Monday 26 December 2016

UNDEAD UK: The Othello Connection

Kenneth Branagh as Iago, Othello's nemesis

Shakespeare's Othello is about betrayal, manipulation, self doubt and paranoia. These are the main themes of my book Remember Me Dead, and I consciously thought of Othello when I was writing it, to the point where I named one of the characters Iago. This was purely for my benefit during the early drafts, and I changed the character's name for the final release, because I didn't want to make it too obvious to a reader that this was the character that would betray Breht, the book's protagonist.

Breht as a character existed in my mind for some years. I don't know why I wanted to make him gay (spoiler alert), but originally he was going to star in a gay version of Othello. I had a few notes, and I even sketched out a thriller set in Sierra Leone's civil war, with Breht as a South African mercenary. Nothing more came of this, and Breht returned to the waiting room in my mind where other characters are currently hanging around, waiting for their book to be written.

When I decided to write my first zombie novel, therefore, Breht came to mind, and immediately the basics of the plot came together. Remember Me Dead, of course, is not an exact rendering of Shakespeare's tale. Imagine, if you like, that Othello survived his ordeal, and spent the latter half of the story in exile, thinking about Iago's treachery whilst looking for him, and you have the other elements of my book.

If you haven't read my book yet, I can assure you that you don't need to have studied Shakespeare nor seen the play (or movie) to understand the book. And if you have read the book but failed to see any connection with Shakespeare, that's fine too. I didn't want Shakespeare front and centre, and many people have never heard of, read or seen Othello (or anything by the bard).

And if you're anything like me, you probably only heard about Shakespeare from the lips of pontificating snobs, and therefore did your best to avoid it. I sympathise.

But snobs don't own Shakespeare (they just think they do), and his timeless themes are the perfect ingredient for thrillers and dramas. And everything's better when you throw zombies into the mix.

Othello, the play, is set in Venice in the 17th Century, and Othello, the character, is a Moorish General serving in the Duke's army. These days, it's fashionable to make the character black, but in the past Othello was considered an Arab. There's still controversy over whether he's black or not, but considering his title of Moor (from Morocco), he is likely a Muslim, which is a factor that's rarely discussed. As he's also fighting against the Turks on behalf of the Venetians, he would also be, in the eyes of the Arab world, a traitor. The basic point about Othello, then, is that he's an outsider, and he knows it. He's been winning battles for years, but he's still insecure about his status, and what others may think about him, and he gets easily paranoid.

Iago is his trusted lieutenant. Passed over for promotion, he secretly expresses his hatred of Othello, and plots to have his revenge on him.

Although the play is called Othello, it's really about Iago. He's a dastardly plotter, pretending to be loyal while playing people against each other. Understanding Othello's insecurities well, he exploits them by manipulating him with doubts and whispered gossip, until Othello goes mad with rage and kills his own lover. Iago's intelligence, and the way he deftly pulls Othello's strings, drive the plot.

If Othello were to survive such a thing, it's quite possible that he'd learn never to trust anyone again. And so it is with Breht, whom we see at the beginning of the book remembering the events that led to him being alone in the apocalypse. His experience, and his betrayal, have left him colder. But he also wonders why his 'Iago' betrayed him.

Because in Shakespeare's play, it's not really all that clear why Iago hates Othello so much. He's served with him for years. They've fought battles together. Being passed over for promotion shouldn't have been that big of a deal - certainly not enough to get involved in a lengthy scheme of lies and murder. Was Iago ever really Othello's friend? Iago proves to be ambitious - maybe his bond with Othello was always false, simply using him as a means to an end. Iago's deviousness is so slick that it has to be part of his character. And he's known to all as 'honest Iago', which implies that he's pulled the wool over everyone's eyes, and is, and has always been, the opposite.

But he's a rogue, which makes him a good antagonist. And that's how I've portrayed him.

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