Revisiting Iago to understand the villain

Note: Before I started reviewing on my own blog, I reviewed books on Now that it is ceasing to publish, I am moving my reviews to this site.

Iago, Shakespeare’s greatest villain, is enjoying a bit of a renaissance. In Iago: A Novel, David Snodin picks up Iago’s life at the end of Shakespeare’s Othello, and tries to explain his motives through his interactions with a new set of characters. Nicole Galland’s I, Iago, takes a different path to explore Iago’s motives. She imagines Iago’s life before Shakespeare’s play and–crucially–including the actions that bring about Othello’s downfall.

To her credit, Galland does not give in to the easy psychology which would have Iago grow up in a broken home, abused, and show him as a psychopathic child who tortured puppies. Galland’s Iago is a merchant’s son (though not the first born) and grows up interacting with some of the great families of Venice. Though Iago doesn’t quite belong in such circles, Galland also doesn’t show him as a man who feels the injustice of birth and riches.

Indeed, Galland’s Iago is likeable, and his friendship with Othello seem sincere. Narrating throug Iago in the first person, we come to believe that Iago loves his wife, Emilia, and that he holds no ill will toward Desdemona. Only Cassio raises his ire, by usurping a promotion Iago thought rightfully his: being lieutenant to Othello.

Once Galland starts following the action of Shakespeare’s play, she puts herself in an unenviable position. Shakespeare’s tightly constructed plot balloons in the novel form, as Galland retells the action from Iago’s point-of-view and with much of Iago’s commentary. The pace slackens, and it becomes harder to believe Iago’s thoughts. Galland’s Iago doesn’t see himself as a villain, but since we know what he will do, his thoughts sound insincere.

Galland ends with Shakespeare–with Iago’s silence–which is where Snodin’s very different novel begins. Ultimately, Galland’s novel is more successful, not because her Iago is more believable, but because her secondary characters are stronger. Emilia in particular, is a suitable companion and foil for Iago. Though Galland doesn’t capture the whip-like tongue that Shakespeare gives Emilia, she does give her the prominence she deserves. For fans of Shakespeare’s play, having even the minor characters reimagined is welcome, and I, Iago provides an enjoyable reimagining of the great tragedy.


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