Close Reading: Iago “And what’s he then that says I play the villain?”

For the final class of my course on Shakespeare’s Tragedies, I’m coaching two young actors on a pair of tragic speeches I’ve selected, and I thought I’d share some of that work with you. The first is a speech by Lady Macbeth that comes from Act I, Scene v, which I discussed in another post. But today, I’m going to talk about the second one, Iago’s soliloquy in Act II, Scene iii.

The Text

IagoAnd what’s he then that says I play the villain?
When this advice is free I give and honest,
Probal to thinking and indeed the course1490
To win the Moor again? For ’tis most easy
The inclining Desdemona to subdue
In any honest suit: she’s framed as fruitful
As the free elements. And then for her
To win the Moor—were’t to renounce his baptism,1495
All seals and symbols of redeemed sin,
His soul is so enfetter’d to her love,
That she may make, unmake, do what she list,
Even as her appetite shall play the god
With his weak function. How am I then a villain1500
To counsel Cassio to this parallel course,
Directly to his good? Divinity of hell!
When devils will the blackest sins put on,
They do suggest at first with heavenly shows,
As I do now: for whiles this honest fool1505
Plies Desdemona to repair his fortunes
And she for him pleads strongly to the Moor,
I’ll pour this pestilence into his ear,
That she repeals him for her body’s lust;
And by how much she strives to do him good,1510
She shall undo her credit with the Moor.
So will I turn her virtue into pitch,
And out of her own goodness make the net
That shall enmesh them all. Othello, Act II, Scene iii Lines 1488- 1513.

The Given Circumstances

Iago has begun his plan to humiliate Cassio and destroy Othello and Desdemona by getting Cassio drunk and sending Roderigo to fight with him. Alone in soliloquy, Iago explains how his advice to Cassio, to ask Desdemona to plead Othello on his behalf, is in reality the pin that will set off an explosion of distrust and pain for all of them:

Traditional Interpretations

Slide from my course on Shakespeare’s tragedies. Outschool, 2022

Iago poisons Othello’s mind by deceiving him into thinking his wife is unfaithful. He also manipulates the lusts and prejudices of those around him.  These actions, coupled with a number of passages where he brings up Satanic or hellish imagery, are why many productions portray Iago as if he were The Devil himself, and explain his hatred for Othello as nothing more than desire to do evil for its own sakee; what the poet Colridge called: “Motiveless malignity.”

It is true that Iago speaks and acts like The Devil through the course of the play,  but that doesn’t mean he thinks like a devil. Any actor will tell you that ‘motive-less malignity,’ is impossible to play. An actor has to construct a reason for why his character behaves this way. Below are some interviews and quotes from great Iagos who explain how they justified Iago’s evil and tried their best to find the man within the monster.

Iago is an easy part to bring off and rarely fails to impress. I am not the first to realise that there is no need to act the underlying falsity of the man rather to play “honest Iago” on all occasions. “Do not smile or sneer or glower — try to impress even the audience with your sincerity”: Edwin Booth. As Iago confides the truth to the audience (as always in Shakespeare), they are privy to his deceit and the gulling of Roderigo, Cassio, Desdemona and Othello himself. It is an unfair advantage and early on Willard accused me of trying to get the audience on my side against him. I explained that I didn’t need to try — Shakespeare had organised it that the villain’s part should be the audience’s portal into the action. The history of the play records many more serious misunderstandings between the Moor and his Ancient.

Ian McKellen,

Literary Devices


Iago loves to turn holy things on their head, and he revels in it with phrases like: “Divninity of Hell,”

“Do and Undo” and the notion of turning virtue into pitch, a substance that defiles what it touches.

Puns, Assonence, and Alliteration

In this speech especially, Iago likes to play with similar-sounding words “Fool” and “Fortune,” as well as sounds within those words like “Plied/Plead” and “Pour/Moor.” Iago’s soliloquy shows off that his ability to manipulate language as well as his ability to manipulate people.


Fortune/ Angels/ Devils/ Pitch


Iago. And what's he then,
That saies I play the Villaine?
When this aduise is free I giue, and honest,
Proball to thinking, and indeed the course
To win the Moore againe.
For 'tis most easie
Th'inclyning Desdemona to subdue
In any honest Suite. She's fram'd as fruitefull
As the free Elements. And then for her
To win the Moore, were to renownce his Baptisme,
All Seales, and Simbols of redeemed sin:
His Soule is so enfetter'd to her Loue,
That she may make, vnmake, do what she list,
Euen as her Appetite shall play the God,
With his weake Function. How am I then a Villaine,
To Counsell Cassio to this paralell course,
Directly to his good? Diuinitie of hell,
When diuels will the blackest sinnes put on,
They do suggest at first with heauenly shewes,
As I do now. For whiles this honest Foole
Plies Desdemona, to repaire his Fortune,
And she for him, pleades strongly to the Moore,
Ile powre this pestilence into his eare:
That she repeales him, for her bodies Lust'
And by how much she striues to do him good,
She shall vndo her Credite with the Moore.
So will I turne her vertue into pitch,
And out of her owne goodnesse make the Net,
That shall en-mash them all. First Folio Transcription from Internet Shakespeare Editions

For the first 13 lines, Iago’s verse is uneven and has a lot of run on lines. It almost seems like he’s speaking in prose, which is to say, that he is speaking from his mind, but not his heart. Then, right at the line: “Divinity of Hell,” the tone changes, the verse is slower and more deliberate. Now Iago is letting his real feelings out- his narcisism, his sadistic glee, his mysogyny and his utter hatred of everyone in the play.

Questions to consider

Again, what is the real reason Iago hates Othello? Jealousy? Lust? Envy?

How does Iago feel about this plot? Does it give him pleasure? Pain? What will destroying Othello accomplish for him?

Our Interpretation

The Moor, howbeit that I endure him not,
Is of a constant, loving, noble nature,1090
And I dare think he’ll prove to Desdemona
A most dear husband. Now, I do love her too;
Not out of absolute lust, though peradventure
I stand accountant for as great a sin,

In this interpretation, I believe Iago really actually loves Desdemona and hates Othello for taking her away from him. His unrequited love also manifests itself as a bitter hatred toward her. In our culture, men who love women but are unable to possess them are demeaned and mocked with terms like ‘simp,’ ‘incel,’ ‘loser,’ or even ‘cuck.’ With this in mind, I think Iago’s devilish imagery is based on being denied love. Like Lucifer, I feel Iago lost paradise when he lost Desdemona, and now hates everyone who takes her away from him, including himself.


New Course on Shakespeare’s Tragedies

In this 9 week course, students will discover Shakespeare’s greatest characters- Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth and others through games, dramatic readings, and interactive projects! -The class is designed to be ala carte- you can learn about all these plays, choose a specific play to focus on, or do the entire course. Each class will have a game of some kind, an engaging quiz, and a short explanation of the setting, characters, and motifs of one or more plays. Each class will also include a close reading of a famous speech.

Course Structure

Background on the Tragedies- the Wheel of Fortune

I will explain the basic structure of Elizabethan tragedies and the concept of Fortune, which is a motif Shakespeare uses in all of his tragedies. I will also debate the concept of “The Tragic Flaw:” the notion that otherwise good people are brought down by single character flaw. Finally, we will quickly summarize the premise behind all 11 of Shakespeare’s tragedies.

The Greek Plays

I will summarize Shakespeare’s two tragedies that are set in ancient Greece and provide commentary on their themes and ideas. I will also draw parallels between the Ancient Greek tragedies of Aeschylus and Euripides and Shakespeare, with a particular emphasis on the Greek philosopher Aristotle’s beliefs on the function of tragedy, which influenced every major drama for the last 2,000 years.

The Roman Plays- From Republic to Empire

We will take a bloody, backstabbing journey to ancient Rome, and discuss how Shakespeare shows through these four plays the dissolution of a republic into an empire. We will discuss the themes of democracy, dictatorship, mob rule, and savagery. Plays covered: Coriolanus, Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, and Titus Andronicus.

“Hamlet”- The man at the crossroads

We will explore the universality of this timeless tragedy, and do close readings of his famous soliloquies.

 “Macbeth: The Tower built on lies-

In addition to the character and his speeches, I’ll draw parallels to the history behind the play, including witchcraft in the Jacobean era, and the Gunpowder plot against the king!

“Othello”- The Lovers and the Devil

I will talk about how Shakespeare dramatizes race and prejudice in the context of Othello’s struggle with prejudice and his own jealousy.

“King Lear”- The Blind Fools and the Hermit

I will discuss the complex plot of Shakespeare’s tragedy about old age, blindness, betrayal, and families ripped apart by greed.

Think Like a Director

 I will teach the students to think like a director and develop a concept for the characters, set, lights, etc. I’ll also briefly take you through famous productions of these great tragedies by the Royal Shakespeare Company and others.

Special Offer

Get $10 off my class “Shakespeare’s Tragedies: The Fates of Men and Nations” with coupon code HTHESG5B2Q10 until Dec 31, 2022. Get started at and enter the coupon code at checkout.

Women’s History Month: Margaret Hughes: Stage Beauty

Since today is the last day of women’s history month I thought I’d talk about the historical first ever Shakespearean actress and first-ever English actress. Margaret Hughes (1630-1719), is credited as the first-ever English actress. She led a fascinating life and books, plays, and movies have immortalized her, including the 2004 film, Stage Beauty.

Although there is some debate among scholars as to whether the 1st actress in question was Margaret Hughe, she is the one who has been credited because of her performance as Desdemona in Othello during the reign of King Charles II.

Some facts about Mrs. Hughes from Southern Shakespeaer Company
King Charles discusses how his reign and the first actresses in England are linked.

Around 1660s Charles II formally allowed for public performances of women on English stages. Restoration audiences, craving entertainment after the enforced closure of theatres during the Puritan Interregnum, rejoiced. Others, particularly the successful male impersonators of women, were shocked and annoyed as they suddenly lost their celebrity status and were seen as freaks. The stage war that the appearance of actresses initiated resulted in an almost immediate reiteration of almost medieval misogyny and vituperative ostracism directed at any woman who dared to challenge the masculine reign on the English stage. The actresses themselves had to learn both how to act out femininity as seen through male playwrights’ eyes and how to maintain their celebrity status and the audiences’ adoration. This, however, meant more than ‘just’ displaying perfect acting skills and appearing in the best plays available. A successful actress needed to woo the audience, particularly its male members, with her body, or her sexuality in general. She likewise needed to accept, or even engender, vitriolic attacks on her reputation in public discourse and, if possible, utilise such bad publicity to her own advantage. As such, this chapter aims to present a link between medieval anxiety concerning public displays of femininity and the seemingly privileging introduction of the actress in the late seventeenth-century England. It will also present a synthetic image of celebrated actresses’ lives as seen through theatrical records as well as seventeenth-century pamphlets and poetry, proving true the contemporary saying that only lack of press is bad press.

Bronk, 23

What I’m going to do is give a few historical notes on Margaret Hughes and her portrayal of Desdemona in the production of Othello and then I’m going to simultaneously do a review of the movie that celebrates her life: Stage Beauty (which was also made into a play).

Review Of Stage Beauty

What Shakespeare In Love did for the 16th century, this movie does for the late 17th century: it is awash with beautiful costumes elegant sets and dazzling music. it is a visual feast and everybody in it is fantastic in their roles, especially Billy Crudup as Ned Kyneston, Richard Griffith as Sir Charles, Tom Wilkinson as Thomas Betterton, and of course, Claire Danes as Margaret Hughes.

Hughes is a  costumes mender and dresser for Thomas Betterton’s theater company in London as she watches Ned Kyneston every night as he portrays Desdemona in Othello. Mrs. Hughes develops an admiration not only for his performance and skills but also forms romantic feelings for him. However, Mrs. Hughes isn’t content to keep watching Kyneston from the wings, and sneaks off after work to perform as Desdemona illegally at the Cockpit Tavern to packed houses. When Kyneston finds out, he is livid.

“[He was] the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen

— Samuel Peypes

Edward Kyneston, (1640-1712)
1889 mezzotint engraving of Edward Kynaston.

Kyneston constantly belittles, ignores, and underestimates Hughes through this film and is supremely arrogant to everyone, enjoying the notoriety he’s achieved as the premier female impersonator in London. However, after he offends King Charles (played by Rupert Everett), and his mistress, Nell Gwynn, (herself an aspiring actress), the King in retaliation, bans men from playing women, thereby making Kyneston seem like a degenerate, incapable of getting work. He sinks into alcoholism and depression, but finds comfort when Hughes finds him and nurses him back to health. The two then form a romantic bond.

Nell Guinn, King Charles’ mistress and one of the first English actresses

In the third act twist of the movie, the actress playing Desdemona in Mr. Betterton’s theater is pregnant,  so  Margaret must take over her role.  Kyneston sees an opportunity to regain respectability as an actor,  so he demands to be given the role of Othello. In my favorite scene of the film, Kyneston rehearses the death scene of Othello, changing the acting style from over-the-top stylistic 17th century to very modern naturalistic portrayal:

The rehearsal scene from Stage Beauty (warning, R-rated language)

The two actors perform a fantastic modern naturalistic portrayal of Othello before the king, and they both become respected actors who learn to respect each other.

Danes performs with wonderful real pathos as Hughes and Desdemona. In fact, all the performances are great, the the writing is top notch, and as I said the costumes and cinematography are phenomenal. It’s a very fun, slightly naughty romp through Restoration England, not unlike the flirtatious comedies of Behn and Wycherly.

Special merit goes to Billy Crudup, who had to completely transform his voice, gestures, and dialect for the film. He worked closely with a dialect coach, a physical acting coach, and the director Richard Eyre, who has worked in theater for over 20 years, and has a lot of experience with Shakespeare:

The film is not without flaws; there are some plot elements that are a bit dated and a bit unsettling. While it is true that the real Ned Kyneston was rumored to have relationships with both men and women, including famously, George Villiers, the Duke of Buckingham, who appears in the movie. Kyneston’s sexual identity is constantly shifting through the course of the movie, and it’s not handled very delicately. In the beginning of the film, Ned seems very firmly homosexual;  his relationship with the Duke of Buckingham is played fairly respectfully, though Ned himself is hardly a positive portrayal of a gay or bisexualim man.

Even worse, when Buckingham rejects him, Crudup’s Kyneston seems to be coaxed by Hughes to become heterosexual, which he remains through the course of the movie. Now these actors have fantastic chemistry together, but it seems bizarre that Kyneston is all of a sudden changing his sexual identity at the same time he’s changing his style of performance. That doesn’t seem genuine, (at least in my experience),  and it might be offensive to members of the LGBTQ community to assume that a man might think he’s one identity and then choose to be a heterosexual.

Historical Details that the movie gets right:

Crash Course Theater History: The Restoration and first Actresses

1 it is true that for hundreds of years it was considered socially unacceptable for women to play parts on the London stage although it was common practice in Italy and France and other countries

2. Ned Kynaston, Thomas Betterton, and of course Mrs. Hughes are real people who performed during the Restoration. However, they actually rarely worked together. Much like the Admiral’s Men and Chamberlain’s men in Shakespeare In Love, The Duke’s Company which is where Betterton worked, while Mrs. Hughed mainly performed in the rival King’s Company.

Edward Kyneston, (1640-1712)


1. Katarzyna Bronk- No Press is Bad Press-Being an Actress in English Restoration. Stardom: Discussions on Fame and Celebrity Culture, 23-34, 2012. Retrieved online from:,39#d=gs_qabs&u=%23p%3DYvjGsAEzxIoJ

Othello and toxic masculinity

I apologize for not spending enough time on black history month this February.

 If I do prove her haggard,

Though that her jesses were my dear heartstrings,

I’ld whistle her off and let her down the wind,

To pray at fortune. Haply, for I am black

Or for I am declined

Into the vale of years,—yet that’s not much—

She’s gone. I am abused; and my relief

Must be to loathe her.

Othello, Act III, Scene iii.

Psychologists say some men expect the worst of everyone, especially women. I would argue that Othello is an example of a man who has been threatened so often, he expects the worst of everyone, especially his wife, and this is why it’s so easy for Iago to manipulate him.

I don’t know what it’s like to be black in 21st century America let alone the trauma of Othello’s life, which was riddled with hardship such as being sold into Slavery, encountering Cannibals, and rising through the ranks of an army that doesn’t quite trust him. But based on the psychology of people who undergo trauma, the text of the play, and some details about Venetian life, I think looking at Othello through the perspective of trauma and toxic masculinity is an illuminating interpretation of the play.

I want to be clear that I am not saying domestic violence is condonable, or that being black has anything to do with abuse. What I am trying to say is that Othello is a play that in my view sheds a light on trauma, PTSD, toxic masculinity, and systemic oppression.

In the book Beyond Anger, psychologist Thomas J. Harbin illustrates just how easily a man can deceive himself with jealousy brought on by his own insecurities.

Angry men often believe that others do not approve of them, or think highly of them so more than likely when you assume you know what another is thinking you will assume that person is thinking negative thoughts about you more garbage yen when you For example and whenever [Othello] notices that his wife is not in a good mood, he asks “What’s wrong with you?” his wife usually says that nothing is wrong but [Othello] assumes that she is not telling the truth, and that she is actually angry with him. He then gets angry because he assumes she is blaming him for something that he didn’t do; the ‘garbage out’ mind reading is also frustrating to those around you friends coworkers and family can see that you are getting angry with them, but they have no idea why.

J. Thomas Harbin, “Beyond Anger,” 2018.

Why might Othello be insecure and angry?

Actor Adrian Lester doesn’t think that the play is about race, but about the trauma of military society and according to Aryanna Thompson of George Washington University, he hoped the audience would see Othello as a soldier, not a black man, when he played the role at the National Theater in 2003, when England and America were engaged in military interventions in Iraq.

Though this interpretation works, I would argue that the exploitation of people of color is very much what the play is about, not just on stage but also in places like the military. “The play’s military context is short-lived, serving mainly as a framework for the intense private wars that follow.  And in this emotional arena, Othello is far less secure.” Maybe Othello’s toxic insecurities come from being seen as disposable by the Venetian upper crust. Like Shylock before him, Othello is an alien in his own country and if he offends anyone, he will be crushed. He is then put in a dangerous situation where the troops have to hurry up and wait for the danger to find them, which is always a recipe for disaster as the clip above shows.

Maybe a lot of black people felt this feeling of cultural disposibility in the 1600s: listen to professor Thompson talk about the way black people were exploited in the Elizabethan and Jacobean era:

If you watched this clip, you might notice that for most of the history of the play, the draw has been seeing white actors ‘rise to the challenge’ of playing a black man. Sadly, Othello the character is not only exploited by characters in his own play,  the role has been exploited as a novelty by theater companies for centuries. My point here is that I see merit to the question of whether or not this play deserves to be performed since from the beginning, it was designed to exploit blackness and the stereotypes of blackness by white actors.

Trauma makes abuse understandable but it doesn’t make it right. The cycle must be broken. Shakespeare’s gift here is to show how toxic masculinity is ultimately self destructive. Plus racial oppression and sexual repression leads everyone into tragedy.

Watch “Othello: Representations of Race” on YouTube

I’m sorry I haven’t posted any content for black history month. Honestly I think I will probably do some overlap in March with black history and women’s history since Shakespeare’s play “Othello” explores both concepts. In the meantime, take a look at this video produced by the National Theater in London for their groundbreaking 2013 production of “Othello.”