The complex and multi-dimensional nature of Iago in Shakespeare’s Othello can best be understood in the context of the mental disorder of malignant narcissism resulting in jealousy, deception, vindictiveness, and sadism. When these emotions are combined with ambition and a thirst for revenge, the potential for tragedy is great.
In this tragedy, we are presented with a character, Iago, whose actions are driven by incredibly powerful emotions which if not a fictional stage character would likely be diagnosed with a mental illness. This malevolent man is determined to gain everything Othello has, including his wife, his position, and his empathy, through dishonorable means and manipulative tactics. This paper will explore the character of Iago and how his jealousy and desire for revenge propel him throughout the play. By examining Iago’s character, readers can gain insight into the potential dangers of allowing deception and jealousy to take hold and the results of a malignant narcissistic mental illness.
Iago’s deceptive nature is one of the most defining aspects of his character in Othello. He is a master manipulator, using lies and innuendo to get others to do his bidding. He is especially adept at manipulating Othello, whom he sees as a rival for his wife’s affections. He uses
Othello’s insecurities and jealousy to drive a wedge between him and his beloved Desdemona.
Iago uses Othello’s trust in him to gain access to Othello’s inner circle and manipulates every one around him in order to further his own agenda.
In shedding light on Iago’s deceptive nature, Jacobson (2009) provides an in-depth analysis of Iago’s complex character and how his jealousy manifests itself into devious machinations and scheming. His desire to cause pain and suffering in others grows exponentially throughout the play, as does his enjoyment of making them suffer. With each malicious act, Iago derives a perverse pleasure from the agony of others that transcends the boundaries of basic morality. According to Jacobson, Iago’s jealous nature causes him to take pleasure in hurting others, COMPLEX NATURE
rather than feeling any sympathy for their pain. This desire for revenge is rooted deep within Iago’s psyche, making it difficult for him to show empathy to those he loves.
In Shakespeare’s brilliant theatrical tragedy, Iago is Othello’s ensign and had a strong desire to be promoted to the position of lieutenant, which ultimately went to Cassio. Iago is filled with resentment towards Cassio and hatred for Othello. The following events showcase his hostility and unreasonable determination to take revenge on Othello for not granting him the promotion. Additionally, Iago may be motivated by a desire for power and control. He is a master manipulator, and throughout the play, he is able to manipulate and deceive nearly all of the other characters. He takes great pleasure in his ability to deceive and manipulate and acts out simply for the sake of exercising his power over others. Every malicious act can be understood in a mental disorder that was several hundred years away from being a medical disorder but was perfectly described by the playwright, William Shakespeare.
While Iago was destroying the lives of all those around him, it is easy to see the classic symptoms of Machiavellian narcissism which include the personality disorder characteristics of feeling no empathy, using relationships as a tool for gaining self-esteem, feelings of entitlement, and believing themself to be superior to others.
A person like Iago with this type of behavior shows these negative tendencies while appearing superficially charming. This is what sets up the fascinating plot developments in Othello that have horrified and entertained audiences for several hundred years.
Iago’s behavior is often selfish and self-serving, and he lacks empathy and remorse for the harm that he causes to others. He is able to manipulate and deceive with ease, and he appears to have no remorse for the pain that he causes others. He easily convinces Othello that his wife Desdemona is unfaithful, which ultimately leads to her death. He is also able to convince Cassi to engage in behavior that ruins his reputation and leads to his dismissal from the army.
It is obvious that Iago derives pleasure from causing harm to others and from the power that he holds over them.
Many have also seen an overlying theme of racism behind the actions of Iago (Adelman, 1997). Shakespeare often juxtaposes a characteristic of a protagonist with the antagonist, and while nothing is mentioned of Iago’s disdain for the differences in race, it is an obvious part of the theme that is displayed for the audience.
It is implied in Shakespeare’s play that Iago suspected Othello of having an affair with his wife, Emilia, and this suspicion along with the slight of Othello passing on him for lieutenant drove him to a crazed thirst for revenge and his quote, “I hate the Moor.” These two apparent justifications for his hateful actions cannot alone explain the disproportionate reactions and may be better understood by the mental disorder of malignant narcissism.
The audience is given just a glimpse inside Iago’s disturbed mind as he continues to represent himself as the victim of his life’s story. This is another indicator of a narcissistic personality. His vindictiveness shows a detachment from reality and he plays on the emotions of others manipulating them into love triangles. His narcissism includes a true self, a false self, and a triangulation. This leaves him with a “victim syndrome” that narcissists rely upon to continue their delusional mindset that will constantly understand that he is above everyone and will seek out revenge.
Ultimately, it is difficult to pinpoint a single motive for Iago’s actions. It is likely that a combination of his desire for power and control, his jealousy and resentment towards Othello and Cassio which is displayed in the classic mental illness of malignant narcissism. Whatever the reason, it is clear that Iago is a complex and tragic character, and his actions have devastating consequences for those around him.
Jacobsen, K. (2009). Iago’s Art of War: The “Machiavellian Moment” in Othello. Modern Philology, 106(3), 497-529.