This question haunts the canon: What the fuck, Iago?
May 17, 2018 9:02 AM   Subscribe

SFF author Max Gladstone attempts to understand what motivates Iago's schemes against Othello: Othello, for all his tragedy and pathos, is at root a man whose good sense has been practiced upon and subverted by Iago, the master manipulator. We’ve seen every step of that transition. Iago’s methods are not mysterious to us. The question is, why did he deploy them in the first place? .(Max Gladstone previously)
posted by palindromic (37 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
Oh man, this takes me back to undergrad, pretty sure I wrote something similar in an essay, though I am sure I was not as articulate as Max Gladstone is being here. Good post, will give this a proper read later.
posted by Fizz at 9:18 AM on May 17

Interesting. It's never been a huge issue for me--some people just like watching other people suffer, and even in Shakespeare, who invented our modern Western understanding of human subjectivity (if you believe Harold Bloom), we don't always get reliable peeks into a given character's psyche. But this is quite a good examination. Staying on Bloom for a minute, I think there's much wisdom in his suggestion that Titus was a black-comedy send-up of Marlowe's Jew of Malta, and it's long struck me as likely--or at least possible--that Iago might be a more sophisticated, and because of his opaque motives, more scary, take on Barabas, but Gladstone's argument here makes a great deal of sense.

I do love the first comment on that article, by "jmeltzer": "Actually, he’s upset about ethics in game journalism."
posted by Fish Sauce at 9:19 AM on May 17 [16 favorites]

I suspect that commenter is responding to a joke within the essay: He tries to tell us, over and over, why he acts the way he does. He’s angry about cuckoldry; he’s angry about aristocratic hypocrisy; he’s angry about ethics in military promotion.
posted by palindromic at 9:21 AM on May 17 [15 favorites]

Economic anxiety.
posted by Artw at 9:47 AM on May 17 [20 favorites]

I..genuinely don't understand why Iago's motivations are worth a huge essay outside of school classes where one learns to read basic character motivation?

Iago is very blatant - he's jealous, he's angry, he feels betrayed, and he's lashing out at people who had the successes he thought should have been his. No, his words and actions don't stand up to rational examination very well, because he's not rational! It's exactly the same kind of angry self-justifying lashing out that millions of people have done, are doing now, and will continue to do.

Treating Iago like he's taking a studied position is giving him the benefit of the doubt in a way that just isn't supported.
posted by Ahniya at 9:55 AM on May 17 [7 favorites]

I didn't think this was even in question. It's been years since I read the play but I thought it was obvious that Othello promoted Cassio to lieutenant instead of Iago, and Iago was pissed off about that. The article's comment:

But this motivation devours its own tail. If Cassio is the man who was promoted undeservingly, surely it should be Cassio Iago wants to dethrone

makes no sense to me. Do people really blame the recipient of a bad decision more than the person who made it?
posted by rocket88 at 10:00 AM on May 17 [7 favorites]

In Orson Welles's 1951 film version, he cast actor Micheál Mac Liammóir to play Iago, with Welles himself in the titular role.

It was an interesting dynamic, as the older Mac Liammóir had been a mentor to Welles when he first began acting in a small Dublin theater as a 16 year-old traveling abroad. And according to Welles, on at least one occasion, he was forced to rebuff the advances of the openly gay Mac Liammóir. I think both men understood that this underlying tension would play well onscreen and provide the audience with a hint of Iago's motives, if only on a subconscious level. (In addition, they came up with the idea for Mac Liammóir to play the character as impotent, though it is never overtly referenced.)
posted by Atom Eyes at 10:01 AM on May 17 [4 favorites]

Gladstone argues that it makes no sense for him to be motivated by suspicion of Othello and Emilia having an affair, on the grounds that Iago doesn't even seem to like Emilia very much. I find this a very mannish argument. Plenty of straight men are jealous and possessive and all up in arms about Hands Off My Woman without actually liking their wives.

So Iago starts confessing that he wants Desdemona, sexually, for revenge—but if that’s what he really desires, he probably shouldn’t have spent at least fifty lines of the last scene scorning and mocking Desdemona in specific, and women generally, to her face.
seems to demonstrate an ignorance of such delightful things as negging -- not to mention, TotS?
posted by inconstant at 10:05 AM on May 17 [15 favorites]

he’s angry about ethics in military promotion.

Economic anxiety.

If you keep calling someone an Othello-hater, eventually they're going to become a more extreme Othello-hater.
posted by PlusDistance at 10:08 AM on May 17 [24 favorites]

He's a slightly updated version of the traditional Vice character. He's evil because that's his role.
posted by demonic winged headgear at 10:08 AM on May 17 [1 favorite]

Atom Eyes: ...I think both men understood that this underlying tension would play well onscreen and provide the audience with a hint of Iago's motives, if only on a subconscious level

I've always assumed there was an erotic streak a mile wide in Iago's extreme responses to Othello (and yet I can never quite find the exact quotes to support this!)
posted by Jody Tresidder at 10:21 AM on May 17 [2 favorites]

Yeah, I've definitely read scholarly takes on the homoerotic interpretation/layer of Othello and Iago's relationship--I mean, they literally have mock wedding vows--and the version of Iago as a self-hating queer man. It's a little dismaying that Gladstone doesn't even mention this perspective.
posted by overglow at 10:49 AM on May 17 [9 favorites]

I thought this was a very sharp essay. I think there are bones to pick with some of the specifics--of course he'd be angry with his boss for not promoting him! And I'm surprised Gladstone didn't talk more about Iago's racism, given that this whole thing leads up to a thinly-veiled dunk on gamergate & co. But what an interesting thought about that old passionate v rational dynamic and how toxic and destructive the so-called rationalist can be.
posted by sonmi at 11:01 AM on May 17 [3 favorites]

Two words: racist asshole

Which for me, is why I don't like the play. It allows the audience to have it both ways. Villianize Iago without explicitly coming to grips with his true character and see the colored guy die in the end, leaving the whites back in power.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 11:06 AM on May 17 [4 favorites]

I feel that at least some of Shakespeare's plays involve individuals who disrupt in some ways the social taboos of class and station, which in turn inspires hatred, jealousy, and rage. Perhaps Iago's rage isn't inexplicable so much as tacitly understood by the audience, some of whom would agree that Othello was still a foreigner an a moor, no matter how many military honors he earned by his own hand.
posted by GenderNullPointerException at 11:08 AM on May 17 [8 favorites]

I think Gladstone's essay is a strange misreading of Othello, which I see as an extended meditation on the origin of racism, and the hatred of the Other generally, in a deadly poisonous mixture of sexual envy and fear, jealousy, and most crucially, misogyny.

And in Iago, Shakespeare presents us with a perfect Type of a man who brews this poison within himself, and is then determined to spread it to any other man he can by any means no matter how foul, and indeed to his very Society itself: a man who can grasp the world only in terms of vicious stereotypes -- the Moor, the Jew, the Florentine, and ruling all, the Whore, who is to him all women.

Instead of exorcising his Demon, Iago makes the world Demonic, and in the end, when you cut him, he bleeds, but he does not die.

Because you have become him.
posted by jamjam at 12:20 PM on May 17 [7 favorites]

The face that Iago's motivations are obvious to some people, and not obvious to others, is a giant issue that probably goes to the heart of a lot of conflict and misunderstanding in the world in general.

A lot of English Ph.Ds have _not_ been in a position to feel this kind of rage against unfairness. There are a lot of ways that pursuit of a Ph.D. can be derailed -- those that have succeeded have evaded all of them.
posted by amtho at 12:24 PM on May 17 [3 favorites]

...he knows he wants to destroy these people, but each attempt to explain how he wants to destroy them, or why, slams head-on into a wall of self-contradiction. So he reaches for more reasons, more methods, only to find them crumbling. He’ll sleep with Desdemona—“Or failing so,” he’ll infect the Moor with jealousy—he’ll drive Othello mad—he’ll use Cassio to do it, why? Because, oh yes, he also hates Cassio, for, um, reasons. Reasons! By the end of the speech, I read “’Tis here; but yet confused” as Iago throwing up his own hands at the futility of sussing out his motives....He does not know why he has done these things.

This is especially weird because in all other respects Iago is the character in this play most likely to claim he knows how the world works and why.

So it's actually a play about the Dunning-Kruger effect.
posted by otherchaz at 12:34 PM on May 17 [1 favorite]

This has to be satire …right?
posted by rodlymight at 12:42 PM on May 17

Yeah, I've definitely read scholarly takes on the homoerotic interpretation/layer of Othello and Iago's relationship--I mean, they literally have mock wedding vows--and the version of Iago as a self-hating queer man. It's a little dismaying that Gladstone doesn't even mention this perspective.

From my perspective as a straight woman, I don't find Iago's feelings toward Othello that exotic -- he both wants to be him and wants to be loved by him. He's jealous of him in all senses of the word. He ends up consuming him.

I think this is a very interesting essay, but I think that the passionate v. systematic dichotomy that the writer sets up is complicated by Iago's own passion. He is a man driven by passion, even though he can only think and operate in a very systematic way. He can't answer questions about what his passion "is" because passion is by definition explodes those kinds of systems and systemic/rational thought. The passion explodes out of him and makes his mind turn to ridiculous and horrible games instead of him being able to use his mind for anything useful. Just think of what Iago could have done if he weren't so ruled by love/hate and jealousy (in other words, by his passions).
posted by rue72 at 12:45 PM on May 17 [9 favorites]

I honestly haven’t been able to read or watch Othello for a long while because of the utter sympathy it gives to what is essentially a severe domestic abuser. To me, it doesn’t matter if his suspicions were created or falsely invoked - murdering Desdemona was not the only answer even if she was cheating on him. My read is that Othello and Iago are separate halves of the same coin.
posted by corb at 2:09 PM on May 17 [13 favorites]

A lot of English Ph.Ds have _not_ been in a position to feel this kind of rage against unfairness.

This presumes a lot, but most relevantly it presumes that Iago's perception of unfairness vis a vis his lack of promotion is accurate. We have nothing to go on here except Iago's own testimony that he deserved the promotion more than Cassio did.
posted by tobascodagama at 2:17 PM on May 17 [1 favorite]

I directed Othello a couple of years ago and here are some thoughts on this topic based on how we staged it.

I sat down with the actors playing Othello and Iago numerous times before the rehearsals began to talk about the relationship dynamic. We primarily focused on racism. In regards to Othello, we discussed how in order to get promoted to the position he's in now, he had to be more perfect than any white man. We talked a lot about President Obama and how any expression of anger from him would have fed into a perception of "angry black man." It wasn't enough for Othello to be a remarkable soldier and leader of soldier, he had to be more perfect in every single way than every other white man. He also had to be deeply part of the Venetian system - corrupt in the same way that they are corrupt (promoting Cassio, for example, over more qualified candidates because that is was another Venitian might do). So, Othello is the most Venetian behaving character in the play. We also discussed about how when you suppress all of your emotions all the time, they eventually find a way out.

We also spoke at length about Desdemona's father Brabantio who loves Othello and his stories until Othello marries his daughter at which point all of his racism pops out. Furthermore, despite Othello's stellar reputations, once the issue of marrying a white woman is brought into the picture, Venetian society seems prepared to punish Othello until the comparably woke Duke of Venice steps in and reminds everyone that Othello is an irreplaceable military asset.

This, I think, is one key to understanding Iago.

Straight up, the dude is racist AF. He's in a military system where he has to obey Othello and in a social system where he has to make nice with Othello, but he hates that a black man is in power over him and he's looking for excuses to knock him down. Honestly, he's no more of a mystery than Trump voters (and thank you for the economic anxiety comments earlier). He takes steps to destroy a black man because he's racist and if that ends up hurting everyone else too, well, it's worth it to destroy a black man.

We ended the play with Iago laughing and laughing because he's won. Othello is dead, his reputation is ruined and if Iago's going to be tortured and die too, it was all worth it because he accomplished the thing he wanted most.

Furthermore, in our production we made a point to make it clear that the Othello and Iago and Venitian society were misogynist AF. The last image I used was the dead bodies of the Desdemona and Julia still on stage with Bianca (Cassio's girlfriend) looking at them in horror. She refuses to take Cassio's hand or help him out as she realizes that Othello's body is being taken away for state burial while the murdered women are just left in the dark bedroom like trash. I think the audience left with the impression that Julia was the bravest character in the show - despite her fear and her social position, she furiously brought down both Iago and Othello before being murdered.

Anyhow, yeah, Iago is racist and misogynist. He's appears to be a nice guy until he's caught. That's the whole western world and its certainly America in this century.
posted by Joey Michaels at 2:26 PM on May 17 [24 favorites]

Some people are just ass-holes.
posted by smallerdemon at 2:30 PM on May 17 [1 favorite]

I honestly haven’t been able to read or watch Othello for a long while because of the utter sympathy it gives to what is essentially a severe domestic abuser.

I was watching Omkara directed by Vishal Bhardwaj, which recasts Othello in a modern-ish Indian crime family, when it struck me that this was a play about a guy who is provoked into murdering his wife, and we are supposed to feel primarily sorry for him. Why isn't it the Tragedy of Desdemona ?
posted by GenjiandProust at 2:33 PM on May 17 [7 favorites]

Why isn't it the Tragedy of Desdemona ?

Because Desdemona didn't lose her soul. It's the tragedy of Othello because Othello did.
posted by rue72 at 2:36 PM on May 17

No, she just lost her life.
posted by Homo neanderthalensis at 2:44 PM on May 17 [4 favorites]

Homo neanderthalensis: "No, she just lost her life."

That seems like a dramatically short reply to a reasonable answer. For Shakespeare, Desdemona's death didn't mean as much as Othello's fall. This shouldn't be particularly surprising: Shakespeare didn't have our 21st century morality or sensibilities. You have to give hundreds years old plays some room.
posted by TypographicalError at 2:51 PM on May 17 [5 favorites]

Which doesn’t mean, I hasten to say, that it’s not worth digging into Iago‘s motivations. I mean, I was very frustrated way back in an undergraduate Shakespeare class with Professor insisted on Iago‘s “motiveless malignancy,“ which seemed so out of touch with Shakespeare’s usual psychological depth. I just would rather not watch the play again.
posted by GenjiandProust at 2:53 PM on May 17 [3 favorites]

I've never gotten much into Iago's motives--I'm much more of an early Shakespeare guy, and I will absolutely talk your ear off about Titus Andronicus.

However, I did want to come in and point out in a Shakespeare-pub-quiz-trivia, horrified-fascination kind of way that in Shakespeare's source material (Cinthio's Gli Hecatommithi), Desdemona's fate is even more grim. The Othello figure commissions the Iago figure to beat her to death with a sock full of sand, and then they both crush her skull and collapse the ceiling on top of her to try to cover up the crime...and then they actually get away with it for a while before dying much later at the hands of Desdemona's family and under torture after being arrested, respectively.

So, yeah. This is one of those cases where Shakespeare improved quite a bit on the source material.
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 3:11 PM on May 17 [4 favorites]

Ahniya: Iago is very blatant - he's jealous, he's angry, he feels betrayed, and he's lashing out at people who had the successes he thought should have been his.

...except not really, though? I mean, his motivations for hating Othello/wanting too ruin or kill him change from scene to scene, and once I think even within a single scene. Iago himself gives the audience at least three different motivations in his monologues. "Why does Iago do what he does" has been a subject of debate for centuries, and not just among high-school students. It's really not as blatant as you assume.
posted by tzikeh at 3:25 PM on May 17 [3 favorites]

I was watching Omkara directed by Vishal Bhardwaj, which recasts Othello in a modern-ish Indian crime family

"Enjoy" seems like the wrong word to use here, but if you admired what Vishal Bhardwaj did with Othello in Omkara, don't miss Maqbool (2003) and especially Haider (2014). (I think that Saif Ali Khan's performance as Langda/Iago in Omkara is part of the reason I've never been able to stomach him as a romantic lead.)
posted by Anita Bath at 4:10 PM on May 17 [2 favorites]

One possible interpretation out of many, by the many-talented S.J. Tucker:
Dark unto my light he came.
We were never much the same.
He never would come in
out of the rain,
but I loved him,
even so.
Now he's turned his tail to the tempest
and I have to let him go. 
posted by sourcequench at 7:18 PM on May 17

"Why does Iago do what he does" has been a subject of debate for centuries, and not just among high-school students.

I thought it was pretty straightforward. Iago was nominated for the Campbell Award and didn't win it. Also though he originally claimed to have a great time at WorldCon, he later claimed that he had been snubbed He decided the Hugo Award should be ruined in revenge, and the rest is history.
posted by happyroach at 8:07 PM on May 17 [17 favorites]

I don't think there's much of a mystery. In Cinthio the character has the hots for Desdemona and does everyone over to get back at her when she's not interested. Shakespeare thinks that won't play, so at first makes racial animus and anger about being passed over for promotion the main professed motivations. But he keeps hints of the original motivation and explores lots of other stuff too.

He mostly cares about what plays, and isn't worried about creating wholly consistent characters because he isn't writing a novel - with luck the punters won't worry about that stuff in the moment because they'll be swept up in the drama.

But because the verse is so vivid and creates such an illusion of interiority, when you read it on the page you get a strong illusion of psychological depth, and that's when you start fretting about motiveless malignancy and stuff.

It's a bit like the way - bear with me here - the first season of the American House of Cards remake puts the plot on hold for a couple of episodes in order to develop the characters a bit in contemporary box-set style. When the plot resumes you've got these weirdly overdeveloped characters stepping back into their original roles as cartoon monsters, and it's a bit unsettling. That's the kind of thing that's going on with Iago.
posted by Mocata at 4:17 AM on May 18 [8 favorites]

In the recent production of Othello set in a twenty-first century American barracks, Daniel Craig played Iago as someone who exalts the masculine and the ability to willfully cause pain:

In Sam Gold’s subtly intelligent new Othello at the New York Theatre Workshop, however, we find a more disturbing interpretation, one that perhaps (and unfortunately) makes it the necessary production for our times. Daniel Craig’s Iago is not a psychopath, or a victim of trauma, or a man deluded about right and wrong. He makes a choice. He chooses moral insensibility and viciousness. And Craig’s commanding performance, his combination of charm, sexual charisma, and menacing masculinity, his ability to make the audience dread his actions and yet giggle childishly along with his sadistic delight, makes his choice seem not like one that is psychologically inexplicable but rather one that does not need any deeper psychological explanation. It is freedom, masculine vigor, conquest, pleasure, the laughter permitted by moral indifference.

I really think that's what makes Iago tick: he wants the power of exerting his will on others. Even his own safety and life are less important than that will, that conscious choice to create suffering, because to gravitate towards safety and comfort only takes a lack of will for Iago. To choose evil is to have choice.

His last words in the play:

I do believe it, and I ask your pardon.
Will you, I pray, demand that demi-devil
Why he hath thus ensnared my soul and body?

Demand me nothing: what you know, you know:
From this time forth I never will speak word.

Iago doesn't answer because the why is self-evident. Racism, misogyny, jealousy are all expressions of the ability to control and hate. Iago's actions speak for themselves more than his words can.
posted by Lord Chancellor at 5:04 AM on May 18 [7 favorites]

As an addendum, I think one of the reasons that Iago mystifies us and fascinates us is because of the simplest of motivations: willed hate. And just like in 1984, "The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power. " That is terrifying because the willed hatred might be enough of it's own justification that it need no other. And if so, what does that say about human nature?
posted by Lord Chancellor at 5:28 AM on May 18 [3 favorites]

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