A thrilling production of “Othello” this winter at the Folger Theatre reminded me just how propulsive that tragedy is. Shorn of the philosophical musings of “Hamlet” or the comic business of “King Lear,” Shakespeare’s story of the Moor and the envious villain who destroys him moves as swiftly as poison through the blood.
But who is Iago really? What motivates this duplicitous soldier who warns against the green-eyed monster even while drawing his commander into its jaws? Scholars and theatergoers have debated that question at least since Coleridge stood aghast at his “motiveless Malignity.” And the fact that Iago doesn’t die at the end — unusual among Shakespeare’s villains — gives the play an added touch of menace. Imagine: He’s still out there somewhere, manipulating other minds toward self-destruction.
Well, grab your handkerchief — don’t tell me you lost it! — because Iago is back and more deadly than ever. David Snodin, who worked on BBC’s monumental Shakespeare series in the late 1970s and ’80s, picks up the story a few weeks after the curtain falls on Othello’s bloody bed. A replacement governor has just arrived on Cyprus from Venice, and his first order of business is to confront “the extraordinary devil” awaiting execution in a 500-year-old castle high in the mountains. He and his retinue approach the craggy summit as if their prisoner were some kind of biological weapon. But when the guards open the cell perched thousands of feet over the rocky coastline, Iago has vanished into air.
Yes, it’s a classic chase story: “The Fugitive” with swords and jerkins, double, double toil and trouble. The novel pulls us through one just-missed-him confrontation after another, leaving a slick trail of blood, sleeping throats cut and chests pierced. Cyprus is already inflamed with panicked rumors about what happened to Othello and his lovely wife; the nervous rulers of Venice suspect Iago is a Turkish traitor. With the empire imperiled, nothing is more important than finding this insidious killer. But we don’t really see him for a couple of hundred pages, which is wise, considering that Iago is no Rosencrantz or Guildenstern plucked from the margins of literature. Snodin needs time to create his own story with enough leverage to remake Shakespeare’s villain.
The novel comes to us in two strands belonging, you might say, to “two households, both alike in dignity.” One concentrates on Annibale Malipiero, the chief inquisitor of the Serene Republic of Venice, which is a fancy title for head torturer. But he’s a kinder, gentler torturer, worn out by the depravity of his fellow man. In fact, Malipiero is looking forward to retirement in a few months, but the case of Iago reignites his curiosity. He takes control of the investigation into this semi-mythical figure who “can invade and kill you before you even know you are sick.” He’s willing to risk his career and eventually his life on a secret project to “delve deeper into Iago’s soul” to discover what led to “Iago’s horrible wrongdoings.”
The other strand of the novel is narrated by a 15-year-old nerd named Gentile Stornello, who’s a distant relative of the late Desdemona. He introduces himself by telling us, “I’m destined for a lengthy and unthreatened existence that will consist mainly of books,” which is as naked a setup as Benedick telling us he’ll never marry at the beginning of “Much Ado About Nothing.” “A lightweight, a sissy, a ‘lily-livered whey-face,’ ” Gentile is an easy mark for bullies in Venice, particularly Jacopo, a conceited hunk from the Malipiero family. Gentile just wants to study Plutarch and sigh hopelessly over a maid in Jacopo’s household, but in a plot twist that only Bottom could follow, head torturer Malipiero becomes convinced that Gentile is the perfect tool for him to catch Iago and probe his mind.
Most of the time the story moves along briskly and colorfully enough to distract us from the tenuous logic of its plot. The Renaissance streets and canals of Venice thrum with commerce and violence. Its government is a chaotic shouting match that periodically collapses into brawling. Science is slowly illuminating centuries of darkness. Radical ideas about democracy and the nature of God are challenging old social constructions, even ideas about torture (Attention, John Yoo!). Snodin knows Shakespeare’s plays well enough to drop witty allusions as freely as Puck sprinkles love potion around the forest. And the large cast of characters is wonderfully well drawn, right down to the smaller parts such as the cook in Gentile’s house, a big-boned busybody who sounds as if she once worked as Juliet’s nurse. Even that violent rogue known as Iago begins to grow on us as he alternately stabs and caresses his way across the countryside under Malipiero’s spying eyes.
But for all the story’s colorful entertainment, Iago’s motivation in “Othello” is crystal-clear compared to Malipiero’s unfathomable goal in these pages. Why would an important government official concoct such a ridiculous plan to use a teenage boy to spy on the city’s most terrifying enemy even at the risk of letting him get away — again and again? And why is Venice’s head torturer so curious about the psychology of this one mercenary? By the scale of violence and treachery of the time — graphically represented here — Iago’s crimes are not particularly noteworthy. We want Keyser Soze in a doublet, but in these pages Iago is a rather sympathetic, troubled old soldier, never the inexplicable cipher whom Malipiero suggests. All this extended effort to force Iago to whisper “Rosebud” on the strappado needs to pay off sooner or more powerfully. As the chapters piled up, I felt like Othello telling Desdemona to hurry up and put out the light: “Your mystery, your mystery: nay, dispatch!”
Charles is The Post’s fiction editor. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.
By David Snodin
445 pp. $28