I was lucky enough to see Othello at The National Theatre recently, with Rory Kinnear (Rory Kinnear! Thump!) and Adrian Lester as Iago and Othello. So when I found this book in the library, I was intrigued. At the same time I was wary, as more often than not spin-offs in fiction tend towards Mrs De Winter or Scarlett rather than The Wide Sargasso Sea. But as it turns out I needn’t have worried, I, Iago is a cracking good read.
The novel, narrated by the fascinating, articulate and complicated ‘honest Iago’, tells his story from childhood (where he and a young Roderigo steal the eggs of a prize hen) in corrupt, vainglorious Venice through military service and marriage, until his forthright nature brings him to the attention of the new Moor commander of Venice’s armies, Othello. The second half of the novel presents the events of the play: Iago’s scheming leading to the death of Desdemona, his own wife Emilia and Othello himself.
Basing such a large part of your book on a rewritten prose version of one of the most well-known and loved of Shakespeare’s plays was a risk, but Galland manages it with flair. Her new interpretation of Iago is brilliant, due in large part to her writing style, which is influenced by, but does not parrot, Shakespeare’s verse. The dialogue in particular is a delight, giving real insight into Iago’s motivations, and creating a sense of period while remaining accessible.
At the end of the book, Galland explains how it came about. Like many Othello fans before her, she was intrigued by just how Iago came to plot the destruction of his former friend and mentor Othello, by how far he goes, and how little he attempts to justify his actions. She hit upon the notion that everything Iago does is driven by an overwhelming sense of injustice. First he is side-lined when Othello falls in love with Desdemona and woos her in secret, then he is further slighted when Cassio is promoted to lieutenant over him. Everything that follows is an attempt to redress this imbalance, and win back his rightful place in Othello’s esteem.
The author pulls this central notion off very convincingly. She adds another dimension to the Shakespearean villain, making him more vulnerable and unhappier than any other interpretation I have seen. The realisation that his machinations have cost him the love of his wife is heart-breaking:
‘All I could see were Emilia’s eyes, and the deeper I looked into them, the more clearly I saw myself within them. I saw not a determined, deserving soldier earning his right to the lieutenancy by demonstrating his rival’s unfitness for office; not a slighted confidant testing his friend’s mental clarity and finding it alarmingly cloudy; not a doting husband trying to better himself to be deserving of a cherished wife. I saw only a man of a vindictive and violent nature, hell-bent on doing whatever it took to get whatever he wanted… I saw a man so twisted up with jealousy and envy that he would sacrifice and demean anyone to tear others down.’
It would seem that making Shakespeare accessible to new audiences is a passion of Galland’s, and in I, Iago she does this very well. This book is ambitious in premise and approach, and is a resounding success.