Iago’s motivations become less clear as the play goes on. This is particularly interesting because one would expect that with more evidence of Iago’s actions, one would be able to develop a more comprehensive understanding of his motivations. However, Iago warns us of this at the play’s beginning, with “For when my outward action doth demonstrate/ The native act and figure of my heart/ In compliment extern, ’tis not long after/ But I will wear my heart upon my sleeve/ For daws to peck at: I am not what I am” (1.1.63-7). 

So in what ways has Iago’s motivations become less clear? Well, his original intention is seemingly to become lieutenant. Naturally, as per the plight of revenge he must up the ante – because nobody is really sated by just an eye for an eye. So while it may seem “reasonable” that his revenge schemes begin to overreach his original intention, we do get some confusing parts. 

Othello says, “Now art thou my lieutenant” (3.3.487), and Iago responds, “I am your own for ever” (3.3.488). Naturally we know Iago is lying, however, this passage is not followed by any soliloquy, nor by a conclusion. In fact, this is followed by two more acts and another scene. Iago is not excited about his promotion – he doesn’t even appear to care for it. So without the original motivating factor, we are left a bit confused as to what got Iago down this road?

Well, Iago mentions another motivation when he says “Till I am even’d with him, wife for wife” (2.1.224). However, as we discussed in class, this seems not only unlikely to have occurred, we do not even believe it to be a motivation. Emilia even says that she thinks the same person convinced Othello of Desdemona’s infidelity as convinced Iago of Emilia’s. We know of course this to be Iago – and I think this is Shakespeare hinting that Iago knows that he’s made this all up. [I cannot find the lines]


The last remaining motivation would seem to be racial – that Iago might be prejudiced against Othello. While Iago does make some racial comments, it does not seem reasonable that even this would be his motivation. Seemingly Iago and Othello have known each other for years, so why wait until now to exact revenge? And for that matter, how can you exact revenge against a race? Revenge is motivated by anger for some wrong doing – you can’t exact revenge (which Iago’s actions appear to be) on someone who’s done you no wrong other than looking different than you: that would be a hate crime, but not revenge.


But we come again to the crux of the problem – what Iago’s actions appear to be and what they actually are. We cannot say for sure that Iago’s motivations do not align with any of these simply because his actions do not properly seem to align with them, because as Iago warned us, we cannot rely upon his actions to be a tell for what is going on in his heart.


2 thoughts on “Motivations

  1. Marcella

    I think what you end with, is exactly the problem of the character of Iago. What are his motivations for ruining lives and murder? Hell if we know! But I feel like this is exactly where Shakespeare wants us to look. We can read into a character’s actions to find his motives. But we will never really know what they are. This could all be meaningless, which the text seems to point to as well. But our searching for motive can be pointless just the same.

  2. anikakrempl

    I agree with you for the most part; after a while, it seems that Iago has lost his focus and is just wreaking havoc for his own pleasure. If what he really wanted was the position that Cassio had received, then how exactly did the killing of Desdemona fit in? It may be that I missed a step somewhere, but I feel that Iago is no longer following his quest to gain lieutenancy, and is merely trying to cause emotional destruction to Othello.


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