The Iago within us


I enjoyed reading Kara Marziali’s review of Trinity Repertory Company’s production of “Othello” in the March 2 issue of The Jewish Voice. I read her piece just a day or so after I saw the play, which is performed in the round, upstairs in the Chace Theater.  I concur with Marziali’s contention that “ ‘Othello’ is a prime example of how racism, intolerance and bigotry foster a culture of suspicion, antagonism and violence.”

While Marziali looked at the social and cultural themes in Shakespeare’s tragedy, the play forced me to look inward, to confront the evil buried deep within my own soul. 

Like many theater-goers, I find “Othello” to be primarily about Iago, the villain, rather than about the noble Moor who gives the play its title. At the recent Trinity production, it was Iago who engaged me most fully; in some sense, I found myself rooting for him. What clever remark was he going to make next? How would his actions turn the plot in new directions?

The great Shakespearean scholar A. C. Bradley (1851-1935) begins one of his published lectures on “Othello” by stating, “Evil has nowhere else been portrayed with such mastery as in the character of Iago.” Bradley then writes that Iago is one of “the most wonderful characters” in all of Shakespeare, along with Falstaff, Hamlet and Cleopatra. “Of these,” he writes, “… Hamlet and Iago … are perhaps the most subtle.”

What is it about Iago that has engaged and energized audiences for more than 400 years?  I would suggest that we are attracted to Iago not despite the fact that he is evil incarnate, but precisely because of what some have called his “motiveless malignity.” 

Yes, Iago does claim that he hates Othello because he failed to promote him from ensign (or ancient) to lieutenant; the Moor has instead given the assignment to Michael Cassio, a man far less battle-hardened than Iago.  But Iago’s reaction to this “motive” seems wildly out of proportion – in an accelerating rampage, he contrives to deceive and destroy Othello, Othello’s bride Desdemona, the easily duped patsy Rodrego, and even his own wife, Emelia. 

Like moths drawn to a flame, we in the audience are drawn to Iago’s manifest joyfulness at his genius for improvisation, his almost satanic ability to invent ways to make life hell for those whom he targets.

As the literary critic Harold Bloom (b. 1930) has written, “Othello’s tragedy is precisely that Iago should know him better than the Moor knows himself.” Indeed, Iago, as cold and calculating as Heinrich Himmler, the former head of the dreaded SS, seems to possess an uncanny ability to read the weakness of others. 

During the course of a single scene – Act III, Scene 3 – “honest” Iago is able to transform the once proud, brave, self-disciplined Othello into a raving lunatic consumed by “the green-eyed monster,” jealousy – a jealousy that leads him to strangle the one he loves. 

Just moments before he commits suicide, Othello still cannot see in himself that which was so obvious to Iago; he tells those standing by that he has been one “not easily jealous.”  Not easily jealous?  Few characters in all of world literature have been as easily jealous as Othello.

Traditional Jewish psychology can help us better understand the nature of Iago’s malignity. In contrast to the Christian notion of Original Sin, Judaism does not hold that we are inherently sinful. Rather, for two millennia the rabbis have affirmed that we are born with two competing inclinations: the yetzer tov, our inclination to do good, and the yetzer hara, our inclination to do evil. The morally healthy individual maintains a balance between these conflicting impulses. 

Indeed, with disciplined effort, one can enlist the yetzer tov to tame the yetzer hara, to sublimate it to serve society at large. The rabbis go so far as to say the yetzer hara, often associated with our sexual drive, is an essential aspect of our humanity; were it not for the yetzer hara, we would not establish our families, nor would we do the work of the world.

Iago is a man whose yetzer hara has run amok, for he has lost the yetzer tov to keep it in check.  As Bloom states, “Iago has no inner self, only a fecund abyss.” 

Lacking an inner self, lacking a yetzer tov to give him a positive sense of direction, Iago is reduced to a chaos of destructive negativity, a defiant no, an untamed urge to do evil. He is a nullity inside, void of all sense of virtue. Since for him there is no God, he feels a terrible and terrifying sense of absolute freedom – a freedom to do whatever he pleases without fear of consequences.

In the very first scene of the play, he defines himself as undefinable: “I am not what I am” – a telling, heretical inversion of God’s reply to Moses at the burning bush: “I am what I am.”

One cannot witness the words and the actions of Iago without pondering the mystery of human depravity.

By the end of the play, many in the audience may have begun to suspect that the reason we find Iago so irresistibly fascinating is that there is more than a little of Iago hidden within each of us. 

JAMES B. ROSENBERG is rabbi emeritus at Temple Habonim in Barrington. Contact him at

Iago, Trinity Rep