William Shakespeare’s Othello tells the story of the Moorish General of the play’s title, and the ways he and other characters in the play are manipulated by the character of Iago. Although Othello is ostensibly the protagonist of the story, and Iago his primary protagonist, much of the story’s emphasis is on the actions of Iago and the way he interacts with the other characters to serve his own ends. Iago’s motives are driven largely by the malice he feels towards Othello after being passed over for promotion in favor of Michael Cassio. While Othello is an accomplished military leader, his own weaknesses make it possible for him to fall prey to Iago’s malicious machinations, and Othello becomes one of several victims of Iago’s scheming.
Shakespeare makes Iago’s motives clear from the very beginning of the play. The opening scene involves a conversation between Iago and Roderigo, the father of Desdemona, whom Othello has recently married. Iago makes it clear that he is disdainful of Othello because Othello chose Cassio as his lieutenant over Iago. This enrages Iago, and is the basis for all the ways he manipulates others to get revenge on Othello. After convincing Roderigo to confront Othello, Iago tells him “Now, sir, be judge yourself, whether I in any just term am affined
to love the Moor” (Act I, Scene I). Iago is asking if Roderigo agrees that Iago is justified in his feelings about Othello, to which Roderigo responds “I would not follow him then” (Act I, Scene I). Iago has convinced Roderigo that Othello is not worthy of Desdemona, and made Roderigo the first of his unwitting accomplices in his true plans for Othello.
When Iago’s initial plans to have Roderigo interfere with the marriage between Othello and Desdemona fails, he moves to his next plan: convincing Othello that Cassio is secretly involved with Desdemona. Again Iago manipulates those around him to his own ends, this time by planting Desdemona’s “napkin” –a gift from Othello- in Cassio’s lodging. Othello demands proof from Iago of Desdemona’s infidelity: Make me to see’t; or, at the least, so prove it, That the probation bear no hinge nor loop, To hang a doubt on; or woe upon thy life!” )Act III, Scene III). Iago, knowing he can “prove” that Cassio is involved with Desdemona, manipulates both Emilia and Cassio into displaying Desdemona’s napkin where Othello can see it, convincing Othello that Iago has been telling the truth about Desdemona and Cassio.
Iago’s malicious behavior in Othello is remorseless, and he happily convinces Othello to murder Desdemona. Othello, who has survived military conflicts throughout his career, shows that his weakness is not as a military commander, but as a lover and husband. Desdemona was not unfaithful to him, yet Othello is convinced by the strategies and tactics of Iago that she was, and he murders her for it. While he had set out to enact revenge on Othello, the malice that Iago feels for Othello destroys not only Othello, Desdemona, and Emilia, but Iago as well.