The Iago Problem

I like the idea of Daniel Craig playing an Iago who’s not explained by psychological platitudes, so I liked this piece in The New York Review of Books, though its author is too forgiving of Othello for my taste. I think Iago is the greatest villain in all of literature. As I wrote in this essay:

A far more frightening villain than Lecter — indeed, I would say a more frightening villain than any other in fiction — is Iago, the protagonist of Shakespeare’s Othello, one of the most perfect tales of noir. (Despite the title, Iago is very much the protagonist; it’s his story, not Othello’s.) His body-count is far lower than Lecter’s — he cons his boss, Othello, into thinking that his wife, Desdemona, is cheating on him, until Othello kills her. When the truth is discovered, Othello kills himself, declaring himself “one that loved not wisely, but too well.”
Othello, of course, is an amoral brute, who thinks the jealously that motivates him to plan and carry out the murder of his wife is love. He’s the classic noir loser. If he comes across as sympathetic, it’s only by comparison with the vile Iago…
But what makes him so vile? He’s lied, and caused the deaths of two people. Not very nice, granted, but not a massacre either.
Iago has no motivation that we know of. And, even when caught, and about to be tortured, he refuses to explain. “What you know, you know. From this time forth I never will speak word,” he says. Healing and forgiveness are only possible when we are given an explanation we can understand, and Iago, like life, like the world, cruelly refuses. He just is.

Originally published at