Far more advanced for his time period, Shakespeare’s talent went unrecognized in the category of not just literature, but psychology as well. During the Elizabethan time period, it was unaware that a human could have psychological defects, let alone have characters who express these faults in a play. Shakespeare’s Othello was produced with two of the main characters having significant behavioral disorders. With a changing motive, the antagonist Iago expresses the symptoms of a narcissist and a sociopath by manipulating the protagonist Othello with lies about his wife.
The infected Othello becomes caught up in Iago’s deception which causes him to show the traits of having low serotonin levels and appears to be going through couple’s distress. The sick mind of Iago uses manipulation, and deceit to promote jealousy within Othello, in hopes of causing a downfall in the Moore’s relationship with his wife. The sick mind of Iago spit out cancerous thoughts that manipulated everyone he talked to. This began from the beginning of the play after Iago learned of the public announcement of Othello and Desdemona.
Once everyone leaves the senate chamber, Iago has a soliloquy which first tells the audience of his plot against Othello. He planned to infect Othello’s mind by introducing the lie of Cassio having an affair with Desdemona. Cassio is a man that would be suspected of doing such, which creates a believable story. Iago goes on to say that people who are trusting of everyone, such as Othello, are easy to take advantage of. (Shakespeare, Othello Act I Scene III). Later on in the play, Iago begins his plan by planting the idea of Desdemona being unfaithful.
Knowing that Othello would believe the words of a friend, Iago used deceit to put his plans in motion. To continue with the infectious plan against the Moore, Iago must lie excessively to Othello. After lying about Desdemona’s affair, Othello needs proof of her infidelity. Quickly Iago spits out a lie about Cassio receiving Desdemona’s wedding handkerchief from her. Now satisfied with some proof of her unfaithfulness, Othello wants to take a blood oath with Iago so they can always remain faithful to one another (Act III Scene III). Iago lies to Othello once again since he has no good intentions for Othello, before or after the blood oath.
This trick has made Othello even more susceptible to Iago’s lies leading him further into darkness. The plan to bring down Othello comes further along in completion with the lies causing Othello to become jealous. For his plan to succeed, Iago will do whatever steps necessary to make sure he has Othello’s trust. By using his wife and taking extreme actions, Iago’s plan of deceit works even better. The first extreme action he takes is by using his wife. In order to obtain the handkerchief, Iago must use his wife who is always close to Desdemona. Through lies and manipulation about what he will do with it, he receives the handkerchief.
Next was the blood oath that he took with Othello to seal his trust. When announced, Othello took this ceremony very serious, explaining that it was the highest honor that he could bestow on a friend. Iago disgraced this honor by using it to corrupt Othello. Then in the end of the play, Iago’s wife goes to tell Othello the truth about Iago’s plot so Iago ends up killing her. This extreme behavior is so that he can follow through with his plan to make sure it succeeds. The villainous actions of Iago are not seen as “evil” since that has become a term much in vogue in our current era. Evil” may sound too allegorical or too concrete, too essentialist or too objective for psychoanalytic ways of thinking that are oriented towards the study of individual subjectivity (Shapiro 481). Instead, Iago’s characteristics of manipulation, compulsive lying, and extraordinary actions to see his plan through, contribute to two modern psychological disorders. The first one is narcissism, causing those who suffer to be selfish. Modern psychologists diagnose the symptoms as grandiosity, the need for admiration, or lack of empathy.
Deep desire to be at the center of things is served by extreme self-confidence, a combination that makes narcissists attractive and even charming (Woods 256). Other symptoms can be expressed as two-faced, manipulative, seductive, and hypocritical (Kanter 121). The cause of these thoughts in humans has to do with an improperly working ego. There was a common theme on a general cause of this disorder which was, early transition into the ‘real world’ fails in some way, leading the person to remain, at least in part, in the early self-focused.
The Narcissist fails to learn regard for other people, situations, or entities (Kanter 123). Iago expressed the qualities of a diagnosed Narcissist throughout the entire play. With a need for approval, he went unfulfilled when Othello promoted Cassio instead of himself. In order to get back at Othello he plotted against him. Always appearing as trustworthy, Iago tricked Othello into believing his lies. Also throughout the play there was always a lack of empathy towards the destruction of Othello and Desdemona’s relationship. These symptoms clearly identify Iago as a certified narcissist.
The second psychological disorder associated with Iago is sociopathic. The symptoms of a sociopath are described as “complete disregard for other’s rights, generally physically aggressive, difficult to stay in relationships, a lot of intelligence and charm. They may seem mellow and friendly but these qualities are artificial and used by sociopaths to fool others around them” (Woods 219). Symptoms usually progress at the beginning of adult hood and can be caused by genetic or environmental pressures. Children who are influenced by sociopathic parents may adopt these tendencies.
Similarly, role models such as one’s friends or peer group may also influence the behavior pattern of a sociopath. This type of behavior is more likely to occur in men than in women (220). Along with being a sociopath, Iago has the symptoms to be diagnosed as a narcissist. He used manipulative lies to try and destroy the Moore and his wife, for his personal benefit. Iago used his charm in order to get closer to Othello and further corrupt his mind. He is artificial, and enjoyed his morally wrong corruption throughout the entire play, which labels him a sociopath.
From all of Iago’s projections of infidelity building up in Othello’s mind, certain neurotic mechanisms come apparent in the form of jealousy and paranoia. Trust issues then emerge after he was told a lie of his wife cheating on him (Whang 2). Unguided and lost, Othello no longer can believe his wife or Cassio. Instead he turns to Iago, the person who is causing him pain and leading him to the path of corruption. It is Othello’s inability to differentiate between mistrust and jealousy over his wife which is his fatal flaw. This eventually leads Othello to his downfall at the end of the play.
An issue with anger is another dominant trait since he expressed it on Desdemona the majority of the times he spoke to her. Since the time he first spoke with Iago about Desdemona cheating with Cassio, Othello was in a very upset mood. He pushed Desdemona away every time she tried to get close, and he became easily upset with her. On one occasion Othello lashed out by slapping Desdemona in the face, all while in front of the Duke. It was apparent that Othello was easily ill tempered by examining his actions. However, Desdemona did not get all the blunt end of the anger since Cassio also received an embarrassing confrontation from Othello.
By the last act of the play all of the rage building up inside of Othello causes him to kill his own wife. It takes some extreme anger to have the courage to actually kill someone, which is why he is diagnosed as a having a psychological disorder. Othello’s newly adopted traits can be characterized as psychological disorders, similar to Iago. The first one is low serotonin levels within the brain. When this occurs it can cause aggressive behavior, lack of sleep, hallucinations, and also seizures if it is extreme enough.
Possibilities to the cause of this could result from genetics or lesions to the brain or spine (Dykstra 35). This can characterize Othello because he expressed the symptoms above. He shows aggression against his wife and Cassio, he awakes frequently in the middle of the night due to images of Desdemona having an affair, and he has seizures from the emotional pain that it brings him. Even the some of the causes can be related back to the play. Since he has battle scars from previous fights, it is likely that he would have a cut on his back or on his head.
The other psychological disorder that is evident was the idea of couple’s distress occurring between Othello and Desdemona. This was also happening only because of Iago’s actions on Othello’s mind. The symptoms of couple’s distress are the retreating of emotions, if one partner tries to come closer, then the other one will back away. Another is polarization of a specific idea, this is when one or both partners are fixated on a specific theme that is unpleasing to the relationship. Anger and jealousy are also prevalent in the relationship. This can be caused by an unwanted or unpleasing behavior from the spouse.
Reinforcement erosion will also cause this; the behaviors that once brought the couple together are no longer in place, or are slipping away (Barlow 524). This is evident within the relationship between Othello and Desdemona throughout the end of the play. Othello gets fixated on the lie that Desdemona is having an affair, and he pushes away from her. As she tries to recover him by trying to get closer he continues to push away. The bond between the two is beginning to slip away from the lies that Iago is telling. This occurs until the end of the play when Othello cannot take it anymore and ends up killing her.
It takes a brilliant mind to produce a play written in sonnet, and takes an even greater effort to recognize psychological disorders and introduce them into the characters. Shakespeare’s Othello is a magnificent piece of work due to the character’s unique personalities that are expressed. Through the madness of Iago and his deceit, Othello’s thoughts were manipulated to promote the green eyed monster. The sociopathic narcissist that Iago is drove Othello towards adopting a few psychological disorders himself. The obscurity of his mental process leads him to succumb to his jealous emotions and eventually kill his wife over false accusations.
Barlow, David H. Clinical Handbook of Psychological Disorders: a Step-by-step Treatment Manual. 4th ed. New York: Guilford, 2008. Print.
“Emotional Expression in Criminals.” EBSCO – EBSCOhost Online Research Databases. Feb. 2002. Web. 21 Feb. 2011. ;http://www.ebscohost.com/;.
Seiden, Lewis S., and Linda A. Dykstra. Psychopharmacology: a Biochemical and Behavioral Approach. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1977. Print.
Shakespeare, William. “Othello.” 1604. Making Literature Matter: An Anthology for Readers and Writers. 4th ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 2009. 705-93. Print.
Shapiro, Barbara A. “Psychoanalysis and the Problem of Evil: Debating Othello in the Classroom.” American Imago 60.4 (2003): 481-99. Print.
Whang, Martin. “Othello: The Tragedy of Iago.” PEP Web. 1950. Web. 20 Feb. 2011. ;http://pep.gvpi.net/document.php?id=ijp.032.0330a;.
Woods, Douglas W., and Jonathan W. Kanter. Understanding Behavior Disorders: a Contemporary Behavioral Perspective. Reno, NV: Context, 2007. Print.
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