Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Review: I, Iago by Nicole Galland

Othello and Hamlet seem to be the Shakespeare tragedies most often read by high school and college students, at least in my non-scientific experience. In my case, Hamlet trumps Othello in terms of the number of times I was required to read it in my years of schooling but when it came time to choose a play to teach, I couldn't face Hamlet one more time and instead settled on Othello for its relative accessibility and interesting themes. That it has one of Shakespeare's all time baddies, Iago, in it didn't hurt. He's a fascinating viper of a character, conniving, rude, and racist. And yet he must have some good qualities to have reached the station he has. But what are they? And how did they get so subsumed that he is the reprehensible character he is in Shakespeare's creation? Nicole Galland has taken these questions and created an intriguing tale, one in which Iago's character is explained and understood without being immediately reviled by a reader familiar with Othello.

Iago is the fifth son of a Venetian silk merchant and as such, is more a burden than anything else. He has never earned his father's approval or pride in anything and is simply used as a pawn in order to advance his father's ambitions. Iago's best friend Rodrigo is the son of a poor spice merchant and the two boys get into scrapes as most boys do. Iago uses his forthright blunt honesty to get them out of trouble, learning that although Venetian society was founded and suckled on artifice, his honesty is different, unexpected, and even grudgingly respected (although never emulated by others). Unhappily sent to the army to replace his clumsy older brother who suffered a fatal accident in his own military training, Iago finds that he in fact excels at shooting and swordplay and he enjoys earning things on his own merit rather than being tied to the patronage system governing the rest of society.

Iago pays his dues, serving dull tours of duty with the army and coming back to Venice periodically, finding himself more and more disgusted with the artifice of the city, a native-born outsider more than ever. But on one of his leaves, in the midst of the famous revelries of Carnivale, he catches sight of the beautiful Emilia, a woman no more pleased with the falseness of the forms than he is and Iago falls desperately in love, pursues her with his whole heart, and eventually marries her. Their deep love is only marred by Iago's irrational jealousy when other men pay Emilia the slightest attention. And once he meets and becomes indispensible to Othello, his true and faithful ensign, he has to fight his jealousy often when others think that Emilia is Othello's mistress.

But his jealousy extends to anyone he loves and respects and that certainly encompasses his general, Othello. Iago finds himself jealous of Michele Cassio who becomes necessary to Othello as well and even of the beautiful Desdemona when Othello falls in love with her. When his jealousy gets the better of him, causing him to become secretive, growing in cunning, and to start learning and exceling in the art of deceit, his character moves towards the man Shakespeare created, making him desperate for revenge against the losses of those things, the lieutenancy promotion, Othello's regard and trust, his reflected glory-aided social standing, he considers rightfully his and no others'.

The climax, for those familiar with the play, is no surprise, although Iago's own silent interpretation of events might be. He is both the ambitious, terrible, and conniving villain of Shakesepeare and the pitiable man who could never win his father's approbation or interest, the expendable pawn always striving to be better and to be recognized for his talents. Galland has managed to create a believable, human portrait of an Iago with failings that cause horrific tragedy and his own downfall but whose motivations aren't simply purely evil. I actually set the book down at one point and couldn't remember where I had left it. I was both frantic to find it and keep reading and almost glad I couldn't because at that point I found Iago to be a wholly sympathetic character and I knew what was coming. If I didn't find the book, Iago couldn't possibly go on to wreak inevitable havoc.

Readers of Shakespeare will appreciate the subtlety with which Galland has created her characters. They retain what they must of Shakespeare's creation but they are also presented so as to make Iago's story here less black and white but deeper shades of grey. Readers unfamiliar with Shakespeare will not suffer from their lack of knowledge of the play as the narrative pacing and tension are pulled tautly and steadily toward the end, ratcheting up both the knowing and unknowing reader's unease skillfully. Galland builds her plot and her characters beautifully. Ruinous ambition, unchecked jealousy, all-consuming desire for revenge, all the elements of Shakepeare's original are here, explained and exposed, fascinating and engrossing. A sympathetic Iago? Yes. Still the monster that Shakespeare created? Well, still yes. And he is Galland's greatest accomplishment in this tour de force of a novel.

For more information about Nicole Galland and the book visit her website, her Facebook page, or her blog. Follow the rest of the blog tour or look at the amazon reviews for others' thoughts and opinions on the book.

Thanks to Trish from TLC Book Tours and the publisher for sending me a copy of this book to review.


  1. This book sounds really neat! I love retellings like Wicked (and I love covers of songs) as seeing the same story from another point of view can be so fascinating.

  2. Thank you, Kristen, for this lovely review!

  3. My husband had to read Hamlet and he loved it. I never read it but I did read and love Othello. I'm definitely intrigued by what might have been going on in Iago's head!

    Thanks for being on the tour. I can't wait to read this one myself!


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