Othello is my favorite Shakespeare play. I’m not sure how this happened, but I love all the different interpretations of characters and scenes and even lines from that play, more than any other.
So I always thought that I didn’t want to know what Iago could possibly say after his line “from this time forth I never will speak word.” He’s impossibly evil, I thought. There’s no way he could explain himself. And so I thought I didn’t want to read Nicole Galland’s novel I, Iago, told from his point of view. But I was wrong. The novel does what I would have said was impossible–it makes you see the events of the play as they feel to a very “honest Iago,” and by the time you reach his famous line about not explaining himself, you know it’s because he expects that everyone else already knows the answer, should they ever bother themselves to think about it.
The novel takes about a hundred pages to tell about how cripplingly honest Iago was as a child, to the point where he and his friend Rodrigo became famous for it. By the time Iago has become a soldier, he can say something like that the creator of the greatest school of fencing, Agrippa, once challenged him to a swordfight and everybody will believe his outrageous claim:
“They were all still slack-mouthed. It reminded me of that childhood moment in Galinarion’s dining hall, when Roderigo and I had been caught during the egg incident. But then I had been telling the truth; now I was blithely inventing. I expected one of them to accuse me of gulling, but apparently the thought did not occur to a one of them.”
Later, Iago finds out that his attention as a “known truth-teller” has become a Venetian amusement, because the Venetians find it strange and are entertained by the spectacle of a person speaking bluntly, saying exactly what he means in a social situation.
The first hundred pages also tell the story of how he met and courted Emilia, including how he felt when he saw her surrounded by other young men at a party:
“This was jealousy, and it was new to me. Resentment I was used to, having been weaned on it within the family, but not jealousy. While I had often been unhappy with my lot, I had never actually coveted what somebody else had—until right now, when I was jealous of every man in that group for having her attention. It was the most atrocious sensation I had ever felt, as if some tiny monster were crawling around within my guts while somehow sending spasms of shock through my limbs, my throat, making everything inside me tighten, tight as a drum, twisting everything inside me into a knot.”
At this point, Galland can’t resist a bit of comic foreshadowing, as Iago is “ignoring the screeching actors in an offensive comedy about a Nubian and his albino bride.”
Soon after Iago and Emilia are married, he meets Othello and they become good friends, good enough that Iago drags him out of the Council chamber of Venice just before he has an epileptic fit, which Iago recognizes because “it had sometimes happened to my uncle, and my priestly brother when he was a boy.” They serve together for years, at Rhodes and Corfu and then “at the most dangerous part of the border” at a garrison where Emilia is allowed to join her husband. He is still uncomfortably honest about what he thinks and feels, saying
“the duties here were similar to my earlier garrison postings, but the civilized aspect of life was strangely…civilized. The fortress was large enough that officers’ wives would usually dress for dinner, as if we lived in civilization, as if we were not soldiers, as if at any moment we would not be called away to shatter another human being’s spinal column.”
In the novel, Iago and Emilia go with Othello to dinners at Desdemona’s father’s house because Othello knows little about Venetian manners and customs and wants them, as he says to Emilia, “for just as I need Iago to retain my humor, I believe that Iago might need you.” The first time Othello decides to go alone to one of Brabantio’s dinners, Iago feels hurt, while Emilia says “I think it is wonderful that he has gained his equilibrium enough to navigate the artificial sea of Venetian manners. Good for you for teaching him to steer it; good for him for being an apt pupil.” Emilia does tease Iago a little about being jealous of Othello’s attentions to Desdemona, but he blithely dismisses the possibility that the two of them could ever be married: “do you think her father would dispose of her to a man who is not a patrician? Who is not even a Venetian? Who would forever change the family’s race?”
Iago and Emilia quarrel over her defense of Michele Cassio, who Iago dislikes pretty much on sight. She says
“it is pleasant to see them [Venetians] embrace somebody who is unlike them….It causes me to realize that we need not be just like them, and yet we may still be respected by them. By all these patricians who currently only let you near them because you’re with Othello. If you would make the effort to be, occasionally, charming, you would find yourself admired by the entire patriciate of Venice—for your own merits, not because you are Othello’s man.”
Iago responds, incredulously:
“you are admiring a guileful fop for his ability to gull people into giving him things he has done nothing to deserve.”
He goes on to say that he will not try to charm anyone because
“I do not need their help….I have my own merit. I do not have to charm to have merit. I already have merit. With my merit, I earn what I deserve. There is an integrity to that, which nobody I know—except, I thought, you and perhaps Othello—has any understanding of.”
This is an important part of Iago’s character development in the novel. I think we consider it naive, today, to expect that other people will see and properly acknowledge our merits unless we find opportunities to show them off. So perhaps Iago’s attitude here seems childish, but we all understand it and most of us have felt it.
The turning point comes, as it always does, when Othello promotes Cassio instead of Iago. The novel’s Iago sees that Cassio’s actions as go-between for Othello and Desdemona has been rewarded instead of his military work. He realizes that
“Othello the Moor was a man of guile. I did not want to face that, but still it was true. He was rewarding a boozing womanizer for helping him to deceive one of the most powerful men in all of Venice—and to do that, he was robbing me of something I had taken years to earn. There was no justice in the world. There was no justice for me certainly—and so there should, there must, be no justice for Othello either.”
This Iago’s childhood friend Roderigo is really threatening to drown himself, after Desdemona’s marriage is revealed and Iago encourages him to hope for some future gesture of love from her because he doesn’t want to see his friend kill himself over his disappointment: “Even if Desdemona forsook Othello, she would never take up with Roderigo. I knew that. But it gave him such joy to believe it, and the romance of secretly wooing her gave him more pleasure than his estates or money ever had.”
Every day of the voyage to Cypress, Iago seethes. He “mused on all the ways there were to extract satisfaction from the men who’d wronged me.” He thinks that “the fantasy of it—Othello, betrayed by the woman for whom he’d betrayed his own better nature—scratched an itch in me that needed scratching.” He realizes that Cassio and Othello now
“took on hideous magnificence in my imagination. Their unrepentant selfishness and duplicity, their disrespect and disregard, Othello’s lack of gratitude and Cassio’s sycophancy—I gnawed those bones as daily diet….I so enjoyed my wrath that I did not want to every reach Cyprus; on Cyprus, the dreary daily grind of reality would require me to face the actual men I had (I knew) mythologized to suit my appetite. I preferred to engorge my bitterness on mental obsessions. I was not proud of that, but before you judge me, please do not pretend you have never done such a thing yourself.”
Having lost his childlike belief that virtue will be noticed and rewarded, Iago learns to tell less of the truth, as he demonstrates to Cassio after making it easy for him to get drunk while on duty:
“’Reputation is a meaningless nicety,’ I argued. ‘Half the time it’s gotten unjustly’—here I refrained from referring to a certain previous lieutenancy—‘and half the time it’s lost unjustly too.’”
The first time Iago tries to make Othello doubt Desdemona’s faithfulness, he succeeds, and thinks “I had never seen [Othello] this dejected. He was nearly as dejected as I had been when I’d realized he was deceiving me. It had taken such little effort to achieve this parity.” Moreover, when he reflects on what he has done, he sees it as a new weapon in his arsenal as a soldier:
“Words. Words. Words. All it took were words. Othello claimed he needed to see something concrete to be moved to doubt—but I had shown him nothing, and still he doubted. I had moved him more than the most ferocious battle ever had. I possessed a power over him, far greater than any he possessed, or ever would possess, over me.”
Even more than just a new weapon, however, Iago sees lying as something he can excel at:
“I had never sought competition, and still did not believe I should have been subjected to it: not with Cassio for a lieutenancy, not with Desdemona for Othello’s regard, not with Othello himself to grant or banish happiness…but being forced into those competitions, I was winning every one of them, and righteously so.”
Once Iago is made lieutenant, he thinks that it is time for “the banishing of all the chaos I’d so defly summoned.” He believes that he can “put to bed the demons I had roused.” Moreover, he says “I knew I could do it. When it came to managing Othello, I knew now I could do anything.” Here is the hubris that leads to the tragedy of this novel.
Events fall out as they always do, except that we see that this Iago stabs Roderigo after his fight with Cassio because Roderigo was already mortally wounded. This Iago is heartbroken when Emilia calls him a villain because she is “the first person ever who believed wholly in my goodness, the one person who had never wavered in her faith in me.” What he had wanted to say to Othello is “What kind of man reacts this way to words without proof? Why are you not the one to blame for this?” But he doesn’t care about explaining to anyone but Emilia, and Emilia is too taken by appearances to let him share his “rationale,” his rationalizations, the perspective in which he has set these pieces in motion and is helpless to stop them.
The moment of tragedy in this version of the story is the moment in which Iago looks into Emilia’s eyes and sees
“not a determined, deserving soldier earning his right to the lieutenancy by demonstrating his rival’s unfitness for office; not a slighted confidant testing his friend’s mental clarity and finding it alarmingly cloudy; not a doting husband trying to better himself to be deserving of a cherished wife. I saw only a man of a vindictive and violent nature, hell-bent on doing whatever it took to get whatever he wanted, no matter the cost; I saw a man so twisted up with jealousy and envy that he would sacrifice and demean anyone to tear others down; worst of all, a man of tremendous capabilities who would not hesitate to let those capabilities lead to the death of innocents.”
This is what makes Iago’s life no longer worth living. He says “my soul had run aground while I still thought it was expertly navigating open water. I had not noticed the shipwreck until Emilia forced me to admit it.” He now has to see himself as he believes his wife saw him: “she had given me the greatest and most terrible of gifts: unflinching honesty. Exactly the thing I’d prized myself for, before I’d abandoned the true path without noticing.”
So Iago gives up words entirely, after speaking his famous lines “As me nothing. What you know, you know. From this time forth I will not speak another word.” It is a great tragedy, as much from this point of view, as from the other.
The novel’s Iago does reveal what he thinks about how his story with Othello will be told:
“In each telling, I am certain, there is an insidious rounding of rough edges, a subtle simplifying, a massaging of the tale into one of deliberate villain and hapless victims. It is easy to call someone a villain; the title allows dismissal and more important, distance: as long as you know somebody else is the villain, then you are not one, and you may rest snugly in your own nest of good intentions, no need for vigilance or self-reflection.”
Iago’s perspective makes the play come alive in a new way. If Martin Luther King Jr. is right that loving our enemies is an absolute necessity for our survival, then feeling some degree of agape for Iago or Hitler or Osama bin Laden is the only way we can escape twisting our own ideas of honesty, which may not be as unalloyed as honest Iago’s were at the beginning of his story.