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This content is taken from the University of Birmingham & Royal Shakespeare Company's online course, Othello: In Performance. Join the course to learn more.

Skip to 0 minutes and 6 seconds NICK WALTON: As an actor himself, Shakespeare would have had a very good idea about what worked well on stage. And there’s no doubt that in writing Iago, he was giving a gift of a role to John Lowin, who is believed to be the first actor in Shakespeare’s time to play the part. Shakespeare understood the power of soliloquy, the intoxicating burst of having an actor alone on stage sharing his or her most private thoughts, fears, and ambitions with an audience. Iago has always been an attractive role for actors to play. Although the play is called Othello, Iago has more stage time, more lines, and is the third largest role in Shakespeare’s canon.

Skip to 0 minutes and 53 seconds Iago has more opportunities than Othello to connect with the audience through soliloquy. And his relationship with the audience plays an important part in the play’s success.

Skip to 1 minute and 4 seconds LUCIAN MSAMATI: You know, it’s really interesting how much Iago depends on the audience because the audience is the only character Iago trusts. He doesn’t trust anybody else. He plays everybody else, in a way. But the only “person” he trusts is the audience.

Skip to 1 minute and 28 seconds NICK WALTON: Iago gets five opportunities to address the audience directly through soliloquy before Othello gets his first chance late into the play, long after honest Iago has let the audience in on his plan to bring down the Moor. But how much of honest Iago does the audience really get to know? In the opening scene, in private, Iago tells Roderigo, “I am not what I am.” Even if Roderigo doesn’t pick up on it, the audience knows from this moment forward to watch out for Iago. He isn’t to be trusted. He makes it very clear that he is not as he appears. So he will say one thing but be thinking and doing something else.

Skip to 2 minutes and 15 seconds Iago seems friendly and helpful towards Roderigo, but as soon as he’s alone he tells the audience a different story. He thinks Roderigo is a fool, a snipe, and is just using him.

Skip to 2 minutes and 28 seconds LUCIAN MSAMATI: There are many things in the womb of time which will be delivered. Traverse, go, provide thy money. More of this tomorrow.

Skip to 2 minutes and 35 seconds SPEAKER 1: Where should we meet in the morning?

Skip to 2 minutes and 36 seconds LUCIAN MSAMATI: At my lodgings.

Skip to 2 minutes and 38 seconds SPEAKER 1: I’ll be with thee betimes.

Skip to 2 minutes and 39 seconds LUCIAN MSAMATI: Go to, farewell. Eh, do you hear, Roderigo?

Skip to 2 minutes and 42 seconds SPEAKER 1: I’ll sell all my land.

Skip to 2 minutes and 47 seconds LUCIAN MSAMATI: And thus do I ever make my fool my purse. For I mine own gained knowledge should profane if I would time expend with such a snipe but for my sport and profit.

Skip to 3 minutes and 3 seconds NICK WALTON: At the start of the play, he tells Roderigo that he is angry that Othello has promoted Cassio to lieutenant over him. But in private, in his first soliloquy, he begins to add to his list of reasons to hate the Moor.

Skip to 3 minutes and 19 seconds LUCIAN MSAMATI: I hate the Moor, and it’s thought abroad that ‘twixt my sheets he’s done my office. I know not if it be true, but I, for mere suspicion in that kind, will do as if for surety.

Skip to 3 minutes and 35 seconds NICK WALTON: He isn’t sure that Othello has slept with his wife, but he’s going to act upon the mere suspicion that there’s some truth in this rumour. Iago’s not like Hamlet. He doesn’t ponder and delay taking action. He thinks and acts quickly, decisively, and without any hint of conscience.

Skip to 3 minutes and 55 seconds LUCIAN MSAMATI: Iago has a deep-seated suspicion that pretty much everybody in the world is doing something untoward with his wife. And that, for me, speaks to someone who is quite insecure, who actually, rather than being motiveless, is so riddled with issues and problems and with motives that I don’t even think he understands it. I don’t even think he’s aware of how his psychology, his mind, is spinning out of control. But then there is the– to put it very simply– and people, perhaps, don’t like to hear this– but he does say, “I hate the Moor.” And what stronger motivation do you need than that?

Skip to 4 minutes and 42 seconds NICK WALTON: Iago thinks that Othello will believe anything that he’s told, whether it’s true or not. If he thinks Roderigo is a fool, then he makes it pretty clear he thinks that Othello is a gullible ass.

Skip to 4 minutes and 57 seconds LUCIAN MSAMATI: This Moor is of a free and open nature that thinks men honest that but seem to be so, and will as tenderly be led by the nose as asses are. I have it. It is engendered. Hell and night must bring this monstrous birth to the world’s light.

Skip to 5 minutes and 20 seconds NICK WALTON: Shakespeare makes it seem that Iago has come up with this plan right in front of the audience’s eyes. The audience know what Iago is going to do. So the spectators are strangely complicit in everything that follows. Now, as a moral person, you’ll probably feel like you want to stop him from going ahead with this plan to destroy Othello. But part of what makes this play both thrilling and, at times, tormenting to watch is the fact that you can do nothing to prevent what is to come. Iago walks us through his plan, step-by-step. And while we’re horrified at what he’s doing, we’re entertained by his cunning. He’s the play’s most charismatic figure– a man of many faces.

Skip to 6 minutes and 9 seconds He’s the consummate actor.

A look at Iago

In this video Dr Nick Walton, who will be your educator in Week 2, focuses on the character of Iago, exploring the fascination with his character and his role within the play. As you watch consider:

  • Shakespeare’s choices in presenting Iago.

  • Iago’s motivations and impulses.

Having watched you might also want to ask yourselves:

  • What do you think motivates Iago to behave in the way he does and drive the tragedy?

  • How much of that motivation is present in the text and how much is due to interpretative choices, such as Lucian Msamati’s?

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This video is from the free online course:

Othello: In Performance

University of Birmingham