I'm delighted to welcome Nicole Galland, author of I, IAGO. An accomplished novelist of several other historical fiction novels, including The Fools Tale and Crossed, in I, Iago, Nicole explores the controversial life and deeds of Shakespeare's most infamous villain, as seen through his eyes. Author Geraldine Brooks hails Nicole's latest novel as a work "of astonishing empathy, buttressed by deep research."
Please join me in welcoming Nicole Galland.
Please join me in welcoming Nicole Galland.
STAGE VS PAGE: Adapting Othello into I, Iago
Adapting Shakespeare should not be terrifying; it happens all the time. If I paused now to list all the plays, musicals, books and movies that are based on works of the Bard, it would fill up this entire post.
And yet when I began to retell Othello from the villain’s point of view, I almost could not write for nerves. I had never in my life felt so presumptuous! I’ve written in the back of the book about why I took on this challenge; let me tell you, here, a little about how I took it on.
I, Iago has two parts: the first is a prequel to Othello; the second is a retelling of the play. The prequel was tremendous fun. The play is loaded with references to things that happened before the curtain goes up, and reconstructing them into a coherent story line felt almost like losing myself in a mystery novel.
It’s when I reached the second half that I got a case of nerves. There I was, with one of the world’s greatest plays, one of its most notorious villains, and I was about to try to make him “new.” This exact challenge is presented to every director who stages the play, and every actor who takes on the role. In their case, however, they are taking material intended to be performed on stage… and performing it on stage. I was taking that same material and translating it into a different medium of story-telling. That was my real challenge.
There is a huge difference between a gripping night of theatre and a gripping night curled up with a book. A play captivates us because there are real human beings in front of us, speaking and moving in real time, with real objects. There is chemistry between the actors, and electricity between actors and audience. It is a public, communal experience with audio-visual enhancement.A novel, in contrast, is a private, intimate exchange between a reader and a story-teller who is not even present; the experience takes place entirely inside the reader’s head. The reader actively contributes to the creative process: no matter how well I describe somebody’s costume, or the sound of rain, you, the reader, must take my words and form that experience in your mind.
Othello is both a deeply psychological story (which makes it easy material for a novel adaptation) and a highly theatrical one (which makes it difficult).The story is set in the 1500s in Venice and Cyprus. General Othello, leader of the Venetian army, is duped by his ensign Iago into believing that Othello’s bride, Desdemona, has slept with his lieutenant, Cassio. Iago does this to punish Othello; he is furious at Othello for passing him over for promotion. The position went instead to Cassio, which is why Cassio becomes his pawn. (Why is Desdemona made a pawn as well? Different actors have different interpretations.) Delighting in his ability to manipulate others, Iago keeps up his deceit even after Cassio is demoted and he himself is elevated. He gratuitously continues his mischief until (spoiler alert) everyone is either dead or wounded.
Iago has two key weapons for duping Othello. One of them is a handkerchief – an excellent theatrical visual, much more dramatic on stage than in a book. Othello gave it as a gift to Desdemona; when Desdemona drops it, Emilia (her attendant, and Iago’s wife) picks it up and gives it to Iago, knowing he wants it but not knowing why. Iago plants it on Cassio, who, innocent of its origin, gives it to his mistress – who flings it at Cassio, in front of Othello, in such a way that Othello is convinced Desdemona gave it to Cassio as a love-token. Othello is so distressed by this “ocular proof” of his wife’s infidelity, he has a seizure. The device is so theatrical – so dependent on visuals and the relationship of who is near whom on stage when – that that part of the story could practically be told without any words at all. In fact, there is a ballet of Othello that does just that.
I could describe the journey of the handkerchief in my narrative, but it would not pack the punch the hanky does on stage. (And reading about an epileptic fit is not as distressing as actually watching one.)
Iago’s other weapon, however, is words. He talks incessantly; he is eloquent, witty, dissembling, quick-thinking, and brilliantly manipulative. He actually convinces Othello of Desdemona’s infidelity before the handkerchief appears. Just with words. I’m a novelist. I can work with words.
There is one enormous difference between how words are used on stage and how they are used in a novel. On stage, words are dialogue, and occasional “aside” speeches by one character to the audience. Iago has a number of these, but when he is actually interacting with another character, he cannot – in that moment – turn to the audience and share his thoughts. Part of the fun of theatre is knowing that there is more going on below the surface than what we’re seeing, without having direct access to it. In direct contract, part of the fun of a novel is that we have such an intimate relationship with what is going on beneath the surface. The narrator can tell us anything; we can get behind a character’s eyes in a way we cannot at the theatre. Here is where Shakespeare indulged me with a gift: in Othello, Iago shares so much of his secret self with the audience, it’s almost as if he wants to leap into a novel and tell it all.
That was my “in.” I just had to open up the pages, and he leapt right in. Oh, sure, the handkerchief is in there too, and all the other theatrical highlights. But Iago is free to talk to us without fear of exposure. And when he does – when he has the chance to narrate everything, in the moment it is happening – he becomes a novel-character, not a stage-character. In changing medium, he changes character, he becomes different from Shakesperae’s Iago. The two Iago’s perform the same acts, and say the same words aloud, but what is going on behind the mask is at once very similar and very, very different from what is happening on stage. “My” Iago could never be performed on stage – but he does not want to be. He wants to be exactly where he is, snug within the pages of a book, ready to tell you all his secrets in the most intimate of settings.
Thank you so much, Nicole. We wish you much success with I, IAGO. To find out more about Nicole and her work, please visit her website.