Iago's Motives

What are Iago's motives in Othello?

Expert Answers
danylyshen eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Iago's motives are to seek revenge on Othello and Cassio both. Iago has these motives because the Moor has overlooked him for the lieutenant position and on Cassio because he was awarded the title. Iago also enjoys evil for evil's sake. He is one of the most villainous villains in all of Shakespeare.

The play is set in five acts with various scenes--typical of any Shakespearean play.

The play is set in Venice and Cypress because it must be an exotic setting because of the Moor and where he comes from. It must also be there because the Turks are a naval fleet and the backdrop to the play is the war the Venetians are waging with the Turks.

frizzyperm | Student

Why does Iago completely mess up Othello's happiness and get Desdemona wrongly murdered? A good question.

Basically, he does it because he is a bad man. A very bad man in fact. In modern language we would call him a complete psychopath. He is very good at being charming, friendly, sensitive, intelligent, caring, understanding, sympathetic etc etc. He knows how to be a good person, but he only gives a surface show of goodness and underneath he is an extremely dangerous murderer and trouble-maker.

He gives some reasons for his actions...

1) Othello may have slept with Iago's wife.

2) Othello made Casio his lieutenant instead of Iago.

3) Iago hates Othello.

4) Iago may be jealous of Othello having Desdemona

The play is set in Venice and Cyprus because in 1600 The City of Venice was very very powerful and owned lots of territories. Cyprus is an island near Turkey and Greece. It is strategically very very important for controlling Mediterranean trade routes. Historically it changed hands many many times and is still a cause of deep argument between Turkey and Greece who both claim it is theirs. In the play, Venice controls Cyprus, but the Turks are threatening to invade, so Othello and a Venetian military force are sent to Cyprus to strengthen it from Turkish attack.

aaronteron | Student

(Conclusion) The fact is that Iago is motivated by malignity and evil mindedness. It is his nature to seek delight in tormenting and persecuting his victims. The more they smart under the pain and suffering, the greater grows his happiness. This is the malignant nature of Iago, and to rationalise this malignity of his nature he hunts for motives. Even if there had been no motives to direct him to these revengeful misdeeds against Othello, Desdemona, and Cassio, he would have proceeded against them merely for the joy of watching their joy and discomfiture. Thus, even Coleridge pointed out that Iago’s activities in Othello are nothing more than the motive hunting of a motiveless malignity. 

                      That is not to say that Iago is an inhuman abstraction (Acc. toM.R. Ridley), but suffice to say that (Acc. toBradley) Iago's malignity does not spring from the causes to which he himself refers to, nor from any 'motive' in the sense of an idea present to consciousness.

aaronteron | Student

(Continuation of my first answer) “This demi-devil”, says Brandes, “is always trying to give himself reason for his malignity, is always fooling himself by dwelling on half motives, in which he partly believes, but disbelieves in the main”.

           Dr. A.C. Bradley enumerates his reasons why the motives of Iago are considered to be different than those stated in his (Iago’s) soliloquy. He says, “A man moved by simple passions due to simple causes does not stand fingering his feelings, industriously enumerating their sources, and groping about for new ones, but this is exactly what Iago does. And almost all of these motives appear and disappear in the most extraordinary manner. Resentment of Cassio’s appointment is expressed in the first conversation with Roderigo, and from that moment is never once mentioned in the whole play. Hatred of Othello is expressed in the First Act alone. Desire to get Cassio’s place scarcely appears after the first soliloquy, and when it is gratified, Iago does not refer to it by a single word. The suspicion of Cassio’s intrigue with Emilia emerges suddenly, as an after-thought, not in the first soliloquy but in the second, and then disappears for ever”.

             What Coleridge actually means by the “motive-hunting of a motiveless malignity” is exactly what Dr. Bradley has explained so clearly in the above quotation. Iago’s simply tries to hunt out motives for vindicating his malignity. He fishes out flimsy motives to convince the audience that he has reasonable grounds to work against the Moor. But as a matter of fact, the grounds on which he proceeds are vague and well defined and nebulous in their nature. The maliciousness and malignity of Iago does not spring from the causes to which he himself alludes in his speeches and soliloquies. His malignity is founded on envy and jealousy.

             His malignity is very deep seated. It is not possible for him to endure the sight of happy people. He cannot tolerate the happiness and marital bliss of Othello and Desdemona and tries to undermine their happiness and destroy their lives. The malignity of Iago is visible in his wicked remark:

“O, you are well tuned now,

But I’ll set down the pegs that make this music,

As honest as I am”.

             Later on, he derives morbid delight out of laying out his own plan for destroying Cassio and Desdemona. He feels extremely happy at the prospect of turning Desdemona’s virtues into her ruin:

 “So will I turn her virtue into pitch,

And out of her own goodness make the net

That shall enmesh’ em all”.

             It is Iago’s wicked nature that he experiences great happiness at the suffering and misery of other people. He derives a diabolical pleasure out of the frustration and ruin of his victims, and it is merely a sport for him to watch his victims squealing in pain. The words that come out of his sinful lips at the disturbed and agitated state of Othello are devilish and disclose his inherent malignity:

“Not poppy, nor mandragora,

Nor all the drowsy syrups of the world,

Shall ever medicine thee to that sweet sleep

Which thou owedst yesterday”.


aaronteron | Student

Iago works against and tries to ruin Othello, Desdemona, and Cassio in the play and the chief aim of his life is to destroy the happiness of all these three honest and innocent people. He is eminently successful in the plans and schemes which he engineers against these three victims. The question that naturally rises is: what are the motives of Iago’s actions and schemes against his enemies? Apparently and so far as all outward appearances are concerned; Iago has certain definite and well-defined motives for the action which he undertakes against Cassio and Othello.

           The main cause of complaint and grudge which Iago has against Othello is that instead of appointing him as his lieutenant, he has chosen Cassio for this post, and has given to him (Iago) the humiliating and low rank of the ensign or the ancient or the standard-bearer. The appointment of Cassio as lieutenant in preference to his own valiant self-gnaws deep into the heart of Iago and makes him angry with the Moor because he has chosen a mere arithmetician, a debtor and creditor, and a counter-caster i.e. Cassio, as his lieutenant and has ignored his claims, when he knows that Michael Cassio:

“Never set a squadron in the field,

Nor the devision of a battle knows,

More than a spinster”,

               Iago is incensed because the Moor who had seen him fighting on the battlefield at ‘Rhodes, at Cyprus and on other grounds, Christian and heathen’, should completely ignore him and give the post of the lieutenant to Cassio who was not half so brave and experienced in military matters as Iago was. Another reason for Iago’s hatred for the Moor is that he (Othello, the Moor) has established illicit relation with his (Iago’s) wife:

 “I hate the Moor,

And it is thought abroad, that ‘twixt my sheets

He’s done my office; I know not if ‘t be true…

Yet I, for mere suspicion in that kind,

Will do, as if for surety, he holds me well

The better shall my purpose work on him”.

             Iago intends to take revenge against Othello and he desires to be “even’d with him, wife for wife”. So far as Cassio is concerned, Iago has the suspicion of illegitimate sexual relationship between the lieutenant and his (Iago’s) wife. He says:

 “For I fear Cassio with my night-cap, too--”

                  Iago is infuriated against Cassio primarily because of his appointment as lieutenant and secondly because he thinks that he (Cassio) has illicit sexual relations with his (Iago’s) wife. Actuated by these motives, he seeks to bring about the ruin of these people. But these motives are considered too feeble by critics, for the kind of action that Iago actually takes against his victims.

In Iago’s soliloquy, he (Iago) gives us the above stated motives of action against Othello and Cassio, but, in fact, they are not his true motives. He is simply trying to hunt motives in order to justify his malignity against virtuous and innocent people. As Dr. A.C. Bradley points out, “Iago did not clearly understand what was moving his desire, though he tried to give himself reasons for his actions, even those that had some reality made but a small part of the motive force”. Brandes is of the opinion that Iago’s apparent motives of action against Othello and Cassio are not his real motives. His real motives lie elsewhere and are deeply rooted in his inherent malignity and evil mindedness.

cariapreen | Student

There is no real motive; only suggested ones.

If you look at the line in act 1 scene 1 (when Iago suggests that Othello has slept with Emilia) he only says 'he has heard' or something to that matter, and that if it be rumoured, it is good enough to be true.

Iago truly is the master of manipulation, often dubbed the greatest villain in Shakespeare, and one of the best parts to be played. Perhaps Iago is only doing this to everyone because he can?

The answer above states it is because he has been passed over for promotion; however Othello makes him the lieutenant in Act 3 Scene 3, thus making this motive invalid.

If you want a fantastic essay on the motives of Othello (and not from random people on the internet, much as myself) look up Coleridge's "the motive-hunting of motiveness malignity"