Edwin Booth as Iago, c. 1870
|Source||"Un Capitano Moro" by Cinthio (1565)|
|Quote||O, beware, my lord, of jealousy; it is the green-ey'd monster which doth mock the meat it feeds on.|
|Portrayed by||Robert Armin
Philip Seymour Hoffman
Iago is a fictional character in Shakespeare's Othello (c. 1601–04). The play's main antagonist, Iago is the 'Ancient' (standard bearer) of General Othello as well as being husband of Emilia, who is in turn the attendant of Othello's wife Desdemona. Iago hates Othello (who is also known as "The Moor") and devises a plan to destroy him by making him believe that his wife is having an affair with his lieutenant, Michael Cassio.
The character's source is traced to Giovanni Battista Giraldi Cinthio's tale "Un Capitano Moro" in Gli Hecatommithi (1565). There, the character is simply "the ensign". Iago is a soldier and Othello's ancient (ensign or standard bearer).
Othello has its source in the 1565 tale, "Un Capitano Moro" from Gli Hecatommithi by Giovanni Battista Giraldi Cinthio. While no English translation of Cinthio was available in Shakespeare's lifetime, it is possible Shakespeare knew the Italian original, Gabriel Chappuy's 1584 French translation, or an English translation in manuscript. Cinthio's tale may have been based on an actual incident occurring in Venice about 1508. In Cinthio, Iago's counterpart is simply "the ensign."
While Shakespeare closely followed Cinthio's tale in composing Othello, he departed from it in some details. In Cinthio's tale, for example, the ensign suffers an unrequited lust for the Moor's wife, Desdemona, which then drives his vengeance. Desdemona dies in an entirely different manner in Cinthio's tale; the Moor commissions his ensign to bludgeon her to death with a sand-filled stocking. In gruesome detail, Cinthio follows each blow, and, when she is dead, the Moor and his ensign place her lifeless body upon her bed, smash her skull, and then cause the cracked ceiling above the bed to collapse upon her, giving the impression the falling rafters caused her death.
The two murderers escape detection. The Moor misses his wife greatly, however, and comes to loathe the sight of his ensign. He demotes him, and refuses to have him in his company. The ensign then seeks revenge by disclosing to "the squadron leader" (the tale's Cassio counterpart), the Moor's involvement in Desdemona's death. The two men denounce the Moor to the Venetian Seignory. The Moor is arrested, transported from Cyprus to Venice, and tortured, but refuses to admit his guilt. He is condemned to exile; Desdemona's relatives eventually execute him. The ensign escapes any prosecution in Desdemona's death, but engages in other crimes and dies after being tortured.
Role in the play
Iago is a soldier who has fought beside Othello for several years, and has become his trusted advisor. At the beginning of the play, Iago claims to have been unfairly passed over for promotion to the rank of Othello's lieutenant in favour of Michael Cassio. Iago plots to manipulate Othello into demoting Cassio, and thereafter to bring about the downfall of Othello himself. He has an ally, Roderigo, who assists him in his plans in the mistaken belief that after Othello is gone, Iago will help Roderigo earn the affection of Othello's wife, Desdemona. After Iago engineers a drunken brawl to ensure Cassio’s demotion (in Act 2), he sets to work on his second scheme: leading Othello to believe that Desdemona is having an affair with Cassio. This plan occupies the final three acts of the play.
He manipulates his wife Emilia, Desdemona's lady-in-waiting, into taking from Desdemona a handkerchief that Othello had given her; he then tells Othello that he had seen it in Cassio's possession. Once Othello flies into a jealous rage, Iago tells him to hide while he (Iago) talks to Cassio. Iago then leads Othello to believe that a bawdy conversation about Cassio's mistress, Bianca, is in fact about Desdemona. Mad with jealousy, Othello orders Iago to kill Cassio, promising to make him lieutenant in return. Iago then engineers a fight between Cassio and Roderigo in which the latter is killed (by Iago himself, double-crossing his ally), but the former merely wounded.
In the final scene, Iago’s plan appears to succeed when Othello kills Desdemona, who is innocent of Iago's charges. Soon afterwards, however, Iago’s treachery is brought to light by Emilia, who is later killed by Iago himself before he is captured. He remains famously reticent when pressed for an explanation of his actions before he is arrested: "Demand me nothing. What you know, you know. From this time forth I never will speak word." Following Othello's suicide, Cassio, now in charge, condemns Iago to lifetime of prison and torture as punishment for his crimes.
Description of character
Iago is one of Shakespeare's most sinister villains, often considered such because of the unique trust that Othello places in him, which he betrays while maintaining his reputation of honesty and dedication. Shakespeare contrasts Iago with Othello's nobility and integrity. With 1097 lines, Iago has more lines in the play than Othello himself.
Iago is a Machiavellian schemer and manipulator, as he is often referred to as "honest Iago", displaying his skill at deceiving other characters so that not only do they not suspect him, but they count on him as the person most likely to be truthful.
Shakespearean critic A. C. Bradley said that "evil has nowhere else been portrayed with such mastery as in the evil character of Iago." The mystery surrounding Iago’s actual motives continues to intrigue readers and fuel scholarly debate.
Iago has been described as a "motiveless malignity" by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. This reading would seem to suggest that Iago, much like Don John in Much Ado About Nothing or Aaron in Titus Andronicus, wreaks havoc on the other characters' lives for no ulterior purpose.
In the exposition in Act 1, scene 1, Iago himself states that his prime motivation is bitterness at having been passed for promotion to the top post. His racist disgust at seeing "a black ram tupping" a "white ewe", and his supreme confidence in his ability to destroy Othello and escape detection, all present potential motives. In a later soliloquy, it is revealed that Iago suspects his wife of infidelity with both Othello and Cassio.
Léone Teyssandier writes that a possible motive for Iago's actions is envy towards Desdemona, Cassio and Othello; Iago sees them as more noble, generous and, in the case of Cassio, more handsome than he is. In particular, he sees the death of Cassio as a necessity, saying of him that "He hath a daily beauty in his life that makes me ugly".
Ultimately, none of these motives is identified as primary, so it is impossible to determine conclusively which applies, if indeed any of them do in isolation, or which is most important among them.
There are a million theories to Iago's motivations, but I believed that Iago was once a good soldier, a great man's man to have around, a bit of a laugh, who feels betrayed, gets jealous of his friend, wants to mess it up for him, enjoys causing him pain, makes a choice to channel all his creative energy into the destruction of this human being, and becomes completely addicted to the power he wields over him. I didn't want to play him as initially malevolent. He's not the Devil. He's you or me feeling jealous and not being able to control our feelings.
Iago only reveals his true nature in his soliloquies, and in occasional asides. Elsewhere, he is charismatic and friendly, and the advice he offers to both Cassio and Othello is superficially sound; as Iago himself remarks: "And what's he then, that says I play the villain, when this advice is free I give, and honest...?"
It is this dramatic irony that drives the play.
Some critics thought Kenneth Branagh portrayed Iago as a homosexual, thus giving a possible motive of sexual desire for Othello, jealousy of Desdemona, and rage at the impossibility of his love for Othello being requited. In an interview, Branagh stated "Well, you know, a rather distinguished critic said he was annoyed with my performance because I'd clearly played Iago gay. I had no consciousness of doing that at all, but I did play as though he loved Othello. But I don't mean in a sexual sense. I just meant that he absolutely loved him. And frankly, that's the way I am with my male friends: I say 'I love you' when I feel it."
Other versions of the character
In looser adaptations of Othello, the "Iago" character is typically given a different name, but has been more or less the same as Shakespeare's. Prominent examples include Rossini's opera Otello's character "Jago", Christopher Eccleston as "Ben Jago" (a corrupt police detective) in a 2001 adaptation set in a London police department, Josh Hartnett as "Hugo" (a steroid-addicted teenager) in 2001's O, which sets the play in a contemporary high school, Lal as Komali Paniyan in Jayaraaj's Malayalam movie Kaliyattam (English: The Play of God) and Saif Ali Khan as Ishwar "Langda" Tyagi in Vishal Bharadwaj's Omkara, set in Uttar Pradesh, India.
David Snodin's novel Iago, published in January 2012, hypothesizes as to what may have happened to Iago had he escaped after being imprisoned. Nicole Galland's novel I, Iago, published in April 2012, speculates an elaborate backstory in which Iago invents intricate moral justifications for his ambition and vengeance.
- Verdi's Shakespeare: Men of the Theater, Garry Wills, p. 88-90
- Shakespeare, William. Four Tragedies: Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth. Bantam Books, 1988.
- Bevington, David and Kate, translators. "Un Capitano Moro" in Four Tragedies: Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth. Bantam Books, 1988.
- Bradley, A. C.,  (1974), Shakesperean Tragedy, Basingstoke: Macmillan Press, p. 169.
- Williams, Shakespeare (1995). Oeuvres Complètes (in French and English). Tragédies II (Bouquins ed.). Robert Laffont. pp. 46–47.
- The Branagh Compendium