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Who is Iago?

Jessica Ellis
By
Updated May 23, 2024
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Iago is a fictional character in William Shakespeare’s tragedy Othello. The character has more lines than anyone else in the play, and more lines than any non-title character in any of Shakespeare’s other works. Many scholars have debated Iago’s motives, personality, and place in the world of Shakespeare. He is considered one of the most evil villains in all of Shakespeare, bringing about the death of his closest friends and wife.

In Othello, Iago is discontented at not receiving a promotion from General Othello, who bestowed the position of lieutenant on Cassio instead. The villain sets about laying an intricate plot to bring down Cassio, which ends in Cassio being demoted. Unsatisfied with this result, the character convinces Othello that Desdemona, the general’s wife, is cheating on him. Sure that the villain is correct, Othello smothers Desdemona with a pillow, only to be informed by Emilia, Iago’s wife, that Desdemona was completely innocent.

Upon Emilia’s betrayal, her villainous husband stabs her to death. Othello, horrified at his actions, kills himself. Iago, famously refusing to explain his actions, is captured and presumably executed for his crimes.

The scheming character is often considered an archetypal Machiavellian villain. In his 1532 political treatise The Prince, Machiavelli outlined a course of political existence founded on the idea that the most effective way to rule is by maintaining a perfectly moral public façade while taking any action, however extreme, to keep or gain power. Iago is considered an excellent example of this principle as he is able to carry out his villainy only by manipulating the perfect trust other characters have for him. It is likely that Shakespeare would have known at least the theory of Machiavellianism, and many scholars believe he drew on the concept in creating Iago.

One popular though highly controversial interpretation of the character is that he acts out of unrequited homosexual desire for Othello. This concept of the character is drawn on several textual readings, including his apparent hatred of women. The most frequently cited textual example is in Act III, Scene iii, in which Othello and his traitorous friend make a pledge to each other considered by some to be reminiscent of a wedding ceremony. In this theory, his motivation is jealousy that Cassio and Desdemona have supplanted him in Othello’s affection. Generally, this interpretation is either loved or despised by scholars, although Kenneth Branagh incorporated it into his film version of the play.

The complicated role of the villain of Othello inspires great competition in the acting world, and many famous stage and screen actors have undertaken the role. Richard Dreyfuss, Ian McKellen, Laurence Olivier, and Christopher Walken have all played the character at least once in their careers. Actor Andy Serkis, in his book Gollum: How We Made Movie Magic suggests his own interpretation: that Iago was a nice guy who becomes addicted to power as his plans succeed.

Several modern film adaptations of the play have been made, from the text-faithful versions of Branagh and Olivier to 2001’s O, a modernization set in a high school, where the villain is a steroid-addicted basketball player. With more than ten screen adaptations of the play produced since the 1920s, the fascination with Iago and his divisive motivations seems to continue gaining popularity, as ever more theories are invented by scholars and fans of the play.

Language & Humanities is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Jessica Ellis
By Jessica Ellis , Writer
With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica Ellis brings a unique perspective to her work as a writer for Language & Humanities. While passionate about drama and film, Jessica enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics, creating content that is both informative and engaging for readers.

Discussion Comments

By Noblerabbit — On Apr 08, 2011

To me, Iago has to be one of the most complex and fascinating Shakespearian characters of all. He is the catalyst and instigator for Othello's jealousy while all the time reaping the twisted benefits of such a task.

He also has been played most masterfully by (Sir) Ian McKellen, if you've never seen his performance then I suggest you look it up.

Jessica Ellis

Jessica Ellis

Writer

With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica Ellis...
Learn more
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