Was Iago gay? A Relook at “Othello’s” Iago

Iago’s suppressed sexuality

Tashima Agrawal
4 min readJan 13, 2023
Photo by Steffen Petermann on Unsplash

Iago has often been noted to be one of Shakespeare’s most twisted and complex characters and there are plenty of reasons to say so. Iago was a villain, but the motives behind his actions have never been clearly defined. Iago himself tries to justify his actions in the play by projecting his jealousy towards Michael Cassio, who according to him, was incompetent to be promoted to the post of Lieutenant. He also repeatedly showcases his racist attitude towards Othello as despite being a black man in a white man’s world, Othello seemed to have it all: a position of power, respect, fame and not just any ordinary beautiful maiden, but the most beautiful maiden of Venice, the young and sweet Desdemona as his loyal and obedient wife. By marrying Desdemona, Othello elevated his status further as she was the Duke’s daughter. Another reason, which is subtly placed between the lines of the play is that he believed that his wife was cheating on him with Othello and hence he wanted to get even. He also subtly mentions his attraction towards Desdemona in one of the lines of the play. Towards the end of the play, he refuses to give a justification for his actions on being questioned, “Demand me nothing. What you know, you know. From this time forth, I never will speak word.” (ACT V, Scene 2)

Hence, the possible motives behind Iago’s actions are plentiful, yet readers and theorists have put forth another possible reason which often remains hidden from the surface and requires a deeper reading of the play to be noticed. Iago is believed to have been gay, a closeted gay.

Actors Laurence Olivier and David Suchet who were famous for their portrayals of Othello and Iago first explored the idea of Iago’s homosexuality.

The play does not shout out loud that Iago was gay. However, subtle hints are dropped regarding this. Theorists and readers believe that Iago’s pure hatred towards Othello stemmed not from racism or jealousy, but perhaps from unrequited love. Perhaps the fact that Othello trusted Cassio more to promote him added fuel to the fire. As he claims to be attracted towards Desdemona and wants to get revenge for his wife cheating on him with Othello, Iago seems to be unaware of his homosexuality himself or is unable to accept it and hence, wants to sweep it under the carpet as he wants to be just like any other man. His words trying to justify his acts by vague reasons also add to the suspicion. It seems that he is trying to cook up reasons to dismiss his feelings for Othello. He probably is also not able to accept the fact that as a white man, he has developed feelings for a black man. Iago mentions that both of them fought many battles together and hence, they may have spent time in close quarters previously which is how Iago may have possibly developed feelings for Othello.

And perhaps, Othello’s marriage with Desdemona proved to be the ultimate deal-breaker.

There have also been hints regarding Iago not being a good husband. He and Emilia seem to have a bad marriage as Iago supposedly is an impotent lover which could be due to his attraction towards men and not women. Even Emilia mentions that she would not mind cheating on her husband if she would get something worthwhile from it. She also indirectly talks about her attraction towards Lodovico. Despite everything, Emilia still is an obedient wife while Iago doesn’t seem to hold her in high regard. He seems to have a cynical attitude towards all women for undefined reasons.

He also quotes his very famous line, “I am not what I am” (ACT I, Scene 1) which, while indicating his complex nature, may also subtly indicate his sexuality.

William Shakespeare’s sexuality has been a subject of debate for centuries and he has been known to sprinkle homosexual and deviating elements in his work with ease. From cross-dressing in “As You Like It” and “Twelfth Night”, to Olivia’s attraction towards a disguised Viola in “Twelfth Night” and Hamlet’s Oedipus Complex, Shakespeare has subtly and smartly used these elements in his plays.

There is no clarity about the kind of relationship that Shakespeare shared with his wife Anne Hathaway. He was much younger than her when they married. Their marriage was a rushed one due to Anne’s pregnancy. He was often away from her for work and is also rumoured to have cheated on her. Not much is known about their married life, except that he left the “second best bed” (the marriage bed) for her after his death. Perhaps, he put across his views towards marriage and love and his own suppressed identity through his characters.

Iago is certainly one of Shakespeare’s most intriguing characters and the question of his sexuality encourages a relook at this play and its characters, especially Iago and his relations with other characters.

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Tashima Agrawal

Hi, I am Tashima Agrawal, a student. I love reading and writing on various topics and want to learn and share, inspire and get inspired......