After the London bombings, and the revelations that the criminals involved were British born, for some reason I thought, what character in literature would do the same thing? Shakespeare’s Othello immediately sprung to mind. Arch fiend Iago, who undoes Othello, must be the world’s greatest (if I can use that term) nihilist. He has an inward hate way beyond all reason. After I re-read the play I turned to Harold Bloom’s essay on the play, and was happy to see my sentiments echoed. Bloom lists Iago’s contemporary disciples, including international terrorists. (Although in the case of London, I guess you could almost argue that they were domestic terrorists.)
On page one of the play Iago gives his reason for hating Othello: he has passed him over for promotion. Later on he concocts other reasons, namely that Othello has cuckolded him. But who can believe that the straight up Othello could do such a thing?
Iago’s diabolical hate must have existed a priori though. So thoroughgoing in its destructiveness, so perversely theatrical, it can’t have happened purely because Iago was passed over by a man whom he had served faithfully for so long. Also Iago is a mere 28 years old! You expect him to be as old as time itself. Most 28 year olds would quickly ‘move on’, as we say today. It seems that Iago has always been deeply hateful, and was merely looking for a pretext to set his destructive theatre in motion.
Othello is the first play I read by Shakespeare that I immediately loved, and that reason was Iago. I thought he was the product of sheer genius, to create a character whose whole reason for being is hate. Plus some of those lines of his, they stay with you forever. I remember being especially impressed by ‘I am not what I am’. It reminds me of that line out of MacBeth where Duncan, after being betrayed by one of his generals says, ‘There’s no art to find the mind’s construction in the face’.
Frankly, I thought Iago had good reason to hate Othello. He’s too good to be true – in his idealised self I mean, not what he later performs. Plus the whole idea of honour beyond reproach I find too much. Othello is a ruthless killing machine, yet is lauded to the skies. So over the top are his ideas of honour, that when he comes to believe that Desdemona has betrayed him he kills her because he considers himself dishonoured. In other words, this is a literary honour killing.
Iago is a marvel of destruction. Hating Othello so much, and being a master psychologist, he knows his master’s major flaws, and goes about exploiting them ruthlessly. How much power his mere words have to wreak havoc! And then when he has done his worst and is caught out, he clams up. As readers of this play, we come to the point where we beg an explanation. Why Iago? Why did you do it? To this Iago replies, What you know, you know. From this point on I’ll not speak another word. Evil doesn’t give away its secrets.
The last Shakespeare play I wrote about was Measure for Measure, and I noted the darkness of the sexual mood. Well, the same goes here. As I was reading, I thought, has Shakespeare gone through some agonising sexual jealousy? Is this a weakness in his character, that he always feels an almost self destructive jealousy. For the plot of Othello is like Proust on steroids. Indeed, years ago when I was reading Proust I thought him the most Shakespearean of writers.
Look at what Othello’s jealously brings himself to. To quote Oscar Wilde, he kills the thing he loves. Did Shakespeare see this as the only way to expunge feelings of guilt, by killing the one you love or desire, who torments you so. Thank god he worked his problems out in words, not deeds.
And how does Iago relate to Shakespeare the playwright? Forgive me for reading so much biography into Shakepeare, but I can’t help it. Was he a real hater, like the prolific Marquis de Sade, who said he wanted to unhinge the universe and dismember nature? Did he absolutely loathe war and politics, to the point of wanting to undo it all, watch it go up in smoke?
Shakespeare’s plays spring from his genius, yet he must have used some of his own worst characteristics as material.