Anyone who knows me will know I’m a bit of a Shakespeare geek and that my favourite play is ‘Othello’. Despite being written over 400 years ago, the play has a timeless relevance with its themes of jealousy, cultural differences and a villainous character (Iago) who manipulates everyone else in the play. (Back in 1996, Kenneth Branagh directed a film version of the play in which he starred as Iago and incorporated a scene in which Iago symbolically moves chess pieces around a board whilst explaining in soliloquy how he is controlling the other characters.)
I’ve written a modern day version of the play as a short story, told by Iago. As readers, we’re left wondering how much of what Iago says is true: is he really a reliable narrator?
If you’re not familiar with the play but enjoy the story, don’t try to read the play afterwards. Shakespeare wrote plays to be performed, not scripts for people to read and study. There are plenty of excellent film versions on the internet, so watch one of those and decide for yourselves: is my narrator really “honest Iago”?
“No! I don’t believe it!” Roderigo stares at me aghast. “She’s really eloped with him? But he’s old enough to be her father!”
I notice he doesn’t voice the other reason for his disgust, but that’s because race is a tricky issue these days. Besides, Othello has a good reputation in the army: he’s led more successful campaigns than I can remember.
Poor Rodrigo! He’s had a thing for Desdemona for as long as I can remember. He’s worshipped her from afar for years – and you have to admit that technically he’d make a much better husband for her than Othello. He’s rich, for one thing; and he’s only a year or two older than she is; and – dare I say it – he’s not from a different culture … Not that I’m suggesting Othello would mistreat Desdemona in any way, you understand – it’s just… Well, you know what they say about Arabs and the way they keep their women covered from head to foot and confined to barracks. (Not literal barracks, obviously – the last thing he wants is all his soldiers gawping at her.)
“Of course,” I keep my voice casual, “it’s not too late for you to do something about it.”
“What do you mean?” Roderigo is intrigued.
“Well,” I say, lowering my voice enough to make him really listen, “if we were to wake her father and tell him that the Moor’s kidnapped his daughter…”
Roderigo’s eyes widen. “You mean …”
“Yes,” I say, telling him exactly what he wants to hear, “we could get the General arrested before he’s had the chance to sample the goods. And I’ve no doubt that Brabantio will be so grateful to you that he’ll look on you a little more kindly as a possible husband for Desdemona yourself.”
The old goat’s so racist he’d think a streetcleaner was a better prospect than Othello – as long as the streetcleaner’s the right colour, of course.
“What time is it now?” Roderigo checks his watch. “Will Brabantio appreciate being woken up at gone midnight?”
Poor fool! Manners and etiquette are everything to Roderigo; but sometimes you have to be a bit ruthless to get what you want.
“If we leave it till later,” I say, my voice crisp with confidence, “they’ll both be gone – and your rival will have put his filthy hands all over her.”
He’s galvanised into action as I knew he would be.
“Right,” he says, suddenly awake. “What are we waiting for?”
Brabantio’s got a pretty good security system – well, he’d have to, wouldn’t he, considering that he’s one of the richest guys in Venice; but that works to our advantage as no one could sleep through all the security lights and barking dogs and the incessant ringing on the doorbell as Roderigo presses it incessantly until it nearly melts into the woodwork.
At first, he thinks we’re burglars, and it’s not helped when Roderigo starts babbling about how Brabantio’s “most precious jewel” has been stolen from him this very night and how he’s lost the treasure of his heart, etcetera. Like I said, Roderigo’s far too polite, so I decide to step in and explain things in terms the old man can understand.
“The General’s kidnapped your daughter,” I say bluntly.
He gapes at me, uncomprehending, so I spell it out more plainly.
“The Moor’s run off with Desdemona. If you don’t go after him now, they’ll be making the beast with two backs within a matter of minutes.”
Crude, I know; but no man wants to think of his daughter being raped.
Just in case he needs any further motivation, I add, “Unless you want your grandchildren to be half-cast ba– “
“Stop!” he begs, hands over his ears, and I notice that even Roderigo looks uncomfortable.
It does the trick, though: moments later, he’s pulled on some clothes and rung the Carabinieri and they’re heading off to arrest Othello. I decide I’ll stay out of this bit – after all, Othello’s my boss, and I don’t dislike the guy – it’s just… Well, that’s a story for another time. I’m normally a pretty good judge of character.
Speaking of which, Roderigo looks at me now and asks why we didn’t involve Othello’s lieutenant in this operation. Are you kidding? I want to ask him. You know how loyal he is: he’d have warned Othello straight away! Instead, I just say, “I don’t like him.”
Roderigo’s face is curious. “Tell me again,” he says, “why you don’t like Michael Cassio.”
I consider my response, sifting the possible answers, and finally settle on, “He can’t be trusted. That promotion he’s just got – well, it should have been mine. Everyone knew that I was the right man for the job, and I’ve been loyal to the General ever since he arrived.”
Loyal up until now – although I’ve not really done anything wrong – I was just trying to protect that young girl from rushing into a hasty marriage she’ll regret later.
Roderigo nods sympathetically. “No one doubts your loyalty, Iago. You’re the most honest man I know.”
It’s only later, as I’m returning to the barracks and the married quarters I have there, that I allow myself to think about the real reason for my hatred. Cassio’s got something going on with my wife, I’m sure of it. I’ve seen the way Emilia acts when he’s around, laughing at his jokes, giggling like a schoolgirl when he pays her a compliment. I’m pretty sure they’ve done the deed, but I’m reluctant to mention it to anyone else, even Roderigo – what sort of man wants to admit his wife’s made him a cuckold?
And then I start remembering how she batted her eyes at Othello too when we were at that drinks evening in the Mess. Porca miseria! My wife’s insatiable! As for him… Well, we all know his kind don’t respect women, but is that any way to repay me for my loyalty?
The more I think about it, the more my jealousy grows. Emilia’s not the most beautiful of women – compared to Desdemona, she looks like a heifer! – but she’s mine – or at least she was. I still can’t believe she’d do this to me, though – cheat on me with not one but two of my friends. Well, I say friends, although they’re both more work acquaintances than anything else – but still…
Unless, of course, Emilia saw me looking at Desdemona the other day… All men do that, though, don’t they? It’s okay to look as long as you don’t do anything about it. Put it this way, I can certainly see what the attraction is for Roderigo.
Hang on – what’s this email that’s just come through? Something about being redeployed to Malta. Othello’s in charge – looks like Brabantio wasn’t successful in getting him arrested, then. I’d better let Roderigo know he’s missed his chance with Desdemona. Unless…
What if I tell Roderigo that Desdemona’s not really in love with Othello? That might persuade him to come with us, and I could certainly do with his money. Does that sound a bit calculating? I like Roderigo – he’s a good mate and his money’s just an added bonus. I’m doing this for him, you understand – the poor lad’s not had much luck where his love life’s concerned. And if he manages to seduce her behind her husband’s back, it might go some way to redressing the balance: I know two wrongs don’t make a right, but I’ll get a sense of satisfaction knowing that Othello’s had a taste of his own medicine.
Right, then – let’s find the passports and tell Emilia to pack. Malta, here we come!
Roderigo can’t believe his luck. It turns out that Othello and his missus haven’t had their wedding night yet – well, there wasn’t much time for them to consummate the marriage when he was arrested straight after the ceremony on a charge of kidnapping and almost court-marshalled. Apparently, Desdemona spoke up for him and wove a pretty tale about how he’d wooed her with his stories of his heroic deeds. As if! I bet I know the real reason why she was so keen to run off with him – everyone knows that Venetian women can’t control their appetites! Look at my Emilia – she’s just as bad.
Anyway, the big night is supposed to be tonight, but Roderigo and I have come up with a plan – or rather, I’ve come up with a plan that Roderigo thinks is his own. We’re going to have a bit of a party to celebrate the General’s marriage, and then I’ll get Cassio drunk (everyone knows he can’t hold his liquor) and Roderigo will start a fight with him. The noise should bring Othello running from his bed, and when he’s forced to stop and take Cassio in hand, Roderigo can sneak off to see Desdemona. (Roderigo added that last bit.)
So, time to get Cassio drunk then – which he’d probably do on his own anyway, even without me helping – another reason why he shouldn’t have been made lieutenant. When you think about it, I’m doing Othello a favour – better for him to find out now what Cassio’s really like.
Cassio looks at me and shakes his head. “No, really, Iago. I can’t drink on duty. Besides,” he gives a rueful shrug, “you know I’m a lightweight: I’ll be under the table before we get to the third pint.”
“Just a shandy, then,” I say lightly. “C’mon, Mike – You’ve got to help celebrate the General’s wedding.”
“Okay,” he laughs. “If it’ll make you happy – but after that, I’m sticking to Coke.”
I return a few minutes later with the drinks and Cassio starts telling me about his woman. Turns out he’s hooked up with a wannabe Army WAG, only he’s keeping the relationship quiet in case Othello doesn’t approve. Bianca’s got a bit of a reputation, you see – although from what Cassio lets slip, it sounds like they’re really into each other. It doesn’t make me trust him any more than I did before, though – that man’s far too good looking to be left alone with Emilia, if you get my drift.
We finish our drinks and Cassio’s already looking a little worse the wear. No one who saw him now would believe he’d only had one shandy: he’s acting as if he’s mixed it with a double vodka or two – almost as if someone had spiked his drink – and this is where the fun really starts. Cassio climbs up on the table and starts launching into one of the drinking songs the others only sing when they’re in danger of falling over. It’s loud and it’s raucous and incredibly rude, and I’m suddenly seeing him in a whole new light: it turns out he’s not the perfect soldier he pretends to be.
He’s on the third verse when someone bumps into the table, jolting it sufficiently to make Cassio tumble to the ground. Of course, we all laugh – all apart from Cassio who struggles to his feet, swearing blue murder and threatening to put a bullet into the so-and-so who did that. (I really can’t repeat the actual phrase he used.)
Before you know it, he and Roderigo – yes, Roderigo – are involved in the sort of fight I thought only happened in Hollywood films, and the rest of the men are shouting and cheering, urging them both on, and it’s total mayhem – and then Othello arrives with a face like thunder, obviously not impressed with being dragged out of his marital bed to come and calm down his rowdy recruits.
For a moment, everything goes silent. The man’s got presence – you have to give him that. And then, when he speaks, he doesn’t shout or roar or even raise his voice – he just asks very quietly who’s responsible for this uproar, and his calm demeanour is the most menacing thing I’ve ever seen.
No one says anything: Cassio’s beyond speech and everyone else is too scared of unleashing the General’s wrath, so it’s up to Muggins, here, to tell him what’s been going on. I swear I wasn’t trying to make Cassio look bad – I was just trying to be truthful when I said that Cassio had drunk a bit too much and fallen off a table and that it had all escalated from there.
“Iago,” he says, studying me intently, “I know you’re holding something back. What is it?”
I open my mouth to protest my own innocence, but he motions for me to be quiet.
“You’re making light of this for Cassio’s sake, aren’t you?” he asks, so I nod dumbly and let him form his own conclusions.
“Cassio.” He turns now to his lieutenant, and the steel is back in his voice. “I love you like a brother, but I can’t let you do something like this and not face the consequences. I’m stripping you of your rank here and now,” and he holds out his hand for the stripes.
Cassio gazes at him as if he doesn’t understand what’s going on. One of the guys beside him whispers in his ear and Cassio looks horrified. “I know I’ve let you down,” he says brokenly, “but please…”
“You’ve let yourself down more than anyone else,” is Othello’s reply as he turns and makes his way back to his quarters.
Cassio sinks to the ground, his head in his hands. “What have I done?” he groans. “What have I done?”
That night, I can’t sleep, my mind too busy dwelling on the evening’s events. Who would have guessed that my plan to help Roderigo would have such an unexpected side effect? Beside me, Emilia tosses and turns, no doubt thinking of Cassio. My mind wonders to Desdemona and I wonder what it would be like if she were next to me and not that overweight sow I call my wife. Othello will have his hands full with that one – half the camp’s lusting after her already.
The following morning, Cassio comes to see me in a terrible state. “You’ve got to help me get my position back,” he says. “Tell me how I can make Othello trust me again.”
For some reason, people always ask me for advice – I think I must give off trustworthy vibes. Anyway, I look at Cassio, torn between satisfaction that he’s lost the promotion that should have been mine and pity that he’s screwed it up so spectacularly.
“I don’t know if he’d listen to me,” I say slowly, “but I bet Desdemona could make him do anything she asked him to. You should have a word with her.”
His eyes brighten at the thought. “You think so?”
I lower my voice. “Othello may be the General, but I think you’ll find Desdemona’s really the one in charge.” Catching sight of her nearby, I add, “Isn’t that her, over there? Why don’t you go and ask her now?”
He speeds off to plead his suit and I watch them both from a distance, thinking that she’s laughing and smiling just a little too much for a newly married woman. I wonder what her husband would say if he could see her.
Speak of the devil… Othello’s right behind me. “Is that Cassio?” he asks as the other man slips away.
“Cassio?” I echo. “No, I don’t think so. Why would he talk to your wife and then sneak off, looking guilty?”
I let the unspoken suggestion sink in.
“No,” I say, with just a touch of doubt in my voice, “it was probably just someone asking her where you were.”
He laughs, but the smile doesn’t reach his eyes.
We’re patrolling the island later on when Othello asks me, “You’re married, aren’t you, Iago?”
I reply in the affirmative.
“And is your wife … trustworthy?” he continues.
I think for a while.
“Venetian women are very different to the sort of women you’re used to,” I say at last. “You have very strict rules, don’t you? Well, that’s the complete opposite of our society.”
He’s shocked, but he tries not to show it.
“Our women are very liberal,” I continue. “You’ve seen the way they dress – not bothering to cover their legs or arms; well, they way they act is rather liberal too.” I lower my voice. “You wouldn’t believe the things Venetian housewives get up to behind closed doors!”
“But they’re not all like that.” He sounds as if he wants me to reassure him.
“How did you end up marrying Desdemona?” I ask, changing the subject.
He smiles at this. “I knew her father. In fact, we were friends. He used to invite me over and we’d sit and talk in the evenings and I’d tell him about all my travels. Desdemona used to eavesdrop on the conversation – she’d pretend she was looking for something in the room where we were, or she’d bring us in a snack, and then she’d just hang around for ages, listening to everything I said. I was flattered by her attention – who wouldn’t be?”
“She’s an attractive woman,” I agree.
“After a while, I started going round to see her when I knew Brabantio was out – not that we ever took advantage of his absence,” he adds hastily. “Everything was above board.”
“So why did you elope?” I ask curiously. “If you already knew her father…”
Othello pulls a face. “He’d already warned me off,” he admits. “Apparently, I’m good enough to be his friend but not good enough for a son-in-law. He’s not exactly racist, but… Well, he told me more than once that he wanted his grandchildren to be 100% Italian.”
There’s little chance of that happening now – unless Roderigo wins her heart after all.
“So,” I say slowly, “she went behind her father’s back when she married you…” I don’t say anything more: I just plant the seed and wait for it to grow.
Othello has started confiding in me more and more now that Cassio’s out of favour. He asks me to help him sort through some paperwork, but that’s just a flimsy excuse to talk about his marriage. He confides that Desdemona seems to mention Cassio a lot.
“You’re not jealous, are you?” I ask quickly.
He laughs and tells me of course not, but his denial is a little forced.
“Jealousy’s a mug’s game,” I tell him, flicking through some official documents and finding something that looks like a love letter. I pocket the letter secretly: it might come in useful. “If you give in to jealousy, it’ll destroy you from the inside out. No, I’m sure it’s all very innocent with her and Cassio. I know he’s got a reputation as a ladies’ man, but I bet at least half of what they say isn’t true. Anyway, he’s far too young for her – Desdemona obviously likes older men, or she wouldn’t have married you in the first place.”
One by one, I drop more seeds. I’m doing him a favour, really. He’d be better off with one of his own kind – one of those women you see wearing black from head to foot with just a slit for the eyes. Desdemona’s out of his league: she fell for him in a hero worship kind of way; but the glamour’s got to wear off at some stage and then all she’ll have is a husband who’s twenty years older than she is who’ll expect her to stay at home popping out babies until she’s old herself.
“Did I do the right thing in marrying her?” he asks now. “Do you think she still loves me, Iago?”
I make a non-committal shrug. “I’m sure she loves you as much now as she always did,” I say neutrally.
“If I thought she was in love with someone else, I’d give her a divorce,” he mutters. “Set her free to marry again. But I love her, Iago. I hate the idea of her with anyone else. What can I do? How can I find out whether or not she’s faithful?”
All I can say is that the doubt had to be there before I started talking to him because this guy’s insecurity is crippling him.
Later on, I take out the love letter I borrowed and read it carefully. Desdemona must have written it just before they eloped because it talks about how much she’s longing to be alone with him ‘properly’ and how she dreams about spending the night with him and waking up in his arms. I reread it, realising that if I remove the first page, the one with Othello’s name on it, then it could be a love letter addressed to anyone. I think I feel a plan forming.
“What’s that?” Emilia asks curiously, looking over my shoulder. A slap rings out. “Who’s been writing you love letters?”
“No one, my little piranha,” I reply, tenderly rubbing my stinging cheek. “It’s one of Desdemona’s love letters to the General.”
“So what are you doing with it, then?” she wants to know.
“I’m putting together a wedding album for them,” I explain, half-convincing myself.
What follows is more tickle than slap.
Cassio’s still asleep when I arrive at his quarters the following morning, Bianca wrapped around him like a sinuous cat. I make a great show of taking him with me to see if we can get his job back, leaving Bianca to sulk on her own under the covers. I thoughtfully leave the love letter under the bed so that she will have something to read if she gets bored.
We reach the officers’ mess and I check to see where Othello is: he and Desdemona are eating breakfast together, and she is as beautiful as ever but there’s a strained look in his eye. We grab our trays and load up with pastries and coffee, then make our way over to the General’s table. Instantly, Desdemona smiles up at her husband: “Look, Darling. Michael Cassio. We were just talking about you giving him his old job back.”
Cassio’s too busy smiling at Desdemona to notice the thunderous expression on his superior’s face. I give Othello an almost imperceptible nod, as if to say, Do you see the way they’re flirting with each other? Well, that’s what it looked like at the time – can I be blamed for misreading the signs?
The more Desdemona and Cassio talk to each other, the closer Othello gets to choking on his food. Finally, he bursts out, “For God’s sake, woman! Can’t you think about anything else except Michael bloody Cassio?”
In the shocked silence that follows as every pair of eyes in the hall turns to look at our table, a single tear rolls down Desdemona’s cheek. Without saying a word, she rises from her seat and runs out of the room.
We’re still sitting there in shocked silence when an angry sound catches my attention. Looking up, I see soldiers trying to prevent a woman from entering. It’s Cassio’s Bianca, and she’s clutching a familiar-looking letter. Pushing past the men who would hold her back, she marches up to our table and deposits the letter in front of a surprised Cassio.
“And what,” she declares, “was this doing in your room, Cassio? I can’t believe you’ve been seeing someone else behind my back!”
“Bianca…” Cassio’s tone is placatory, but she’s too indignant to listen. Talk about hell having no fury like a woman scorned!
Cassio pushes the letter away without even looking at it. “No one,” he says firmly, “has been sending me love letters, Bianca.”
But she’s already storming out in a huff.
“You’d better go after her,” I murmur supportively. The poor guy doesn’t know what’s going on.
As Cassio leaves, the hum of conversation resumes and I glance at the letter on the table, making sure Othello sees me doing so. “No!” The word is out of my mouth before I can help myself. “There must be some mistake…”
I quickly try to hide the letter from the General, but he’s been alerted by my reaction and he grabs the papers before I can stuff them in my pocket. He skims through the handwritten lines and his face darkens with anger.
“I’ll kill her,” he says softly, but just loud enough for me to hear. “I’ll kill both of them.”
I place a sympathetic hand on his shoulder. “I’m so sorry you should find out this way.”
“I trusted her,” he says brokenly. “I trusted them both.”
“You can trust me, sir. I’ll do anything I can to help.”
And the two of us sit in silence as the mess hall empties around us.
Roderigo can’t believe it when I confide in him about Desdemona’s cheating.
“No!” he says, his voice shocked. “She wouldn’t do that.”
“Isn’t that what her father said when we told him she’d run off with Othello?” I ask now. “She’s an expert at pretending to be innocent and getting up to all sorts of things behind people’s backs.”
I pause. Time to see how far Roderigo will go for the woman he loves.
“Of course,” I make my voice casual, “he could have forced her.” I let him mull that one over before I continue, “And if he’s hurting her in any way, just think how grateful she’ll be to the man who gets rid of Cassio.”
He blinks at me, uncomprehending.
“The man who gets rid of Cassio,” I repeat.
“What? You mean murder?” Roderigo may be rich, but he’s not very bright.
“Not murder,” I reassure him, “just self-defence. Everyone saw Cassio attacking you a few nights ago – what’s to say he didn’t assault you again and you shot him by mistake in the struggle?”
I leave him to think it over, but I think I know what he’ll do.
I’m making sure to stay out of the way – if Cassio is accidentally shot, or if Othello goes through with his plan to murder Desdemona, it will be nothing to do with me. Sitting in the mess with the others, I act like the life and soul of the party, telling jokes, buying other people drinks. I’m so caught up in the bonhomie I’ve created that I’m genuinely surprised when a message arrives that I’m wanted in Othello’s quarters.
It’s easy to form my face into an expression of shocked concern when I’m led into the General’s bedroom to be confronted by a handcuffed Othello and a strangled Desdemona. I’m not sure how my wife fits into this, but Emilia’s there too, her tear stained face white with anger.
“Iago!” she cries as soon as she sees me. “This monster claims you told him that Desdemona and Cassio were sleeping together.”
I look pained by the accusation.
“She was unfaithful,” Othello growls, “and Iago knows it.”
“I don’t like to listen to gossip, sir,” I say primly.
“Honest Iago,” he mutters. “Loyal to the last. I know you’re trying to spare my feelings, but we both saw the letter.”
“Letter?” Emilia says sharply. “What letter?”
“A love letter my wife sent Cassio.” Othello motions to her with his head. “It’s in my pocket – take a look.”
Emilia snatches the letter and scans it quickly.
“You stupid, stupid man!” she bursts out. “That was your wife’s love letter to you! Iago knows all about it – he was putting it in a wedding album for you both.”
“Then why was it found in Cassio’s room?” Othello shouts back at her.
Emilia looks at me, horror crossing her face as she suddenly realises what must have happened.
“You!” she spits at me. “This is all your doing! You couldn’t have her yourself, so you made sure no one else could.”
“No,” Othello insists. “it was Cassio. Cassio and Desdemona… behind my back. Iago’s the only one who’s been honest enough to tell me the truth.”
It will be her word against mine, but Othello’s so sure that “honest, honest Iago” is on his side. I can’t see this ending badly for me, no matter what happens to the General.
And then Cassio enters the room…