Shakespeare’s Villains – Iago

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Iago (right) is no friend to Othello

This series on Shakespeare’s villains is being done in partnership with Finding Shakespeare – curating digital stories relating to Shakespeare’s life,  work and times.  Finding Shakespeare is the blog produced by the Collections Team here at The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust– you can find out more about Iago  on Thursday 30th June  when they post their blog.

 

Iago can’t want to ‘serve his turn’ on Othello – in other words to get his own back, to get revenge. The method he chooses is to convince Othello that his lovely wife Desdemona is having an affair with the young Cassio. Such is his ‘success’ in his campaign that Othello, driven mad by jealousy, kills the innocent Desdemona. But why would Iago do such a thing?

Well Iago never spells out exactly why he does this. Indeed it is that badness for the sake of badness which makes Iago one of Shakespeare’s most villainous villains. But we the reader can none the less piece together some reasons for his actions using hints in the text and a basic understanding of human psychology.

  1. Iago is angry because Cassio has been given a promotion by Othello that Iago thinks he deserves. “I am worth no worse a place” he says and reports his anger on discovering the promotion went to “a great arithmetician one Michael Cassio, a Florentine.” There is nothing more galling than seeing someone else get what you think you deserve, be it praise, promotion or love. So you can understand Iago’s anger with Cassio and Othello here.
  2. Iago thinks Othello may have slept with his wife. That Othello has, as Iago puts it, “leapt into my seat” and Iago wants to be even with him “wife for wife”. There can be little doubt that sexual jealousy is one of the most powerful emotions behind acts of revenge and violence. It is not villainous that Iago is jealous, it is not even uncommon that he tries to get revenge, but what is villainous is that he carries on with his plans even when he realises it will probably result in the death of Desdemona and others.
  3. Simply put Iago hates Othello. Not just because Othello did not promote him and (he thinks) slept with his wife, which might be reason enough, but more than that he hates Othello just because of who he is. Partly it is race hatred, he hates Othello because he is different. We may feel much less empathy with this – but the world over people hate people who are different, it is an unpleasant fact of the world we live in, and was clearly just the same in Shakespeare’s day.
  4. Depending on the version of the play you see, Iago may also be portrayed as in love with Desdemona who he say’s he does love but ‘not out of absolute lust’. Or Othello – which might seem odd given what I just said about hate, but we humans are strange creatures perfectly capable of loving what we hate, or hating what we love, especially when that love is obsessional in nature.

 

But whatever drives Iago to do what he does, to hate Othello, to get revenge and to allow that to spiral so out of control. I think that whilst we understand and recognise the feelings that drive him to do it, we all feel his extreme behaviour is without just cause.

Many of us have our own stories of revenge – but none top Iago’s! Here are some of the things we have done to get revenge, interestingly mostly in our childhood….

 

 

If you want to know what Iago has looked like in various productions here are some images of him.

Check out the follow up blog on Finding Shakespeare on Thursday 30th June.

 

 

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Author:Liz Dollimore

Someone who loves listening to people talk about Shakespeare Liz tweets at @shakespeareBT
  • Ian

    I’m interested in how Shakespeare’s villains have shaped modern presentations of villainy on film. I think it is plausible that Shakespeare gave us the mold from which we still make or villains today.

  • Taylor McComb

    What about Hamlet? Does he fit the bill to be a bad guy? He has some things in common with Othello:
    driven by rage and revengekill everyone around themhave ‘secret identities’ – Hamlet makes everyone think he’s crazy, and Iago makes everyone think he’s a good guyhad lovers whom they hurt and betrayedthey both make someone murder someone else (accidentally or on purpose) – Claudius kills Gertrude, Othello kills DesdemonaAs time goes on, the audience loses sight of what their motivations
    are – Iago probably just does it for fun, Hamlet probably actually
    starts to go crazy, killing his friends unnecessarily

  • Elleoneiram

    I find Iago’s acts to be more motivated by sadism than revenge – though I suppose sadism really IS a form of revenge. Even if it’s against the innocent, the perpetrator views the victims as somehow deserving. Not only does Iago not care that Desdemona is collatoral damage, he delights in using her caring nature against her. I believe Iago admits that Othello may not have slept with his wife, yet he claims that thought, fictional or not, is good enough reason for him. Iago is such a fascinating character to me – one of Shakespeare’s best, I think – because he is unrepentant but realistic and complex.

  • Anonymous

    Hi Liz, the Ben Kingsley/David Suchet production at the RSC in 1985 played very effectively with the idea of Iago’s obsession with Othello. Othello was an exotic, almost androgynous figure, Suchet stocky and earthy. I found it unforgettable. http://www.theshakespeareblog.com

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