Now Let's Do Iago

Yesterday’s conversation about Macbeth was fun.  While talking it over with a coworker, I realize I contradicted myself.  I took the position that “I don’t believe in characters as inherently evil.  Well….except Iago.  He’s just a nasty bastard.” So, let’s talk about Iago relative to what we were saying about Macbeth.  Is Iago just a regular guy who lets his demons get the better of him?  Is it really all about getting passed over for a promotion, or some underlying racism?  Or is Iago just a sociopath who really and truly chooses to destroy people’s lives just because he can, and never through the entire thing feels a bit of doubt or remorse about it?  For the record, I believe the latter.  Macbeth is the tragic hero.  He needs some degree of redemption at the end, we need to feel something for him.  But Iago is the villain.  We don’t necessarily need to look at him with the same eyes.    So what is he?  Just a man who wants revenge?  Or a monster?

13 thoughts on “Now Let's Do Iago

  1. Iago to some extent seems to be after revenge. ” I hate the Moor:
    And it is thought abroad, that ‘twixt my sheets
    He has done my office: I know not if’t be true;
    But I, for mere suspicion in that kind,
    Will do as if for surety.”

    Iago has heard that Othello has made “the beast with two backs” with his wife. But I don’t think that’s it. Iago is jealous of Othello. His rank, his reputation, his beautiful bride. Iago thinks he’s better and doesn’t like that a moor is in a place of power over him. The fact that Othello may have done Iago’s wife is more likely Iago’s excuse for revenge, although anything else could have filled that purpose.

    Overall, Iago doesn’t really have redeeming qualities. He’s bad, he’s a manipulator, he lies, cheats, decieves. He’s definitely a villain. I don’t think he’s fully monster though, monstrous perhaps. His actions and emotions are very human, but to an extreme.


  2. The trouble is time – we don’t live in Shakespeare’s (and, hopefully, we will all die in better ones – to adapt M. Mead).
    When the play was written there was no need for a psychological motivation ala Freud: Iago was a ‘Vice’-like figure – a bit like the witches in Macbeth. He tacitly accepts that when Brabantio calls him a villain.
    And one quality of evil beautifully illustrated in Iago is the irrationality and unmotivated nature of it: Which gives a real problem for people searching for motivation.
    Modern film-based acting requires the actor to search for complicated motivations to a character who is a pure and simple devil.

    As G.Greer made clear – We have lost the Elizabethan Satan.
    And, in performance, does anyone notice the motivation issue?

  3. Alan brings up a great point that I neglected to address. Quite true, there was no psychology to consider, Freud had not yet lived. In that time people were much more willing to accept a villain as simply the villain.

    And in performance, I don’t think people do notice motivation. As an actor, it’s often necessary to find one. But what’s really interesting to an audience is the character’s objective and tactics to achieve. What does Iago want, and what is he willing to do to get it? Now there’s some real exciting drama.


  4. Unlike Mac, I always thought Iago was simply evil. Then last year I directed the show, and that opinion altered – a little.

    First off, I truly believe that Aemilia DID sleep with Othello. Look at her language talking to Desi about what she’d be willing to do to advance her husband. And if she did bed Othello to gain her husband a promotion, and that promotion then goes to Cassio, what exactly does that say about Othello?

    Anyway, I think Iago starts out to ruin Cassio, and take revenge upon Othello not by ruining the general, but the general’s relationship with his wife. “Wife for wife.”

    But something my Iago and I noticed is that Iago is very much playing it by ear. And he becomes so enamored of his own skill that the “evil” becomes action for the sheer delight of seeing if he can manage it. Unlike Mac, Iago has no remorse – never. Just self-loathing and delight in equal parts.

    So, yeah, the dude’s evil.

    The weird part is that I think he genuinely loves the Moor. His jealousy of both Desi and Cassio is for the love the Moor bears them. HE wants to be highest in Othello’s esteem – he’s certainly earned it. Which, in turns, raises issues of anti-Semitism, which as we from Merchant was just as rampant in Venice as racism.

    So Iago the Jew and Othello the Moor are by natures outcasts, and have found each other, comrades in arms. But then Othello abandons Iago for the company of more acceptable society. At least, that’s part of the rejection Iago feels.

    All this is rather immatieral, except to say, Iago loves the Moor. And it’s the greatest loves that can turn to the greatest hate.

  5. Are we really that different? Certainly not – as Duane said, that’s exactly why the work communicates.
    What is different is our belief system and ways of interpreting the world. Shakespeare was looking and interpreting a different looking world – one that was all illusion.

    And there is nothing so deadly as an ‘authentic’ performance – one that attempts to reproduce the past. We would not understand much of what was happening on stage if we saw one – and the accent would finish off all but the few.

    However, as the world of serious music has found out, being aware (informed) about past techniques and ideas can bring new insights for us.

    If Iago’s motivation comes into focus, we may be distracted from the issue of Othello – a choice a director and cast may want to make; a choice which very well may entertain the audience.

    It is not what ‘Shakespeare wrote’ – but it is what keeps Shakespeare alive – our commonality.

  6. I think Alan’s point goes to directly to why I do love this stuff so much. Are we really so different than audiences back then? Sure we have different vocabulary to draw upon. Shakespeare didn’t have Freud, but does that mean he wasn’t writing the same essential psychology, 400 years prior? Are the characters as real now as they were then (or vice versa)?

    That, in a nutshell, is kinda my thing. When it comes right down to it I’m not terribly interested in Shakespeare’s times or politics, religion, plague, structure cost and audience of the Globe, or for that matter whether he wrote them in the first place. Sure that stuff is interesting, but when you ask me why I read it? Because you start with some *real* people, people that you could know in your own lives, and you say “Hey, you wanna see what it looks like inside another human’s soul? You want to know what ambition can do to a person? You want to know what jealousy really looks like? Do you have any clue what it’s like to love another person so much that you can’t imagine life without that person? Read this.” And the fact that that’s true *now*, not just 400 years from now, is pretty vital to that.

  7. I’m not sure I agree with an assumption in Alan’s last point. He implies that Shakespeare wrote a play that isn’t about Iago. But is OTHELLO really the Moor’s play? Who has more lines? Who addresses the audience? Who has more stage time? Who interacts with a wider strata of characters? Who MOVES THE STORY? The answer is obvious. And thus Iago’s motivations matter TO THE PLAY, not to a modern director or actor.

    The play Shakespeare wrote is very much about Iago, at least as much as it is about the title character. I don’t think we can call that revisionist – it’s simple dramatic structure. Without a villain, the hero has nothing to strive against.

    It’s happened elsewhere. Can we really say Julius Caesar is the main character in the play that bears his name? In that one, Shakespeare reversed stereotypes and made the “villain” an honorable man (Antony’s sarcasm aside).

    Now, motivation is a tool to explain, for the actor, what is happening. And if it ever clutters up the play, it should be disgarded. I speak from experience: I came up with a neat origin to the Capulet-Montague feud, inspired by a single line in the text. However, trying it, it didn’t play. It hindered rather than helped the audience. So I chucked it (and wrote a novel instead).

    All that was a caveat to this: we ignore the motivations that Shakespeare gives us at our peril. Iago lies to everyone – except the audience. We are complict with him, and we bond with his villainy much more than with Othello’s, what, nobility? Hot-bloodedness? Jealousy? Othello never reaches out to the audience. Iago does. Like Brutus, Hamlet, Richard III, Macbeth, Lear, we get to see inside his mind. And like them, he is the prime-mover for the play. So, really, I don’t think that even when it was written it was truly the Moor’s show.

    Just sayin’.

  8. Two quick points –

    The play is called Othello (for a reason – that is the focus – as with J.C. – ignore the titles at your peril). Henry 4 IS about Henry – even though more stage time is given to other people – and a look at the title the play ‘played under’ can be very revealing as a centre of thought.

    The modern style of acting popular in some parts of the world which requires the actor to ‘motivate’ is alien to the Elizabethan theatre – ‘type’ was the standard and Iago, as a ‘devil’ would not only lie to everyone on stage – he’d be expected to lie to the audience too.
    A ‘Brechtian approach’, for example, doesn’t require the same motivation.

    (And I did say the modern director may -legitimately – want to change the focus of the play.)

  9. I don’t think I’m ignoring the titles. But you must admit that THE LIFE AND DEATH OF JULIUS CAESAR ought probably to start earlier than the day preceeding his assassination (and yes, I’m aware that the Triumph and the assassination were historically further apart. Still…). In this sense, the title is terribly misleading. It is not Caesar’s play, though of course Caesar is the pivot around which the action turns. But a role with four scenes, one of them as a ghost, is not the main role, regardless of the title.

    You say that these are their plays, and in a sense they are, much as Beckett’s play is “about” Godot (an extreme example, of course). But I’d argue that Richard II is much more Henry IV’s play than either of the plays that bear his name. The antagonist is more often than not the lead in these shows.

    And, to address the stock character issue, do we really think that these plays would have survived if Shakespeare had believed in stock characters? Their longevity is due in large part to his ability to transcend stock and create more well-rounded figures, full of complex emotion.

  10. First published title of Julius Caesar is (I believe) The Tragedie of Julius Caesar(not life and death): The tragedy is as much in the consequence as the the death. Shakespeare is asking us to focus on that – he had the opportunity to call it the Tragedie of Brutus – but chose a different ‘Focus’.
    The Full title of Othello is the ‘Tragedy of Othello the Moore of Venice’ – no mention of Iago.

    (Richard the Second is a minefield – added to at a later date, and a name change to boot.)

  11. Not a problem at all, Alan.

    Funny timing – just this morning I was finishing up the “In Our Time” episode where they do King Lear, and they do a whole section of the notion of type and “Ok, that’s a father figure, that’s a daughter, that’s a bad guy” and how that’s all the audience was really expecting….but how Shakespeare transcended that to give them more.

  12. Last one (I promise)- I’ve been stupid in not saying that the point about ‘type’ was it was the ‘Elizabethan psychology’ – it was used because it was the equivalent of our explanation for people’s motive – not just a stage technique.
    Shakespeare certainly takes the idea way beyond anyone else on stage.
    The question with Iago is – is he written as a human ‘type’ or is he a devil?
    Finally – we can read him very comfortably as a human monster – and nothing wrong with that – but I like to think he’s more a ‘Freddy’ than the man next door.

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