In Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s personal copy of Shakespeare, in the margins near the end of the first act of Othello, he wrote the note “the motive-hunting of motiveless Malignity.” And thus was started an entire cottage industry:
Why does Iago do what he does?
If Coleridge is on to something here, then Iago is a human Puck, reveling in the chaos he causes. In this theory, Iago’s final words (“Demand me nothing. What you know, you know. // From this time forth I will never speak word” [V.ii.303-04]) are a twisted statement of fact: I won’t tell you why because I don’t have a reason.
But doesn’t he?
Iago tells Roderigo within the first 30 lines that he hates Othello because the Moor promoted Cassio over Iago as his lieutenant. This sounds rational. Maybe too much so, especially when he lies so often to Roderigo. Plus, Othello goes out of his way to tell Iago at the end of the centerpoint scene, Act Three, Scene Three, “Thou art my lieutenant” (III.iii.479), but Iago does nothing to slow Othello’s passion against Desdemona. If the promotion was the key, then Cassio is the target…but Iago is no longer wielding a rifle with a sniper’s scope, he’s carrying a sawed-off shotgun.
So, if it’s not the promotion, what is it?
It seems like a stretch, but Iago does say (in his final soliloquy, no less) of Cassio, “He hath a daily beauty in his life // That makes me ugly” (V.i.19-20). Is this everyday feeling of inadequacy a sense, perhaps, of class envy? If so, then all those above him must be destroyed. Brabantio, a great man of Venice, will have his household turned upside down. Desdemona, his daughter, must be defamed then killed. Roderigo, a man who is high enough in the Venetian social strata to be a suitor to Desdemona (and for whom–albeit in hindsight–Brabantio gives his voice), must be duped and killed. Cassio, the recipient of “preferment” (I.i.35) and now his military superior, is to be brought down and killed. The governor of Cyprus must be humiliated in a common street brawl. And, of course, Othello must be destroyed.
Then there’s the residue from Shakespeare’s source for Othello, “Un Capitano Moro” (“A Moorish Captain”), by the Italian writer Giovanni Battista Giraldi, better known as Cinthio. In his version, while the Iago character is looking for revenge, there’s a sexual component to it, as he had been romantically spurned by Desdemona. Despite admitting, “I do lover her too; // Not out of absolute lust, though peradventure // I stand accountant for as great a sin” (II.i.288-90), there’s nothing in our text that gives us explicit verification of this kind of romantic history. Still, it could be played for subtext.
Of course, all of this ignores the obvious.
My take is that the keys are always in the soliloquies. A character may lie to another character, but he has no reason (at least not in Shakespeare) to lie to himself or–more importantly–to us. So what do the soliloquies tell us?
In his first soliloquy, Iago tells us, “I hate the Moor, // And it is thought abroad that ‘twixt y sheets // [Othello]’as done my office” (I.iii.378-80). Granted, he does say, “I know not if’t be true” (I.iii.380), but he considered the possibility of cuckoldry true enough to have accused his wife of it, as Emilia notes that jealousy had “turned [Iago’s] wit the seamy side without // and made [Iago] to suspect [her] with the Moor” (IV.ii.146-47).
Then, upon arriving in Cyprus, Iago reiterates his mistrust, soliloquizing,
Hath leaped into my seat, the thought whereof
Doth, like a poisonous mineral, gnaw my inwards,
And nothing can or shall content my soul
Till I am evened with him wife for wife
Iago suspects cuckoldry and it’s eating at him. Inflicting the same torment on Othello is the only thing that will give him relief. That would explain why he’s going after the Moor. But why is he hell-bent on destroying Cassio, if this is the reason and not the lost promotion? Simple. Iago suspects that Emilia has been unfaithful to Iago with not only Othello, but Cassio as well: “I fear Cassio with my nightcap too” (II.i.304).
Jealous fear. That’s one heckuva motivator. I just can’t believe so many discount, so many ignore this theory and go with military promotions and devil-like motiveless Malignity.