise me, if I do not.

Iago goes on to offer several reasons why he hates this person, whoever this person is.

…Three great ones of the city,
In personal suit to make me his lieutenant,
Off-capp’d to him: …and, by the faith of man,
I know my price, I am worth no worse a place:
But he; as loving his own pride and purposes,
Evades them, with a bombast circumstance
Horribly stuff’d with epithets of war;
And, in conclusion,
Nonsuits my mediators; for, ‘Certes,’ says he,
‘I have already chose my officer.’
And what was he?
Forsooth, a great arithmetician,
One Michael Cassio, a Florentine,
A fellow almost damn’d in a fair wife;
That never set a squadron in the field,
Nor the division of a battle knows
More than a spinster; unless the bookish theoric,
Wherein the toged consuls can propose
As masterly as he: mere prattle, without practise,
Is all his soldiership. But he, sir, had the election:
And I, of whom his eyes had seen the proof
At Rhodes, at Cyprus and on other grounds
Christian and heathen, must be be-lee’d and calm’d
By debitor and creditor: this counter-caster,
He, in good time, must his lieutenant be,
And I—God bless the mark!—his Moorship’s ancient.

Edwin Booth as Iago
Edwin Booth, brother of John Wilkes Booth, as Iago. Image via Wikimedia Commons

What does that all mean? Iago was lobbying for the lieutenant’s position under Othello (“his Moorship”) and even had some high-powered citizens/politicians (“great ones of the city”) go and offer their personal recommendation, only to find that Othello had already chosen Michael Cassio. Iago is not happy with this decision, and has nothing good to say of Cassio, who has no battle experience (as Iago does), and is instead what today might be called “book smart.”

 

But! Is this the real reason? Or is this just the reason that Iago is feeding Roderigo? At the close of Act 1, alone on stage, Iago reveals a deeper reason for his hatred:

…I hate the Moor:
And it is thought abroad, that ‘twixt my sheets
He has done my office: I know not if’t be true;
But I, for mere suspicion in that kind,
Will do as if for surety.

“Twixt my sheets done my office” is a polite way of saying, “Slept with my wife.” Iago even admits to not knowing if it is true, but doesn’t care.

So, again, is this the reason? Or is this again another justification for something deeper? This sounds more like he’s preparing an alibi, in case he ultimately needs one.

Does it go back to the racist thing? Maybe Iago doesn’t even want the lieutenant’s job, maybe he’s furious that Othello is in charge at all? He’s not shy about hurling racial epithets at Desdemona’s father in Act 1, Scene 1:

Iago. ‘Zounds, sir, you’re robb’d; for shame, put on
your gown;
Your heart is burst, you have lost half your soul;
Even now, now, very now, an old black ram
Is topping your white ewe. Arise, arise;
Awake the snorting citizens with the bell,
Or else the devil will make a grandsire of you:
Arise, I say.

…Because we come to
do you service and you think we are ruffians, you’ll
have your daughter covered with a Barbary horse;
you’ll have your nephews neigh to you; you’ll have
coursers for cousins and gennets for germans.

Twice he refers to Othello as an animal (along with the associated suggestions of bestiality) and once as the devil.

But, again – maybe he’s just saying these things because he knows that they will upset Desdemona’s father Brabantio?

Maybe it’s none of these things. Maybe Iago is a sociopath who truly has no specific reason for his hatred of Othello. That’s what makes this character one of Shakespeare’s greatest creations. Every actor must decide for himself the source of Iago’s motivation. Maybe we can never truly know because there just isn’t a single right answer.