Othello, holder of the lowest profile among the famous four (being the four taken up by A.C. Bradley in Shakespearean Tragedy), has been my recent coffee-shop companion. Iago has gotten a lot of attention in his 400 years. Coleridge spoke of his "motiveless malignity," and more than 150 years later Joan Didion began Play It As It Lays:
What makes Iago evil? some people ask. I never ask.
This most famous of villains has been for so long the object of earnest inquiry that to dismiss his riddle, or deny that there even is one, suggests something has gone awry in the dismisser. But what about Othello himself? He's usually played as some deep-throated magnificence--"Keep up your bright swords, for the dew will rust them"--whose tragic fall elicits horror but respect. Not sure I see it. "She loved me for the dangers I had passed," he says, explaining his history with Desdemona, "[a]nd I loved her that she did pity them." The Duke's response--"I think this tale would win my daughter too"--reinforces one's sense of a certain conventional hollowness. Iago is always given credit for being an evil genius but, really, how hard is it to gull Othello?
. . . . There are a kind of men so loose of soul
That in their sleeps will mutter their affairs.
One of this kind is Cassio.
In sleep I heard him say, 'Sweet Desdemona,
Let us be wary, let us hide our loves!'
And then, sir, would he gripe and wring my hand,
Cry 'O sweet creature!' and then kiss me hard,
As if he plucked up kisses by the roots
That grew upon my lips; then laid his leg
Over my thigh, and sighed, and kissed, and then
Cried 'Cursed fate that gave thee to the Moor!'
O monstrous! monstrous!
Is it crazy to be less impressed by the diabolical cleverness of Iago than by the--shall we say--lack of a certain adult shrewdness in Othello? As the action winds down Emilia berates Othello, "O gull! O dolt! As ignorant as dirt!"--and who can disagree? The whole play may be done as a low farce.
Farcical, but brutal: as usual, the stage is strewn with corpses.