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The Possibility of Real Figure Standing Behind The Iago Character

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It has been suggested by many scholars and critics that William Shakespeare (1564-1616) “borrowed” the plotlines in his plays from various sources, such as the tragic works of the ancient Greeks and Romans and from other European writers that lived during and before the so-called “English Renaissance” which can be defined as an historical/literary period marked by stories containing “a violent sequence of events (and) built upon the central themes of murder and revenge. . . motivated by greed” (Hagen Internet). As pointed out by James P. Draper, Shakespeare’s “history plays. . . borrow heavily from contemporary English histories, and his comedies often incorporate aspects of English folklore” (3151).

Yet the characters in such plays as Hamlet, Macbeth and especially Othello, appear to be based on actual persons; in Hamlet, the character of the Prince of Denmark has been ascribed to the Historia Dancia, a Latin text by the twelfth-century historian Saxo Grammaticus, while Macbeth is derived from the history of Duncan, an ancient Scottish king. This also seems to hold true for Othello, for Michael Dobson maintains that Shakespeare “derived most of the plot. . . from a story in Cinthio’s Hecatommithi,” published in a French translation in 1584 (330). With this in mind, it could be said that Shakespeare’s characters are “mirrors of our nature” that have “enlarged our world by imitating it” (William Shakespeare Biography, Internet).

But with a closer look into the text of Othello, one character in particular stands out above all others, namely Iago, “a character who essentially writes the play’s main plot. . . and gives first-hand direction to others, most notably to the noble Moor, Othello” (Moore, All Shakespeare). According to the great English essayist and scholar William Hazlitt, the character of Iago “is one of the supererogations of Shakespeare’s genius,” due to the fact that Iago’s “villainy is without a sufficient motive” (345). Othello is one of the four great tragedies written during Shakespeare’s period of despair when the bard seemed to be concerned with the struggle of good over evil. Iago, the villain in Othello, is perhaps the most sadistic and consummately evil character in all English literature and his eventual downfall illustrates the triumph of love over hate, a key theme in many of Shakespeare’s plays.

Iago, an ensign serving under Othello, the Moorish commander of the armed forces of Venice, is also the most interesting and perplexing character in Othello. This is supported not only by what he says in the play but also through his actions, both of which enable him to skillfully manipulate those in his orbit in order to boost his huge ego and propel him closer to his personal, evil goals. In addition, Iago, as seen through the eyes of Othello, “was before all things ‘honest,’ his very faults being those of excess in honesty” (Bradley on Othello, Internet) which surely reflects his devious nature and ability to hide his true intentions in plain sight.

Strangely enough, the character of Iago in Othello shares some very similar traits with an infamous, high ranking individual who lived during the English Renaissance period and quite possibly influenced the young William Shakespeare, for in September of 1586, Sir Anthony Babington (b. 1561), “descended from a family of great antiquity” (Stephen 780), was hanged for his activities surrounding the conspiracy to murder Queen Elizabeth I in order for Mary Stuart to ascend the throne of England. The personal history of Babington, much like that of Iago, teems with treachery and deceit which aided him in manipulating his co-conspirators and the English monarchy toward his own egotistical goals.

In April of 1586, when twenty-two year old William Shakespeare was possibly living in London as the consummate struggling writer, Sir Anthony Babington decided to take the lead role in the task of organizing the conspiracy to murder Queen Elizabeth I and her top advisers and procure the release of Mary Stuart, the young Scottish queen, from her imprisonment at Chartley, the home of Sir Amias Paulet. Six co-conspirators were delegated the job of assassinating Elizabeth I, while Babington was reserved the duty of liberating Mary Stuart. But by September, all the conspirators including Babington were taken prisoner and were dutifully hung “hard by the highway. . . where was erected a scaffold convenient for the execution” (Stephen 782). Interestingly, it appears that Babington’s main desire in all this treachery was very close to that of Iago, for he was driven to gain whatever he believed was rightfully his via an ulterior motive concerning Mary Stuart’s resolve to make Babington her husband, thus thrusting him into the throne as king of England.

In the play Othello, several key scenes help to illuminate the similarities between Iago and Sir Anthony Babington. In the beginning of Act One, Iago demonstrates his deceit and dishonesty by making a complete fool out of his loyal follower Roderigo whom he has deftly taken advantage of via Roderigo’s remark “That thou, Iago, who hast had my purse as if the strings were thine” (I.ii.21), a sign that Iago has managed to manipulate the monetary fortunes of Roderigo for his own benefit. This scenario is thickened when Iago demands that Roderigo “make money” (I. iii. 339) in order for him to buy expensive gifts for Desdemona. In the case of Babington, king Philip II of Spain, one of the foreign supporters for the murder of Elizabeth I, announced his determination that the “holy enterprise. . . should not fail for lack of his assistance in money” (Stephen, 781) which made Philip II look like a complete fool once the scheme had been foiled by those loyal to Elizabeth I.

Iago continues his shenanigans by confessing to Roderigo that he “hates the Moor” (I.iii.344), due to being passed over for promotion by Othello who has made Cassio his lieutenant instead of Iago. In April of 1586, Thomas Morgan, one of Mary Stuart’s emissaries in Paris, France, wrote to the imprisoned queen of Scotland and mentioned that Babington, whose conduct was “marked by much foolish vanity,” was jealous of another person “whose services she had preferred to his” (Stephen 781) which places Babington in a position similar to that of Iago by being overlooked and under-appreciated.

In Act Two of Othello, Iago’s villainous nature is increased when Cassio, Othello’s chief of staff, is seen by Iago holding the hand of Desdemona which sets into motion another scheme highlighted by the line “With as little a web as this will I ensnare as great a fly as Cassio” (II.i.163). This is quite reminiscent of Babington’s own “web of deceit” devised to bring an end to Elizabeth I’s reign with the queen playing the role of Cassio, for in July of 1586, Babington wrote a long letter to Mary Stuart in which he described “all the means to be taken for the murder of Elizabeth and for your own deliverance” (Stephen 781).

In Act Three of Othello, we discover that even the Prince of Denmark has been duped by the treachery of Iago. Othello sees his “close friend” as one of his trusted advisors, a man “of exceeding honesty, (who) knows all qualities, with learned spirit of human dealings” (III.iii.257). One of the main players in the “Babington Conspiracy” was Sir Francis Walsingham (1530-1590), whose efforts to bring an end to Babington’s plot eventually forced Mary Stuart to the chopping block. Walsingham, like Othello, was also duped by Babington, for in order to save himself from the noose, he made an offer to Walsingham to serve as a spy for Elizabeth I and reveal what he called “a dangerous conspiracy,” a sign of his obvious dishonesty and outright willingness to give up the names of his co-conspirators.

The character of Roderigo in Act Four of Othello finally begins to suspect that Iago is far from an honest man, for he declares that “I think (Iago’s treachery). . . is scurvy, and begin to find myself fopped in it” (IV.ii.189), a reference to being trapped in Iago’s schemes of obtaining riches and glory. In September of 1586, thirteen co-conspirators, all trapped in Babington’s plot, were captured and taken to the Tower of London. Babington did not attempt to conceal his guilt, but laid all the blame on those who were about to die for his treachery against the throne. Thus, Sir Anthony Babington may very well have served as the inspiration for the character of Iago from Othello, for both exhibit similar traits and desired similar gains and profits. As William Hazlitt explains, Iago is “an extreme instance (of) diseased intellectual activity, with the most perfect indifference to moral good or evil” (346) which can easily transfer to the personality of Sir Anthony Babington.

Sources Cited

  1. Bradley on Othello. From A.C. Bradley’s Shakespearean Tragedy. Internet. 2003. http://
  2. Dobson, Michael, ed. The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare. London: Oxford University Press, 2001.
  3. Draper, James P., ed. World Literature Criticism: 1500 to the Present. Vol. 5. Detroit: Gale Research, Inc., 1992.
  4. Hagen, Tanya. EMLS: Early Modern Literary Studies. An English Renaissance Understanding of the Word “Tragedy.” Internet. December 14, 1997. Accessed April 22, 2003.
  5. Hazlitt, William. Characters of Shakespeare’s Plays. London: C.H. Reynell, 1817.
  6. Moore, R. Othello Guide. All Shakespeare. Internet. 2003. Accessed April 21, 2003.
  7. Spencer, T.J.B. Othello, By William Shakespeare. New York: Penguin Classics, 1981.
  8. Stephen, Sir Leslie, ed., et al. The Dictionary of National Biography. Vol. 1. London: Oxford University Press, 1964.
  9. William Shakespeare Biography. Internet. Accessed April 21, 2003.

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The Possibility of Real Figure Standing Behind the Iago Character. (2018, Jun 12). GradesFixer. Retrieved May 27, 2022, from
“The Possibility of Real Figure Standing Behind the Iago Character.” GradesFixer, 12 Jun. 2018,
The Possibility of Real Figure Standing Behind the Iago Character. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 27 May 2022].
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