What Makes Iago Tick?

The Gazette (Montreal), December 23 1995
by Jamie Portman

Othello is one of William Shakespeare's most powerful achievements, a spellbinding study of how jealousy and paranoia bring about the downfall of a great leader.

Nevertheless, this is a play with a tantalizing psychological mystery at its core. It has to do with the character of Iago, the scheming ensign who turns against Othello, his black general, and engineers his destruction and ultimate death.

Critics and playgoers have argued for centuries about the forces that fuel Iago. He's one of dramatic literature's great villains and also one of its most perplexing.

Ultimately, we keep asking ourselves: what makes Iago tick?

Kenneth Branagh, the most exciting of the new breed of British Shakespearean actors, asked himself the same question when he agreed to play Iago opposite Laurence Fishburne's Othello in the new film version of this 392-year-old play.

Despite a long career of performing Shakespeare on stage, this was Branagh's first stab at Iago, a character so compelling in his monstrousness that he often takes over the play. Like all actors, Branagh found Iago exhilarating - "villains are always fun." But he also found him disturbing.

'Serial-Killer Mentality'

"He represents evil for its own sake," the 35-year-old actor said by phone from Los Angeles. "He's a man who seems to lose his emotional centre. He's someone who is without remorse, without regret. I see a sort of serial-killer mentality as this sociopath emerges."

But the riddle still persists. What has turned Iago into this monster?

Branagh hopes answers will emerge in the film version opening next Friday in Montreal. But Branagh, who has directed Shakespeare himself on stage (Hamlet, King Lear) and in film (Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing), stresses that the movie represents the personal vision of actor-director Oliver Parker.

Parker's version is competing with two classic predecessors - the film record of the historic Laurence Olivier stage version in which Olivier played the Moor and Frank Finlay played Iago, and the recently restored Orson Welles treatment with Welles as Othello and Michael MacLiammoir as Iago.

The new Othello marks the first time a black actor (Fishburne) has played the title role on film.

In adapting the play, Parker has pruned Shakespeare's original text drastically and has also thrown in a sexually charged bedroom sequence between Othello and Desdemona, played by Irene Jacob.

But the basic narrative line remains. Iago is enraged when Othello bypasses him to promote another officer, Cassio (Nathaniel Parker) to a higher rank.

He decides to take revenge: planting the seeds of murderous jealousy in Othello, Iago forces him to believe in Desdemona's infidelity and drives him to murder.

But is resentment over a promotion sufficient to justify Iago's hateful behavior? Some interpret him as being driven by "motiveless malignity." Others suggest he's a victim of class and racial resentment: anxious to rise above his low birth, he's infuriated at seeing his ambitions frustrated by a leader who happens to black.

Some productions have ventured into murkier waters. A 1938 version, directed by Tyrone Guthrie, who later launched Canada's Stratford Festival, offered an Iago (Laurence Olivier) whose rage stemmed from his homosexual attraction to the Othello played by Ralph Richardson.

After studying the enigma of Iago, Branagh says, he can live with the most basic premise: Iago is suffering "clear hurt and rejection" at not being promoted.

But Branagh also stresses this situation unleashes internal demons.

"I think Iago feels a special relationship has been destroyed. We have these two outsiders, Othello and Iago, who have bonded together in their military service on grounds that are both Christian and heathen.

"They have even killed people together, bonding in the only way people in that situation can. So I think Iago feels this rejection very keenly," he said.

Iago discovers that even the tiniest hints are sufficient to start sending Othello over the edge - and this, says Branagh, encourages pure evil to take over entirely.

"What takes over is a sort of growing delight, a sort of quiet glee in his ability to manipulate. There's now a moment-to-moment enjoyment of that manipulation which turns demonic."

Branagh is guarded when asked about the drastically cut text - which eliminates some of Iago's most famous speeches - and describes himself as basically an actor for hire in this film.

"It sometimes pains me to think about what is out. But when I accepted the screenplay, which was so strongly interpreted by Oliver Parker, I decided I had to work with just that."

Besides, Branagh the director will have his own opportunity to respect Shakespeare's text when he starts filming yet another version of Hamlet in January.

He'll also play the title role and promises he'll be filming Hamlet in its entirety for the first time.

Some scholars believe Hamlet in its full text can run well over four hours. Branagh counters that his 31/2-hour version will offer "the fullest acceptable text." But if he wants audiences to sit still that long, he says he must "come up with appropriate cinematic language that marries word and pictures."

Othello and Hamlet are only two examples of the resurgence in Shakespearean film-making. Ian McKellan's version of Richard III opens this winter, and director Trevor Nunn - the man responsible for the stage version of Sunset Boulevard - is about to start shooting Twelfth Night on the Cornish coast.

New Treatment Still Legitimate

Also in the works are new film versions of Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Branagh thinks the commercial success of his version of Much Ado About Nothing and Mel Gibson's Hamlet helped kindle the renewed interest in Shakespeare.

"It's always a challenge to see if what works so supremely well in the theatre can transfer to the screen."

And he also hopes the films will renew audiences' interest in seeing Shakespeare live in the theatre. He believes the new Othello, even in its abbreviated form, is still a legitimate treatment of a Shakespearean classic.

"It engages very, very directly with the audience's emotions. It's very full-blooded and focuses less on Venetian politics than the interiors of the characters.

"It goes to the wick of the ulcer, as Shakespeare might say."

Back to Articles Listing
Back to the Compendium