Dan Donohue’s Iago: Consummate “Person of the Lie”

Dan Donohue and Peter Macon as Iago and Othello, OSF 2008

Dan Donohue and Peter Macon as Iago and Othello, OSF 2008

Oregon Shakespeare Festival actor Dan Donohue as Iago wretches and heaves on the outdoor Elizabethan stage, consumed by jealousy. He hates the Moor (title character, Othello). And his hatred sucks the life blood of all he touches. He’s a sort of human “black hole” with a seemingly bottomless capacity to wreck havoc.

Lisa Peterson directs the 2008 production of Othello, one of Shakespeare’s five major tragedies. And, a major tragedy it is.

Dan Donohue’s Iago has a history; he is human. While the audience doesn’t know much about what makes Donohue’s Iago so cruel and relentless in his pursuit of Othello’s downfall, we get clues.

This Iago convinces himself (and us) in intimate, inviting, even seductive soliloquies that he has been wronged; Iago is, at least as he imagines things, more sinned against than sinning.  Othello has slept with his wife, Emilia. The Moor appointed the far less sea-experienced Cassio, instead of him, lieutenant. Iago gives a jealous spin to everything that affects him. Some real, some concocted.

It seems that Iago’s status in society causes him to hit glass ceilings; he is thwarted in his attempts to assume and wield a position of power.

So (he seems to reason) why not take power into my own hands? Iago’s “power” becomes evident in his brilliant ability to make others do his bidding. He is always thinking several strategic steps ahead of those around him. Unable to rise in official status, he assumes a superior position through deception and manipulation. His internal engine runs on jealousy.

In M. Scott Peck’s unnerving analysis of evil (People of the Lie), he defined evil as “the imposition of one’s will upon others by overt or covert coercion….”

Seeing Donohue’s Iago, we have discovered the poster child of Peck’s evil. Donohue’s Iago is directing, manipulating situations and people at every turn. And, his stage direction is always to control and subvert others to his implacable will: getting revenge on the Moor.

Donohue reveals a profoundly human Iago, not Coleridge’s “motiveless malignancy”—evil without reason. This Iago lets jealousy direct his brutal treatment of Othello, Desdemona, his own wife Emilia, and Cassio, among others. The playgoer is left to decide whether or not this Iago is, indeed, more sinned against than sinning.

Whatever the objective truth about his situation, Iago has become the lie he has told himself over and over again, like a perverse, infectious mantra: Othello has robbed him of what is rightly his.  And (his logic goes) he has a right to get what he’s owed by hook or by crook.  No matter how many lives he takes down in the process.

Donohue gives ultimate expression to Peck’s notion of the “person of the lie” in his 2008 season Iago. Be ready to move from laughter at Iago’s schemes to tears at the tragic consequences, as Iago envelops the protagonists of the play, and us, in his web of lies.

Categories: Bard OSF.


  1. Hi there,
    Found your site through a google search – I’m enjoying it very much. 🙂 This piece on Dan Donohue’s Iago is particularly interesting. I’m curious, did you get a sense that he was conflicted after Othello professes love and raises him up, or is he too far gone at that point? I’m used to thinking that the regret is there, but I didn’t get any of that in this production. Not that that’s BAD, and I know there are many ways to approach these roles. I’m just curious, that’s all.

    ~ John

  2. Hi, John, thanks for visiting!
    Conflicted…? Oh yeah, I’d say so—at least, that’s what I saw. I saw a man so wound up with a flood of conflicting emotions–gratitude, relief, excitement, despair, triumph, hate, love–that he could no longer (as he had up to this point) take enjoyment from his own (and greatest) success.

    But also, yes, so far gone there was no way back. It seemed to me one of the more humanly “tragic” portrayals of Iago, with (unlike many performances) a real “character arc”. With a dying fall, as it were. Genuine despair without the hope even of sorrow.

    Reminded me of the story Sheriff Bell tells in NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN about the murderer he’d sent to death row. On his way to execution, the guy says he knows he’s going to hell. “Be there in about five minutes.” DD’s Iago, it seemed to me, was already sniffing the sulphur.

  3. Dan

    Greetings, John and Debra,

    I think you’re asking and commenting on important and hard-to-fathom questions and issues.

    I, too, sense that Donohue’s Iago is beyond the pale–the effect of his chronic vice of jealousy, manipulations, and dishonesty. We, in a way, become what we do voluntarily, freely, especially when we act in the same “direction” again, again, and again.

    Donohue’s Iago becomes the jealousy, the manipulativeness, and dishonesty that he enacts over and over again. His humanity is progressively deadened, evacuated; he becomes a whited tomb.

    It’s a horrible thing, but possible. Shakespeare, it seems, shows us (among myriad other things) that evil exacts a huge price on the person, his victims, and the “community”–wider culture and society. What devastation results from Iago’s relentless, compulsive, habitual lying and dominating!

    And, we are left to ponder: What is the direction of our own free and responsible actions?

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