Although Iago verbally abuses women in this scene—presumably because it is safe for him to do so—his real resentment seems to be against those characters who have a higher social class than he has, including Cassio and Desdemona. Iago resents Cassio for being promoted ahead of him, and Cassio’s promotion is likely due to his higher class status. At the beginning of the play, Iago argued that he ought to have been promoted based upon his worth as a soldier, and he expressed bitterness that “[p]referment goes by letter and affection, / And not by old gradation” (I.i.35–36). In Act II, scene i, Cassio contributes to Iago’s anger by taunting the ensign about his inferior status: “Let it not gall your patience, good Iago, / That I extend my manners. ’Tis my breeding / That gives me this bold show of courtesy” (II.i.100–102). Not long afterward, Iago makes fun of Roderigo for being “base” (meaning lower class), even though the play does not indicate that Roderigo is, in fact, of lower status than Iago (II.i.212).
In the soliloquy that concludes Act II, scene i, Iago once again explains quite clearly what he intends to do, despite his comment that his plan is “yet confused” (II.i.298). At the same time, his statements about what motivates him are hazy and confusing. Is he motivated by lust for Desdemona, envy of Cassio, or jealousy over his wife’s supposed affair with Othello? He even throws in a bizarre parenthetical suspicion that Cassio might also have slept with his wife (II.i.294). It is as though Iago mocks the audience for attempting to determine his motives; he treats the audience as he does Othello and Roderigo, leading his listeners “by th’ nose / As asses are [led]” (I.iii.383–384). For each of Iago’s actions, he creates a momentary and unimportant justification.