On-line English Literature Discussion: Shakespeare’s Dark Knight

In my first year of university, our English professor had us participate in an on-line discussion group about the texts we studied, providing us with different questions or topics to discuss. When we studied Shakespeare’s Othello, the topic was the obscure motivation of Iago in his quest to bring Othello down. The professor wanted to us to discuss whether we believed any or all of Iago’s explanations for why he did it, or the subtextual interpretation that Iago was vengefully jealous of Othello because he was attracted to him sexually. I personally found it difficult to believe any of Iago’s purported reasons because they varied so much. Because the on-line discussion does not exist on the internet as such (at least, I’m no longer able to find it), I’m going to post here directly from what I wrote in response to the topic:

Every time Iago gives a reason for his hatred of Othello, it changes. First, it’s that he was passed up for promotion, then it’s that Othello was rumoured to have slept with Emilia, etc. It reminds me of the Joker in The Dark Knight (2008), telling a different story every time he explains his scars.

The Dark Knight–The Land of Oz

Iago, also like the Joker, forms an incredibly elaborate plan to bring down a single person: in his case, Othello, in the Joker’s, Batman. Iago shares a lot of the Joker’s professed opinions and insights about the baseness of humanity as well: “Their morals, their code?…Dropped at the first sign of trouble. They’re only as good as the world allows them to be… When the chips are down these… these ‘civilized’ people? They’ll eat each other.” And, in reference to Othello, Iago might borrow the Joker’s words about Harvey Dent: “I took [the] white knight and I brought him down to our level. It wasn’t hard. You see, madness, as you know, is like gravity. All it takes is a little push.”

Related image
Kenneth Branagh as Iago in Othello (1995)

Iago is a psychopath with the same madness and brilliance as the Joker. He won’t give adequate reason for his actions, won’t do what’s expected, won’t slow down, won’t show remorse, and that’s why he’ll always have the better of “good” people. To quote Alfred, “Some men just want to watch the world burn.”

26 October 2016

A classmate of mine posted in December agreeing with the similarities I saw, but brought up the difference between Iago and the Joker, citing their relationships with their victims as a point of departure. She pointed out that Iago was very close personally and professionally with his victim, whereas the Joker is never revealed to have known Bruce Wayne/Batman at all. Therefore Iago’s manipulations of those around him may also indicate some personal reasons for what he did. I responded:

True, I hadn’t thought of comparing the Joker and Iago’s positions, just their actions and (apparent) motivations. They seem to have the same way of doing things, but as you said, their relationship to their victims is very different, with Iago betraying his friend and military superior, while the Joker (although conspiracy theorists will tell you he was probably a veteran) had no connection to Batman in The Dark Knight. The way both Iago and the Joker come across is much the same but they are coming from two very different places. It does make you curious about the real backstory of each (if there is one and they’re not just psychopaths).

3 January 2017

Of course, the significant difference in their relationship to the victims carries into the actual method the two use, with Iago taking advantage of his close relationships to manipulate and deceive, rather than terrorizing people and manipulating them openly from afar like the Joker does. However, I would argue that the Joker also knows a lot about Batman and his psyche as illustrated by how effective he was at baiting him for so long, much like Iago’s familiarity with Othello’s character gave him the ability to “[practice] upon his peace and quiet / Even to madness” (Othello 2.1). Regardless of method, both the Joker and Iago share a level of knowledge of their victims which enables them to create a plan specifically targeted to be effective on that person.

There’s a site I found when searching for pictures online that is entirely dedicated to the connection between Othello and The Dark Knight, with the basic character comparisons and plot similarities: https://darkknightandothello.wordpress.com/characters/ I was unable to find a creation date for the site, but regardless it’s clear the connections have been noticed and are out there: some may have even been intentional on the part of the creators of The Dark Knight. And why not? When looking for solid storytelling to take inspiration from, you don’t need to look further than Shakespeare.

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