Iago’s Motivation

Iago is a “moral pyromaniac.” Harold C. Goddard writes that Iago
consciously and unconsciously seeks to destroy the lives of others, especially
others with high moral standards (Goddard 76). However, Iago is more than
just a “moral pyromaniac,” he is a moral pyromaniac whose fire is fueled by
pure hatred. He is a hungry powermonger whose appetite for destruction can
only be satisfied after he has chewed up and spat out the lives of others. Iago
lusts for power, but his sense of power is attained by manipulating and
annihilating others in a cruel and unusual way. Iago prepares and ignites his
victims and then watches, with an excitable evil in his eye, as his human
pyres go up in flames.

Iago undeniably has an unquenchable thirst for power and domination.
Critics such as M. R. Ridley believe that the ability to hurt is the most
convincing display of one’s power (Ridley lxi). Iago has a deep, inbred
desire to cause and view intolerable suffering. The power of Iago is
exercised when he prepares and then implements an evil plan designed to
inflict man with the most extreme amounts of anguish possible. Iago controls
the play, he brilliantly determines how each character shall act and react. He
is a pressing advocate of evil, a pernicious escort, steering good people
toward their own vulgar destruction.
Iago must first make careful preparations in order to make certain his fire
of human destruction will burn with fury and rage. He douses his victims
with a false sense of honesty and goodness. And, as do most skillful
pyromaniacs, Iago first prepares his most important target, Othello:
Though in the trade of war I have slain men,Yet do I hold it very
stuff o’th’ conscience To do no contrived murder. I lack the iniquity.
. . I had thought t’have yerked him under the ribs . . . . . .he prated
And spoke such scurvy and provoking terms Against your Honor (I,
ii 1-10).

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These sentences are obvious lies (to the reader), but they are crucial to the
saboteur because they present Iago to Othello as a brave, loyal, and moral
person. Iago indirectly and cleverly portrays himself as a man ready to fight
and brave enough to kill; yet, he also wants Othello to believe that he would
not kill without just reason. Iago pretends to be so loyal as to be tempted to
kill any slanderer of Othello. It is evident that Othello has complete faith in
Iago’s claims as he states “thou’rt full of love and honesty” and “O brave Iago,
honest and just” (III, iii 136IV, i 34). Iago douses more dishonesty onto
other characters such as Cassio who trusts Iago: “You advise me well. . .
Goodnight, honest Iago,” and Desdemona who calls Iago “an honest fellow”
(II, iii 3463555). Iago’s deceitfulness is best epitomized by his ability to
continually dupe Roderigo into serving his own insidious desires. Iago,
always the careful pyromaniac, successfully pours his fuel of deceptiveness
onto the victims before he lights his match.

Once his victims are cloaked in misconception and dripping with
innocence, Iago can ignite his scrupulously prepared fire. His evil creation is
ready to burst into flames, “it is engendered. Hell and night. . .bring this
monstrous birth to the world’s light” (I, iii 446-447). Iago is the ultimate
opportunist, he knows exactly where and when to strike. He is fully aware
that he can most malignantly destroy Cassio through dishonor, Othello
through jealousy, Roderigo through naivet, and Desdemona through purity.

Iago is able to intoxicate Cassio, who has “very poor and unhappy brains for
drinking,” and, thus, dishonor him (II, iii 34). Iago pretends to be Cassio’s
good-old-drinking-buddy, but actually intends to embarrass him. Iago, the
pyromaniac, proudly watches as Cassio goes up in flames: “I have lost my
reputation. . .and what remains is bestial” (II, iii 282-283). Another log is
thrust into the fire when Iago remarks that reputation, which Cassio has
devoted his whole to building up, is “an idle and most false imposition” (II,
iii 287). Iago seems to get a kick out of the amount of suffering he is able to
cause.
Iago completes his mission as a amateur pyromaniac, he has scorched his
first piece of furniture, but now he must become a professional arsonist and
burn down the entire house. Iago concentrates on destroying Othello by
turning “virtue into pitch. . .out of goodness make the net That shall enmesh
them all” (II, iii 380-383). Iago, the fire-breathing villain, continues his
“bloody business” by tormenting Othello with specific, and often times
vulgar, descriptions of Desdemona’s alleged sexual exploits with Cassio. (III,
iv 532). Iago provides everything but “ocular proof,” and eventually Othello
becomes so distraught and enraged that he falls into a seizure.Iago
continues to add fuel to the fire until Desdemona and his own wife have been
murdered, Cassio and Roderigo seriously wounded, and Othello has killed
himself. Iago lives only for the death of others. His inner fire is fueled by
hatred and blood. Othello tries to kill Iago but he “cannot kill thee” (V, ii
337). Othello tries to fight fire with fire when he stabs Iago. Iago is a
“demi-devil,” a “pernicious caitiff,” a human sphere of maliciousness who
cannot be killed by hate, for hate is what he lives for (V, ii 368375).
***
Harold Goddard believes that if Iago were of less intelligence, he would
have been a true pyromaniac (Goddard 76). A dull-witted Iago might light
fires in forests, rather than in the minds of men. A unintelligent Iago may
enjoy watching trees ablaze and seething, rather than men. Goddard insists
that Iago exhibits “dozens” of the characteristics of the typical pyromaniac
(Goddard 76). His “secret joy” of observing his inferno in progress is the
most obvious (Goddard 76).

As Goddard states, the true motive of Iago is his “underlying condition.”
He is a “moral pyromaniac” and cannot help himself. On several occasions
Iago consciously realizes that what he is doing is evil and desperately
searches for motives. However the “reasons he assigns for his hatred in the
course of the play are not so much motives as symptoms of a deeply
underlying condition.” (Goddard 75).
M. R. Ridley states that Iago’s actions are so vulgar and evil that only an
“incarnate fiend” could apply them (Ridley lxi). Because Iago’s actions are
so evil and his lust for power is so great, they must be innate characteristics
of a deranged man. No man could possibly learn to be as evil as Iago or to
enjoy the demise of others as Iago did. Iago was born a “moral pyromaniac”
and will enjoy suffering as long as he lives. Heaven for Iago is Hell.
Iago continually seeks power through the destruction of others. He is
inflicted with moral pyromania and is driven by an inborn urge to disgrace
and demolish mankind. The ultimate goal of Iago and of every “moral
pyromaniac” is to crush the sprits of others and to corrupt all that is virtuous.
Iago succeeds by reaping havoc upon a group of moral and kind people. He
may even enjoy his punishment: torture. Iago’s motivation is not a motivation
at all, it is a disease; a disease that can only be cured in Hell. As long as Iago
exists on earth, there will always be another house to burn, another life to
inflame.
Works Cited
Goddard, Harold C. The Meaning of Shakespear. Chicago: University of
Chicago Press, 1960. 75-76.

Ridley, M. R. Othello. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1959. lx-lxiii.

Shakespeare, William. Othello. New
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