He Murdered His Friends, Now 'Iago' Moves On

Shakespeare's Iago is one of the great defining villains of literature. He masquerades as a friend, which disguises his schemes to manipulate, betray and destroy. Host Scott Simon talks with author David Snodin, whose new book, Iago, fills in what happened after Iago masterminded the murders of his wife, Othello and Desdemona.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Shakespeare's Iago is one of the great defining villains of literature. He masquerades as a friend, and that disguises his schemes to manipulate, betray and destroy. He fools Othello into believing that his wife is betraying him - she's not - then manipulates his old friend and commander into having her killed in a fit of engineered jealousy.

But when Iago's deceits are discovered and he's imprisoned, he clams up, invoking his right to remain silent centuries before the Miranda ruling. Demand me nothing, he says at the end of "Othello." What you know, you know. From this time forth I never will speak word. So he doesn't - until now.

David Snodin, who worked as a script editor on a famous BBC production of Shakespeare's plays, has now written a novel in which he imagines what happens after Iago is put behind a stout iron prison door in Crete. His new book is called "Iago." David Snodin joins us from London.

Thanks so much for being with us.

DAVID SNODIN: It's good to be with you.

SIMON: What prompted you to pick up Iago and run with him into a new story?

SNODIN: Well, I've been obsessed with him ever since as a mere boy. I went to the old Vic Theater here in London and queued all night and all day to see the great Laurence Olivier do his Othello. But despite his being extraordinary and quite the most remarkable theatrical experience I've ever had, the person who I was drawn most to was Frank Finlay's Iago.

And then, I won't admit how many years later, I was working here at the BBC on the BBC's Shakespeares and there was a production that Jonathan Miller, Dr. Jonathan Miller directed with Anthony Hopkins as Othello and Bob Hoskins as Iago. And I have to say, Bob Hoskins's performance as Iago is probably the best performance I've ever seen. And I've seen a lot of them.

And it was from that point on that I began to think, well, it would be nice to try and portray this iconic Shakespearian villain as if he was just a man and to try and find out why he does what he does.

SIMON: At the heart of your story is a character named Annibale Malipiero, who is the chief inquisitor of the Serene Republic of Venice.

SNODIN: Yeah.

SIMON: Is this a, as they might put it in Venice, waterway-weary cop.

SNODIN: How do you mean? I'm sorry.

SIMON: We would say street-weary cop, but I changed it for Venice.

SNODIN: Oh, well, canal-weary cop.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SIMON: Canal-weary, better, better.

SNODIN: Well, actually, I've made him not only a canal-weary cop, but I've made him a cop who doesn't like water, which I think is, you know, just one of the little jokes I've got in the book.

SIMON: And the chief inquisitor hatches his own scheme, if you please. There's a 15-year-old kid, Gentile Stornello, a dreamy boy who's been framed for murder. And he arranges for the two of them to escape from prison together. And they go off on a jaunt, fleeing to the countryside. Now, what is the inquisitor hopeful will happen on their romp?

SNODIN: Well, he - I mean, the most important thing to remember about Iago at the end of the play is that he says from now on I will speak no more. I will say nothing. And he hasn't spoken. And it is only when he arrives in the prison he starts to speak to the boy, because the boy is, in fact, a cousin of another character in the play, Desdemona, who Iago has manipulated Othello to kill.

So somehow that association makes Iago speak. And Annibale, our wily inquisitor, Annibale, thinks, well, if he's speaking to this boy and he's not speaking to me and he's not speaking to anybody else, maybe I should use this boy as a means of getting him to talk more and to reveal not that he did it or he didn't do it, but why he did what he did.

You know, Iago's no psychopath. He's not a mass murderer. He only kills one person. That's his wife. And he kills her because she's about to spill the beans. He gets other people to hate each other. He's I suppose what you call a sociopath. He's somebody who believes in making people destroy each other. I think that's what fascinates him and that's what fascinates me about this kind of person.

SIMON: And when you work Shakespeare's words in the kind of proximity that you did, when you take some of his characters and storylines and try and run them through your own imagination, how does it change your appreciation for Shakespeare's genius?

SNODIN: Well, one thing I somewhat contentiously say sometimes about Shakespeare is that he wasn't very good at plots. He's fantastic at creating characters. And, of course, his verse is matchless and his prose is matchless. But his plots - most notably the plot of "Othello" - are not totally watertight. That aside, his characters are devastatingly profound, and one treads very warily on those characters and some might say that I've been a bit cheeky to have done so. But I certainly want to emphasize that my take on Iago is just my take on Iago. And, more importantly than anything, I want people to read it who don't know who Iago was and don't know who Othello was and who don't know - dare I say it - who Shakespeare was. Now, it's unlikely that many of those will, but in some sense it's a story that I want to stand on its own. I just hope it's a jolly good story.

SIMON: So, what's next? As it turns out, Juliet lives?

SNODIN: Well, you see, this is...

SIMON: Wakes up and marries a rug salesman?

SNODIN: Yeah. Well, anything's possible. Look, a friend of mine - a very, very good friend of mine - once told me I've got a franchise here. I've got Cressida, I've got Juliet. But actually in truth, believe it or not, I am doing another villain but it's a woman and it's very different from Iago. It's in fact Goneril in "King Lear," who is the nasty older sister, Cordelia's older sister. Goneril and Regan, they're often called the ugly sisters of Shakespeare. I just think she's an absolutely fascinating character.

SIMON: David Snodin, joining us from London. His new novel - and clearly not his last - "Iago." Thanks so much.

SNODIN: Thank you very much indeed.

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