Iago is undoubtedly a cold hearted and merciless villain, who does not care about the amount of emotional destruction he causes to anyone, in Othello. He often uses crude language, and cunningly manages to adapt a suitable tone and style to suit any situation. However his motives for the treacherous breakdown of Othello and Desdemona’s marriage and love for each other, which he induces, are not strictly clear. Possible motives for Iago’s behaviour are perhaps jealousy or revenge. Many critics, however, believe there is perhaps a much more sinister motive, that being that he is motivated by the devil as he is a naturally evil person with no real reasons for his actions.
An obvious motive for much of Iago’s behaviour and hatred for people is jealousy. In Act I scene1 Iago speaks of his disgust that Cassio has become Othello’s lieutenant, and not him. He makes a jealous sounding comment about Cassio, in saying: “And what was he?/ Forsooth, a great arithmetician” claiming Cassio lacks practical experience of warfare, which of course Iago has. He also admits to the personal envy of the “daily beauty” in the lieutenant’s life. This could form the basis of why Iago plots to have Cassio lose his title and become hated by Othello.
Iago is not afraid to speak of his racist view of Othello, who incidentally is a higher rank than him. Iago uses harsh and crude language when he refers to Othello and Desdemona making love: “Even now, now, very now, an old black ram/ Is tupping your white ewe”. He also refers to Othello as a “Barbary horse” and tries to convince Brabantio that he will have mutant nephews and cousins: “You’ll have your nephews/ neigh to you, you’ll have coursers for cousins”.
This small speech by Iago, is not in written in verse, but in prose adding an emphasis to the degrading and nasty tone. This could suggest he is bitterly jealous of ‘the black’ Othello being in charge of him, which could therefore be a motive to why he plots the downfall of him later. Iago may be jealous of Othello for being a higher rank than him, but also for being married to the beautiful Desdemona, who many critics believe Iago secretly loves. He may simply be jealous that an attractive and respectable white young lady would go near a black man by choice.
Iago may not be jealous of Othello however, he may just thoroughly hate him through his racism, especially when he secretly marries Desdemona. Iago refers to Othello as ‘the devil’ as in some traditions the devil was depicted as black, to suggest that Othello has cast some sort of spell over Desdemona using black magic. Therefore Iago could plot Othello’s downfall out of love for Desdemona, or wanting to get rid of Othello the ‘devil’. After acting the loyal and caring friend of Othello, Iago later resorts to referring to Othello as a “Barbarian” to make his real hatred for Othello clear.
Another motive which may drive Iago, is revenge. Many critics believe Iago wants to seek revenge on those (Othello and Cassio) who have wounded him personally and professionally, and make them suffer in the way he has. This is due to Iago believing Cassio has committed adultery with his wife Emilia when he sees Cassio kiss her hand. He also believe Othello has done the same when he says Othello has, “‘twixt my sheets….done my office” another crude remark to add spite and bitterness. Iago then goes on to say “nothing can, nor shall content my soul/ Till I am evened with him wife for wife”. This not only reinforces his craving for revenge, but could also reinforce the idea of Iago secretly loving Desdemona. If Iago genuinely believes Othello and Cassio have both been unfaithful with Emilia, then revenge could well be seen as another motive to Iago’s twisted plot.
Another main motive of Iago’s seems to be his passion for stirring up trouble, and ability to fit in, in any situation. Iago seems to revel in waking Brabantio in the most frightful way possible, when he says to Roderigo “Do, with like timorous accent and dire yell”. Iago also stirs up trouble between Othello and Brabantio when he tells Othello of the “such scurvy and provoking terms against your honour” which Brabantio spoke, conveniently missing out the scurvy and derogative terms Iago used.
Later, in Act 2 scene 3, Iago revels in tempting Cassio into drinking more alcohol which leads to Cassio getting violent and starting a fight with Roderigo. Iago knows this will cause Othello to look down on Cassio and even sack him, which he does. Iago manages to stir trouble for Cassio that bit further by acting the loyal companion to all when he is questioned by Othello; he says, “I had rather have this tongue cut from my mouth/ Than it should do offence to Michael Cassio. /Yet I persuade myself, to speak the truth”.
Other critics, for instance Lylton Stranchy, Coleridge and William Hazlitt, believe the only motive which drive Iago is his natural evilness. There are often references to the devil. Coleridge says Iago has ‘A being next to the devil driven by ‘motiveless malignity'”. Hazlitt also claims Iago is ‘an aesthete of evil’ and is a natural mischief-maker. Lylton Stranchy believes Shakespeare deliberately created a villain who had no motive at all and whose wickedness “should lie far deeper than anything that could be examined by a rational motive”. He also believes Iago is driven onward towards a ghastly tragedy by an underlying demonic impulse.
These ideas could explain Iago’s hatred for almost everything, and his reasons for being so very crude and vulgar. This explanation would definitely explain his capability to destroy Othello and Desdemona’s love for each other without feeling remorse or guilt, even when they both die tragically. Iago’s language when describing Othello and women is often vulgar and extremely rude. Even to his own wife, Iago has no trouble in being incredibly crude when he speaks of “devils being offended, players in your housewifery, and housewives in your bed”. Iago’s spiteful language helps express just how bad and a character he is to the audience. Despite how clearly he unravels his merciless plot to the audience, Iago is still not predictable. He changes with every character, and the audience never quite know what to expect.
The sinister Iago is expressed perfectly when he says, “I am not what I am”, and “There are many events in the womb of time which/ will be delivered” leaving the audience with a character who is although evil, crude, racist, sexist and thoroughly nasty, -somewhat intriguing. The audience are hooked by his ability to come across so genuine to the very characters, he plans to dissemble and destroy. Iago is very quick-witted, and always improvises brilliantly. He also fashions his plots out of material he has at hand in order to cause the downfall of Othello. This, and the fact he tells the audience his plans makes him even more interesting to watch to see just how he will act and what he will say in order to bring about the downfall of one of Shakespeare’s strongest characters, Othello.