Without a doubt, the character of Iago, Othello’s malicious, conspiring antagonist, has often been examined, analyzed, scrutinized, and discussed to the umpteenth degree. Of course, the attention to him is well-justified, for he is the quintessential villain in a quintessential tragedy. Countless scholars have written dissertations and theses on the various aspects of Iago’s character which make him the model of villainy, and most conclude that he is the embodiment of all that is evil. Let’s face it: the man is a scathing racist, a virulent misogynist, a master manipulator, a calculated conspirator, and, essentially, a murderer who ruins marriages, friendships, loyalties, and, ultimately, lives. But why? What is truly his motive? What drives Iago to devote his every thought, word, and deed to the destruction of happiness?
Clearly, one can answer the aforementioned questions in a myriad of ways. Based on textual evidence alone, one may justify Iago’s motive as his jealousy of Michael Cassio’s promotion to the rank of lieutenant by Othello, his gaining retribution for his wife’s alleged sexual encounter with Othello, his general envy of the upper class, or maybe, Iago has no motive but to simply wreak havoc on everybody’s lives. (Part of Iago’s allure from a scholarly perspective is the mystery of his true motive—his character leaves a lot for generations of interpreters to work with.) Bearing in mind these alternatives (and several more that I find unnecessary to list due to the vast number of them), I would argue yet another possibility: Iago loves Othello—in that way. I’m certainly not the first to propose this notion; in fact, according to a little research I did on Google, there have been several productions of the play in which Iago has been portrayed as having homosexual feelings for Othello, not to mention scholarly writings that suggest the idea. At first, I, myself, thought the concept of a gay Iago was a bit far-fetched, a bit too modernly interpretative, but as the thought settled in my mind, I accepted it as a reasonable and valid possibility.
It’s very easy to read and interpret literature through a lens to which one is accustomed, and in our modern day, where various forms of literary criticism open doors to examining countless possibilities, it’s essential to consider all perspectives fairly. Needless to say, this particular take on Iago resonates with me. Viewing Iago as almost a scorned lover paints him as somewhat of a sympathetic character, at least from a modern reader’s eyes. I realize I am going out on a limb by suggesting that anything to do with Iago could be considered “sympathetic,” but when one considers the timeframe of the play, there’s a lot of information we, the readers, don’t know concerning Othello’s and Iago’s past together. Of course, due to circumstances, there’s not a lot we could possibly know about their future had Iago’s plan worked out successfully. Before I look to the text, I’m in no way suggesting that I “like” Iago or think his actions are justifiable—he is a villain through and through—but I can certainly see why he would feel scorned were his feelings for Othello more than the “love” a man has for his general, and for that reason, I do feel a bit sorry for him.
In order to substantiate my seemingly-outrageous claims, I’d like to cite some evidence from the text, particularly Act III, scene iii. Understanding that the word “love” in this context may not mean what it means today, nor have the same implications, from what I know, “love” in Shakespeare’s time was rather ambiguous, as was sexuality in general; for example, Shakespeare hints at homoeroticism in a good portion of his sonnets. I can see both sides of the coin: “love” meaning love, and “love” meaning steadfast loyalty, platonic friendship, and dedication between any two people. Being the devil’s advocate, however, I found several clues in this scene alone which seem to hint at Iago’s feelings for Othello. For one, Iago repeatedly and emphatically asserts his love for Othello: “My lord, you know I love you” and “I humbly do beseech you of your pardon / For too much loving you” (III.iii.121; III.iii.216–217). These lines may be innocent enough, but they arise suspicion when comparing them to other lines in the conversation. At one point, Iago tells Othello, “You cannot [know my thoughts], if my heart were in your hand” (III.iii.168). This is an allusion to marriage, in fact, one that Othello himself alludes to later in the play—”The hearts of old gave hands”—referencing old marital customs where the ceremony of joining hands meant the joining of hearts. The scene ends with Iago stating “I am your own for ever,” an utterance which has often been compared to, or a mockery of, traditional wedding vows III.iii.484). Take this passage, for example: “...but how, how satisfied, my lord? / Would you, the supervisor, grossly gape on, / Behold her topped?” (III.iii.399–401). Basically, Iago is asking Othello if he would want to watch his wife have sex with Cassio to prove her guilt—how sick of Iago to suggest that!
Another peculiar moment is when Iago reveals he has “slept” with Cassio: “I lay with Cassio lately” (III.iii.418). This would seem innocent enough—I’m sure it was customary for soldiers to share beds for lack of proper bedding at times—but he goes on to say, “…then, sir, would he grip and wring my hand, / Cry ‘O, sweet creature!’, then kiss me hard, / As if he plucked up kisses by the roots / That grew upon my lips, lay his leg o’er my thigh, / And sigh, and kiss…” (III.iii.425–429). Why wouldn’t Iago stop this? After all, he was afflicted with “a raging tooth” that night, and certainly in no mood to be kissed so passionately without stopping it (III.iii.419). I would sum up the evidence in this scene in Iago’s own words: “This may help to thicken other proofs / That do demonstrate thinly” (III.iii.435–436).
Again, all of this “evidence” can be interpreted in many ways other than what I proposed, but there are several—many, rather—instances elsewhere in the play that illustrate Iago’s “abnormal” sexual tendencies. His marriage to Emilia is distant and cold, most likely affected by his misogyny. His words are rife with sexual imagery and allusions to sexual behavior (at one point, he compares the fighting group’s happiness “in terms like bride and groom / Devesting them for bed” (II.iii.44–45). Let’s not forget in the very beginning of the play, Iago’s line, “an old black ram/Is tupping your young white ewe!” (I.i.94–95). Iago also alludes to his inadequacies in bed, accusing Othello and Cassio of being potential sexual rivals by cheating with Emilia. These, among other reasons, are all contributing factors to the assumption that Iago is sexually frustrated and longing for his unrequited love between he and Othello. It’s only a possibility but one certainly worth exploring and considering as a motive for Iago’s villainous actions.