It’s been a few weeks since I went to see “Othello” — an Oregon Shakespeare Festival production at the American Repertory Theater — but I still haven’t shaken off the deep sense of unease I had while watching the play. It’s a tough play. The themes are racism, betrayal, sexual jealousy, domestic violence, murder, and suicide. But what gets under your skin isn’t just that Shakespeare’s characters end up acting on their basest feelings and worst fears. It’s the way in which those characters — initially honorable and rational — are brought to a raging boil by the machinations of Iago, Shakespeare’s most subtle villain.
When the play starts, Iago has been passed over for a promotion by the military leader Othello. (He also suspects that Othello may have gone to bed with his wife, but it’s unclear whether he hates Othello because he believes this or whether he believes it because he hates Othello.) His goal is to destroy Othello by “practising upon his peace and quiet/Even to madness.” Iago sets out to convince Othello that Desdemona, Othello’s beloved new wife, has been unfaithful; this will lead Othello to murder her.
Iago is a master of indirect manipulation. He’s a hater who pretends to be a friend, a saboteur who poses as an ally. He whispers, he insinuates, he knows how to inflame. He doesn’t go around hitting people — he gets them to hit each other.
He disseminates misleading fragments of information. The out-of-context image: He uses a glimpse of a handkerchief — the first present that Othello gave to Desdemona when they were courting — to create the impression that Desdemona has given the handkerchief to another man. The partial sound bite: He arranges for Othello to eavesdrop on that man, while Iago manipulates the conversation to confirm Othello’s unfounded jealousy.
He uses racism to stir people up, reminding everyone that Othello is dark-skinned, a Moor, who has just married the daughter of a Venetian senator. Whether or not Iago himself is a racist, he knows that racist rhetoric is inflammatory, and so he’s cynically unscrupulous about using vile language about a black man and a white woman to serve his purposes.
His troublemaking goes undetected. He’s everybody’s best friend: comforting a colleague who has disgraced himself after drinking too much (never mind that Iago was the one who persuaded him to drink), condoling with Othello for having an untrustworthy wife (a slanderous fiction, authored by Iago), sympathizing with the wife for having a husband who doubts her (as a result of Iago’s lies). It’s as if he has a cloak of invisibility. He’s even more deadly because he’s anonymous.
As for Othello, he keeps pressing Iago for more data.
Iago plays people. They don’t think they’re being played. They think he’s a trusted source of information.
“I am not what I am,” he tells us.
Watching Iago operate — his methods and his impact — I found that I was thinking about the Internet. Shakespeare had made me freshly aware of the ways in which we absorb things all the time now without knowing their source, without context, without a full set of facts. Hoaxes. Bots. Purposely inflammatory and divisive racist, sexist, homophobic posts. Anonymous comments. The numbers of apparent “likes” that collect around even the most foul and incendiary Facebook and Twitter postings. Unsifted innuendo. Instant outrage. The way it goads and blinds us, pushing us toward chaos. The way it’s all messing with us. Even when we think it isn’t.
Joan Wickersham is the author of “The News From Spain’’ and
and “The Suicide Index.” Her column appears regularly in the Globe.