- This article is about the character from Shakespeare's play, Othello. To see other characters named Iago, please see Iago (disambiguation).
Iago is a fictional character and one of the major characters in Shakespeare's play, Othello. Playing as the main antagonist in the play, Iago is Emilia's wife, and Othello's bearer. Ultimately, Iago devises and plans revenge in order to take down Othello, though his motives for doing so are unknown, by making him believe that his wife is cheating on him with his trusted lieutenant, Cassio.
Iago is a soldier who fought alongside Othello, and believes that he should be promoted to Lieutenant, for he is Othello's trusted advisor. While talking with Roderigo in the streets of Venice, he claims that the promotion to Lieutenant was passed down unfairly to Cassio. He decides to plot a plan to manipulate Othello into demoting Cassio, and as a result, promote Iago. Alongside Roderigo, while Iago is manipulating Othello, Iago will also help Roderigo into winning over Othello's wife, Desdemona.
Throughout the last three scenes, Iago's plan is slowly unveiled. He manipulates his wife, Emilia, into taking from Desdemona a handkerchief that Othello had given her; the handkerchief, ultimately, turns into a symbolic representation of Desdemona's purity, and by "giving it away", this fuses Othello's paranoia. Iago then tells Othello that he had seen the handkerchief with Cassio. Mad with jealousy, Othello orders Iago to kill Cassio, promoting him to Lieutenant in the process. Ultimately, Cassio is merely wounded, while Roderigo is killed by Iago.
During Cassio, Roderigo, and Iago's fight, Othello is also notable for killing his wife by strangulation. Emilia brings to light about Iago's treachery, and is killed by Iago. In the end, Iago is sentenced to imprisonment by Cassio, who is now in charge of Cyprus.
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Iago is viewed as one of Shakespeare's most sinister villain, often viewed as such after his betrayal towards Othello's entrust in him, which he maintains his status as an "honest" and "dedicated" advisor to Othello. Shakespearean critic, A. C. Bradley, suggests that "evil has nowhere else been portrayed with such mastery as in the evil character of Iago", and states that he "stands supreme among Shakespeare's evil characters because the greatest intensity and subtlety of imagination have gone into his making."
A critical reading of Othello continues to fuel scholar debate on the role of Iago—often highlighting the complex nature of Iago. 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 behavior, 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 Satan of Paradise Lost seems almost absurd, so immensely does Shakespeare's man exceed Milton's Fiend in evil", clearly showing the level of evil his reading of the play revealed in Iago.
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 that Iago “seized occasions rather than made them". According to his theory, 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 revenge?”
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- Bradley, A. C.,  (1974), Shakesperean Tragedy, Basingstoke: Macmillan Press, p. 169.
- Bradley, A. C. (1992). Shakespearean tragedy: lectures on Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth (3rd ed.). New York: St. Martin's Press.
- West, Fred (1978). "Iago the Psychopath". South Atlantic Bulletin 43 (2): 27–35. doi:10.2307/3198785.
- Babcock, Weston (1965). "Iago-an Extraordinary Honest Man". Shakespeare Quarterly 16 (4): 297–301. doi:10.2307/2867657.
- Draper, John (1931). "Honest Iago". PMLA: Publication of the Modern Language Association of America 46 (3): 724–737. doi:10.2307/457857.