Iago | An essay on character


At the core of Iago is nothing. I have to pause after writing that first sentence. Every time thought takes on Iago, it begins with that notion: in his core, there is nothing. Then thought is arrested. Eventually comes the logical development of the thought to: therefore Iago is nothing. Which is untrue. Iago exists on the page, and in every production an actor performs Iago on the stage, saying the words Shakespeare has ascribed to him, acting – by which I here mean doing – according to the needs and logic of the production, the concept of the director, the nature of the ensemble, etc. Iago is indeed flesh and blood. And so I am forced to continue to dwell on this sense I have that Iago is nothing. What follows is a rough, very preliminary sketch of my ruminations on Iago.


Much has already been written and said about Iago’s lack of motive. The reasons he himself gives us and/or Rodorigo are hollow, disproportionate to the extent and consequences of his machinations; and eventually of no personal gain to him at all. And therefore he becomes the Devil incarnate, pure Evil personified, etc, etc, etc. In cases where the actor’s charm seduces the audience, Iago becomes a playful trickster albeit lacking all moral compulsion. I am not in favour of acting out big, mythic archetypes or ideas. As an actor I look for the humanity in a figure, something I can recognise, understand, grasp. As a director, I urge actors to locate that in the roles they play. So, where do we locate this essential humanity in Iago?


I said Iago is nothing, because at his core there is nothing. By nothing, I mean an absence of meaning. Iago has not found within himself any meaning. His profoundly sharp intelligence has enabled him to see through the surface of human endeavour to the abyss that lies at its heart. All values, law and morality, social rules and customs, personal achievement, success, failure, birth and death – all of it is reduced to absolute meaninglessness when one asks, But what’s the point of it all?  Iago’s intelligence prevents him from accepting easy answers; he has seen the abyss. He lives in this abyss.


“All creation is the sport of my mad mother Kali,” says a line in the Upanishads, a collection of spiritual / philosophical texts forming the essence of Hinduism. Hinduism also states that the entire perceivable universe of form and matter is lila – play. The world is illusion, state Buddhists and Hindus. Reality lies beneath the form. Zen Buddhists try to attain insight into this reality underlying form through meditations aimed at silencing the mind. In the silence between two thoughts is reality. The nothing is a plenum – of original energy, source of life, beauty, what you will. Words and the rational mind of which words are the expression cannot attain to this plenum. Therefore all descriptions of this deeper reality and all intellectual understanding of it are not the thing itself. That deeper reality, say the mystics and enlightened ones, can only be attained once you let go of the mind, of your dependence on rational thought. All Iago has, and is, is rational thought. Across the globe and across four hundred and ten years, the one thing there is absolute consensus about is that Iago is Shakespeare’s most intelligent creation. (Harold Bloom says, second to Hamlet; perhaps third, after Hamlet and Falstaff, but we won’t nitpick!)


Iago’s mind has seen through the vanity of all existence. He is confronted with the meaninglessness of man in an indifferent chaosmos. Neither law nor morality bind him, in the face of this abyss. This is the nothing I speak of when referring to Iago. In Iago, Shakespeare has pre-empted Nietzsche, and the post-World War II intellectuals. Nietzsche’s Zarathustra chose to rejoice. Camus made a humanist choice through an act of will. Samuel Beckett obeyed a hypothetical imperative. Intellectual giants all, who when faced with the same abyss, made moral choices; even if everything is profoundly and absolutely meaningless, I still can choose to invest meaning in what I do, is what they seem to say. For Iago, the world becomes a stage, and he is the only one aware of the fact that it is merely a stage. A Truman Show in which everyone except him is Truman, caught up in a reality that is mere façade and glitter. “As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods, / They kill us for their sport.“ Thus Gloucester in King Lear. This could almost be Iago’s credo. His malaise is ennui. He is even too bored to take his own life. He goes through the motions prescribed for him through birth, accident, and function. To entertain his massive intellect, he plots and plays – not with abstract formulae or pieces of a board game, but with human beings as his pawns, with the world as his board. Since he is unfettered by belief or morality, his intellect drives him on towards the dangerous, the adrenalin kick, the unpredictable, the frontiers of civilisation – the frontiers where cultivated and constructed forms of social behaviour precariously maintain the savage within each of us under control. Or try to. And since he has no identity, he assumes identities at will. He plays at Iago, Emilia’s husband. He plays at Iago, Cassio’s bum-chum. He plays at Iago, Othello’s honest ensign. He plays at Iago, Rodorigo’s concerned friend. He plays at Iago, Desdemona’s trusted advisor. He plays at Iago, the confidante of the audience, breaking the fourth wall, breaking the illusion of theatre, exposing the game for what it is, giving the audience a feeling of sharing his thought. And through it all, he has already told us: I am not what I am.


I maintain Iago is honest: in that he confronts the abyss and does not seek easy refuge out of it; in that he accepts the abyss and his own nothingness, and operates – acts – from that abyss. And in every relationship, he acts his part with utmost conviction. He epitomises what Peter Brook seeks in the actor: 100% commitment combined with 100% detachment.


In seeking out the character of Iago, therefore, the actor playing Iago seeks out instead his various characters as they manifest in his various relationships; and each one taken separately proves to be consistent. Between the roles he plays, he is nothing. An actor between roles – without anything or anyone to go home to outside the space beneath the lights.


And so I maintain, the search for Iago is in fact the search for the heart of the actor. In order to answer the question Who is Iago; one must ask, Who is the actor? When the lights fade to black, when the applause dies, when the theatre empties, where does the solitary actor go? What is (s)he when the make-up and the costume are taken off? Which face looks back at him/her from the mirror?