How Iago Manipulates the Characters of Othello, and What It Means

André Malraux once said, “Man is not what he thinks he is, he is what he hides.” The characters of Othello face these words with Iago, the antagonist of Othello. The main conflict of Othello is that Iago, an ancient to Othello, a moorish general of the Venetian army, wants to overtake Othello in the army and believes he deserves a higher position coupled with his dislike of Othello. Iago conceives a plan involving deception of Othello and playing with many of the characters emotions to create dangerous conflicts and grudges. Although Iago is largely perceived as a respectable, honest person by the characters of Othello, he is actually manipulative, two-faced, and immoral because he plots to destroy Othello using lies and tricks and does not care about who he harms while doing so. 

In Act 1, it is established that Iago is perceived as an honest and respectable person by the characters. As Iago speaks to characters such as Roderigo, Barbantio, and even Othello himself it becomes clear that he has built up a reputation of being a respectable person, despite his low position. His respected reputation is shown clearly when Iago goes to Barbantio to tell him that Othello has married his daughter in secret, and asks Barbantio to trust him, saying “If this be known to you and your allowance, we then have done you bold and saucy wrongs, but if you know not this my manners tell me we have your wrong rebuke. Do not believe that, from the sense of all civility, I thus would play and trifle your reverence.” (Othello 1.1.142-147) This quote shows that Iago presents himself as one identity, someone noble and trustworthy to Barbantio in order to gain his trust. The behavior and reassuring words that Iago speak likely is the case with many of the other characters, thus Iago has become well liked and trusted within the ranks of the Venetian army and with Venetian nobility. His perceived identity, however, turns out to be a facade and much different from his actual identity.

Through Act 2, Iago reveals himself to us continuously that he is two-faced and deceptive. As Iago’s plot and therefore the conflict develops further and starts taking more noticeable action, the characters perceived identity of Iago strays further from his actual reality.

This is shown when Iago manages to get Othello’s second in command dismissed through deception, and he reflects on how he will manipulate Othello into getting what he wants, saying “Make the Moor thank me, love me, and reward me for making him egregiously an ass and practicing upon his peace and quiet even to madness.” (Othello 2.⅔.330) The quote shows how, despite Iago’s helpful, respectful attitude towards Othello in their direct interactions, Iago is always putting up a facade around him in order to plan behind his back and ultimately destroy him for Iago’s own benefit. This separation between Iago’s perceived versus actual reality only furthers in Act 3.

Iago’s true identity deepens as the conflict progresses into something much darker and dangerous in Act 3. As Iago’s plot begins to have tangible, negative consequences on the characters, Iago further manipulates them and maintains his reputation of trust with the characters he is destroying. The ironic situation is shown when Othello confesses to Iago that he does not know if his wife Desdemona is cheating on him. Iago has been plotting and planting seeds of lies to convince Othello that Desdemona is unloyal, but he acts kind to Othello and offers advice, saying “O, beware, my lord, of Jealousy! It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock the meat it feeds on.” (Othello 3.3.195) The quote shows the irony of Othello and Iago as a character. Iago acts reassuring and empathetic towards Othello, even offering him advice on how to proceed, but Othello’s issue was created by Iago, and Iago is continuing to further the conflict in order to get what he desires. This is why Iago is not actually his perceived reality.

Iago proves over the course of Othello that he is two-faced and manipulative in order to exploit the characters for his own wants. Iago is manipulative, two-faced, and immoral, shown by his morals and actions, but manages to manipulate the characters into believing the opposite. This portrayal of Iago allows us to reflect on how rumors, spread by deceitful and selfish people, can quickly become dangerous and destructive, and that the reality we perceive is not always the true reality. The world holds its’ fair share of deceit, lies, and envy, and Shakespeare highlights this to teach us lessons about reality in the text of Othello.