They called me “honest Iago” from an early age, but in Venice, this is not a compliment. It is rebuke. One does not prosper by honesty.
Othello doesn’t end well. If you are at all familiar with Shakespeare’s tragedies, you know as much. Othello is a tale of jealousy and ambition, love and passion, deception and manipulation. However, one of the most disturbing aspects of the play is Iago. Good, honest Iago. Othello’s right hand man who, when passed over for lieutenancy, determines to ruin the life of the man who has replaced him and the man who has taken his place. For someone who is called “honest” no less than 15 times over the course of the play, his actions seem a bit extreme and inexplicable.
So what does Nicole Galland bring to the story? Iago.
In a society that values artifice, Iago is a bright spot. As a young boy, stealing a legendary egg from a legendary hen, Iago and his best friend Roderigo get caught by a wealthy, influential man. When asked to explain his behavior, Iago’s honesty disarms the man and his friends. They do not expect honesty, and Iago surprises and amuses them, and he learns that though he may not be a true Venetian, he can beguile those who know him and many who do not.
Young Iago knows his place in Venetian society. His father is a silk merchant, and the family is wealthy; however, wealth alone does not bring status in Venice. His older brother will inherit the business, and Iago is expected to go into the military. His romantic spirit seeks the sea, but his father requires him to go into artillery, a more suitable place and one that will put the family in contact with more powerful people.
Iago is skillful and respected for his marksmanship and later, his swordplay. He is revered for his blunt truth telling, and the one time he does lie – about matching swords with a famous swordsman, Agrippa – he is intoxicated with his power, for the men around him believe even the most ludicrous claims because he is…honest Iago. But while Iago enjoys his reputation, he also mocks those who give it to him, and each return to Venice is more galling. He, a soldier, has no real place in society, while the Venetian upper class laze about, drinking and eating during Carnival. When he meets Emilia, a young woman who similarly spurns society and its requirements, Iago marries her, jealous of any man who looks her way.
His father’s ambition becomes Iago’s own, and as he climbs higher, he jealously guards his place of honor. Iago would not be welcome in the upper echelons of Venetian society because he is not a patrician. However, after meeting the Venetian general and Moor Othello and becoming his confidant, Iago finds many doors open to him. It’s intoxicating and heady, and just as his jealousy shows in his relations with his wife, so too does Iago become fiercely protective of his relationship with Othello, desiring to be his most trusted friend and colleague, Othello’s ensign, the honest Iago.
And Iago certainly stores up his untruths, so that when unleashed, they cause a horrific amount of damage, much more than the patricians or merchants of Venice of whom he is so critical. Once Iago realizes the true power he holds precisely because he is known to be so honest, he takes full advantage, understanding that his honesty has given him power over those who hold him dear.
Watching Iago’s duplicity and jealousy take hold of him is disturbing, and though if you’ve read Othello the action won’t surprise you, the change in Iago will. In case you don’t know the story of Othello, I won’t ruin it, but there is a crucial moment between Iago and Emelia at the end of the play that the novel teases out beautifully.
I, Iago is incredibly well written and researched, and Galland gives Iago the life, personality, and motivation he seems to lack in Othello, so much so that I was dreading the moment when Othello names Cassio as lieutenant and hoped, somehow, that Iago would go back to the straight and narrow and remain honest Iago in the end.
Alas, it is not to be.
If you’d like to see other reviews of I, Iago by Nicole Galland, follow the rest of the TLC Tour here.
Read the full text of Othello by William Shakespeare here.