Arts Review



Othello is clearly the protagonist of Shakespeare’s most problematic tragedy, yet it is Iago who incites the tragic action and pushes it through to conclusion. He has more lines than Othello, including more soliloquies. Othello’s murder of Desdemona is appalling, but his jealous motivation for it is clear enough; even though his jealousy has been triggered by Iago’s lies and innuendos, they do not mitigate Othello’s guilt, although they do raise the question as to why he is so gullible. (“This may be a lesson to Husbands, that before their Jealousie be Tragical, the proofs may be Mathematical,” wrote a late seventeenth-century wag.) It is Iago’s motivation that is troublesome. Even if he hates the Moor, why does he go to so much trouble to destroy him? Why not just kill him and be done with it? And why does Iago also have to wound Cassio, bring on the deaths of Roderigo and Desdemona, and kill his own wife? What have they ever done to him?

It is not that Iago gives no reasons for what he does. In fact, he gives several: he resents Othello promoting Cassio over him; he loves Desdemona himself; he fears that “the lusty Moor” (II.ii.292) has cuckolded him with his wife Emilia; he even fears that hapless Cassio has cuckolded him as well. These all seem weak excuses at best, rationalizations rather than motivations. The second reason, that Iago loves Desdemona too, is promising, especially since in Shakespeare’s source, Cinthio’s 1565 Italian novella Un Capitano Moro, the unnamed Iago figure actually pursues Desdemona but becomes furiously vengeful when she spurns him for the Moor, also unnamed. Shakespeare simply cuts all this, as if impatient with the very concept of motivation. In much of modern drama, characterization is defined by significant events in the past, but pre-modern Shakespeare often neglects his characters’ personal histories, so that major events can seem to have little or no motivation at all. Why does Hamlet delay? In King Lear, why does the blinded Gloucester have to “smell his way to Dover” simply to jump off a cliff? There must be plenty of cliffs en route. In As You Like It, why does Oliver hate his brother Orlando? His hatred puzzles not only the audience but Oliver himself: “For my soul, yet I know not why, hates nothing more than he” (I.i.153–54). And, of course, the biggest question of all, why does Iago do so much evil?

Coleridge notably gave up on the question of Iago’s motivation, calling his vicious behavior “motiveless malignity,” a concept that does not bother me but which for most modern actors is anathema. A character without a motive? Impossible. Even a minor character is supposed to have one for every single moment of performance. Thus the following old theatre joke:

DIRECTOR, in rehearsal to an actor. Cross down left on that line, please.
METHOD ACTOR, indignantly. But what is my motivation?
DIRECTOR. Your paycheck.

For the joke to work, you have to specify a “Method” actor, an immediately identifiable reference to the Stanislavski Method, which is supposed to be based on motivation. In fact, it is not; Stanislavski’s key Russian term zadacha is sometimes mistakenly translated as just that but is better rendered as “objective,” or better still “task,” which is “something I have to do now,”[1]not something that is propelling me from long ago. The director in the joke has given the actor a clear enough task (to move to his left and toward the audience), even though he provided no motivation (a reason for the task based on the character’s previous experiences).[2] Similarly, even if Iago’s actions are without motive, he has set himself a clear task, to destroy Othello, or more specifically, to drive him mad with jealousy. His actions and motives are identical; his evil is something done for the sheer joy of it, a kind of art for art’s sake. Thus he delivers his soliloquies to the audience not to justify his ruination of Othello but to gloat over it: “My medicine works!” he cries, after goading the Moor into a kind of epileptic fit, “Thus credulous fools are caught, / And many worthy and chaste dames even thus, / All guiltless, meet reproach” (IV.i.45–47). This is a man who has found his calling in life. If you suddenly discovered you had a talent for singing, you would not question its origins but instead would pipe up in delight.

The characterization of Iago has its roots in the medieval Morality Play, still being performed in Shakespeare’s youth, in which an Everyman figure is tempted by a series of vice characters who lure him into sin, leading to his damnation unless he is saved by you-know-whom. The vice characters are mere personifications, with names like Fame, Vanity, Wealth, or Ignorance. By the late sixteenth century in England, religious plays were banned, seen as dangerous because loaded with traditional Catholic doctrine, but the format lingered in secular plays, in which instead of calling the protagonist “Everyman” or “Mankind,” you called him Macbeth or Othello, while instead of calling a vice character “Ambition,” you called her Lady Macbeth,[3] or instead of calling him “Jealousy,” you gave him a secular name like Iago. To delve into a vice character’s past life in search of motivation is fruitless because he has no past; he just is what he is, always was, and always will be. He does what he does not because some obscure previous event drives him to it but simply because tempting people is in his nature.

In addition to having vice characters, Morality Plays also had characters that personified virtues—Mercy, Kindred, Good Deeds—and Othello gives us a virtue character, although she is not named “Good Wife” but “Desdemona”(which, oddly but appropriately, means “unfortunate”). It is true that by eloping with Othello she has betrayed her father, hardly a virtuous act, but on the other hand she is such a goody-goody that as she is dying she will not even name her husband as her assailant but blames herself for her death.

I do not claim that the play Othello is a Morality Play. Even though the pattern of temptation recalls the Morality Plays, the title character is definitely not an Everyman figure; Othello himself is not typical of the world he lives in, not only because of the dark color of his skin but because he is an outsider, no Venetian but a mercenary soldier who has somehow achieved the command of the Venetian army. Furthermore, Shakespeare gives him a past that includes not only military events but personal ones, including a mother who was also not typical, “a charmer, [who] could almost read / The thoughts of people,” who gave Othello the handkerchief with the warning that “To lose’t or give’t away were such perdition / As nothing else could match” (III.iv.57–68). This is the way Shakespeare usually works, not through nebulous generalizations but with unusual, unexpected specifics like the charmer of a mother, the magic handkerchief “spotted with strawberries,” or, later, the turbaned and circumcised Turk whom Othello killed for betraying the Venetian state. These are particulars that would hardly ever be found in a Morality Play.

Iago has a less detailed past than Othello, but it too is not lacking in specifics. For one thing, Iago is married, in a stable if not particularly happy marriage with Emilia; most of us know married couples like this pair, who have stayed together out of inertia but who do not like each other much. Othello and Iago have also been together for a long time; indeed, a major reason that Othello falls for Iago’s lies is that Iago has been a trustworthy advisor, who fought with him “At Rhodes, at Cyprus and on other grounds / Christened and heathen” (I.i.28–29). In fact, one of the strengths of the play that passes almost unnoticed is that Shakespeare convincingly depicts a standing army in which everybody knows everybody, with constant jockeying for position, and with longterm relationships that extend beyond the army itself into the surrounding community. Iago knows all about Cassio (including his drinking problems), “a great arithmetician . . . That never set a squadron in the field, / Nor the division of a battle knows” (I.i.18–22), who nonetheless won the promotion that Iago wanted; Iago is also on familiar terms with Brabantio (Desdemona’s father) and Roderigo, both Venetian gentlemen. Othello married Desdemona, Brabantio’s daughter—though hardly with his blessing!—after spending much time with her at her father’s house. In Cyprus, Cassio has been regularly seeing Bianca, a local courtesan.

In sum, Othello is a play balanced on a knife’s edge between medieval and modern elements. Characters are simple and allegorical, defined by their traits rather than by their personal history; or they are individualized and complex, defined by their backgrounds; or they are both kinds of character at once. Since the two views of human nature are really not compatible, the result is a series of dislocations. Sometimes we seem to understand the characters not at all and at other times all too well. The modern actor, influenced by modern theories of psychology and sociology, wants to force the characters entirely into the second category, but some parts of the play just will not go there. Besides, removing all the mystery from a play does not necessarily improve it, especially when dealing with tragedy of the highest order, whose purpose is to make us aware of the great mysteries of life but not to solve them.

Modern actors have usually chosen to psychologize the character of Iago, just as they have chosen to psychologize Hamlet, another Shakespearean creation who is impossible to pin down. One “solution” to the problem of Iago’s motivation was to make him gay, in love with Othello, not Desdemona. Ignored by the former and jealous of the latter, he sets out to destroy them both. In the first half of the twentieth century, there were many plays in which the difficulties of a principal character did actually turn out to be based on his or her homosexuality, as in Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Robert Anderson’s Tea and Sympathy, or Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour. Why shouldn’t the same formula work for Shakespeare? In the late 1930s, Laurence Olivier, rehearsing Iago with Ralph Richardson as Othello, went over and kissed Richardson on the mouth, which disconcerted Sir Ralph not a little. The only justification for this outlandish bit of business (not actually used in performance) was the following passage, spoken by Iago:

I lay with Cassio lately,
In sleep I heard him say “Sweet Desdemona,
Let us be wary, let us hide our loves!”
And then, sir, would he gripe and wring my hand,
Cry “O sweet creature!” then kiss me hard,
As if he plucked up kisses by the roots
That grew upon my lips, lay his leg o’er my thigh,
And sigh, and kiss, and then cry “Cursèd fate
That gave thee to the Moor.” (III.iii.413–26)

Two grown men sleeping together may to us seem suspicious behavior but in Shakespeare’s day meant nothing at all; it would have been hard to find anybody (especially in the military) for whom bed-sharing with a person of the same sex was not a regular necessity. The passionate kissing does seem a bit much, however. Why didn’t Iago wake Cassio up? Because he was enjoying himself too much? Was Iago in love with Cassio too? But of course the whole story is bogus; Iago has concocted it in order to continue goading Othello well beyond the point where the Moor can ask logical questions. Enraging Othello is what the actor playing Iago must accomplish here, something he has to do now. Kissing the Moor, as Olivier did, would weaken that line of action, shifting Othello’s attention from Desdemona to Iago; instead of inflaming Othello’s mind with lurid imagery of his wife’s supposed infidelity, the kiss would make him wonder what in the world had come over his changeable subordinate.

Another route to modernizing Iago’s psychology focuses on Othello’s race. If you are an American, the first notion that hits you upon reading the play, even more than homosexuality, is racism, the great curse of our country. Thus Iago has been played as a one-man lynch mob who hates Othello because he is black. This begs the question as to why Iago served under Othello all those years and also as to why the Venetian government would hire a member of an accursed race to be their general. In the opening scene, Iago does describe the elopement to Desdemona’s father by crying, “an old black ram is tupping your white ewe” (I.i.87–88), but again his purpose is to enrage somebody (Brabantio in this case) rather than simply to express his personal feelings. Also, Brabantio received Othello cordially in his house many times before the elopement, which is how the Moor met Desdemona in the first place. When Brabantio later sneers at Othello, referring to “the sooty bosom of such a thing as thou” (II.ii.70–71), he is expressing a racism that is newly aroused.

But is it racism? There is no question as to Othello being black, but we never hear of a black race, a biologically distinct group of people. The word black occurs many times—Othello even calls himself black (III.iii.223)—sometimes condescendingly, sometimes contemptuously, but occasionally even fondly, as when the Duke says to Brabantio, “If virtue no delighted beauty lack, / Your son-in-law is more fair than black” (I.iii.289–90). The Venetians apparently look upon dark skin as a flaw, but not a major one. If one were to leave out the word “black” in the “old black ram” speech above and substitute the word “old” for “black” or “sooty” elsewhere throughout the text, the meaning would change, but it would still make sense. In general, Othello’s dark skin is used as ammunition against him from time to time, but to see it as a definitive flaw is to read our modern racism back into the play. It is not the equivalent of Shylock’s Judaism in The Merchant of Venice, a major deficiency from which all his other faults—his moneylending at interest, his separateness, his hatred of Christians, his vengefulness—are derived. Shylock refuses even to eat with Christians, but Othello dines with Venetians, lives among them, speaks respectfully to them (“Most potent, grave, and reverend signors” [I.iii.76]), successfully leads their army, and marries one of them. Ultimately, although there is some evidence in the play for either homosexuality or racism as Iago’s incentive for wholesale devastation, both motivations peter out the more you explore them.

There remains one other strong possibility for motivating Iago, which is his bitterness at being passed over for promotion in favor of bookish Cassio. Shakespeare presents this at the very beginning of the play, an appropriate place for something so important, as Iago complains for some 64 lines to Roderigo about his resentment of Othello’s choice. It also raises the issue of social class, which in England was for centuries far more of an obsession than race, and may still be so. Snooty, overeducated Cassio was promoted to Othello’s second-in-command, ahead of good, honest (as Othello repeatedly calls him) Iago, whose military experience is solid and practical. Unfortunately, this motivation also peters out. After his complaints at the beginning, Iago has little bad to say about Cassio, who, when he does appear, does not seem particularly aristocratic or intellectual and certainly does not lord it over Iago or anyone else. (He is best remembered for his drunk scene.) And again, resentment over the promotion may explain Iago’s revenge on Othello and now Cassio, but we still must wonder why Roderigo, Emilia, and poor Desdemona get swept up in it.

In the spring of 2013, the Royal National Theatre in London opened an intelligent, stimulating production of Othello, which ran through the summer and fall at the RNT Olivier Theatre; in late September it was also streamed to movie theatres in the United States as part of the NT Live series, with some cast changes, although the superb actors Adrian Lester and Rory Kinnear as Othello and Iago remained. Nicholas Hytner, Artistic Director of the RNT, staged the piece effectively; not all of his directorial choices worked, but this is not to say that different choices would have worked better, in this, the most challenging play in Shakespeare.

Hytner and his designer, Vicki Mortimer, set the play in today’s military world, with desert camouflage uniforms strongly suggestive of the British Army. These were effective for the scenes in Cyprus, where Othello and his troops fight a brief but successful battle against the Turks, but of course would not do for peaceful Venice. Recognizing this, Hytner and Mortimer had the soldiers in the opening scene wearing civvies. Wouldn’t some kind of dress uniforms have worked better? These would not only have identified the wearers as soldiers, they would also have provided a rationale for wearing insignia of rank (always removed in battle), an obsession in any army but all the more so in this play, given Iago’s complaints about Cassio’s promotion.

Mortimer’s setting was a collection of rectangular spaces that looked like shipping containers or Quonset huts. These could slide on and off the big open Olivier stage quickly and easily, with a few accessories like laptops or maps added to suggest specific locales. Some reviewers complained that the spaces were all quite small—certainly smaller than necessary for the Olivier stage, one of the largest in London—but I felt that they created a potent feeling of being trapped. The real locale for Othello is not Venice or Cyprus but inside Othello’s tortured mind. Unlike Hamlet, who says he could be “a king of infinite space” (II.ii.254), Othello evokes no large existential questions but remains focused on himself right to the end. Dying Hamlet asks Horatio to tell his story, but in the end there is no story, only the bleak, bitter comment, “the rest is silence” (V.ii.341). Dying Othello asks his listeners “when you shall these unlucky deeds relate, / Speak of me as I am” (V.ii.340-42), ending with the brief, specific story of how he killed the circumcised Turk (V.ii.352–56). We identify with Hamlet, who makes us confront the fact that we all die, that the rest is indeed silence, but the story of the Turk is Othello’s alone.

Othello was played by Adrian Lester, an excellent actor, perhaps a bit young for the role, but vigorous, well spoken, and handsome. He was well matched by versatile Rory Kinnear as Iago, so good as Hamlet in the NT Live production two years earlier, now playing Hamlet’s polar opposite. Kinnear spoke with a cockney accent, establishing Iago’s working-class origins, while Lester, and most of the rest of the cast, spoke upper-class British. (Lester is RADA trained and learned his lessons well.) I did wonder, however, why Emilia, played by Lyndsey Marshal, had an upper-class accent too. Marshal played Emilia not as a mere camp follower but as a soldier (this was, of course, supposed to be a modern British army), but why would she not have a background like her husband’s and speak like him as well, especially given Iago’s hatred of the upper classes and also Emilia’s earthy speech. Otherwise, however, Marshal was excellent, as was the rest of the cast. The Royal National Theatre has the casting depth to bring excitement to even the smaller roles.

Hytner provided a program note that summed up his attitude toward the ambiguities about the character of Iago:

It has often been noted that Iago’s “motiveless malignancy” in fact comes, in his soliloquies, with a superfluity of motives, as if he himself has difficulty locating the source of his depravity. What Shakespeare has done, of course, is to pay his fellow actor the compliment of trusting him to complete Iago for himself. . . . The play works overtime not to lock Iago down, and seems to invite the actor to allow himself to be surprised by what happens to Iago.

Shakespeare the actor has written a consummate role for an actor. This is rare indeed, but even rarer these days, when directorial “concept” usually rules our classical stage, is to find a great director who also believes that Shakespeare wrote for actors, not directors.
[1] Jean Benedetti, Stanislavski and the Actor (London, 1998), p. 151. Italics mine.

[2] Note also that the joke is flawed because the paycheck is technically not a motivation, something from the past, but a goal to be obtained in the future. Nonetheless, the gag always seems to get a laugh, at least among theatre people.

[3] In Act I, scene vii, where she goads Macbeth into committing the murder, she actually appears to him after the cue word “ambition.” See I.vii.27–28.