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Iago’s Defense

In response to:

Shakespeare & Co. from the October 5, 1972 issue

To the Editors:

Just back from Milan, where I read—of all places—an October 5 copy of The New York Review with L. C. Knights’s piece on The Masks of Lear by Marvin Rosenberg.

Knights is certainly right that the book is brilliant; I don’t see how any actor, director, or scholar can afford not to know it. I was especially fascinated by Rosenberg’s experiment of inviting to the play people who had never seen it, and examining their reactions. My guess is the book will be definitive for the rest of the century.

But I have a bone to pick with Knights over Rosenberg’s Othello book. He indicated that the book did not deal with Coleridge’s idea that Iago’s malignancy had no motivation. I took the book down and looked—it’s there, on p. 166, in a chapter called “In Defense of Iago.” Rosenberg then goes on to give the finest explanation of that subtle villain I have seen—including the well-substantiated implication that Iago had an ulcer.

As a director, let me say that that has been a wonderful key to realizing the impulses that drive the play.

Briant Harris

Berkeley, California

L. C Knights replies:

What I said was that in dealing with Iago Rosenberg “doesn’t even refer to Coleridge”—which is true, though he does refer to several critics who have picked up Coleridge’s “motive-hunting of motiveless malignity.” All the same I think I was unfair to Rosenberg in this matter. I have looked at the chapter “In Defense of Iago” again, and in several passages expounding Iago’s “searing contempt for his own self,” his “internalized rage,” he comes close to Coleridge’s conception of the alienated self which (as Mrs. Shaffer shows in the article I referred to) links his criticism of the play to his wider psychological, moral, and religious thought. So Mr. Harris’s point was worth making. I’m still not interested in Iago’s ulcer.

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