Mad, bad or just plain jealous? Essay

The title of the play is Othello, so why have critics spent so many years studying Iago? Why is he such an interesting character? I find Iago an extremely clever and incredibly cunning character; he can manipulate people like nobody else and he manages to make Othello’s life a living hell without even seeming to try. A motive that is noticed throughout the whole of the play is jealousy. I plan to look at three questions: Could Iago have been evil? Was Iago motivated by a paricular motive? Did Iago have a personality disorder? I will then bring my ideas to a conclusion on why I think Iago behaved like he did.


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Iago may have been jealous of Cassio and also annoyed at Othello for not being made lieutenant, in the first scene we can see that Othello made Cassio his lieutenant, and Iago told Roderigo that he deserved this place. We can see that Roderigo believes Iago that that this is the source of his hatred towards Othello. However it is hardly convincing when he says ‘I know my price’, Iago is saying that he feels he is the best man for the job and he knows that, but this does not come across as particularly strong as the word ‘price’ is a financial word and does not have much emotion. Roderigo does not notice this because of the previous things Iago says, which makes it sound more convincing:

Despise me, if I do not. Three great ones of the city,

In personal suit to make me his lieutenant,

Off-capp’d to him: and, by faith of man,

I know my price, I am worth no worse a place.

(Act 1, scene 1, lines 8-11)

Looking more closely at the word ‘price’, it may link to how objects are priced; objects are seen as empty and without a soul – and so are evil people. This may suggest that Iago is evil and has no soul. which also shows that being annoyed at Othello is not this cause of his hatred. So could he be evil?

At the beginning of the play, when Iago hears about not being made lieutenant he states that ‘I am not what I am’ which shows that he is a deceitful character and not a person to trust. The saying from the Bible ‘I am what I am’ said by St Paul, and this shows that Iago is unchristian as he has completely turned around a Christian quote and made it an evil one. So this may lead us to believe that as Shakespeare was writing this he meant Iago’s behaviour to be the direct result of his evil nature. The fact that he was evil may have reflected the fear of witches in Shakespeare’s time – which was often shown through literature, In the play Iago manipulates people a lot, and he may actually get enjoyment from this which I think would suggest that he is pure evil. He is saying in (Act 1, scene 3, line 368) that there is no real need to associate and talk to Roderigo, and he simply does it for his personal enjoyment ‘For sport and profit’.

Using the word ‘sport’ also implies that he enjoys doing it and sees it as a game. Even though Iago knows this is really making Roderigo suffer (as he loves Desdemona so much) he does it any way -and we get the idea that he is really evil and gets pleasure out of these evil deeds. He may also get enjoyment from manipulating Othello – for the revenge but also for the power. We can see that Iago may like to be evil as he may see himself as an evil priest; when he says to Roderigo ‘let thy soul be instructed’ (Act 2, scene 1, line 12) he is saying that he wants to give him instructions on what to do. But the word ‘soul’ is linked with religion and therefore sounds like something a priest would say and only a priest, so he is taking the role of a priest and using it in an evil way. So Iago tries to take control over Roderigo.

Another way that Iago takes this sort of godly role is says he ‘will turn her virtue into pitch’, here he is referring to Desdemona and how he will turn her purity black. In Shakespeare’s time, the colour black was recognized or associated with the demonic, so this may be showing that he wants to make Desdemona look bad and like a demon to Othello. Black is also associated with death and so Iago may almost be turning life into death which is changing the godly role of turning death to life and makes Iago into even more of an evil figure.

Not only is Iago evil but I think that he seems anxious to let his evil out, he has been working on this plan to get his revenge on Othello, and when he wants to bring it into the world he describes it as it going into the ‘world’s light’ – so showing he wants to ruin this light and he sounds like he really wants to do it:

It is engendered, hell and night

Must bring this monstrous birth to the world’s light.

(Act 1, scene 3, lines 385-6)

He is saying that his plan has been conceived and is ready to destroy this perfect picture. He is saying that it should be put into action, he describes this as a ‘monstrous birth’ he is saying that this plan he has conceived is very evil, monstrous describing how evil it is. And I think that by using the word ‘birth’ it is doing two things, the first is using a word that is associated with new life and happiness, and then turning it into a word that will be used for evil and death. Also I think ‘birth’ is describing how the plan will develop after it has been initiated.

At the end of the play Iago is named a ‘demi-devil’, which shows that Othello, who had experienced Iago’s manipulation, felt that the only possible reason that Iago was like this is because he is evil and like the devil. Also Iago does not seem to feel any form of guilt or remorse, as he does not hand himself in at the end (“Demand me nothing; what you know, you know From this time forth I never speak a word”) and throughout the whole play does not really seem to care about anything he has done or anybodies feelings. So I think that there is much evidence to show that Iago is of evil nature – but is there such thing as a completely evil person?

Sane Motivation

Earlier, I looked at how Iago being jealous of Cassio and annoyed at Othello may not have been a direct cause of Iago’s hatred. owever, even though this was not the overall result of Iago’s hatred, it may have been an initial motive. As Iago proceeded in manipulating Othello, he may enjoyed this feeling of power and soon enough felt that he could not stop. He does not normally have such a great power over people – as Othello is higher up in authority than him and has more control over him. Iago may have realised how he can use his intelligence against people.

He is extremely clever – in his soliloquy we can see him being processing all of his thoughts about his extreme jealousy. This is in Act 2 scene 1. We can see that Iago is really good at speaking – he completes this soliloquy in only a few sentences. We can see Iago pondering on evidence and thinking about a clever way that he can use all of the facts. Even though he is very clever with this, in the next line he seems to contradict himself:

The moor, howbeit I endure him not,

Is of a constant, loving and noble nature,

(Act 2, scene 1)

So how can he not stand someone that is so good? This maybe because he is hesitating and becoming confused, I think that the second line is representing the view of Othello and how people see him – and then in the first line Iago is saying how he hates this.

He tries to make other excuses as to why he is so mad at Othello and says that he suspects him of sleeping with his wife – he does not seem to say this part of the quote with any real emotion or any care, which shows that he probably does not really believe this. Another thing that Iago says to show this is ‘twixt my sheets/ He’s done my office’ so again here is suggesting that Othello had sex with his wife. The word office seems to drain the emotion out of the phrase and makes it seem like Iago does not really care, as it is associated with a function or a service. So he is trying to cover up his real emotion and he says:

For I do suspect that lusty Moor

Hath leap’d into my seat; the thought whereof

Doth, like a poisonous mineral, gnaw my inwards;

(Act 2, scene 1)

I think in the quote his real emotions start to show through and he tells of how his something is gnawing at him – this is the first and only physical description of Iago’s emotions and how he is feeling – he is describing how he must get revenge on Othello or this anger and pain will not stop eating him inside. It is quite a physical and disgusting image – something eating at your inwards, but it is also a phrase that links to having something on your mind or some form of jealousy. He does not use the word ‘bite’, because he is describing this perpetual and continuous feeling that will not stop until revenge has been done on Othello. Also ‘gnaw’ is a word that is associated with vermin – and vermin is something that you want to get rid of – which could be showing Iago’s desire to get revenge.

Also gnaw being associated with rats, and the fact that rats carried the plague, could also be showing this horrible disease that is inside of him. In the next few lines Iago goes on to explain how he wants to get rid of this feeling and getting revenge on Othello. Iago managed to think his way out of his jealousy but he then wants to put Othello into ‘A jealousy so strong that judgement cannot cure’ judgement means reasoning and thinking, so he is saying that thinking will not be able to cure it. He talks about a ‘poisonous mineral’ which is linking back to the phrase earlier on in the play which Iago says ‘Poison his delight’ so this may also be representing how this pain is being passed on to Othello. After this, Iago starts to develop this plan further, again there are few sentences, this then increases the pace of it and almost makes Othello sound slightly crazy like he has gone too far into this plan.

There is another theory that Iago is Gay and in love with Othello. It was first properly implied in a 1938 stage production where Iago is portrayed as gay. In this, when Othello has a fit and is lying on the floor, Iago lies next to him and seems to make sexual noises. Other evidence in the play to suggest that he is gay is in Act 2 scene 3, where he is describing to Othello how Michael Cassio had sex with Desdemona.

In sleep I heard him say, ‘Sweet Desdemona,

Let us be wary, let us hide our loves’

And then, sir, he would gripe my wring hand,

Cry, ‘O sweet creature!’ and then kiss me hard,

As if he plucked up kisses by the roots

That grew upon my lips; then laid his leg

Over my thigh, and sighed, and kissed, and then

Cried, ‘Cursed fate that gave thee to the more.’

(Act three, scene three)

He puts himself in the position of Desdemona – so thinking that he is having sex with Cassio. He goes into deep description about the event and seems to know a lot about it like he had been previously thinking about it. This may also explain why Iago is so good at getting into men’s minds – especially Othello. He also says in his soliloquy that he wants Othello to ‘love me, thank me and reward me’ (Act 2, scene 1). Which may suggest he loves Othello and wants him to love him. Iago also says ‘I am yours forever’, this links to marriage and how it is a very strong bond. This may also show that Iago is gay. So the whole play may not be about Iago trying to punish Othello, but trying to torture Desdemona instead, as he is jealous of her. But then again if he loved Othello so much then why does he want to hurt him so much – and want to get revenge?


Could Iago be insane? I am going to use psychoanalytic literary theory to pin point a personality disorder on him. Psychoanalysing somebody is to look at their behaviour and how they act around different people and then seeing if there are any signs of a personality disorder. Out of all the possible personality disorders Iago may have, Antisocial personality disorder seems the strongest.

One of the symptoms of this is failure to conform to social norms with respect to lawful behaviour. Iago is certainly not a normal person and he is great at manipulating people. This horrific manipulation is not a normal thing to do, and certainly not regarded as social norms. He kills his own wife – this is not lawful behaviour and he certainly does not have any respect for it. It does not seem that he cares about anything as long as he can get his revenge on Othello. In Shakespeare’s time, it was very unlawful to get revenge on someone in any other way than in a court. So Iago did not seem to have very much respect for that law – as he got revenge on Othello in a much worse way.

He does not seem the same in public than in private, this links to Macbeth as this resembles his nature also. “I am not what I am” makes him seem antisocial – the way he never talks about his true feelings with other people or even when he is alone – to himself. This next symptom pretty much sums up Iago and how he acts: Deceitfulness, as indicated by repeated lying, use of aliases, or conning of others for personal profit or pleasure. He definitely has this symptom – he manipulates Othello for his own pleasure – to get his own back – although in his soliloquy he describes how he needs to get revenge on Othello otherwise the gnawing jealousy will not leave him. He manipulates Roderigo – saying Desdemona does not love Othello, he may be doing this just because he can because he can and it gives him a sense of power.

A quote that shows that Iago manipulates Roderigo for his own profit of pleasure is “for sport and profit” this is perfectly proving the symptom as he is saying that he sees no real reason to associate with Roderigo apart form his personal enjoyment. He doesn’t always lie straight out as he uses language to make it seem like it is all in Othello’s mind. In one case he does – when in Act 3 Scene 3 he describes how Desdemona and Cassio made love: “In sleep I heard him say, ‘Sweet Desdemona let us be wary, let us hide our loves'” and “O sweet creature”.

However this may be because Iago became out of control with his emotions; Iago puts himself in the place of Desdemona when he describes the encounter, so as he is doing it he may have been his own emotions taking over. It is hard to know what is true and what is not this is reflected in the quote about Othello sleeping with Emilia: ‘twixt my sheets, hes done my office’. He says this as it is the truth but the quote betrays itself as a lie in the language used. The word ‘office’ doesn’t back up Iago’s supposed emotion.

It therefore makes it seem as Iago is lying, as the word ‘office’ is associated with a function or a service and Iago would not use this word if really meant what he was saying. Another symptom is the reckless disregard for safety of self or others. Iago has no regard for the safety of others but he does have regard for the safety of himself. When he was in danger of being revealed from Emilia he stabs (Act 5 scene 2) her this shows he has no regard for the safety of others not even his wife but will go to any means necessary for the safety of himself.

The next symptom Iago certainly does not have, it is: Impulsivity or failure to plan ahead. Iago certainly does plan ahead and does it well we can see in Act 2 Scene 3 he describes his plan as a carefully woven net, “out of her own goodness make the net that shall enmesh them all “. I think Iago is able to keep himself calm in public and around Othello and is not irritable or aggressiveness unlike Roderigo who does have many physical fights, and Iago thinks before he takes action.

He does stab Cassio in the leg but this was not aggressive but more premeditated. But then again when his plan does not go accordingly and he is put under pressure when Emilia may reveal his plan, he stabs her – this was not planned and more of an instinct – to keep himself from being revealed. Another symptom of antisocial personality disorder is lack of remorse. Iago does not show any signs of remorse after murdering his wife or ruining Othello’s life – it doesn’t really seem like a big deal to him. Iago does show many of the symptoms of antisocial personality disorder. One that he does not show is the failure to plan ahead, but I think that this was because of how clever Iago is. I have gone into more detail in my conclusion below.


I have looked into a variety of different reasons for Iago’s behaviour. Originally I thought that Iago had an initial motivation of anger toward Othello which then became an attractive control of him reflecting evil nature and antisocial behaviour. But looking at the quote ‘I know my price’ in more detail – saying how price has no emotion, therefore it is not his real motive makes me think that there is a different explanation. I think that a lot of his behaviour did reflect Antisocial personality disorder but


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