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The Iago Problem

Daniel Craig as Iago in Sam Gold’s Othello at the New York Theatre Workshop, 2016
Chad Batka
Daniel Craig as Iago in Sam Gold’s Othello at the New York Theatre Workshop, 2016

The concept of evil has fallen out of favor in our disenchanted world. Its religious and superstitious connotations are permissible in horror movies, but otherwise often deemed embarrassing. Without some religious metaphysics it is hard to make sense of the idea that there are people who are intrinsically evil; it no longer seems plausible to many of us that people can be motivated by something that can be described as pure evil. Sustained cruelty is therefore often explained as sociopathy (the slick, psychopathic killers beloved of Hollywood), or a personality disorder stemming from some deep personal or social injury, or as some horribly warped conception of what is good. Even in the case of a mass murderer on the order of Joseph Stalin it has become part of his legend that he was emotionally scarred by having been a weak and sickly child with a brutally abusive father.  

Iago, the greatest, perhaps, of Shakespeare’s villains, and certainly the most inscrutable in his motivations, has long posed a special challenge. In recent productions he has been rendered modern (which is to say, not purely evil in the original, metaphysical sense) through complex psychological contrivances. Bob Peck has portrayed him as “a hate machine created by the slow, dehumanizing process of professional warfare”; David Suchet as a repressed homosexual, “deeply in love with Othello and manically jealous of Desdemona”; Anthony Sher as a man with “a severe sexual hang-up,” whose uncontrollable, morbid jealousy is aroused by the belief that Othello has slept with his wife.

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.

The text makes clear to us that Iago actively and continually chooses his unconcern. He prides himself on his ability to control his emotions, telling Roderigo, when he is suicidal over Desdemona’s marriage to Othello, that “we have reason to cool our raging motions,” that love is “merely a lust of the blood and a permission of the will.” When Cassio mourns the loss of his reputation, having lost his position as lieutenant for getting drunk on his watch, Iago scoffs at his misery, saying, “You have lost no reputation at all, unless you repute yourself such a loser.” 

Gold cleverly shows us these moments through Iago’s eyes, subtly soliciting our agreement. The play is set in the present day and acted in the round, on the stripped-down boards of a barracks, sometimes lit only by the blue light of an iPhone a character is using and at other times entirely flooded with the electric glare of bare bulbs. The audience, being a few feet away from the muscular, tattooed soldiery in branded urban sportswear, can almost smell the rough masculinity of the company. Roderigo, however, is a slightly more portly man in black lycra, an effete and comical figure (though played with marvelous, unexaggerated naturalism by Matthew Maher). When he lisps about his heartache to Iago, we are seeing him fall short of the prevailing masculine ideal. Craig’s broad-shouldered, tough Iago slaps his back and manhandles him and has the audience laugh at his pathetic state.

Similarly, when Iago gets Cassio drunk to assure his fall from grace, this takes place in the context of a raucous party where everyone sings along loudly to Drake’s “Hotline Bling”; only Cassio refuses to be one of the cool kids. After being persuaded to drink he becomes ridiculous. When he makes the speech about losing his reputation he is on the floor weeping, his nose running, with the swaggering Iago standing over him, regarding him in a way that makes us suspect he is about to call him a pussy. And again Iago makes us laugh with him at his pathetic victim. 

Iago’s loves and hates seem shallow. When Craig delivers the lines about hating the Moor, he conveys that Iago is quite serious, but that it is a willed hate, not an overwhelming passion. He says coolly,

And it is thought abroad that ‘twixt my sheets
He has done office. I know not if’t be true.
But I, for mere suspicion in that kind,
Will do as if for surety.

He chooses to act on this assumption, not caring whether it is really true or false. We see no hint of painful or consuming jealousy. His wife Emilia understands her husband well when she asks rhetorically why men exchange their wives for others and answers, “Is it sport?/ I think it is.” (Marsha Stephanie Blake plays her as a woman of such strength and knowingness that she commands the audience’s attention in a way that Emilias rarely do.

David Oyelowo as Othello, 2016
Chad Batka
David Oyelowo as Othello, 2016

What makes Gold’s production so powerful is the way it allows the tragedy to unfold as a consequence of Iago’s choices. We see an entire moral world break down because of them, pointlessly, avoidably, irrevocably. At various points in the play we are shown the ways in which vice is contagious. Brabantio, learning that his daughter has married the Moor against his wishes, states that he is glad he has only one child, because if he had more he would have learned by this experience to be a tyrant and lock them up. The bonds of trust are fragile. Emilia famously speaks to Desdemona about the infectious infidelity of husbands, saying:

Then let them use us well: else let them know,
The ills we do, their ills instruct us so.

The unraveling of ordered moral life is a simple business for someone prepared to pull on its delicate threads.

David Oyelowo’s Othello is, from the first moment he speaks, the clear moral center of the play. Iago and Roderigo, giddy with their own vindictiveness, awaken the loudly irate Brabantio to tell him in the crudest terms that his daughter is with Othello: “an old black ram/Is tupping your white ewe.” But when Iago goes to warn Othello, who is lying with Desdemona in his arms, of Brabantio’s approach, he is greeted not with alarm but with calm confidence and seriousness. Although Othello says, “rude am I of speech,” he in fact exudes moral authority and conviction. He is a war hero who has won Desdemona’s love with stories of the hardships he has endured. He feels fully and rightly entitled to respect.

Oyelowo is not the only black character on stage. Emilia and one of the soldiers are both played by black actors. This is not a drama in which Othello’s fate is predetermined by his race, as the stereotypically angry, unstable black man (the kind of Othello that Hugh Quarshie has justifiably said no black actor should play). Rather, because of his race the moral reciprocity to which he is entitled is denied him and gradually his entire universe of values is undone. The unhinged pain of jealousy that Oyelowo conveys so well is only a part of his injury. When he comes to believe that Cassio is sleeping with his wife, that he is humiliated in the eyes of his peers, it is a moral injury that he laments, crying out:

Farewell the tranquil mind! farewell content!
Farewell the plumed troop, and the big wars,
That make ambition virtue! O, farewell!

He mourns the loss of the vocation to which he has given his entire life, to which he has sacrificed too much. And suddenly the cost of war, unevenly born, is made vivid to us. 

 After the horrific killing of Desdemona, on discovering the truth, Oyelowo’s Othello, mad with grief, brandishes his knife at the audience, telling them, “Behold, I have a weapon:/A better never did itself sustain/Upon a soldier’s thigh,” and we see him as a soldier on the battlefield, reliving the trauma he willingly undertook, not knowing it was a hell for which there could be no recompense. Gold has in mind all the homicides committed by veterans with PTSD, the largely unseen moral cost of war that bleeds into civilian life. In his Othello, hate and war undo the moral order in which everyone exists and there can no longer be any justice. 

This is not a simple morality tale, warning us against vice, from which we can exit smiling because we are assured of our own goodness. It is an exploration of moral psychology that should disturb us. The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, the most famous opponent of the dualism “good and evil,” saw in human beings a basic drive to cruelty and wanted to replace the concept of “evil” with a naturalized understanding of this phenomenon. In his view, the entire spectacle of human life on this planet, the whole sadistic and masochistic history of bloodshed originating in the earliest human societies and continuing in more or less refined forms for millennia, was proof enough of our predilection for cruelty. He tells us:

It seems to me that the delicacy and even more the tartuffery of tame domestic animals (which is to say modern men, which is to say us) resists a really vivid comprehension of the degree to which cruelty constituted the great festival pleasure of more primitive men and was indeed an ingredient of almost every one of their pleasures; and how naively, how innocently their thirst for cruelty manifested itself.

He describes the voluptuous “enjoyment of violation,” the primitive man’s “exalted sensation of being allowed to despise and mistreat someone as “beneath him,” the elaborate ancient spectacles of suffering that were “an enchantment of the first order, a genuine seduction to life.” As a scholar of ancient societies he had a visceral sense of the historical realities underlying these claims, the bloody amphitheater, the violent Dionysiac orgy, the prolonged agony of public crucifixions.

In this reading of Othello, Craig’s Iago calls to mind above all the “honey badger” that has become the mascot for the white-supremacist far right. A popular YouTube video, “The Crazy, Nastyass Honey Badger,” shows this small creature display a viciousness, fearlessness, and recklessness unparalleled in the animal kingdom, attacking a huge cobra, diving into a beehive to eat the larvae in spite of being stung all over. The video’s narrator coined the phrase that Steve Bannon and Breitbart news have taken for their motto: “Honey badger don’t give a shit.” This is a choice, this not giving a shit. It is the voluptuous enjoyment that Nietzsche described. It is the freedom and exhilaration of moral insensibility.

In the final moments of the play, Craig’s Iago sits surrounded by the carnage he has created, fighting back tears, small and human in his moment of defeat. Ludovico calls him a “Spartan dog,” the most vicious breed of hunting dog. But as the other characters exit, he approaches the bodies of Othello, Desdemona, and Emilia, covered now by white sheets. Standing over them, reaching out tentatively to touch the sheets, his expression, as the lights go out, hints of regret. Perhaps. This possibility leaves us with an awareness that all the hideous destructiveness was something chosen. Hate was chosen. Hate will be chosen again. 


Othello, directed by Sam Gold, is at the New York Theatre Workshop through January 18.