The Iago Problem

Reflecting on Daniel Craig’s recent performance as Iago, Tamsin Shaw puzzles over the “Iago problem” in a secular world:

“The concept of evil has fallen out of favor in our disenchanted world. Its religious and superstitious connotations are permissible in horror movies, but otherwise often deemed embarrassing. Without some religious metaphysics it is hard to make sense of the idea that there are people who are intrinsically evil; it no longer seems plausible to many of us that people can be motivated by something that can be described as pure evil. Sustained cruelty is therefore often explained as sociopathy (the slick, psychopathic killers beloved of Hollywood), or a personality disorder stemming from some deep personal or social injury, or as some horribly warped conception of what is good.”

One option is to modernize villainy, make Iago a victim of social forces or his own uncontrollable passions: “Bob Peck has portrayed him as ‘a hate machine created by the slow, dehumanizing process of professional warfare’; David Suchet as a repressed homosexual, ‘deeply in love with Othello and manically jealous of Desdemona’; Anthony Sher as a man with ‘a severe sexual hang-up,’ whose uncontrollable, morbid jealousy is aroused by the belief that Othello has slept with his wife.”

Craig solves the problem by cutting through excuses. His Iago “chooses moral insensibility and viciousness.” His “loves and hates seem shallow. When Craig delivers the lines about hating the Moor, he conveys that Iago is quite serious, but that it is a willed hate, not an overwhelming passion.”

Shaw thinks it works, terrifyingly well: “Craig’s commanding performance, his combination of charm, sexual charisma, and menacing masculinity, his ability to make the audience dread his actions and yet giggle childishly along with his sadistic delight, makes his choice seem not like one that is psychologically inexplicable but rather one that does not need any deeper psychological explanation.”

His choice is a choice not to give a shit: “This is a choice, this not giving a shit. It is the voluptuous enjoyment that Nietzsche described. It is the freedom and exhilaration of moral insensibility.”

There’s no evil like good old enchanted evil.

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