Reading that Bob Hoskins had died of complications related to pneumonia at age 71 induced a rush of cinematic associations: The fiercely proud cockney mobster of The Long Good Friday; the pugnacious-turned-tender cab driver of Mona Lisa; the embittered Toon-hating gumshoe of Who Framed Roger Rabbit.* But layered beneath all these was a primal Hoskins memory: his performance as Iago in the 1981 BBC version of Othello. The BBC Shakespeare series, which eventually produced all 37 plays in traditional, sometimes staid, but impeccably acted versions, ran from 1978 to 1985, and was my earliest real exposure to Shakespeare. I remember walking through the room while my parents were watching Romeo and Juliet, hearing an end-of-scene couplet and saying to my mother in pleased surprise, “Hey, that rhymes!”
Many of the BBC performances, including Helen Mirren’s as Queen Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, have forever after influenced the way I imagine the character in question, but none more so than Hoskins’ Iago—a definitive Iago precisely because it’s so embodied and specific. Without classical stage training or higher education—the son of a lorry driver and a nursery school teacher, Hoskins left school at 15—he grasps and deepens every nuance of the part. His Iago is at every moment both an earthy, clever, quick-witted charmer and a repellently cynical, woman-hating, racist creep. In fact, Hoskins’ Iago so towers over my memory of the BBC Othello that I’d forgotten the production is a little bit racist itself, with a lead performance by Anthony Hopkins in brownface that, while consistent with a long Shakespeare performance tradition, feels creepily dated in a version this recent.
In this scene at the end of Act I, Iago sweet-talks his co-conspirator Roderigo into joining him in an as-yet-undefined plot to deceive Othello. Roderigo then leaves, and Iago addresses the audience, outlining the basic shape of his plan—he’ll make it look as if Othello’s wife, Desdemona, has betrayed him. The evil soliloquy in closeup: Is there any trickier trap door for an actor to avoid? But Hoskins delivers the speech with such naturalness and vibrancy, you feel you’re listening not to words but thoughts as they boil up from Iago’s fevered, resentful, calculating brain. The BBC Othello is available streaming on Amazon. Watch it and lift a glass to the great Bob Hoskins.
* Correction, April 30, 2014: This post originally misstated that Hoskins died of Parkinson’s Disease. Though he suffered from Parkinson’s, he reportedly died of complications related to pneumonia.