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Shakespeare & Beyond

Re-thinking "Honest Iago"

Actor Mary Chieffo (Star Trek: Discovery) has co-created with Josh Nelson Youssef Iago: The Green Eyed Monster, an animated music video that uses motion-capture performance and augmented-reality technology to reimagine Shakespeare’s classic villain from Othello as a woman grappling with, in Chieffo’s words, “the dangerous effect of micro-aggressions in the workplace.” The song itself, like Richard III’s opening soliloquy, is a fantastic introduction to a Shakespearean character and pulses with the urgency of a cool first number in a longer musical adaptation, but on its own the four-minute film mostly left me grappling with the larger question of whether Iago actually deserves such sympathetic re-evaluation.

To use some of the character’s own blunt honesty, Iago is a racist and misogynist whose treachery and manipulation leads to tragedy and death. We know from Shakespeare’s text that he’s bitter about being passed over for promotion and suspects his wife, Emilia, of sleeping with Othello, and the most powerful aspect of Chieffo and Youseff’s film is the suggestion that Iago literally transforms into the “green-eyed monster” of jealousy the character warns Othello about. Chieffo repurposes Desdemona’s line “O these men, these men,” giving it to her female Iago as a way to underscore how her fellow soldiers have turned her into “a monster just like you.” Still, knowing Iago’s subsequent actions in Shakespeare’s play, it’s hard to feel much sympathy for the character regardless of their gender or painful backstory.

And yet it can be done. Author Nicole Galland successfully created a surprisingly witty and charming origin story for Shakespeare’s famous villain in her 2012 novel I, Iago. Told from Iago’s perspective, the novel clarifies the famous observation about him in its opening sentences:

They called me “honest Iago” from an early age, but in Venice, this is not a compliment. It is rebuke.

Iago is presented as likable but impatient with the insincere veneer of Venetian society, a quality he and Othello share and which, alongside their military exploits, bonds their friendship. But when Iago warns Othello about the dangers of wooing Desdemona and mingling with Venice’s patrician class, the general continues seeing her in secret and promotes Michael Cassio as reward for his help in facilitating their courtship.

Galland plays fair with Shakespeare, staying true to what happens in the play, and the surprising part of reading I, Iago, is feeling the very real possibility that maybe this time Othello and Desdemona will survive the tragic events of Shakespeare’s story. (Reader, they do not.) Because Iago’s inner life is rendered so engagingly in a way not always possible in a stage production, you feel Iago’s pain at Othello’s betrayal more powerfully.

When I interviewed Galland about I, Iago for my Reduced Shakespeare Company Podcast, I described her novel as telling the story of Othello “from Iago’s point of view.” The problem with that framing, of course, is that’s exactly what Shakespeare does: He also tells the title character’s story from the villain’s perspective, a that fact never really landed with me until I saw the 2021 Court Theatre production that leaned into Shakespeare’s full unabridged title The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice and put the focus where it should be — on Othello himself. Co-directors Charles Newell and Gabrielle Randle-Bent centered Othello rather than Iago, trimming Shakespeare’s text considerably (reducing the running time to 105 minutes) and giving the audience the fresh perspective of letting them see the play’s characters from the Moor’s point of view.

A Black man and a white man on a stage performing a scene from the Shakespeare play Othello, with masked audience members in the background

Kelvin Roston, Jr. (Othello) and Timothy Edward Kane (Iago) in Othello, Court Theatre, 2021. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Because the Court production was one of the first in Chicago to return to live performance after almost two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the audience was limited to just 81 masked and socially-distanced people, an intimacy that allowed the production to rely on looks and gestures instead of only language to convey meaning. As one critic wrote, Othello “doesn’t rage in anger. He writhes in uncertainty, which makes him far more sympathetic.” And because we’re looking at Iago through Othello’s eyes, we see Iago — stripped of Shakespeare’s ennobling language — as Othello sees him, a bitter and unworthy striver.

Iago: The Green Eyed Monster takes Shakespeare’s language into the brave new world of an app on your mobile device, but in its current form doesn’t engage with Iago’s betrayal or the events of Shakespeare’s play. In her Q&A for the Folger’s Reading Room Festival, Chieffo reveals that she has also developed a “gender-conscious adaptation” called Operation Othello that explores translating Iago’s “type of ‘honesty’ onto a modern woman” and interrogating “what honesty truly signifies in the context of gender roles.” For the moment, however, Iago: The Green Eyed Monster successfully leaves us with an infectious chorus repeating Shakespeare’s timeless warning, “O, beware, my lord, of jealousy! It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock the meat it feeds on.”

Related event

Adapting Shakespeare to New Forms at The Reading Room Festival

Adapting Shakespeare to New Forms

Explore two Shakespeare adaptations with their creators: a musical AR experience, "Iago: The Green Eyed Monster," and a post-apocalyptic film, "Ambition’s Debt."
Sun, Jan 28, 2024, 4:30pm