No contest, Iago, the evil genius of William Shakespeare’s Othello, is the most brutal villain in any of the bard’s productions. The play was first presented in 1604 during what literary historians have deemed Shakespeare’s period of despair, when the struggle for good and evil in the human soul preoccupied him.
But what made Iago so ruthless yet so ostensibly above-reproach that he could win a loving and well-bred wife like Emilia and the trust and promotion of a great general such as Othello?
Vineyard author, Nicole Galland, in her new novel, I, Iago (William Morrow), fleshes out the character of Iago by giving him center stage in this first person narrative written from Iago’s point of view. The book is both funny and engrossing, and at times sympathetic to the vicious antagonist.
“Shakespeare presents Iago as much more obviously wicked,” Ms. Galland recounted in an interview with the Gazette. “He’s cackling in the last rout of the drama, urging the audience to witness how his evil machinations are causing such chaos.”
Ms. Galland creates her fictional world with a polish and precision that carries the action along like a first-class thriller. Her dialogue is fresh and believable, absent of the stilted quality that often infects historical fiction. Early 16th century Venice is rendered beautifully; the reader is treated to an arm-chair adventure via time machine.
“To avoid the crowded Rialto, I took a gondola across the Grand Canal and then serpentined through the narrow alleys of San Marco until they opened up onto the Piazza. Fabric stretched on large wooden frames had been erected to afford some shade to all the ministers and commissioners and aides and clerks who were trying to conduct business among the peddlers and fortune-tellers and flower sellers and notaries. The cloth frames had crowds beneath them; the rest of the Piazza was baking, heat rising in mercurial shimmers for two hundred paces.”
Ms. Galland first became interested in writing a book from Iago’s perspective after performing and rewriting Othello for a performance of Shakespeare for the Masses. Collaborating with Chelsea McCarthy, the two prune Shakespeare’s plays down to an hour and invent spoken narrative to gloss over the missing bits such as battles and long soliloquies.
A few seasons ago, the troupe performed Othello and Ms. Galland’s then-future husband, actor Billy Meleady, was cast as Iago.
“But why does Iago do the dastardly things he does?” asked Mr. Meleady, desperate to understand the character’s motives. He and Ms. Galland pulled an all-nighter developing scenarios, reasons, childhood disorders.
“Billy went to Boston, but I couldn’t stop thinking about Iago as a character,” remembered Ms. Galland. “The natural outcome was to write a book about him.”
Ms. Galland said her research unpacked far more information than would fit neatly into a well-paced novel.
“I read so much about Venetian history. The action of Othello takes place at the end of the Golden Age of Venice. In the play, Iago laments that the city-state is no longer expanding. It’s in a state of entropy. On the other hand, the story that Shakespeare unfolds was historically impossible. He stuffed decades of historical events into the short time-frame of the drama.”
Reading I, Iago, the reader becomes aware of how many plot points and character analyses Shakespeare neglected, such as how did this magnificent African warrior come to serve as the star general of the Venetian navy and why would Desdemona fall in love and elope with Othello?
Ms. Galland’s three previous novels were also concerned with history; Crossed: A Tale of The Fourth Crusade, The Fool’s Tale, and Revenge of The Rose. This is her first attempt to rewrite Shakespeare but most likely not her last. She is eager to retell the story of the Merchant of Venice from the point-of-view of Shylock’s daughter, Jessica, also a Venetian woman of the 16th century, who deserts her papa and her Jewish faith to marry a Christian soldier.
Ms. Galland’s next project, which is already written and on her editor’s desk, is a retelling of Lady Godiva and her various cohorts of Northern France in 1042, twenty years before the Norman invasion.
A book signing and reading with Nicole Galland takes place on Tuesday, April 24, at 5 p.m. at the West Tisbury Library.