Chicago Shakespeare’s Othello makes a strong case for Iago as Shakespeare’s greatest character. Not just Shakespeare’s greatest villain, mind you (give Iago 10:1 odds in that non-contest), but the overall bracket winner in the tournament of Shakespeare’s greatest creations.*
While Hamlet, Brutus, and Lear expound on their inner turmoils at every turn in the road, Iago is a giant oak unmoved by morals or loyalty or the law. From the opening scene, Iago follows Othello only “to serve my turn upon him.” His guiding question, “And what’s he then that says I play a villain[?],” is not a justification to himself but a direct challenge to his audience: judge me if you want, but I was wronged long before any of this started.
Like Prospero and even Viola, Iago is a puppet master. His knowledge of his supporting players is so great that his hand practically moves in unison with their mouths. But the fire within him grows hotter with each scene until he has ignited the most moral of characters to seek revenge against those that they most love.
Director Jonathan Munby’s staging emphasizes the military aspects of the plot with most of the set enclosed between the barbed wire fences of the barracks in Cyprus. Each of the lead actors thrives in this concept—delivering lines that not only focus the passions of their characters but also bring forth humor from a script in which dramatic irony propels each scene.
The following is a list of five scenes that highlight the actors behind the five major roles:
Jessie Fischer as Emilia (Act IV, scene ii). As a military officer designated to attend to Desdemona, Fischer leaps beyond the usual portrayal of Emilia as the long-suffering yet subservient wife to Iago. When Emilia entreats Iago to hear about Othello’s recent madness toward Desdemona, Fischer creates pure comedy as she blazes through lines concerning the “mysterious force” that has initiated this hatred within the Moor: “The Moor’s abused by some most villanous knave, / Some base notorious knave, some scurvy fellow… [P]ut in every honest hand a whip / To lash the rascals naked through the world!” Michael Mulligan as Iago eyes the audience as he attempts to quell Emilia’s ranting, but she will not be subdued. Alas, Iago’s undoing is eventually wrought by his inability to control the only character that is (by the standards of the time) legally bound to obey him.
Luigi Sottile as Cassio (Act II, scene iii). Cassio never quite makes it to his assigned guard duty. Instead, the hard-partying soldiers, led by Iago who has spiked the punch with a full bottle of hard alcohol (another comedic highlight for the audience), entices Cassio into drinking far more than is good for him. Sottile channels every ounce of despair into his self-loathing speech following his disgrace and dismissal by Othello: “It hath pleased the devil drunkenness to give place / to the devil wrath; one unperfectness shows me / another, to make me frankly despise myself.” Sottile agonizes while pacing about the stage with unchanneled energy, going so far as to smack himself with genuine force as Iago uses him to destroy Othello.
Bethany Jillard as Desdemona (Act III, scene iv). Like many Chicago Shakespeare productions, Othello includes entertainment during the intermission, in this case a soldier’s toneless karaoke performance of Drake’s “Hotline Bling.” When Desdemona enters looking regal wearing a form-fitting Italian suit (credit costume designer for this effective contrast to the camouflage worn by the soldiers), she is serenaded by a group of soldiers channeling Tom Cruise while singing “You’ve Lost that Loving Feeling.” While Jillard is exceptional in delivering the lines given to her by the Bard, she shines brightest while blushing with embarrassment.
James Vincent Meredith as Othello (Act IV, scene i). Othello, who has been increasingly cruel toward Desdemona, works himself into a rage over the absence of his mother’s handkerchief. He tells Desdemona: “That handkerchief / Did an Egyptian to my mother give… To lose’t or give’t away were such perdition / As nothing else could match.” How notable that Othello, the imposing military strategist, will create his own undoing over the flimsy evidence of a handkerchief with strawberry embroidery. Meredith’s rage as Othello builds substantially with each mention of this symbol of deception.
Michael Mulligan as Iago (Act I, scene iii). Under Munby’s direction, Iago’s monologues surpass internal dialogue. Mulligan breaks the fourth wall and directly addresses his audience: “The Moor is of a free and open nature, / That thinks men honest that but seem to be so, / And will as tenderly be led by the nose / As asses are.” Mulligan makes the audience his conspirators, going so far as to elicit a chuckle on the many occasions when Iago refers to his own righteousness. As a great orator, Mulligan lulls his audience into sympathy for Iago’s point of view before we shake ourselves out of the trance and remember the villainy behind Iago’s motives.
In recent years, I have consistently enjoyed the Chicago Shakespeare comedy productions more than the tragedies. While the comedies tend to be bright and magical, the tragedies provide little relief from three hours of devastating subject matter. Othello, in contrast, with its engrossing performances and modern staging strikes a perfect balance between despair for the characters’ falls from grace and awe for the brilliance of Iago, who even at the end shows no remorse for the lives destroyed in his quest for revenge.
*NOTE: Iago ranks second to Hamlet regarding the number of lines delegated to a Shakespearean character. For the full ranking, check shakespeareswords.com.
(Special recognition goes to my colleagues from Bartlett High School for enjoying this production with me. Our department shirts were a big hit among Chicago’s literary-minded Shakespeare fans.)