Iago is a fictional character in Shakespeare's
Iago is the play's main antagonist, and Othello's
standard-bearer. He is the husband of Emilia, who is in turn the
attendant of Othello's wife Desdemona.
Othello and devises
a plan to destroy him by making him believe that his wife is having an
affair with his lieutenant, Michael Cassio.
The role is thought to have been first played by Robert Armin, who
typically played intelligent clown roles like Touchstone in As You
Like It or
Feste in Twelfth Night.
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".
2 Role in the play
3 Description of character
4 Critical discussion
6 Other versions of the character
8 External links
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.
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
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,
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
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,
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.
Othello and Iago
He manipulates his wife Emilia, Desdemona's lady-in-waiting, into
Desdemona a handkerchief that
Othello had given her; he
Othello that he had seen it in Cassio's possession. Once
Othello flies into a jealous rage,
Iago tells him to hide and look on
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,
Iago to kill
Cassio, promising to make him lieutenant in return.
engineers a fight between Cassio and
Roderigo in which the latter is
Iago himself, double-crossing his ally), but the former
Iago's plan appears to succeed when
Othello kills Desdemona, who is
innocent of Iago's charges. Soon afterwards, however, Emilia brings
Iago's treachery to light, and
Iago kills her in a fit of rage before
being arrested. 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 be imprisoned and tortured 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 for honesty and dedication.
Iago with Othello's nobility and integrity. With
Iago has more lines in the play than
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.
A. C. Bradley
A. C. Bradley said that "evil has nowhere else
been portrayed with such mastery as in the evil character of Iago",
and also states that he "stands supreme among Shakespeare's evil
characters because the greatest intensity and subtlety of imagination
have gone into his making." The mystery surrounding Iago’s actual
motives continues to intrigue readers and fuel scholarly debate.
In discussing The Tragedy of Othello, scholars have long debated
Iago’s role—highlighting the complexity of his character. Fred
West contends that
Shakespeare was not content with simply portraying
another “stock” morality figure, and that he, like many
dramatists, was particularly interested in the workings of the human
mind. Thus, according to West, Iago, who sees nothing wrong with his
own behaviour, is “an accurate portrait of a psychopath”, who
is "devoid of conscience, with no remorse". West believes that
Shakespeare had observed that there exist perfectly sane people in
whom fellow-feeling of any kind is extremely weak while egoism is
virtually absolute, and thus he made Iago".
Bradley writes that
Iago "illustrates in the most perfect combination
the two facts concerning evil, which seem to have impressed
Shakespeare the most", the first being that "the fact that perfectly
sane people exist in whom fellow-feeling of any kind is so weak that
an almost absolute egoism becomes possible to them", with the second
being "that such evil is compatible, and even appears to ally itself
easily, with exceptional powers of will and intellect". The same
critic also famously said that "to compare
Iago with the
Paradise Lost seems almost absurd, so immensely does Shakespeare's man
exceed Milton's Fiend in evil".
Weston Babcock, however, would have us see
Iago as "an human being,
shrewdly intelligent, suffering from and striking against a constant
fear of social snobbery". According to Babcock, it is not malice,
but fear, that drives Iago. For, "
Iago dates his maturity, as he
considers it, his ability to understand the world, from the age at
which he recognized every remark to be personally pointed. One only
who lacks inner assurance and is so constantly on guard against any
hint of his inferiority could so confess himself".
John Draper, on the other hand, postulates that
Iago is simply "an
opportunist who cleverly grasps occasion" (726), spurred on by
"the keenest of professional and personal motives". Draper argues
Iago "seized occasions rather than made them". According to
Iago "is the first cause, but events, once under way, pass
out of his control". Following this logic, Draper concludes that
Iago "is neither as clever nor as wicked as some would think; and the
problem of his character largely resolves itself into the question:
was he justified in embarking upon the initial stages of his
Laurence Fishburne and
Kenneth Branagh as
Othello and Iago
respectively, in a scene from the 1995 film version of Othello.
Shakespeare on screen (Othello)
Iago has been described as a "motiveless malignity" by Samuel Taylor
Coleridge. This reading would seem to suggest that Iago, much like Don
Much Ado About Nothing
Much Ado About Nothing or Aaron in Titus Andronicus, wreaks
havoc on the other characters' lives for no ulterior purpose.
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
Andy Serkis, who in 2002 portrayed
Iago at the Royal Exchange Theatre
in Manchester, wrote in his memoir Gollum: How We Made Movie Magic,
There are a million theories to Iago's motivations, but I believed
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
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.
Other versions of the character
In looser adaptations of Othello, the "Iago" character is typically
given a different name but is more or less the same as Shakespeare's.
Prominent examples include:
"Ben Jago" (played by Christopher Eccleston), a corrupt police
detective in a 2001 adaptation set in a London police department
"Hugo" (played by Josh Hartnett), a steroid-addicted teenager in the
film O (2001), which sets the play in a contemporary high school
Ishwar "Langda" Tyagi (played by Saif Ali Khan) in Vishal Bhardwaj's
film Omkara (2006), set in Uttar Pradesh, India
"Jago" in Rossini's opera Otello
Komali Paniyan (played by Lal) in Jayaraaj's Malayalam movie
Kaliyattam (1997) (English: The Play of God)
^ Simonson, Robert (10 September 2001). "NEWS;
Liev Schreiber Is Iago
Othello at Public Theater". Playbill. Retrieved 6 September
^ Klein, Alvin (1 July 1990). "THEATER; Striking Performances Light Up
'Othello'". The New York Times. Retrieved 23 June 2010.
^ 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.
^ a b c Bradley, A. C. (1992). Shakespearean tragedy: lectures on
Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth (3rd ed.). New York: St. Martin's
^ a b c West, Fred (1978). "
Iago the Psychopath". South Atlantic
Bulletin. 43 (2): 27–35. doi:10.2307/3198785.
^ a b Babcock, Weston (1965). "Iago-an Extraordinary Honest Man".
Shakespeare Quarterly. 16 (4): 297–301. doi:10.2307/2867657.
^ a b c d e Draper, John (1931). "Honest Iago". PMLA: Publication of
the Modern Language Association of America. 46 (3): 724–737.
Shakespeare (1995). Oeuvres Complètes (in French and
English). Tragédies II (Bouquins ed.). Robert Laffont.
The Romantic Iago
William Shakespeare's Othello
Della descrittione dell’Africa (1550) by Leo Africanus
"Un Capitano Moro" from Gli Hecatommithi (1565) by Giovanni Battista
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