My husband and I have been on a Shakespeare kick, watching different versions and deciding whose Hamlet we like, who better captured Cordelia, how Judi Dench managed to redeem Lady Macbeth…. Often, if I have gardened or hiked that day, the Elizabethan prose sends me into a happy doze—but Othello kept me wide awake every time.
Kenneth Branagh plays him well—no vaudevillian curved-mustache villainy, more the fraternity boy with a charming smile and a wicked glint in his eye. But whether Iago is Branagh or Christopher Plummer or Micheál Mac Liammóir, I cannot rest, because—like millions of audience members for centuries—I do not know why. What motive could be strong enough to warrant such malice?
When trying to avoid fussy social engagements, I have learned that it is best to stick to one excuse than to rattle off a dozen and hope that taken together, they will suffice. Shakespeare knows this too. By giving Iago many possible motives, he gives us none. Starved for evidence, we brush aside the chance that Iago is jealous of Othello’s wealth, stature, or heroism; repulsed by his dark skin; in love with Desdemona himself; angry that Othello promoted Cassio over him; suspicious that Othello slipped betwixt his sheets and cuckolded him. He coolly decides to think that last rumor true, but his resentment seems almost perfunctory.
What does carry weight, though it is buried in the middle of a paragraph, is his simple “I hate the Moor.” Branagh says it flat out, almost casually. This is hatred as a hobby, with its target judiciously selected but no rationale required.
The play unfolds, Iago tricking Othello into believing that Desdemona has been unfaithful, whipping him into a murderous rage. That night, Othello warns Desdemona to confess her sins, then smothers her with a pillow. Iago’s wife discovers them and wails that Desdemona was chaste; he has been fooled. She then realizes her own husband is to blame. When Iago is apprehended, he stabs her before she can say more.
She asks to be lain beside Desdemona, two wives slain by their husbands. Othello stabs himself and falls onto the bed as well, reaching out for his innocent, beloved wife’s dead body. In the film’s last frame, the wounded Iago also crawls toward the marriage bed, collapsing against Othello’s legs.
But he hates the Moor! Why would he not find the touch of his dead body revolting? “Hey,” I blurt, “what if Iago secretly loved Othello? That could be what drove him!”
My husband thinks about this for half a minute, then shakes his head. For him (and, I later learn, for Shakespeare) the whole point is that evil can simply exist, cut free from history, logic, and retrofit psychology. He is not buying my unrequited homosexual crush theory. I slip into the office and turn on my computer. Am I out on this tree branch all by myself?
Aha! David Suchet played Iago in just that way, as a latent homosexual smitten by Othello. “In spite of enduring him not, he praises Othello’s character,” Suchet noticed, “and hardly dares to think of the happy couple together.”
Critics have noted that in Act 3, Scene 3, Iago vows undying loyalty to his general in words that resemble a marriage vow: “I am your own forever.” Even Branagh’s Iago, a backslapping, quintessentially masculine sort, leans a little closer than usual to his male friends, embraces them a little longer. And no less an actor than Laurence Olivier gave the same (then shocking) interpretation back in 1938, at London’s Old Vic.
Reassured that I am not alone, I read on. Shakespeare’s source for Othello was “Un Capitano Moro,” a tale of a Moorish commander’s undoing written in 1565 by Giovanni Battista Giraldi Cinthio. His source may have been real life, springing from a true incident that took place in early sixteenth-century Venice. In Cinthio’s version, “the ensign” (Shakespeare’s Iago) lusts not for Iago but for Desdemona. Shakespeare must have thought that lame; of all the possibilities he offers us, that one has the least textual support of all.
Could it all be true? What if Iago is a rough but unctuous lower-class soldier who is jealous of, drawn to, and repulsed by the heroic general who may have screwed his wife—and lusts for the general’s beautiful bride as fair trade—and resents his handsome, newly promoted second-in-command—and is sufficiently cold-blooded to scheme for the fun of it, as well? Or, as recent directors have injected, he is suffering from the after-effects of war trauma, and it has either dehumanized him or skewed his judgment and damaged his impulse control.
I grow bored with all these reasons, even my own. Shakespeare wanted us to struggle with an inscrutable villain. With evil itself. Our age equates evil with psychopathy, pointing to a physiological absence of the brain structures and biochemicals that give us empathy. This reduction of unthinkable evil to a physical cause comes as a relief to me. Yet there is something cold and intractable in the world that cannot quite be explained away by the soft mess of biology.
Lucky Shakespeare, to live in a time when science had not yet blurred morality. We want a laboratory experiment or a brain scan that will explain it all. And if the cause cannot be physical, we at least want it to be logical. With almost frenetic energy, we search for a reason someone would behave murderously, erratically, cruelly. Reasons make such actions at least slightly more predictable, marginally easier to comprehend, and even forgive.
Iago values reason, too, saying its purpose is “to cool our raging motions.” Love, he counts as one of those raging motions, “a lust of the blood and a permission of the will.” He loves no one, thus acts in calm self-possession. He is entirely responsible for his deeds; indeed, he relishes them. Choosing evil when he could just as easily choose good, he takes a vicious pleasure in his schemes. Coleridge summarized his character as a “motiveless malignity.” Literary critic A.C. Bradley, who found Iago far more evil than Milton’s Satan, noted that “perfectly sane people exist in whom fellow-feeling of any kind is so weak that an almost absolute egoism becomes possible to them.”
It all depends upon your definition of sanity. Or humanity. After years of productions in which Iago is explained away as psychologically flawed, obsessed, or traumatized, Sam Gold directed an Othello in 2016 at the New York Theatre Workshop that circled back to the original evil. Reviewer Tamsin Shaw described the production as subtly intelligent and deeply disturbing. As Iago, Daniel Craig chooses, at every turn, “freedom, masculine vigor, conquest, pleasure, the laughter permitted by moral indifference.” His actions flow from those choices, setting hatred and revenge in motion all around him. “The unraveling of ordered life,” writes Shaw, “is a simple business for someone prepared to pull on its delicate threads.”
And sometimes such ruthlessness defies explanation.
Few people are as charming, at first glance, as those who are indifferent. They move through the world lightly, offering sweet words to achieve a desired effect, risking terrible consequences because they fear so little. The question we are left with is whether their choices are as cavalier, as free and deliberate and heedless of consequence, as Iago’s seem to be. If so, does that mean we are all capable of the same cool amorality?
We will get no answers from Iago. “Demand me nothing,” he says at the end. “What you know, you know.”
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.