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Creator William Shakespeare
Play Othello
Date c.1601-1604
Source "Un Capitano Moro" by Cinthio (1565)
Role Antagonist
Othello's ensign
Emilia's husband

Quote O, beware, my lord, of jealousy; it is the green-ey'd monster which doth mock the meat it feeds on.
Notable Interpreters Edwin Booth
Henry Irving
Jose Ferrer
Micheál MacLiammóir
Kenneth Branagh

Iago is a fictional character in Shakespeare's Othello (c.1601-1604). 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." Iago is a soldier and Othello's ancient (ensign or standard bearer). He is the husband of Emilia, Desdemona's attendant.


Othello has its source in the 1565 tale, "Un Capitano Moro" from Gli Hecatommithi by Giovanni Battista Giraldi Cinthio. 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 Venicemarker about 1508. In Cinthio, Iago's counterpart is simply "the ensign."

While 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 gruesome detail, 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 loath 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, transported from Cyprusmarker to Venicemarker, 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 make Othello demote 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, Desdemona. After 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, into taking from Desdemona a handkerchief that Othello had given her; he then tells Othello that he had seen it in Cassio's possession. Once Othello flies into a jealous rage, Iago tells him to hide 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, Othello orders Iago to kill Cassio, promising to make him lieutenant in return. Iago then engineers a fight between Cassio and Roderigo in which the latter is killed (by Iago himself, double-crossing his ally), but the former merely wounded.

In the final scene, Iago’s plan appears to succeed when Othello kills Desdemona, who is innocent of Iago's charges. Soon afterwards, however, Iago’s treachery is brought to light by Emilia; Iago is placed under arrest. He remains famously reticent when pressed for an explanation of his actions before he is arrested:

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 of honesty and dedication. Shakespeare contrasts Iago with Othello's nobility and integrity. With 1097 lines, he has more lines than Othello.

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.

Shakespearean critic A. C. Bradley said that "evil has nowhere else been portrayed with such mastery as in the evil character of Iago." The mystery surrounding Iago’s actual motives continues to intrigue readers and fuel scholarly debate.


Iago has been described as a "motiveless malignity" by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. This reading would seem to suggest that Iago, much like Don John in Much Ado About Nothing or Aaron in Titus Andronicus, wreaks havoc on the other characters' lives for no ulterior purpose.

In the exposition scene in Act 1, scene 1, Iago himself states that his prime motivation is bitterness at having been passed for promotion to the top post. His racist disgust at seeing "a black ram tupping" a "white ewe", and his supreme confidence in his ability to destroy Othello and escape detection all present potential motives. In a later soliloquy, it is revealed that Iago suspects his wife of infidelity with both Othello and Cassio.

Léone Teyssandier writes that a possible motive for his actions is jealousy towards Desdemona, Cassio, and Othello. Iago perceived them as more noble, generous and, in the case of Cassio, handsome than he. 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 ugly".

Ultimately, none of these motives is identified as primary, so it is impossible to determine conclusively which applies, if indeed any of them do in isolation, or which is most important among them.

Andy Serkis, who in 2002 portrayed Iago at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchestermarker, wrote in his memoir Gollum: How We Made Movie Magic, that:

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.

Actors who have played Iago

Other versions of the character

In looser adaptations of Othello, the "Iago" character is typically given a different name, but has been more or less the same as Shakespeare's. Prominent examples include Christopher Eccleston as "Ben Jago" (a corrupt police detective) in a 2002 adaptation set in a Londonmarker police department, Josh Hartnett as "Hugo" (a steroid-addicted teenager) in 2001's O, which sets the play in a contemporary high school, and Saif Ali Khan as Langda "Tyagi" in Vishal Bharadwaj's Omkara, set in Uttar Pradeshmarker, Indiamarker.


  1. Shakespeare, William. Four Tragedies: Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth. Bantam Books, 1988.
  2. Bevington, David and Kate, translators. "Un Capitano Moro" in Four Tragedies: Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth. Bantam Books, 1988.
  3. Bradley, A. C., [1904] (1974), Shakesperean Tragedy, Basingstoke: Macmillan Press, p. 169.
  4. V.i.19-20
  5. II.iii.315-16

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