Iago’s evil nature is immediately evident – he is a liar and a cheat who delights in inflicting pain and suffering on others. He is also (in no particular order) selfish, disloyal, jealous, vengeful, paranoid, cynical, over-confident and unrepentant.
Liar: our first impression of Othello comes from Iago, who claims he is arrogant and selfish “loving his own pride and purposes”. Yet it soon becomes clear that this view of Othello is an outright lie. Iago later admits as much when he acknowledges that Othello “is of a constant loving noble nature“. Nothing he says can be trusted, for as Iago admits himself “I am not what I am“. He even swears “by Janus“, the God of liars.
Cheat: Iago has cheated the gullible Roderigo out of his wealth (“put money in thy purse“) and delights in making him look like an idiot (“thus do I ever make my fool my purse“).
Disloyal: he pretends to help every character in the play at one point or another but at all times he is merely loving his own pride and purposes / suiting himself. As he admits to Roderigo “I follow him to serve my turn upon him”. He tries to convince Othello to hide from Brabantio’s search party “you were best go in” knowing full well that this would just make Othello seem guilty and as though he has something to hide. Having engineered Cassio’s downfall, he comforts him and manipulates Cassio into trusting his advice to confide in Desdemona promising “she’ll put you in your place again“. He destroys Othello’s peace of mind yet still manages to make Othello feel that he owes Iago a great debt for his loyalty. Othello at one point proclaims “I am bound to thee forever“. Even Desdemona eventually turns to Iago in distress after Othello calls her a whore, asking pitifully “Oh good Iago, what shall I do to win my lord again?” and he immediately pretends to comfort her “Do not weep, do not weep. Alas the day!” reassuring her that it is just some business of the state that troubles her husband. Despite causing nothing but misery and suffering for Roderigo, Iago manages to convince him to attack Cassio. So, as I said already, every character is manipulated and hurt by Iago’s schemes but all the time he’s pretending to help them.
Jealous: Iago is jealous of the promotion Cassio received commenting bitterly “mere prattle without practice is all his soldiership“. He is also quite possibly jealous of the power and influence Othello has in Venice; of the loving relationship which exists between Desdemona & Othello, which is in stark contrast to his own marriage and of the seductive effect Othello and Cassio both seem to have on women.
Paranoid: he suspects Othello of sleeping with his wife Emilia, even though he has absolutely no proof “it is thought abroad that twixt my sheets he has done my office“. Later he admits “I fear Cassio with my night cap too“. Either his wife is a total slut or Iago is completely paranoid…
Amoral sadist: Iago delights in the suffering of others. Of Brabantio he says “rouse him, make after him, poison his delight…plague him with flies“. Of Othello he says “if thou canst cuckold him, thou dost thyself a pleasure, me a sport“. He gets a sick thrill at the thought of using people’s virtues against them, commenting of Othello “the Moor is of a free and open nature and will as tenderly be led by the nose as asses are“. He relishes the thought of using Cassio’s good looks and courteous manner against him, thus destroying both his reputation and Othello’s marriage “with as little a web as this will I ensnare as great a fly as Cassio“. Even though he has no reason to dislike or hurt Desdemona, he is excited by the prospect of destroying someone so pure of heart “so will I turn her virtue into pitch and out of her own goodness make the net that shall enmesh them all“. He freely admits that his plan is evil and twisted proclaiming “hell and night must bring this monstrous birth to the world’s light” and the thought of wrecking the happiness of those who he feels have wronged him (Othello & Cassio) fills him with glee “oh you are well tuned now, but I’ll set down the pegs that make this music“. When Othello decides to kill Desdemona for her ‘betrayal’, Iago relishes being the one to choose the method of execution “do it not with poison, strangle her in her bed, even the bed she hath contaminated“. He revels in the power and control he now exerts over his boss. He never loses his thirst for inflicting pain on others, commenting snidely when he sees Bianca with the handkerchief “see how he prizes the foolish woman your wife! she gave it him and he hath given it his whore“. He enjoys twisting the knife in further and observing Othello’s torment. The thought that both Roderigo and Cassio may die fills him with satisfaction and when the plan backfires he wounds Cassio and kills Roderigo without the slightest hesitation. Nor does he feel any guilt about casting suspicion on poor Bianca, whom he claims is angry with Cassio for having jilted her.
Cynical: Iago values intellect above emotion, prizing the fact that “we have reason to cool our raging motions” and viewing love as nothing more than “a lust of the blood and a permission of the will“.
Selfish: Iago believes that free will gives us the power to decide how we behave “Virtue! A fig! ’tis in ourselves that we are thus or thus“. He puts himself first at all times and mocks those who behave otherwise “I never found a man who knew how to love himself“.
Vengeful: Iago obsesses over the idea that his wife Emilia has slept with Othello “I do suspect the lusty Moor hath leap’d into my seat” and is intent on revenge (despite the lack of proof that this ever occurred) “nothing can or will content my soul until I am evened with him wife for wife“.
Over-confident: Iago seriously underestimates his wife and treats her with contempt commenting dismissively “you are a fool, go to” when she suggests that some “eternal villain” has been slandering Desdemona and spreading rumours to hurt Othello “Fie! There is no such man; it is impossible“. Iago’s not-quite-fatal flaw is that he fails to see the threat she represents, even though she is the first person (following Othello’s outburst) to figure out what’s really going on. At the beginning of Act 5, Iago kills Roderigo but he fails to dispose of the one man who can expose his plot as a mountain of lies: Cassio! In the final scene of the play when Emilia discovers Iago’s evil plot, he is once again over-confident that he can quieten his wife. When she refuses to be silenced he effectively exposes his guilt by stabbing her to shut her up and running away.
Unrepentant: Iago shows no remorse and refuses to offer any explanation for his behaviour. When Othello fumes “demand that demi-devil why he hath thus ensnared my soul” Iago replies arrogantly “demand me nothing; what you know you know. From this time forth I never will speak word“.
Even though he will be punished for his crimes, Iago’s plan to destroy Othello and Desdemona was ultimately successful – they both lie dead, alongside Iago’s wife Emilia – and no punishment can equal the wrongdoing of this “hellish villain“.
Iago is essentially an evil man. Yet he is also charming, witty and extremely intelligent and the audience finds it hard to resist this mysterious villain.
Charming: Iago manages to convince Roderigo that there is still hope when all hope seems lost “no more of drowning, do you hear?“. Yet moments later he manages to convince Othello that he could barely contain himself when he heard Roderigo speak rudely about his master “nine or ten times I had thought to have jerked him her under the ribs“. Iago delights in the irony of the situation and at times the audience (who unlike the characters on stage know exactly what Iago is up to) almost expect him to wink at them! For example, at the end of the temptation scene, with a completely straight face, Iago proclaims “witness you ever burning lights above… that here Iago doth give up the execution of his wit, heads, heart to wronged Othello’s service“. The sheer brazen cheek of this villain seduces us and we are unwittingly drawn into his despicable schemes because he confides in us throughout in his many soliloquies and asides. He makes us feel intelligent, unlike those who are duped on stage, because we know what’s really going on, and this makes us like him despite ourselves.
Witty: Iago is a master of sexual innuendo. His outrageous explicit descriptions of Desdemona and Othello’s sexual exploits are completely inappropriate but also quite funny: “Even now, now, very now, an old black ram is tupping your white ewe!” “you’ll have your daughter covered with a barbary horse” “your daughter and the Moor are now making the beast with two backs“. Few people would have the nerve to talk to a man about his daughter in such explicitly sexual terms. Iago is also openly misogynistic in front of his wife and Desdemona, describing women in colourful terms: “you are pictures out of doors, bells in your parlours, wild cats in your kitchens, saints in your injuries, devils being offended, players in your housewifery and housewives in your beds“. His happy-go-lucky demeanour allows him to get away with being extremely cheeky in his comments, slagging them off for seeing sex as a chore: “you rise to play and go to bed to work“. He tries to make everything about sex once again when on night duty with Cassio, trying to draw him into a lecherous conversation about how good Desdemona must be in bed “she is sport for love” “I’ll warrant her full of game“. “What an eye she has! Methinks it sounds a parley to provocation“.
Lucky: All the cleverness in the world couldn’t guarantee success for Iago’s Machiavellian plan; he also needed a dose of pure old-fashioned good luck! This occurs in the temptation scene when Emilia picks up the handkerchief Desdemona dropped and gives it to her husband. He also gets a lucky break which helps his plan along after Othello overhears Cassio speaking about his lover (Iago designs this so Othello mistakenly thinks Cassio is talking about Desdemona when he’s actually referring to Bianca) and then Bianca enters and waves it about, scolding Cassio for gifting her some other woman’s love token.
Popular: perhaps one of the most confusing things about Iago’s character is his immense popularity. Perhaps up to this moment he was actually a nice guy! He has an excel end reputation and is repeatedly referred to as “honest Iago” by all of the other characters. Nobody seems to realise until the very end of the play that he is in fact a “demo-devil”. When Othello has to leave his new wife Desdemona, he entrusts her to Iago offering high praise (“a man he is of honesty and trust“) and when he is forced to choose between trusting Iago and trusting Desdemona, he chooses his ‘friend’ above his wife.
Unhappy: Perhaps we feel sorry for Iago on some level because his life is so miserable. He is stuck in a job he hates, filled with resentment because he missed out on a promotion and now has to watch a young lad take what he considers to be his rightful place. He is stuck in a marriage to a wife he despises and has an utterly cynical view of life and of love. Yet he must once have been ambitious, or else why is he so disappointed when he doesn’t get the promotion? And we can assume he once loved his wife; after all, the thought of her with another man drives him crazy (“the thought whereof doth like a poisonous mineral gnaw at my innards“) although this may have more to do with wounded pride than genuine love and affection! Perhaps he simply resents having a black man as his boss and dislikes the thought of his wife sleeping with his boss because it makes him look like a fool.
Thrill seeker: Iago’s plan is risky from the very beginning. All it would take for his entire scheme to unravel is some honest communication between the main characters. Furthermore, he has little to gain, other than revenge for some ill-proven wrongs, if he succeeds. So why does he do it? Iago seems fearless, seems to thrive on danger, on testing himself to the limits of his manipulative skill, quite consciously proclaiming “this is the night that either makes me or for does me quite” yet nonetheless proceeding, despite the very real possibility that he might get caught and punished.
Intelligent: signs of Iago’s intelligence are almost too numerous to document. Having informed Brabantio of Desdemona’s elopement, he cleverly disappears so that he cannot be accused of disloyalty to Othello. We also quickly discover that Iago is an opportunist who is resourceful at turning any situation to his advantage. For example, he challenges his secret ally Roderigo to a duel when the search party arrives looking for Othello, ensuring that neither he nor his ‘purse’ will be injured if a brawl ensues. His plan to use Cassio’s courteous manners to imply that Desdemona is being unfaithful is ingenious and simultaneously takes advantage of Othello’s outsider status, insecurity and desire for certainty and decisive action when he feels he has been wronged. He cleverly convinces Roderigo that his main love rival is Cassio, then uses Roderigo as a puppet in his schemes (Roderigo is the one who provokes the brawl that leads to Cassio’s dismissal) to ensure that no-one suspects him, Iago, of any wrongdoing. In fact he gets others to do his dirty work whenever possible thus keeping his hands clean and his reputation unsullied. He pretends that the valiant soldiers of Cyprus will be insulted if Cassio will not drink with them, then feigns loyalty to Cassio when Othello demands an explanation “I had rather have this tongue cut from my mouth than it should do offence to Michael Cassio“. Yet he still gets his way. Cassio is fired and Othello begins to doubt his own judgement of character.
However, Iago’s true genius is most vividly evident in the temptation scene. He preys upon each character’s weaknesses to manipulate and bamboozle them. He uses Cassio’s shame and reluctance to face his former employer to his advantage, using reverse psychology to slyly suggest that Cassio has something more to hide “I cannot think that he would steal away so guilty like“. He subtly implies that both Cassio and Othello’s reputations may be in jeopardy “good name in man and woman… is the immediate jewel of their souls” and then uses the derogatory term cuckold, warning Othello dramatically “O! beware my lord of jealousy“. Here Iago shows remarkable psycholological insight, cleverly manipulating key facets of Othello’s personality. Firstly, he senses that Othello is insecure and subtly suggests that it is strange that Desdemona chose Othello as a husband, rejecting marriage proposals from those of “her own clime, complexion and degree“. Secondly, he exploits the fact that Othello is an outsider to Venetian society and is thus socially inexperienced. Iago insinuates that Venetian women frequently cheat on their husbands yet are experts at hiding their deception. After all, Desdemona “did deceive her father” in marrying Othello. Thirdly, Iago knows that Othello is very trusting so he implies that unfortunately not all men are like this: “men should be what they seem“. Fourthly, he knows that Othello has a vivid imagination (after all, his storytelling skills are what won Desdemona’s heart) and thus claims that Cassio has been talking explicitly about Desdemona in his sleep. Iago knows that Othello won’t be able to cope with the intense jealousy and anguish which floods over him when presented with vivid images of how Cassio “laid his leg over my thigh, and sighed and kissed” even going so far as to describe Cassio as “with her, on her, what you will” to further provoke Othello’s rage. Iago knows that Othello’s pride will not let him allow such betrayal to go unpunished. Fifthly, he knows Othello’s handkerchief was given to him by his mother and is thus of great sentimental value. In claiming that Desdemona has callously given away this symbol of love “such a handkerchief did I today see Cassio wipe his beard with” Iago is indirectly suggesting that she has not just disrespected him, their love and their marriage, but also his mother, his family, his past and his culture and traditions. Finally, Iago uses the fact that Othello is a man of action who is used to making decisions quickly and acting on them immediately (“would I were satisfied“) to provoke him into rushing to judgement without too much investigation. He even uses reverse psychology, pleading with Othello to “let her live” knowing full well that Othello’s anger and inner turmoil are too powerful in this moment (“damn her lewd minx“) for him to be capable of mercy. Thus Iago corrupts Othello’s feelings for Desdemona and transforms him into a jealous monster hell-bent on revenge.
Iago turns subsequent events to his advantage, confirming Othello’s suspicions. He claims that Cassio has been bragging about his conquest of Desdemona. He convinces Othello to hide behind a curtain and spy on him and Cassio – this shows how deeply Othello is now under Iago’s control, for at the beginning of the play he refused to hide! Iago then proceeds to talk in lewd and disrespectful terms about Bianca, all the while pretending to Othello that they are talking about Desdemona. He convinces Roderigo to attack Cassio, which allows him to keep his hands clean and gives him the opportunity to dispose of Roderigo, who has started to demand his money back now that’s he’s broke. He cleverly casts suspicion on Bianca for the attack on Cassio; after all, who’s going to believe a prostitiute when she professes her innocence? Iago’s main failure is over-confidence and under-estimating his own wife. Ultimately, despite his ingenious scheme, he does get caught, but not before he has achieved the destruction he set out to achieve.