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What Motivates Deception?

I am sorry that I am deceived in him. (4.1.321)


Othello is a play about deception and the emotional upheaval it can cause when it goes undetected and unchecked. The character in the play that stands out most clearly as a deceiver is Iago. Iago’s assures Roderigo that he hates the Moor in the first act of the play when he says, "Despise me/If I do not" (1.1.8-9). And he underscores his hatred of Othello later when he say, "I hate the Moor" (1.3.408). While the reader/audience knows this about Iago, Othello does not, so when Othello describes Iago to Cassio as, "most honest," (2.3.7) the groundwork for the deception to follow is laid. The destruction he causes in the play as a result of his plot to bring Othello down is clear.

John Rogers. Othello: 'Ha! I like not that!' Hand-painted plaster, 1882

Iago, however, isn’t the only character involved in deception. Othello also engages in a kind of self-deception, perhaps not as obvious, but present nevertheless in the play. Emilia, whose relationship with her husband Iago is subject to much discussion, engages in a deceit with him when she steals Desdemona’s handkerchief. Even Desdemona can, to some degree, be seen as a perpetrator of deception when she marries Othello without telling her father, Brabantio, who reminds Othello about her ability to deceive when he says, "Look to her, Moor, if thou hast eyes to see./She has deceived her father and may thee" (1.3.333-4). Later in the play, she tells Othello that her handkerchief is in her possession when, in fact, she has lost it. Roderigo deceives himself into believing that he can woo Desdemona away from Othello by providing cash and jewels to Iago as his go-between.


It is difficult to look at Othello and find an important character who hasn’t been the victim of deception. Deception leads to disastrous results for everyone by the end of the play. What point is Shakespeare making about deception in the play?


Iago’s Motivation -- Now sir, be judge yourself... (1.1.40)


What leads a man to the villainy that Iago resorts to in Othello? If Iago is a man of "honesty and trust," (1.3.323), as thought by Othello, then why would he set the traps that would eventually kill his superior, that man’s wife and eventually his own wife? Is he purely evil or do his motives have merit? The play deals very little with the motives, but spends a lot of time allowing the audience to see Iago almost get away with his dirty deeds. However, towards the beginning of the play Iago does mention at least two reasons for the fatal plans he is setting into motion. One is the fact that Iago has been passed over for a promotion by Othello, who gave his desired military post to Cassio, a younger and presumably less knowledgeable man. "He [Cassio] in good time, must his lieutenant be, /And I…his Moorship’s ancient" (1.1.34-35).


Secondly, Iago mentions that there have been rumors of his wife Emilia being unfaithful to him with Othello. " …it is thought abroad that twixt my sheets [he] ‘Has done my office"(1.3.430). Iago goes on to say that this may not actually be the case, but because he hates Othello so, he will act solely on suspicion.


Shakespeare’s Othello is thought to be an adaptation of the Italian writer Cinthio’s Un Capitano Moro. The plot line is very similar in the play, however Cinthio’s "Iago" has a slightly different motivation: he is in love with "Desdemona" and seeks revenge when his love is unrequited.


What do you think? Do you believe Iago might have other reasons for his behavior? What lines from the play can you cite to support your argument?

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Notes from Dramaturg Michelle Osherow

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