The age of Iago / The artist in exile

Tragedian Charles Mayne Young as Iago, dressed as a Venetian nobleman in lace collar, plumed hat and insanely sneaky expression
Charles Mayne Young as Iago (ca. 1824) by John William Gear (CC0 via Wikimedia Commons)

Today: Maria Bustillos, an editor, journalist, information activist, and the founding editor of Flaming Hydra, Popula, and The Brick House; and Sam Thielman, a reporter, critic, essayist, and editor based in New York; Sam writes a column on graphic novels for the New York Times.

Issue No. 15

Iago Is Everywhere
Maria Bustillos

The Ghost in the Vending Machine
Sam Thielman

Iago is Everywhere

by Maria Bustillos

Iago, the bad guy in Shakespeare’s Othello, is the star of the play; the whole story revolves around him and his deadly plots against his friends and benefactors, most notably his titular victim. With the aid of a stolen handkerchief, he falsely implicates his rival, Cassio, and Othello’s wife, Desdemona, in an illicit affair, and from there proceeds, lie upon lie, to goad Othello into a jealous, murderous rage. But no one suspects Iago for a moment of his secret malevolence. A soldier but not a gentleman, passed over for promotion, envious and spiteful, deceitful and conniving despite his reputation as “honest Iago,” he tricks everyone around him into betrayal, murder, and ruin, culminating, inevitably, in his own destruction.

For centuries people have argued about what Iago’s deal was; no backstory emerges in the play to explain why he chooses his disastrous path. Why not just be a guy close to power, respected and prosperous, if not in the highest rank? Why not just live your life, you were doing fine?? Lytton Strachey, among many other critics, claimed that Iago had no motive at all, which makes him still more villainous; he called this very senselessness a stroke of genius on Shakespeare’s part. But other critics, notably Samuel Taylor Coleridge, mapped Iago’s character out so clearly you’d think they’d lived through the era of Trump and Putin—two likewise vulgar, ambitious, invidious men initially praised for being tough and honest, macho straight shooters, men who likewise clawed their way too high, far beyond their meager abilities.

It’s a paywall, but a small one

Read this post and get our weekdaily newsletter for $3 a month