The Best Villain Ever?

Longer ago than I willingly disclose, as a stagestruck schoolboy, I queued for a night and a day to see Laurence Olivier's "Othello" at the Old Vic in London. It was a production that sparkles in my memory even now - together with Michael Redgrave and Olivier in "Uncle Vanya," Scofield's "Lear," David Warner's "Hamlet," Peter Brook's "Midsummer Night's Dream," and many more. Bliss was it then to be alive and in love with theater!

I went to the stage door afterwards, with a throng of similarly awed acolytes, playbill at the ready. I never got the great man's autograph, but I hung around a while and got Frank Finlay's. Finlay, I remember, was shambling and graciously bewildered that I'd waited for him. Maybe I enthused too much, probably bobbing about him and telling him how sensational he was. But he was sensational. And Iago after all is the part, isn't it? Ask any actor.

Surely he's the most seductive villain in theater. I'm biased, as I've spent a lot of time with him in recent years while working on "Iago: A Novel" [$28.00, Henry Holt and Co.]- perhaps more than is healthy; but then he does have a way of getting into your head and sticking around, which is precisely what he wants.

What is it that makes this fearsome creature, he who says he 'lacks iniquity', so damnably likeable, or even, dare I venture, sexy?

To begin with, he talks to you - yes, you. Not at you, like most soliloquisers, or to everyone in general, or to himself (Hamlet being the best exemplar of that). It's as if he's putting a hand to the side of his mouth, drawing you close. Here, he seems to whisper, this is between you and me, don't tell anyone else. He wants you to share in his villainy. And you do. He's saying, in effect, look how stupid these people are, you're not like them - you're clever, like me. And you rather agree with him. You become complicit, guilty by association. You feel curiously privileged, even as you realise that what he's doing to you is exactly what he's doing to the other characters in the play. It doesn't matter that he's bad. You're hooked.

Aside from this awful collusiveness, he comes across, at least when he's with others, as a regular guy, someone who's fun to have around. He's not ugly, he doesn't creep or skulk, there's nothing sly about him, like some commonplace baddie. And unlike the Macbeths or the hunchback Richard the Third, he's not royalty or rich, so you can't distance yourself as you can with them once things become uncomfortable. He's a soldier, he's been about. He was a very good soldier. He's tough. He can crack a good joke, and sing a good song. He is, unforgettably, 'honest Iago'. He's probably set quite a few hearts fluttering in his time (Emilia's for one). Yes he's sexy.

And he's not technically a murderer, or not a premeditative one. He kills his wife Emilia, but he does it impulsively to get her to shut up. He has a stab at Cassio but only wounds him. He's no psychopath. If anything he's a sociopath. He likes to see people destroy themselves.

And there's the nub of what drives him. I don't think he's psychotic from the start, or as some would therefore have it 'evil'. His first plan is vague and unformed. He wants to shame Othello and to demote Cassio, whom Othello has unaccountably promoted over him - and simply, as far as Iago can tell, because Cassio is good-looking. Iago also thinks that both Othello and Cassio have slept with Emilia, though this is a throwaway notion; rather as if Iago wishes it might have been so.

In fact, Iago is predominantly motivated, in my view, by jealousy, the very feeling he so brilliantly wheedles into almost everyone else; 'the green-eyed monster'. He's jealous of that 'daily beauty' that others have, their effortless aptitude and self-assurance, which come with the status that he'll never enjoy. Aren't we just a bit with him there? You could say it's a class war he's fighting. It's only when the initial plan starts to solidify, and becomes the success that even he didn't predict, that he turns into a dealer in death. He's enjoying himself too much to stop. He's found power at last.

Is he gay, as has sometimes been posited? I'm not sure it matters, and Iago, if he knew the modern meaning of the word, would certainly deny it (and probably kill you for suggesting it). If he's in love with Othello, and maybe even Cassio, it's out of a desire to be them, I think, rather than to be with them, so to speak.

More crucially, and here I must tread cautiously as I seem to be defending him quite a lot, is Iago a racist? An actress friend said she'd never forgive Iago for calling Othello an 'old black ram tupping your white ewe'. Well, my answer is that Iago merely says it, as he says most things, to inflame suspicion in another character, in this case Desdemona's father, who is unquestionably a racist.

But what do I know? Finally we must base our opinion of Iago on what he does, but more vitally on what he tells us - and as I've already clarified, I hope, we can't trust a word of what he tells us. That on its own makes him the very best villain there could be, does it not?

Thanks to Iago's guile I've developed something of a taste for Shakespeare's bad guys. His next villain was Edmund in "King Lear" - interestingly, directly afterwards, and there are many similarities; the same self-reliance, the same existential philosophy that it's you against the world, and that if you put your mind to it you can be better than any divinity. But having done Iago, I couldn't do Edmund; I'd be treading too familiar ground.

So for my next book (another friend has jovially suggested that this could become a franchise), I've picked someone else from Lear - a woman who has no soliloquies as such, but whose only aside is unsettling. When her younger sister announces that she feels sick and that she may be dying, Goneril mutters (to us and nobody else): 'if not, I'll ne'er trust medicine'. Doesn't that send an Iago-like chill through you?

I still have the playbill of "Othello" with Frank Finlay's signature and I treasure it.