“Do it not with poison”: Iago and the killing of Desdemona

Abstract

Why does Shakespeare’s greatest villain explicitly avoid poison—this most villainous method of killing—when he appears to second Othello’s resolution that Desdemona “shall not live”?  This essay argues that despite Iago’s seeming endorsement of Othello’s idea to kill his wife, her death was never part of Iago’s intrigue, aimed as it was primarily at supplanting Cassio as Othello’s lieutenant.  Killing Desdemona would, as indeed it does, cause Othello’s downfall and with it the end of Iago’s career as his lieutenant.  However, to appear credible before his general, now mad with jealousy, Iago cannot but pretend to go along with the murderous plan.  Poison, once administered in a moment of high passion, cannot be stopped and will do its deadly work long after the killer’s initial murderous impulse has subsided. Iago’s endorsement of strangling over poisoning appears designed to give the passionate Othello an opportunity to calm down, disarmed by Desdemona’s beauty, and refrain from killing her.