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What if Iago was a Woman?

For all that I'm a theatre major, I hardly ever talk about acting on this blog. But this project is so cool and fantastic and awesome and wicked that I just have to take a minute and tell you about it.

What if Iago was a woman?

For those of you who don't know, Iago is a villain in Shakespeare's tragedy Othello. He is considered one of the worst, most evil antagonists in all of Shakespeare. 

Plot summary: Othello is a Moor, which in those days referred to someone from Africa. He, a black man, marries Desdemona, a white woman. Society flips its shit, but they can't exactly do anything because he's the General of the Venetian navy and there's a war on. Desdemona, unable to stay with her angry father, goes with Othello to Cyprus, which is in rebellion. A storm sinks the enemy navy and our good guys arrive safely. Iago, though, is not happy. Because Othello passed him over for promotion (and assorted other reasons that all amount to "I just want to fuck shit up"), he decides to ruin Othello's convincing him that Desdemona is having an affair.

Enter my friend's senior thesis project. Her project is about regendering the villains of Shakespeare. Regendering is a theatre term for changing a character's gender. Example: King Lear becomes Queen Lear and you change all the pronouns. Or Mercutio (Mercutia?) is played as a woman by a woman, and again, you change the pronouns that refer to her. Some productions change women characters to men, and a friend once said she saw a production of King Lear where Lear appeared to have no assigned gender (though this production choice is rarer). The best regendering I ever saw was a production of Hamlet that turned Polonius into a woman.

It's different from cross-gender casting, in which someone plays a character notof their gender. Regendering changes the gender of the character. It's far more common to see a character regendered as female in productions of early modern plays, simply because there are so few parts for women but so many great actresses. Also, some people get really weird about cross-gender casting, to the point where they'd rather change a character's gender than see a girl pretending to be a boy or vice versa.

As you can imagine, this sometimes creates interesting implications for the play. Like with Iago.

Making Iago a woman adds the glass ceiling and the "woman in the military" factors. Female Iago must use different tactics to achieve her goals, and is much freer to use sexual manipulation of her male colleagues because she doesn't face homophobia. When Iago complains bitterly about being passed over for some desk jockey who has no battle experience and doesn't deserve the promotion, it takes a whole 'nother connotation coming from a woman. Similarly, when Iago tells Othello about Cassio kissing him and humping his leg in his sleep, our actress delivers it in a distraught tone holding back tears so that sounds like an attempted rape. That speech will often get a laugh when played by a man. I sincerely doubt anyone will think it's funny if played by a woman.

I don't think this necessarily makes Iago more sympathetic, but it makes her different. Apparently people hardly ever regender the villains of Shakespeare. The three my friend chose to focus on were Iago, a villain; Shylock, an outsider/anti-hero; and Tybalt, an antagonist and aggressive, all-around jerk. Iago is by far the biggest project because he has the most scenes; Shylock and Tybalt have only a handful each.

Currently, I'm involved in the Iago project. I am playing...drumroll, please...Desdemona (because of course tiny blonde me is playing Desdemona) and Bianca, because that is a BRILLIANT bit of doubling. It's also rather ironic, because I always get cast as either the sweet ingenue or the sex fiend. Don't ask me why. I don't know. (I'm not sure I want to.)

This project is an acting challenge I've never had before. The first performance will be with a male Iago, the second with a female. I have to rehearse the same scenes twice, once with the man and once with the woman, and my reactions change between actors. Some of it it just responding to different actors -- but the change does affect the scene in huge ways.

For example, there's a scene where drunk Cassio is making fun of male Iago and making an ass of himself. When drunk Cassio makes fun of female Iago, he says, "This is my ancient, this is my right hand" -- and he raises his right hand...and slaps her ass. Everyone in the room: "Well that escalated quickly."

I was put in that scene in a silent role as Bianca (Cassio's prostitute), and as you might imagine, my reactions are very different for each Iago. Me for male Iago: "I am bored and I wish Cassio would get drunk enough so we can go have sex." Me for lady Iago: "BITCH THAT'S MY MAN."

It's a very dynamic process and I'm super excited to be a part of this project.


  1. I hope you post more about your acting experiences here in the future. Or else post them somewhere. I myself have a separate blog about my acting that I've kept for 8 years next month. (Though I haven't put much on it since Richard III...I haven't been in anything since then.)

    I've never seen a major Shakespeare production that was regendered. It happens more often, I have found, with younger kid/teen versions of plays I've found myself attending before. I think kids may be more uncomfortable with playing opposite gender on the whole, though I have no specific research to back that up. Just intuition.

    I've read of a few productions, Othello included, where the roles remained, but a major character or two was reimagined as a homosexual. Iago specifically; I have read reviews of productions where he is clearly gay, at least to the audience if not to the rest of the characters. That too causes a significant reinterpretation of that play. (Others I've read about are gay Hamlet/Horatio and even gay Buckingham from Richard III.)

    As for the female Iago you mention, I can certainly see the significant shifts in tone for much of the play. An interesting choice.

    1. Iago is sometimes read and played as gay or at least bisexual. Female Iago is bisexual almost by necessity. She has a wife, but the director chose to make her bi so that she could mess with sexually manipulating the men. Of course, a lesbian could do that as well. And of course, this adds another layer of lesbians in the military. Othello is staged 20th century or modern times fairly often, so it works quite well. For instance, my director told me about one production she saw set in modern times/Afganistan war, where Emilia, Iago's wife, was a soldier.

      As for the kids' shows, I think it has less to do with the kids feeling uncomfortable -- kids have no control over what their directors decide to do or what concept they go with. In high school, my character in A Midsummer Night's Dream -- the Philostrate -- was regendered as female, but a philostrate is just a title. It was mainly done because a male-to-female costume quick change would have been virtually impossible.

      You probably haven't seen a major adult regendered Shakespeare play because the Shakespeare crowd is full of literary conservatives who hate regendering and cross-gender casting. It's probably the case that most of the adults don't do it because *they* are uncomfortable with the idea of switching characters' genders. To which I say, "Umm...remind me where the copyright on Shakespeare's text is again?"

  2. As someone who did theater for YEARS and costuming and makeup as well... OMG THIS, why didn't I do this for my senior project?!?! I want to see this. What you said was spot on, so many new amazing complexities to add to the plot. I'm total jealous fangirling over here.

    1. Hah, it's AWESOME. I view it as yet another take on the play 'Othello,' which has maaaany interesting dynamics to explore based on race and gender and sexuality. Othello is an outsider as a successful black man in a white society, so in modern times it is often considered as the tragedy of the outsider. What happens then when the antagonist is an outsider as well? Like Ty said, Iago is very often played as gay. People also play with the culture/racial dynamics in casting: Iago is sometimes cast as black, and sometimes Bianca is POC, and even Emilia is sometimes cast as black while Iago is white (or they are both black, making an interesting comment on race-based class issues -- if the POC couple is serving class). So if people want to say "You can't regender Iago," then are they also saying you can't cast a POC Iago or have a gay Iago? Making Iago female is another way to make her an outsider, paralleling Othello, who is also an outsider.

      I could do a thesis just on this play. It offers a lot of problems and ground to cover...The beauty of theatre is that it isn't set in stone. It's not like a book. Every time you put on a play, it's the same words, but the story changes.

  3. I always felt that he should be an aggressor. Get him near Shylock and see what happens. He'd probably pull a Christian Venetian move and bully him.


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