Tragic Villain

Iago is the tragic villain of the play. His actions throughout cause destruction and tragedy. He manipulates Othello into believing that Desdemona is unfaithful and through this action it leads to the death of Othello, Desdemona, Roderigo and even his wife Emilia. Part of Iago’s skill lies in the way that he can recognise the weaknesses in the other characters in order to manipulate them for his own purpose. He says of Othello that he is of a “free and open nature” so that he will be “led by the nose”. In Cassio, he recognises his friendliness in his relationship with women and realises that he can utilise that in his plans. Iago is so successful in his deception that other characters refer to him as “honest Iago”. While very skilful at being the puppet master it can be argued that his plans are opportunist, often seeming to decide on his actions as he goes. Coleridge argued that Iago lacks any clear motive, although Iago does state that he feels he has been overlooked for promotion and he also believes that Othello and Cassio have had relationships with his wife. While his plans are eventually uncovered Iago never confesses and is still living at the end of the play.


While there are some possible motives for Iago’s actions such as Cassio being promoted as lieutenant over him and his belief that Othello has “done my office” suggesting he thinks Othello has slept with his wife Emilia, many believe that his behaviour is a consequence of him being purely evil. The possible motives are never pursued by Iago and they alter as the play progresses, casting doubt on whether they are true. Even when Iago has broken Othello, so attained revenge, he does not stop and tells Othello to “strangle” Desdemona, a completely innocent character. The way he murders his wife at the end of the play adds to the idea of his evil. He has used her to attain the handkerchief but is willing to dispatch with her without thought. Furthermore, it seems that Iago has enjoyed his scheming and seeing the suffering of those he has manipulated and it is this that really reinforces the evilness of his character.


Mahiavelli (1469-1527) was an Italian philosopher who wrote about power and how people attain it. His book discusses the idea that in order to be successful you should do whatever it takes as the end justifies the means. While it is not clear that Machiavelli advocated such behaviour, these ideas do seem to be evident in Shakespeare’s portrayal of Iago. Iago will stop at nothing to get what he wants. He shows no remorse for his actions and indeed, often seems to be enjoying the suffering that he causes. His soliloquies are evidence of his Machiavellian behaviour as they set out his plans and what he wants to achieve with no care of the consequences for others.


Iago is a highly skilful manipulator and this is most clearly seen in Act III scene iii. Othello states that he will not be jealous as “to be once in doubt/ Is once to be resolved” and yet by the end of the scene he swears to “tear her all to pieces” because of her infidelity. Iago has managed to take control of Othello and admired General and to convince him of an untruth. Much of this manipulation is through suggestion. Iago reminds Othello that Desdemona deceived her father thus creating doubts about her reliability. Shakespeare shows Iago’s skill in the way he often does not make statements that are obvious to his victims but are subtle so that the characters themselves create the images and ideas that will destroy them. Iago says to Othello in a seemingly innocent way that he did not know Cassio knew Desdemona. It is this that starts to play on Othello’s mind and from here Iago feeds Othello with ideas that cause him to be consumed by jealousy. Iago not only manipulates Othello but all those around him, including his wife. His manipulation of Roderigo, while often creating humour also illustrates Iago’s power. Roderigo stand no chance of being allied with Desdemona and yet Iago manipulates him so that he given Iago his money, starts a fight and attempts to kill Cassio. What is also clever is the way that Shakespeare has made the audience co-conspirators. Through the asides and the soliloquies we here about the plans so that be the end of the play we too feel some sense of responsibility for the deaths that have ensued.

Why is Iago referred to as a Machiavel?
Your answer should include: No / Care / Others
Why does Iago suggest that Othello will be easy to manipulate?
Your answer should include: Free / Open / Nature
Give an example of one way in which Iago manipulates others?
Your answer should include: Tricks / Roderigo / Desdemona / Suggestion / Language