Iago's Motivation

Iago’s Motivation


Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the famous writer, scholar and opium addict, described Iago as a “motiveless malignity” – a character who maliciously spreads falsehoods and rumours because he is thoroughly evil. The antagonist certainly tries to justify his revenge and offers several reasons for his schemes, but Coleridge argued this was simply “motive-hunting”.

The First Motive

At the beginning of (I.i), Iago bitterly complains he was not promoted to Othello’s lieutenant, confidently boasting “I am worth no worse a place”. He claims “three great ones of the city” supported his advancement but the position was offered to an unqualified “great arithmetician” who “never set squadron in the field” and had “mere prattle without practice”. Iago’s sarcastic tone towards Cassio is conveyed through the adjective “great”, which is used pejoratively here, and the plosive alliteration drawing attention to the difference between the two men. Cassio can “prattle”, but Iago is the experienced soldier who fought alongside Othello at “Rhodes, at Cyprus, and on other grounds Christian and heathen”.

It seems Cassio was promoted because of “letter and affection” and Iago despises that disgusting favouritism.

Feeling terribly aggrieved, Iago says “I follow him to serve my turn upon him”. His motivation for revenge is quite clear at this point in the play.

The groundlings, who paid a penny to watch the performance from the pit and had a healthy cynicism towards authority, probably empathised with his predicament and hoped the villain’s plotting would succeed causing Othello’s downfall.

However, when Othello promotes Iago to the rank of lieutenant in (III.iv), the antagonist is not satisfied with the title and continues scheming until the fatal conclusion of the story. It appears he wanted more than just the promotion.

The Cuckhold

Iago, in his soliloquy at the end of the first act, states unequivocally to the audience “I hate the Moor”, but his motivation becomes immediately muddled. This aggressive declarative is followed by the allegation “And it is thought abroad that ‘twixt my sheets h’as done my office”. The conjunction “because” would have been more appropriate if the character was intending to link the two ideas.

He repeats this claim in (II.ii) in another soliloquy, telling the audience “for that I do suspect the lusty Moor hath leaped into my seat”.

In this way, Iago presents himself as the scorned lover searching for revenge and argues “nothing can or shall content my soul till I am evened with him, wife for wife”.

Again, this motivation for revenge is plausible if the betrayals were actually true.

However, Iago then claims Emilia is also having an affair with Cassio: “For I fear Cassio with my nightcap too”. Perhaps this “fear” was inspired by Cassio’s “bold show of courtesy” with Emilia when he “kisses” her in the previous scene. In an aside in (II.i), he tells the audience “it had been better you had not kissed your three fingers so oft”.

Notice how both allegations begin with the conjunction “for”. Iago is trying to justify his revenge in these throwaway lines, but the sexual jealousy motive is unconvincing.


Iago convinces Roderigo to “put money in thy purse” and “make all the money thou canst” in (I.ii) and follow Desdemona to Cyprus. These eight references to “money” in the one monologue could actually be a metaphor inspiring the hapless lover to become more confident, but Iago admits to the audience that he makes “such a snipe but for my sport and profit”.

At the end of (II.iii), Roderigo despondently declares his “money is almost spent” and he should “return again to Venice” with “no money at all”.

However, at the start of (V.i), Iago reveals he “bobbed” a large amount of “gold and jewels” from Roderigo that were supposed to be “gifts” for Desdemona.

Perhaps money is the root of all evil in the play.


Perhaps Iago has no real interest in money, but he is envious of Roderigo’s wealth. He could be envious of Othello and Desdemona’s genuine love for each other and misses that emotional depth in his own marriage. It is made clear in (V.i) that Iago is envious of Cassio: “he hath a daily beauty in his life that makes me ugly”.

The villain is so vain he will not admit that his deeps feelings of inadequacy are his real motivation.


Iago tells various characters that his main motivation in the play is friendship and loyalty. For example, when he consoles Cassio after his ignominious demotion, Iago tells him he is acting “in the sincerity of love and honest kindness” in his advice.

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