I am very pleased to welcome author Nicole Galland to Passages to the Past today to talk about her novel I, Iago!
Thanks to HarperCollins I have one copy of I, Iago up for grabs, so be sure to enter the giveaway at the bottom of this post.
And now, please enjoy this guest post from Nicole Galland...
Iago and Emilia
by Nicole Galland (author of I, Iago)
My novel I, Iago is inspired by Shakespeare’s masterpiece Othello. The play features two married couples. In the novel, we watch each couple meet, fall in love, and marry.
Without giving much away: in Othello, Ensign Iago is angry at General Othello for not promoting him to lieutenant. To get back at him, Iago decides to convince Othello that his bride, Desdemona, is having an affair. (If this sounds to you like an extreme reaction, you’re in good company.) One of Iago’s tools of deception is Desdemona’s handkerchief. Iago’s wife Emilia, who is Desdemona’s attendant, pinches it (at Iago’s request) and gives it to Iago, who plants it on Desdemona’s supposed paramour. Chaos ensues. Eventually Emilia realizes the role the handkerchief has played in all the mayhem, and calls her husband to account, mortified at her own involvement.
Of these two couples, one of them – Desdemona and Othello – is pretty familiar by name, even to those with little knowledge of Shakespeare. They are famously passionate and impetuous. In the play, they have just eloped in defiance of Desdemona’s patrician father; they pet in front of the population of Cyprus (including the soldiers Othello commands). In almost every scene together, the two are in physical contact; even when they aren’t, Othello’s words have a physical effect on Desdemona. The nature of their relationship is clear at every moment.
Remember, Shakespeare wrote his plays for actors, not for readers. When actors playing these two characters walk into the rehearsal room for the first time, they already have a sense of how they’ll be playing the scenes.
In contrast, the other couple’s “vibe” is downright murky. Iago and Emilia have been married longer than their respective bosses. But on-stage they speak directly only occasionally; and they have just one brief (but pivotal) scene alone together. And yet, if Othello and Desdemona’s eloping sets the story in motion, it is Iago and Emilia’s relationship that keeps the plot moving – and then short-circuits it. Theirs may be the most underwritten marriage in history.
Unlike the actors playing Othello and Desdemona, whoever plays Iago and Emilia are likely to show up for rehearsal with no clear idea what kind of matrimony they are in for. Their relationship can be interpreted any number of ways. Even if you’re not the sort to step foot in a theatre, you’ll find, even on Youtube clips, that every movie of Othello has a different slant on the Iago-Emilia marriage. For the sake of maximizing Iago’s villainy, most depictions are not positive. To name a few: They are a long-married couple, resigned to the habit of bickering; or, the adoring Emilia longs to please her strangely distracted husband, who has recently grown grumpy; or, theirs is the classic abusive marriage – Iago treats Emilia snidely even in public, and she, in a cloud of confusion that is common to battered spouses, is desperate to please him and obeys without question because she is too cowed to do otherwise.
When I became obsessed with understanding Iago (after directing a staged reading of the play), I realized that most of all I had to understand his relationship with his wife. I disagreed with all these negative interpretations. I am not alone in that; I’d also seen the couple played as if they are bantering, not bickering. That, to me, was not only the most attractive, but the most compelling, way to go.
If Iago is behaving badly uniformly, across the board, then he’s a cardboard cutout of a villain, akin to Snidely Whiplash. If that were the case, gallons of ink would not have been consigned to parchment and paper over the span of 400 years trying to understand him. But if he is behaving badly except that he loves his wife – suddenly he’s interesting. Suddenly there’s texture, and layers, and conflicting elements within his character. Suddenly, he’s human. Shakespeare’s characters can be inhumane, but never actually inhuman. (Except, of course, the fairies.)
So I dug into the scenes, lines by line, word by word, that make some (usually male) scholars feel Iago bullies his wife. Chief among these is part of a scene that is usually cut in performance: As all the characters await Othello’s arrival in Cyprus, Iago makes cheeky comments to and about both Emilia and Desdemona, to the point that another character intervenes, apologizing to Desdemona for Iago’s rudeness. But Desdemona seems charmed by it, and Emilia even eggs him on!
I suppose his impudence could be interpreted as misogyny – but given how the ladies respond to it, it could just as easily be seen as playful banter. To suggest that joshing a woman is misogynistic is frankly, to me, somewhat sexist in itself. Iago may dish it out at times, but Emilia can dish it back; she teases him as much as he teases her, and near the end of the play, she tells Desdemona how far she’d go to make her husband king of the world if she could (she’d go pretty far).
All the other scenes that could suggest a bad marriage between them can just as easily been read – and more importantly, performed – as a lively marriage between two lively personalities. It’s fun in theatre to be able to interpret one scene in different ways, but it is more satisfying to me (perhaps I’m too controlling?) to cement just one particular version by fleshing it out on the page. I’m not saying my interpretation of Iago and Emilia is the best one, or the only one. But it’s one that I believe in and love a lot, both for itself specifically and for what it says about human nature generally. There are few things more satisfying in any kind of story – book, movie, or play – than a spirited relationship between two strong characters. If you ever have the opportunity to see Othello, I hope you are treated to an Emilia and a Iago who are a marriage of true minds, as I believe I’ve made them in I, Iago.
About I, Iago
Publication Date: April 24, 2012 | William Morrow | 400p
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