Othello is memorable for its presentation of the social world around the military as one dominated by jealousy and envy. These negative emotions are salient in the professional lives of the soldiers and officers in a highly competitive vocation, and they also permeate the personal lives of the men who are often separated from their female partners for long stretches of time. William Shakespeare creates a noble hero in Othello and a base villain in Iago but endows both men with notably similar characteristics in making them susceptible to jealousy—the “green-eyed monster”—when it comes to their wives.
Iago seems to suffer from wounded vanity and professional pride when losing out to Cassio for a coveted promotion. Iago is so far below Othello in rank that he is not competing with him professionally, though he still resents the other man’s ascent in rank and power—a resentment apparently based on race. Because Iago deeply feels the sting of personal jealousy over the behavior of his wife, Emilia, he understands that he can use jealousy as a weapon to harm Othello. Furthermore, he plays upon the jealousy of Roderigo, a would-be suitor of Desdemona, to aid him in his evil plot.
Although Othello is conscious that others envy his military successes, he is professionally self-confident. In contrast, his personal self-esteem is shaky, and he knows that Desdemona’s father opposed their match. Exploiting Othello’s insecurities over Desdemona’s love, Iago weaves an elaborate scheme of lies and planted clues. Iago correctly predicts that once Othello is pushed too far, jealousy will overtake reason, and he will lash out with violence.