Book Review: I, Iago, by Nicole Galland

I, Iago skillfully retells Shakespeare’s Othello as the Tragedy of Iago, following the famous villain through the course of his career and explaining just how he came to be the mastermind orchestrating the downfall of a proud general and all those connected to him. In doing so, Galland fills in some of the gaps of Shakespeare’s narrative, showing us how Iago came to be who he is and chronicling the circumstances that change him from a loyal friend and subordinate to a scheming, vindictive meddler.

The book divides into “Before” and “After,” meaning before and after the point where the play Othello begins, and each half is quite interesting in its own way. In “Before,” we get the development of Iago as a person. Galland’s research serves her well here — early modern Venice springs to life in vivid detail, particularly with regards to its military and political matters. We meet Iago as a young man, and he explains that he has always been known as “honest Iago” — not a compliment in Venice, where the ability to quibble, to flatter, and to evade has far more value than blunt truth. Iago lacks subtlety, always speaking his mind, and taking decisive action rather than weighing the consequences beforehand. He is boyhood friends with Roderigo, though he disdain’s the other boy’s weakness and lack of gumption; they grow apart as they grow older, with Roderigo following his family’s mercantile endeavors. Though Iago has scholarly leanings, his family’s prerogative forces him into the military, where he excels, first in the artillery, then in the army. Along the way, he woos and wins Emilia, the only woman he’s ever met with whom he can tolerate much conversation, and their marriage is a blissfully happy one. When Iago meets Othello, there is instant camaraderie; they meet at a masked ball during Carnival, and the circumstances echo their characters. Neither man can hide what he is, though Othello more obviously, thanks to his skin tone. Iago, on the other hand, suffers that inability in his character. Throughout the book, we see him incapable of wearing a mask, both literally and figuratively — in every Carnival scene, he ends up discarding his vizor, and his ungoverned tongue and open expression display his blunt opinions at every turn. The two men sense a commonality between them, a lack of patience with the artifice and genteel dishonesty of Venice. Iago comes to think so highly of Othello that there’s nothing he wouldn’t do for him, including helping to conceal his epileptic fits from the Venetian Senate. He follows Othello to war, to disastrous ruin on Rhodes, and to the altogether different battleground of patrician dinner tables and courtly galas. There, in the household of Brabantio, Othello meets his undoing: a girl named Desdemona, enraptured with the idea of him. Iago counsels him against the courtship, explaining that no Venetian patrician would ever let his daughter marry outside of that narrow caste; Othello pretends to give up the infatuation, but in fact corresponds with Desdemona in secret and eventually planning an elopement — and since Othello has little more talent for deceit than Iago, Iago has little trouble uncovering the scheme.

In the “After” section, we watch this character, whom Galland has rendered quite likeable, fall. Othello betrays Iago’s trust, giving a coveted lieutenancy to the less-qualified Michele Cassio as a reward for assisting in his covert courtship of Desdemona. Emilia is, to Iago’s eyes, inexplicably supportive of the deceitful romance, and therefore complicit. Feeling wounded and discarded by those he most loved and trusted, Iago’s bitter hurt prompts his plans for revenge.

I call this book the Tragedy of Iago because it tracks his rise and at least partially self-constructed fall in a way that renders him both likeable and pitiable. Galland makes a wise choice, spending the first half of the book on events we never see in the play, because it gives the character a more solid background, particularly in regard to his relationship with Othello. In Shakespeare’s play, the audience hears of their association and implied friendship, but we never truly get to see it; we know from the start that Iago is working to ill ends, because he tells the audience so in barest terms. In I, Iago, the friendship is palpable, heart-warming — and so Othello’s betrayal of Iago has a real emotional effect. When Othello begins to shut Iago out in favor of Cassio, the reader is privilege to Iago’s pain and bewilderment. We also get new motivation for Iago’s actions — jealousy and revenge play their parts, and no mistake, and Iago freely admits that he wants to hurt his friend for hurting him, to disgrace the usurper Cassio, and to remove Desdemona from the picture (though he does not intend to do so through her death). That isn’t the total of what’s going on in Iago’s head, however; when he sees how easily Othello can be roused to dangerous passions, he starts to harbour deep concerns about the general’s ability to serve in the position of honour and responsibility with which the Venetian Senate has placed him. He worries, too, about Othello’s judgment; a man who will pass over more qualified men in order to hand positions to panderers, after all, demonstrates an ethical lapse. Iago never claims to be operating only for the common good, in removing a potentially dangerous commander from his post — but since that lines up neatly with his desire for revenge, why not work for both?

The dual nature of the tragedy is most obvious in the moment when things spin past Iago’s ability to control them. His words have an effect far greater than he expected, as Othello proves so easily inflamed where his wife is concerned.  The subtler tragedy is that turning Iago from honesty to deceit. He has to learn that trait, a talent foreign to him from birth, and it’s terrible to see him do so — to see a good man corrupted by an unfair world. Iago becomes almost drunk on it, overindulging, swept up by his newfound power, pushing limits to see how far he can take his lies before they become too improbable — and astonished when that barrier never seems to impede him. He learns deceit from those who deceived him, and since we have the juxtaposition of his stalwart honesty in the “Before” section, the transformation is all the more calamitous.

The book is best when it’s not trying to out-clever itself. The moments where I grimaced were when Galland was cramming in bits from other Shakespeare plays that didn’t quite belong — having Iago banter with whores and his military comrades by using lines from Measure for Measure and As You Like It, much of his courtship with Emilia coming straight out of Much Ado about Nothing– because they were jarring, discordant. The tenor was so different from the story she’d been telling that it seemed an odd digression. Initially, this made me nervous for the second half of the book, which covers the plot of Othello, but Galland actually handled the dialogue there quite smoothly. We hit the major points and get the biggest quotes without much interference, but most of the conversations are taken out of verse and into more natural prose in a way that doesn’t seem forced or awkward. The story does rather hurtle itself through the climax and denouement, however, and while that is perhaps appropriate, given how circumstances spiral out of Iago’s control, I could have done with a little more fulfillment, since we had so much build-up to the crucial moments.

This book leaves me wanting the story from yet more angles — Emilia’s, for instance. We only ever see her through Iago’s eyes, and though it’s clear she’s an intelligent and independent woman, she remains only an object throughout this novel. Because everything is first-person narrative, we lose her in the moments when Iago’s not there — which are some of her finest moments in the play. We never really get to know what she’s thinking, and as Iago begins on his plot of vengeance, he distances himself from her, both because he wants to protect her and because he no longer quite trusts her — which has the effect of removing her from the reader as well as from himself. This book is definitely the story of men; Emilia and Desdemona are intriguing, but peripheral, and since Iago never understands either of them, the reader doesn’t get that opportunity, either.

Overall, I, Iago is an entertaining and thoughtful adaptation of Shakespeare’s Othello. The prose is well-constructed, the historical research thorough, and the characters well-drawn. Galland explores the story from an intriguing angle and creates a more three-dimensional world, situating Venice and its characters in the larger world. Whereas Shakespeare narrows in, focusing his scope tighter and tighter until it fits in a single bedroom, Galland allows us to see how this tragedy ripples outward. I think most Shakespeare enthusiasts will find a lot to like about this book, and if there are also some points to criticize — well, most of us enjoy that, too.

Julius Caesar: Adventures in Dramaturgy, Pt 1

In my capacity as Academic Resources Manager, I deal with a lot of text. I prepare sides and scripts for workshops and lectures, and I insert the text for relevant scenes into our Study Guides. This process always involves some editorial judgment calls — looking back to the Folio, determining how much of the scene to include, deciding whether to trim some bits out of the middle to narrow an activity’s focus, etc. It’s been a long time since I cut a full script, however. The last time was in 2006, when I directed Romeo and Juliet in undergrad — and I knew far less about textual studies then than I do now. I’m going to be serving as the dramaturg for the 2013 Actors’ Renaissance Season Julius Caesar, and as part of that process, I’ve also taken on the responsibility of cutting the script.

The thing about Julius Caesar is that you don’t have to cut a lot. The play runs 2438 lines in the Folio, the only early modern version that we have (I got off easy, not having to compare to any quarto editions). We aim for about 2300 lines for a show, with the goal of a two-hour production. I knew going in that I was probably going to want to trim slightly more than that, however, for a few reasons. One is that this is going to be the first show in the Ren Season, so it certainly can’t hurt to trim down what the actors have to tackle in those first three days. Another is just to tell a tighter story; there are lots of moments in Julius Caesar that, while certainly not unplayable (particularly with such talented actors as the ASC is fortunate to have), aren’t always as gripping as they might be. Shakespeare spends a lot of time showing off his Plutarch, but some of those references may seem obscure or downright bizarre to a modern audience. My inner Latin geek appreciates them; my practical side can trim them without suffering too great an attack of conscience. Finally, knowing that this is going to be the most-played school matinee of the artistic year, I knew I wanted to streamline the text for maximum appeal, to key in on the relationships that define the play, the overlap and tension of those political friendships.

The trouble, though, is that there’s just so much good stuff in this play. Take Cassius, for example, who talks more than anyone except Brutus (possibly only because he dies before Brutus). At first glance, you would think that the play could do with a lot less of him and not suffer terribly. So much of what he says, however, is such delicious language. He’s a spitfire, choleric and quick-tempered, but no less eloquent for that temper; rather, it seems to fuel and fire him, leading him to cram his speeches with vivid detail, incisive observations, and inventive structure. Cassius is also useful as a contrast to Brutus, not just as a matter of character, but rhetorically as well. Cassius has a complex elegance in his speech which Brutus utterly lacks; in order to get through to Brutus, Cassius has to try different tactics, and it’s always the least sophisticated one that elicits a response. Cassius is, in many ways, far, far cleverer than Brutus; it shows in his political canniness (as in his desire to do away with Antony as well as Caesar, recognizing an inevitable threat, and in his awareness of military realities in Acts 4 and 5), and it also shows in his use of words. Shakespeare’s language clearly juxtaposes Cassius’s political astuteness and practicality with Brutus’s blunt honor and intractable morals. This dynamic is not only interesting but critical to the operation of those relationship dynamics that so interest me — and yet, I know, those long speeches are where attentions will be most likely to wander. So I had a challenge: to balance the need to cut something with the desire to preserve all the character information that the language provides.

Then there are the minor characters. Could I cut that line from Decius Brutus or Metellus Cimber? Well, sure. The play would lose nothing imperative. But then that pretty well excises his reason for being in the scene; I don’t want to make a character extraneous, and I don’t want to rob an actor with a smaller track in this play of a potentially juicy moment (and since Brutus, Cassius, and Antony thoroughly dominate the line count, there are a lot of smaller tracks).  So, how to balance this? How to keep the sensation of a bustling Rome, crammed with ambitious men and craven followers, while still making cuts that will help the production to present a clear and focused story? Or how about a character like Portia? Certainly, I could trim some of her speeches down — but she really only gets the one scene to connect with the audience. I couldn’t bring myself to butcher those moments, but to justify keeping all of that intact, I had to find something else to sacrifice elsewhere.

I ended up taking a very surgical approach to the text, trimming from within speeches rather than hacking out large sections in their entirety. A line here, a line there — it adds up, and eventually, I had cut over two hundred lines, but never more than a few at a time. Occasionally it hurt my rhetorical soul a bit, to excise some repetitions or additions — but that was the choice I had to make. If the rhetorical form was crucial to the moment, to the character’s persuasive approach, I kept it, but if it seemed extraneous, if the character had already made his rhetorical point, I could consider it for the chopping block. Consider the following:

CASSIUS
You are dull, Casca,
And those sparks of life that should be in a Roman
You do want, or else you use not.
You look pale, and gaze, and put on fear,

And cast yourself in wonder,
To see the strange impatience of the heavens:
But if you would consider the true cause
Why all these fires, why all these gliding ghosts,
Why birds and beasts from quality and kind,
Why old men fool and children calculate,
Why all these things change from their ordinance,
Their natures and pre-formed faculties,
To monstrous quality; why, you shall find
That heaven hath infus’d them with these spirits,
To make them instruments of fear, and warning
Unto some monstrous state.

That anaphora (repeated beginnings) in the middle is an interesting structure, and there’s no denying that it adds something to this speech. But, this is something Cassius does almost every time he has a speech of more than ten lines, so it’s not as though it is an unusual device or one which makes a unique point; we’ll hear the same device elsewhere, and the audience will still know that Cassius is given to repetition and to over-emphasizing his point. Those lines also have some nice evocative language — but, we’ve had plenty of descriptions of the strange portents in this scene already, and we’ll have more in 2.1 and 2.2. By cutting this, we’re not losing anything we don’t get elsewhere. On the other hand, in the following:

CASSIUS

And why should Caesar be a tyrant then?
Poor man, I know he would not be a wolf,
But that he sees the Romans are but sheep:
He were no lion, were not Romans hinds.

I had initially marked that final line for cutting, but I ended up putting it back in. In some ways, it’s redundant. The audience hears the predator-prey analogy and understands it; why do we need a second iteration? Because, I think, there’s a critical symbolic difference between a wolf and a lion. The second analogy, then, is almost corrective — Cassius grudgingly granting Caesar the association with a nobler animal, but only by comparison to the other craven Romans. The first analogy could then read more like, “I know he would not be a predatory, but that he sees the Romans are but prey,” whereas the second reads more, “He were no great and powerful man, were not Romans weak and yielding.” The connotation is different, and so I retained what originally seemed a redundancy. We also hear about a lion stalking the streets and a lioness whelping in the streets, and so I think it’s important to retain that association of the lion with Caesar.

The largest change I made was for purely practical reasons: our Ren Season has twelve actors in it, and the opening of 3.1 calls for fourteen characters to be on-stage simultaneously. Thirteen enter together, as per the Folio stage direction:

–then, only ten lines in, Publius speaks, though he has no written entrance. So, I struck Lepidus for that scene (he never speaks and no one refers to him) and I combined the characters of Publius and Popilius into one figure. That necessity led to a little creative cutting and line reassignment, but it seems to work. Our actors will still have a challenge to untangle, though, as that still leaves twelve characters entering simultaneously at the top of 3.1, plus someone to conduct the Flourish — and two of them will have to change from having been Portia and Lucius in 2.4.

Before I sent the cut script off to Artistic Director Jim Warren and Associate Artistic Director Jay McClure, I gathered a few of my friends to do a read-around of the text. With only five people in the room, I anticipated we’d be doing a lot of talking to ourselves, but that actually wasn’t the case as frequently as I’d expected. Because Brutus, Cassius, and Antony control so many scenes, most characters end up reacting to one of them rather than to each other. Just doing that read-around taught me a lot about how the various scenes function. Hearing the cut text aloud was helpful; I actually ended up highlighting more lines that I think I could cut, if we needed an even shorter script — if someone wanted to do a 90-minute version, for example, I think I would have no trouble at all getting it there. I gave Cassius a few lines back after this read-around, I snipped a few lines elsewhere to compensate, and I now have some good ideas about what else we could trade off if someone wants other lines back in. I feel quite positive about it, on the whole; I don’t think I slaughtered any sacred cows, and the surgical approach means that, hopefully, most audience members won’t notice the omissions at all.

So, we’ll see how it turns out. Once Jim, Jay, and at least one actor have looked at it, I’ll get the final comments back, and then I’ll start preparing the cue scripts. That process will be a whole other adventure with this play, and one which presents some fascinating possibilities (for which I feel I should probably apologize to our eventual Antony in advance). But that, Dear Readers, will be another blog post.

A Belated Happy Birthday to Shakespeare

With apologies for the delay, here is my contribution to the Happy Birthday Shakespeare project. Last year, I gave you all the full story of my experience with Shakespeare; this year, it’s about growth. In the twelve months since the big guy’s last birthday, we’ve had another season of summer camps, we hosted the 6th Blackfriars Conference, and we held our first week-long Leadership Seminar. Personally, I completed another round of Study Guides, I presented at the Blackfriars Conference, and I participated in my first panel at the Shakespeare Association of American conference. It’s been a big year.

In some ways, it’s actually a little appropriate that I’m finally getting around to wishing Shakespeare a happy birthday today, as today is also the birthday of Sarah Enloe, the ASC Director of Education — the phenomenal woman who holds this department together. She’s a veteran of the UT-Austin theatre studies program and the Mary Baldwin College MLitt/MFA program, she taught theatre arts at the high school level in Texas for five years, and in 2003, she won recognition as teacher of the year and an NEH fellowship to study with Shakespeare & Co. At the ASC, Sarah directs programming in the areas of College Prep, Research and Scholarship (including facilitating the ASC’s partnership with Mary Baldwin College’s Masters in Shakespeare and Performance Program), Personal Renaissance, and Educator Resources — a near-superhuman effort, really, doing the work of several people in one body (and, to the best of my knowledge, without opening any holes in the space-time continuum in order to fit more hours into her day). She’s the one who picked me out for this fantastic job that I hold, and she’s been an incredible mentor over the past two years.

This spirals around to one of the things I find so great about Shakespeare: the amazing ability his works have to inspire people. Something about these plays lights a fire in so many people, and so many of those people then feel the compulsion — the imperative need — to share that joy with others. Once you strip away the fear, once you get past that initial pushback, it can really be quite easy, if you use the tools that Shakespeare gives you — as we observed during the Leadership Seminar. Shakespeare’s plays are just that — they’re for playing. Pull them apart to find the clues, dig through the obfuscation of the intervening centuries to recover layers of meaning, — approaching his texts as plays, as living and breathing things, is both so instructive and so enjoyable. In the past year, I’ve seen the lights go on in so many heads, from nine year old students to urban professionals to septuagenarian retirees. It never fails to reinvigorate me. Our company is filled with people who feel that same fire. It has to be; you can’t do this kind of work, with this kind of intensity and this kind of infectious energy, if you don’t absolutely love it.

So today, I’d like to thank Shakespeare and Sarah both for their incredible ability to inspire me and others. Happy birthday to you both!