The silence of Iago: a review of Iago: A Novel by David Snodin

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.

Shakespeare’s characters have often proved irresistible to later writers who want to use the bard’s brilliance as inspiration for their own work. In Iago: A Novel, David Snodin approaches Shakespeare’s most famous villain by imagining his life after the end of Othello. Though he takes some liberties with Shakespeare’s play, the problem Snodin approaches in the novel is the problem of the end of the play: what is Iago’s motivation?

To get at an answer, Snodin must first tackle Iago’s final declaration at the end of Othello that he will remain silent. Shakespeare wisely gives Iago little stage time after he makes his vow of silence, because silent characters are of limited use in a drama. Snodin sets himself up with a similar problem. He chooses not to narrate the novel in such a way that he has access to Iago’s thoughts. As a result, the readers learn little more about Iago in the first 1/3 of the book than we knew at the end of Shakespeare’s play.

Snodin first has Iago escape from the authorities in Cyprus, and this allows him to remain silent, so we can only know him by his villainy. Iago eventually ends up in the hands of the Inquisitors in Venice, but he maintains his stubborn silence.

Snodin finally begins to pry into Iago’s silence by introducing a main plot involving a young Venitian noble. Gentile Stornello is a teenager who unknowingly gets pulled into a plot to understand Iago’s motivation. The inquisitor who develops the plan tries to have Gentile get close to Iago and help him escape from Venice.

All of this takes too long to happen, and as a result, a book that wants to be a historical thriller gets bogged down. It doesn’t help that Gentile, the main character, comes across more as a mooning kid than an interesting young man. Snodin tries to give him a love interest, but the relationship lacks spark. He allows Iago to speak, but he only shows himself to be an empty source of cruelty. The episodes pile up, but they don’t move the story along thematically.

The book picks up pace in the final 100 pages, but it isn’t enough to bring this book to a strong conclusion. Once we get an inkling of Iago’s motivations, it’s a bit of a letdown. Snodin’s Iago ultimately cannot measure up to the Shakespearean version. There is nothing necessarily wrong with falling short of the bard, but the book also doesn’t develop into an interesting historical thriller in its own right.


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