There is a certain kind of personality that thrives on chaos, a personality who sees interactions with other people not as an opportunity to discover and appreciate the human experience, but as pure combat. It’s about getting a reaction, and the bigger the rise, the bigger the win. We all know these people. Like your gross uncle at Thanksgiving who can’t stop making fart jokes at dinner, these people have no sense of what’s appropriate and revel in creating discomfort, pulling out all the shitty stops to ensure that everyone pays attention to them. Scientifically speaking, these people are referred to as “jackasses”. Encountering jackasses used to be a matter of chance; you may or may not have run into one going about your day, and once identified, you could take pains to avoid them. (Unless your mom put you in the buffer seat next to your uncle at Thanksgiving. Sorry your mom did that.) However, the advent of social media provides almost daily exposure to particularly malevolent folks who practice their jackassery scorched-earth style. You see them in the comments section on YouTube, you see them shutting down conversation threads on Facebook, you see them starting flame wars on Twitter. I am talking about the trolls, and whenever I see a troll in action, I always think of Iago, that king of all trolldom from Shakespeare’s Othello.
Iago: What’s that thing?
Me: My laptop
Iago: Can I kill people with it
Me: Damn Iago not everything is a thing to kill people with
Othello tells the story of one man’s obsession with…well, obsession. Othello, an experienced soldier, is regarded highly by his peers and his superiors. As the play opens, the audience is introduced to Othello via a conversation between Othello’s fellow soldiers Iago and Roderigo, who discuss Othello’s new marriage to an adoring wife, his prowess as a soldier, and his skill as a leader. They are really happy for Othello and wish him all the best. HAHAHAHAHA just kidding. Roderigo’s pissed that Othello married the girl Roderigo wanted, and Iago’s pissed because—well, Iago’s just pissed, and he is not going to take Othello’s general success and popularity lying down. He takes some time to lay out his detailed plan to ruin Othello’s life by lying, manipulating, and generally gaslighting Othello (and everyone Othello knows and trusts). This is Iago’s show, and Othello is just living in it. While he would have been very effective behind a keyboard, Iago trolls the old-fashioned way – face to face – but he gets it done just fine. Long held as one of the most repulsive characters in literature, Iago’s reason for wanting to destroy Othello is a disturbing and pathetic “just because”.
Iago: The means totally justified the ends
Me: That is not how that saying works
Iago: Troll big or troll home
Me: Bad. At. Sayings.
Online misbehavior makes headlines now almost weekly. Keyboard anonymity provides a safe, cushy place from which to engage in disruptive hostility. It seems generally agreed upon that trolling is a recent phenomenon, fostered by the internet, but I know better. Iago was trolling when people thought the world was flat and attending a witch trial counted as weekend plans. There’s trolling, then there’s trolling, Elizabethan style, which is infinitely more twisted courtesy Iago’s soulless pursuit of a bad time. This involves conveniently overheard conversations, conveniently planted handkerchiefs, more conveniently overheard conversations, and, of course, misinterpretations of innocuous body language. Put all that together, add Iago, and you have Othello convinced that his wife Desdemona is cheating on him with his favorite lieutenant Cassio. Spoiler alert: this play does not have a happy ending.
Iago: I have Elizabethan internet
Me: What’s that
Iago: I bribe a town crier with meat pies to improve my search engine ranking
Othello is one of Shakespeare’s tragedies – you can tell by all the stabbing and smothering – and while it’s definitely a familiar one, it isn’t as quotable as some of Shakespeare’s other work. What it does deliver, though, is a line from Iago that is one of the most famous lines from anything ever: “Beware jealousy, my lord. It is the green-eyed monster that doth mock the meat it feeds on.” As much as Iago talks in this play—and Holy Alpenhorn, he talks a LOT—this line about jealousy as close as we ever get to a true motive for Iago’s malice. And malicious jealousy is the only way to characterize Iago’s systematic deceptions that ultimately drive Othello to kill his wife Desdemona and commit suicide. Iago also manages to kill his own wife, Emilia, and his original partner in crime Roderigo. Because Iago is such an egomaniac he isn’t going to let anyone out-murder him.
Iago: All I do is win win win no matter what
Me: How do you know that song
Iago: Haters gonna hate
Me: Did someone show you the non-Elizabethan internet??
Iago: Subscribe to my YouTube channel
Current conversations about making the internet a safer space often collide with the allowances of free speech. Can trolls be curtailed without limiting rights? It’s a complicated question, but not for Shakespeare. At the end of Othello, Iago’s machinations are revealed and he is recognized for the vile jackass that he is. I’ve always found it intriguing that Iago is not immediately killed, but instead arrested and dragged away for some Elizabethan-style questioning about his crimes. Iago isn’t deserving of the swift justice we see other Shakespeare villains get (Macbeth, I’m looking at you). Iago gets what a troll hates more than anything – rendered irrelevant, condemned to invisibility as he rots in a cell. When I feel helpless and frustrated at hearing another disgusting online trolling story, and I want to see justice done in a big way, I remember that Iago made a huge mess but he finally got his. It’s a small literary comfort, but I’ll take it.
Iago: What is Elizabethan questioning?
If you are online trolling, stop it right now. Unless you are Kenneth McCarthy, in which case carry on with my compliments.