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Book Review: Iago

Iago

by David Snodin

Henry Holt, 2012

Debut novelist David Snodin worked on the legendary BBC television adaptations of the complete Shakespeare canon back in the 1970s and ’80s, still the finest visual library of the Bard’s work. In fact, Snodin was a script editor for the 1981 version of “Othello” in that series, featuring Anthony Hopkins in a black Beethoven wig and the great Bob Hoskins at the top of his form as a villainous Iago who’s so bluff and straightforward that the viewer has to keep reminding himself not to trust him with the silverware. It’s the perfect understanding of Iago, and so few actors grasp it: this is a man who does all the damage in the world specifically because everybody around him (except, tellingly, his own wife) implicitly believes he’s honest – if you play him as a silken plotter (both Ian McKellan and Kenneth Branagh fail this way), you remove the only prop of believability the character has, since his lies and manipulations are famously tissue-thin. He papers over that thinness through the supersubtle use of his seeming honesty – so likewise you fail if you remove subtlety.

It is a fact beyond any questioning that Snodin knows all this. His director, Jonathan Miller, knew it, and Bob Hoskins certainly did, and he was right there in the room with both of them (and may even have studied the play on his own). The fact that the Iago in Snodin’s new novel shows neither outward honesty nor any subtlety at all is no fault of Iago the novel. It doesn’t mean Iago is a failure; it means Iago isn’t intended to be Shakespeare Part II. Snodin almost says as much in his delightful too-brief epilogue, “Acknowledgments and Apologies,” and he implies that he isn’t the only one taking liberties:

But then, a careful examination of the timeframe of Othello will reveal that all its cataclysmic events take place, if we want to be literal, over the course of a mere day or two, whereas the sense of the time that’s passed is much longer. Shakespeare didn’t need to care.

Critics of Shakespeare have said for centuries that he should have cared a smidgen more. The main crux, at least for the more literal-minded, is that Iago seems to have no reason for what he does, or too many reasons. He says he was passed over for promotion, he says he loves Othello’s luminous new wife Desdemona, he says he’s heard that he himself has been cuckolded by Othello – but he doesn’t seem to stick to any of these things; they seem like post hoc justifications for deviltry he’d commit even without them. This has led 20th Century readers of the play to say created an extremely evocative portrait of a pure psychopath, without ever having the clinical term for it.

Those literal-minded readers are missing the point, as literal-minded people almost always do. The central mystery of Othello isn’t “why does Iago do what he does?” – the central mystery of Othello is “why is love so weak?” If you ask the second question, Shakespeare provides you with all the catharsis (and none of the answers) you could want. If you ask the first question, you might be open to a sequel when the play is over, since Iago is still alive and in the custody of people who consider him to be “more fell than anguish, hunger, or the sea.”

It’s to Snodin’s credit that his Iago doesn’t really act like a sequel. There’s a convoluted plot in which an escaped Iago is a fugitive in the Italian countryside, in the company of a doddering old scholar, an earnest, bumbling young scholar, and a pretty young woman. The young scholar, Gentile Sornello, is plaintively in love with the young woman, Francheschina, who frustrates him by finding Iago fascinating. Gentile has acquainted her with something of the man’s past crimes, but she’s been listening to Iago’s stories about his childhood, and an aghast Gentile sees that she’s believing everything she hears:

“His [Iago's father] died when he was still a young boy. But not before beating him. And then his mother died too, when he was fifteen, when he was just your age.” She almost chokes when she says this. Her eyes glisten. “He had to survive on his own from your age.”

I feel the blood invade my cheeks. “But does that justify what he’s done?”

There’s rather more of this than is good for the book, although Snodin is a marvellously resourceful and energetic storyteller. Oddly (or maybe not so), that energy shows to best advantage in the extensive scenes that have nothing to do with Iago – huge chunks of this book constitute an excellent and shrewd fictional account of Renaissance Venice, so much so that I kept hoping our author would simply forget to return to his bedraggled little group of fugitives. Those hopes are dashed – we keep going back to hapless Gentile and trumpet-blaring beast-man Iago, with his entirely unconvincing need for understanding:

“You think I am Satan?”

“It’s crossed my mind more than once that you might be.”

He laughs, or rather cackles, quite loudly, like some stage villain, so that Francheschina looks up from her hunting. He bares his teeth at her, growling. Predictably, she recoils too and freezes in momentary dread. He curls his fingers inward so that his hands are claws and strikes at the air. She giggles uncertainly. “You and all the world,” he says to me. He hauls himself up with some distress, holding onto his thighs as he does so. “Let it be known, then, that I am not,” he murmurs. “Does the devil bleed like a man? Does he know pain like a man?”

Then he roars, as if not caring who hears, to all the world in fact, so that his bellows reverberate about the hills and valleys. “I am not the devil. I am a man!”

Readers might be more tempted to believe him if Snodin hadn’t stressed repeatedly that when rations run short on the road, Iago is happy to slurp down live snakes and toads. Like everything else about this version of the character, it’s a misstep – Caliban in doublet and hose. We never care what happens to this protesting Iago, and we never feel anything but impatient irritation at his new collection of dupes. That the novel as a whole can survive these flaws and still manage to entertain is a minor miracle, and Snodin is ultimately to be congratulated.

Congratulated, and encouraged to take a couple of years and give us the greatest historical novel about Venice ever written. And a personal note to the author: if you put bloomin’ Shylock in that novel, I’ll egg your house.