by Jonathan D. Lewis MD
For presentation to the Chicago Literary Club
Monday, May 13, 2013
I preface tonight's talk with a confession and a caution. First, the confession. The title of my presentation, “Two Losers”, was meant for a paper other than the one I am about to give. Midway through writing what I shall refer to as 'The Original Two Losers', I experienced what I can only identify as 'writer's remorse'. In each of my previous presentations at these meetings, I dealt with one of Shakespeare's plays, giving special attention to Shakespeare's understanding of human psychology. As I was composing the paper I had initially intended to give this evening, I realized I had not exhausted the topic of Shakespeare's psychological genius to my satisfaction; I could not yet move on to another writer, or another theme. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that Shakespeare was not through with me. I felt that at least two or three more papers on this topic were bubbling just below the surface of consciousness, eager to emerge in a form worthy of presentation.
But I now found myself encumbered with a title intended for a different subject. My consternation at this situation did not lead to perturbation due to the realization that the concept of 'two losers' would be an apt description for any number of Shakespeare's characters. Romeo and Juliet, and Anthony and Cleopatra immediately came to mind; after all, the title characters in these two plays lose their lives by the end of the dramas– definitely qualifying them as 'two losers'. Then there are Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, or Shylock and Antonio from The Merchant of Venice, Caesar and Brutus, Lear and Cordelia, the list could go on, all well qualified contenders for the appellation, 'two losers'. Possibilities being plentiful, I settled on Shakespeare's Othello, for therein are described two of Shakespeare's greatest losers, the title character and Iago. This was especially interesting to me psychologically, as Iago is arguably Shakespeare's most odious villain; the argument being that Shakespeare's other great villains, Richard III, Claudius, Edmund, Macbeth – all had something to gain from their villainy. Iago, in destroying Othello, has nothing to gain other than the satisfaction of a perverse psychological need.
Prior to Freud's discovery of hidden, unconscious motivations, 19th century critics viewed Iago's maliciousness as motiveless. E.H. Seymour wrote of Iago in 1805, that “...there are no sufficient motives apparent for this excess of malignity.” (quoted in Honigmann, p. 34). And Samuel Coleridge famously noted in the margins of his copy of Othello, “...Iago's soliloquy (at the end of Act I), shows the motive-hunting of motiveless malignity”. While this phrase is often quoted to illustrate Coleridge's belief that Iago is without motivation for his evil actions, what follows is not; for Coleridge continues, “-how awful! In itself fiendish...He is a being next to devil, only not quite devil – and this Shakespeare has attempted -executed – without disgust, without scandal!” I interpret this as Coleridge's recognition of Shakespeare's psychological acuity in being able to create a character, who is evil without apparent motivation, and yet refrains from making him a into a caricature, a buffoon or an object of disgust.(Coleridge on Shakespeare , ed. by T. Hawkes, 1969, p.190 ). But I am getting ahead of myself. For the determination of Iago's motives, which only appear to be lacking, will be a central theme of this presentation; so more on this later.
Should the fates smile kindly upon us all, I hope that at some future meeting of the Literary Club, I shall to be able to present the paper that I had originally intended by tonight's title. I shall perhaps have to rename it “The Original Two Losers” in order to distinguish it from tonight's presentation. Or perhaps I can set tonight's talk apart with a suitable subtitle, such as “Why Not Iago?” Now you must envision the Iago of this subtitle as being underlined, as it represents an alternative possibility for the name Shakespeare chose for this drama. Why did Shakespeare call his play Othello? Why not Iago? After all, Iago is the far more interesting character, as villains often are; he is certainly the most important character in the play, for it is his actions, his plotting, and his scheming, that create the motive force of the play. The entire unfolding of events is instigated by Iago; Othello merely reacts to Iago's treachery. Furthermore, Iago has the best lines of the play and he is on stage in more scenes than Othello. He is devilishly clever, even at times to the point of being amusing, and he evokes the
strongest emotions in the audience. Compared to Iago, Othello is a rather bland character, rather naive in the affairs of men, once he has been removed from his triumphs on the field of battle.
So one might think it logical that the play be named for Iago as the most interesting and important character in the play. Yet Shakespeare did not do so and my goal for this evening is to provide an hypothesis for why I think this is the case. I make no claim that my answer to the question, why not Iago? be the definitive answer, it is simply my answer.
Now, for the caution mentioned at the outset. My talk is for mature audiences only, as this play is saturated with sex. Shakespearean scholar and editor of the Arden edition of the play, E.A.J. Honigmann, refers to it as “this sex drenched play.” (Honigmann,, ed., the Arden Shakespeare Othello, 1997, p. 52.) And for psychoanalytic critics, among which I include myself, the sexuality is clearly of a perverse nature. So be forewarned, if there are any among you who are in the least bit squeamish at the prospect of a depiction of perverse sexuality, I suggest that, when I get to the more graphic parts of my discussion, you cover your eyes, and I shall let you know when it is safe to open them again.
While I am certain that we are all familiar with the play, I shall provide a brief synopsis in order to set the scene for my discussion. It goes almost without saying that the play is about jealousy and vengeance. While many focus on the jealousy of Othello, I hope to show that this play is primarily about Iago's jealousy. His is a particular and peculiar form of jealousy, a jealousy so perverse, that it causes him to provoke Othello into a parallel jealousy of such intensity and irrationality that it leads him to uxoricide. Iago accomplishes this end through deception, mendacity and treachery.
At the outset, we discover that there is a back story to the drama. Just before the play begins, Othello, a famous general in the armies of Venice, has eloped with Desdemona, the young daughter of a Venetian senator, named Brabantio. Although Othello is a middle-aged 'Blackamoor', in Elizabethan parlance, and Desdemona but an adolescent from a very different class and culture than the Moor,
she has fallen in love with him as he recounted his tales of peril and valor in battle, while a guest at her father's home. The play opens on the very evening of their elopement. They have ensconced themselves at an inn called the Sagittary.
The opening scene finds Iago reassuring his hapless confederate, Rodrigo, that he hates
Othello, whom he has often served in battle. Rodrigo is one of many characters that Iago deceives in the course of the play – in fact, he is referred to in the List of Characters as a 'gulled' gentleman of Venice. The ostensible reason that Iago gives for his hatred is that Othello has promoted Cassio to the position of Lieutenant in preference to Iago. Iago demeans the preferred Cassio as a mere administrator, an accountant, who knows nothing of battle, and assures Rodrigo again that he only appears to continue to be obsequious to Othello as a means to be in a position to avenge himself for this humiliation.
Iago and Rodrigo then go to awaken Desdemona's father to inform him of his daughter's elopement with the Moor. They rouse Brabantio from sleep and Iago inflames him with images of misceginational sex, “Even now, now, very now, an old black ram/ Is tupping your white ewe!” (I.i. 87-88) Iago succeeds in stirring up Brabantio, who with a mob descends on the Sagittary, where Othello and Desdemona are spending their wedding night, thus preventing the consummation of the marriage.
In confronting the couple, Brabantio accuses Othello of using witchcraft and drugs to seduce his daughter, but the Duke of Venice intervenes and determines that the pair are legally and honestly wed. Furthermore, Othello's services to the Venetian army are needed immediately in Cyprus, as the Venetians are engaged there in a war against the Turks. Desdemona asks to be allowed to join Othello in Cyprus. Othello accedes to her wishes, proclaiming that he does so, not to satisfy any sexual appetite, which he claims has waned with age, but only to please Desdemona and to ease her mind about his safety. All leave except Iago and Rodrigo, and Iago again reassures Rodrigo, “I have told
thee often, and I re-tell thee again and again, I/ hate the Moor.” (I.iii.365-7) He suggests that they both have reason to hate Othello, as Rodrigo has been pining for Desdemona. Iago persuades Rodrigo to join forces with him in avenging themselves against Othello. Iago assures Rodrigo that he will help him achieve his desire to bed Desdemona and make a cuckold of Othello.
Finally alone, Iago suggests that he has a second reason for hating Othello, believing that
Othello has made a cuckold of him. “I hate the Moor/ And it is thought abroad, that twixt my sheets/ He's done my office. I know not if't be true,/ But I for mere suspicion in that kind/ Will do as if for surety.” (I.iii. 385-389) Iago then has a sudden revelation of how he can avenge himself on Othello for these presumed humiliations. He will make it appear to Othello that his new Lieutenant, Cassio, is “too familiar with his wife.” (I.iii. 395), creating a suspicion in Othello's mind that Desdemona has been unfaithful to him, ultimately inducing in him a state of insane and murderous jealousy. He would thus project into Othello the very belief of unfaithfulness he has about his own wife, Emilia, with Othello. He proclaims triumphantly at the end of his soliloquy, “I have't, it is engendered! Hell and night/ Must bring this monstrous birth to the world's light.” (I.iii.402-3)
Acts II, III and IV see the unfolding of Iago's plot. He conspires with Rodrigo to get Cassio drunk and then provoke him into brawling. Othello is shocked by Cassio's ungentlemanly conduct and dismisses Cassio as his officer. Cassio is devastated and humiliated. Iago seizes the occasion to further his scheme. He urges Cassio to use Desdemona as an intermediary to be reinstated in Othello's good graces, all the while planning to suggest to Othello that the pair, in so conspiring, are much too familiar with each other. Through manipulation, insinuation and outright fabrication, Iago evokes in Othello suspicions that Desdemona has been unfaithful to him with Cassio. Ultimately through the device of the purloined handkerchief, Iago convinces Othello that Desdemona has indeed made him a cuckold. He gradually drives Othello mad with jealousy and murderous rage, to the point that Othello collapses unconscious in an epileptic fit.
In the final act, Othello exacts revenge for the imagined wrongs, strangling Desdemona in their
marital bed. Upon discovering that he has been duped by Iago, Othello kills himself. In the end, Iago has been responsible for the deaths not only of Desdemona and Othello, but also of Rodrigo and his own wife, Emilia. Iago is led away to await his fate, vowing never to speak again.
Othello is one of Shakespeare's problem plays. There are two principal problems represented by this play; first, what could motivate one man's hatred to a degree that he would induce another to commit uxoricide; second, how is it possible for Othello to be thus persuaded to kill his wife, based on so little evidence, while making no attempt to either verify or disprove this evidence. Although I shall touch upon this second question at the end of this talk, my focus is on Iago and his motives. While it is commonly understood that this is a play about Othello's jealousy and the extreme consequences of this extreme jealousy, it is Iago's jealousy that is at the heart of this drama. It is Iago's jealousy that motivates all his villainous behavior. Iago's stated motives, that he is resentful at having been passed over for promotion and that he believes Othello has made him a cuckold, are too flimsy to warrant the death of Desdemona. If he truly believed that Othello had seduced his wife, we would expect his passion to lead him to seek the death of Othello, not Desdemona. So there must be something more to this, something not expressed, but hidden in the subtext of Iago's character.
It required the passage of three centuries for psychoanalytic theory to provide the tools for understanding Iago's motivation. As psychoanalyst-turned-social critic Joel Kovel put it, “...without psychoanalysis the nucleus of the play's interest would go virtually unexplained...”; Kovel further maintains that the value of great art lies in its representation of truths that lie deeper than the level of immediate experience and that psychoanalysis provides one means for uncovering these truths. (Othello , American Imago, p. 114). Still, we must be cautious when we endeavor to interpret literature of the 17th century through the lens of 20th century concepts. While I consider this to be a
valid and valuable enterprise, I believe that two rules must guide our speculations. First, any
psychological analysis must be grounded firmly in the text, and second, it is well to keep in mind that these characters are inventions of their creator; they have no genuine person-hood, no personal history, and no authentic psychology, save that given them by the imagination of the writer. Analysis must treat them “as if” they were living, breathing persons. It is one aspect of Shakespeare's genius that he consistently created characters of such psychological complexity, verisimilitude and completeness, that they readily lend themselves to, indeed, they virtually beg for psychological understanding.
Many years ago, I gave a short talk at the annual meeting of the Illinois Psychiatric Society, titled 'Cleopatra was a Borderline'. My theme was the lack of validity in psychiatric diagnosing and my purpose was to demonstrate that the officially accepted diagnostic categories were unscientific, muddled and ambiguous. To exemplify my thesis, I chose the diagnostic category, 'Borderline Personality Disorder'. The manual of psychiatric diagnostics lists nine possible criteria for this rubric, of which a patient must meet only five in order to qualify for a diagnosis of borderline personality. Shakespeare's Cleopatra exhibits all nine of the signs of this disorder. So, I asked, how legitimate a diagnosis could this be if a fictional character meets the psychiatric criteria better than any living patient. A noted analytic psychiatrist and philosopher arrived in the middle of my talk. After listening a few minutes, he became agitated, jumped up and said, “Dr. Lewis, you can't diagnose Cleopatra, she's just a literary fiction” - or something to that effect. I replied, “Dr. C., if you had been here at the outset of my presentation, you would have realized, in its essence, that is my point”. Mollified, he sat down. So, as we proceed, keep in mind that I am speaking of these characters only “as if” they were real.
I resume, briefly describing what has come to be the standard and accepted psychoanalytic interpretation of Iago's motives; I shall then provide what I consider to be the textual evidence for this interpretation, and finally, I will elaborate upon theory, indicating how text and theory support each other.
Ever since the publication of Martin Wangh's seminal article, “Othello: The Tragedy of Iago”, in
1950, Iago's actions have been interpreted as being motivated by an unacknowledged homosexual love for Othello. When Othello marries Desdemona, it becomes evident to Iago that his love is not returned. Iago is driven by his jealousy of Othello's love for Desdemona, and his preference for Michael Cassio, to avenge himself on all three. He reserves particular animus for his chief rival in love, Desdemona, and this is why he seeks Desdemona's death. As further evidence for this, it is occasionally pointed out that in the story upon which Shakespeare based his play, written in 1565 by the Italian, Giraldi Cinthio, it was Iago, not Othello, who murders Desdemona. In Cinthio's earlier version, only Desdemona is named, as 'Disdemona'; while Othello and Iago are referred to simply as 'the Moor' and 'the ensign'. I believe that Shakespeare's choice of names was not capricious but meaningful. Othello is a diminutive form of the Arabic name, Atil, meaning literally, 'prosperous' or 'adorned with jewels'; while Iago is the Welsh form of Jacob, meaning 'he who supplants'. The Jacob of the Old Testament supplanted his twin brother, Esau, stealing their father's blessing by guile and deception. This is a good description of Iago's methods in his attempt to supplant Desdemona and take her place in Othello's affections.
No critic has or would maintain that there is any overt evidence for Iago's homosexuality in the play. Iago's homosexual love is unconscious in the Freudian sense, hidden especially from himself. When Lawrence Olivier became acquainted with this interpretation of Iago's motivation through the work of Ernest Jones, an English psychoanalyst and Freud's student, he seized upon it as a novel interpretation of the role and mistakenly played Iago as overtly homosexual, with 'disastrous' results. (Honigmann, op.cit., p. 50)
If we were to speak of a living person or a patient who presented with the personality characteristics of Iago, we would describe the homosexual tendency in him as being repressed and unconscious. But in a literary figure, I prefer to identify this as a homosexuality which is
unrepresented by the author and unacknowledged by the character. If anything, Iago protests to
Rodrigo, over and over again, perhaps too vehemently, that he hates Othello. Yet there is plenty of
evidence to the contrary. In fact, his repetitious proclamations of hatred might well lead one
to say he 'doth protest too much'. Sigmund Freud has taught us that there are no unambiguous feelings in intimate relations; the relationship between Iago and Othello was forged upon the battlefield - “At Rhodes, at Cyprus and on other grounds” (I.i.28) and certainly, men fighting together develop deep bonds. So we may hypothesize that Iago's stated hatred for Othello potentially obscures a hidden love.
Then we have Iago's fondness for evoking feelings of sexual excitement and agitation in other men. He does this by externalizing his own voyeuristic fantasies onto them. I counted no fewer than fifteen examples of this practice in the course of the play. There are the well known instances in which he torments Desdemona's father, Brabantio, with images of his daughter having sex with the Moor as in the previously quoted: “Even now...an old black ram/Is tupping your white ewe!” (I.i. 87-88); followed by, “...you'll have your daughter covered with a Barbary horse;” (I.i. 109-110); and, “I am one, sir, that comes to tell you your daughter/ and the Moor are now making the beast with two backs.” (I.i. 114-115). Iago inflames Rodrigo several times with sexual imagery involving Desdemona and Cassio. Iago is obsessed with fantasies of his own wife having sex with Othello and with Cassio, “...the thought whereof/ Doth like a poison mineral gnaw my inwards.../And nothing can or shall content my soul/ Till I am evened with him, wife for wife.”(II.i. 294-297) Iago torments Othello with images of Desdemona having sex with Cassio. And when Othello demands of Iago that he satisfy him with proof that Desdemona is unfaithful, Iago responds, “...how satisfied, my lord?/ Would you, the supervisor, grossly gape on?/ Behold her topped?” (III.3. 397-399) Iago protests that there would be great difficulty in catching Cassio and Desdemona in flagrante delicto (of course there would, as this is a scene entirely of his own creation); but as with his reference to the 'beast with two backs', he again evokes an image of animalistic sexuality, telling Othello, “...where's satisfaction?/ It is impossible you should see this/ Were they as prime as goats, as hot as monkeys, / As salt as wolves in pride, and fools
as gross/ as ignorance made drunk.” (III.3.404-408) Remember, this notion of sex as a bestial act is
contained only in Iago's mind. But Iago has been so successful in projecting images of Desdemona's infidelity into Othello’s imagination, that all he need do is say the word 'lie' and Othello, in his agitated state responds, “With her?”, and Iago pushes him further, “With her, on her, what you will.” (IV.1.33-34) It is my contention that Iago's repetitious practice of inducing sexual excitement and agitation in other men, especially Othello as his prime victim, is prima facie evidence of his unacknowledged homosexuality.
Iago is so jealous of the love between Othello and Desdemona, that he does everything in his power to prevent them from consummating their marriage. On their wedding night, having aroused Brabantio and a mob, he ensures that they are unable to initiate intimate relations. We know this, at least we know that Iago believes he has been successful in interrupting any love making, for when Othello and Desdemona are reunited in Cyprus, Iago tells Cassio that Othello and Desdemona have retired early because Othello, “... hath not yet made wanton the night with her, and she is sport for Jove.” (II.3. 16-17) Iago then manages to create a second disturbance, getting Cassio drunk and provoking a riotous fight, so that Othello and Desdemona are once again aroused from their marital bed. Iago is like a jealous child, who can not stand to have his parents spend an uninterrupted night together.
Planting the seeds of suspicion in Othello's mind, Iago achieves, I believe, that which he has been striving for. Othello, grateful to Iago for opening his eyes to Desdemona's supposed infidelity, expresses his gratitude, saying, “I am bound to thee for ever.” (III.3. 317). Iago has now managed to drive a wedge between Othello and Desdemona, of whom he is so jealous, and turn Othello's affections towards himself. True to his name, he is well on his way to supplanting her. And when Othello is firmly convinced of the liaison between Cassio and Desdemona, he vows vengeance. What follows is a
scene more reminiscent of a couple taking their wedding vows than plotting murder. It is worth
recounting this scene in detail, as it so tellingly demonstrates Iago's unacknowledged intentions. As Othello assures Iago that he no longer vacillates in his determination that Cassio and Desdemona must die, he says, “Even so my bloody thoughts with violent pace/ Shall ne'er ebb to humble love/ Till that a capable and wide revenge/ Swallow them up.” At this point, stage directions indicate that Othello kneels, and he continues, “Now by yond marble heaven/ In the due reverence of a sacred vow/ I here engage my words.” Iago now kneels with Othello and says, “Do not rise yet./ Witness, you ever-burning lights above,/ You elements that clip us round about, / Witness that here Iago doth give up/ The execution of his wit, hands, heart,/ To wronged Othello's service. Let him command/ And to obey shall be in me remorse/ what bloody business ever.” To this pledge, Othello responds, “I greet thy love/ Not with vain thanks but with acceptance bounteous.” Then Othello charges Iago with the murder of Cassio, while he states his determination, over Iago's facetious protestations, to kill Desdemona himself. Iago accepts the assignment to kill Cassio and Othello rewards him, saying, “Now art thou my lieutenant”, to which Iago replies, “I am your own for ever.” (III.iii.460 - 482) So picture this, the two men on their knees, plotting the murder of Iago's two rivals for Othello’s love, culminating with Iago's statement, “I am your own for ever”; does this not sound more like a pledge of a lover than mere obeisance of a soldier to his commanding officer?
Finally, we have what is known as Iago's 'raging tooth dream'. Iago represents his fantasy to Othello as if it were Cassio's dream; while in reality, it is a complete fabrication. Again, Freud has taught us that fantasies, dreams and lies, all partake of the same psychic mechanism of wish fulfillment. I shall quote Iago's speech in full, given its importance. He invents the dream in response to Othello's request to be provided with proof of Desdemona's infidelity. Iago responds, “I lay with Cassio lately/ And being troubled with a raging tooth/ I could not sleep. There are a kind of men/ So loose of soul that in their sleeps will mutter/ Their affairs – one of this kind is Cassio./ In sleep I heard him say
'Sweet Desdemona,/ Let us be wary, let us hide our loves,'/ And then, sir, would he gripe and wring my
hand,/ Cry 'O sweet creature!' and then kiss me hard/ As if he plucked up kisses by the roots/ That grew upon my lips, lay his leg o'er my thigh,/ And sigh, and kiss, and then cry 'Cursed fate/ That gave thee to
the Moor!' (III.3.416-428) This graphic homoerotic scene is entirely of Iago's construction.
This constitutes much of the textual evidence for Iago's hidden homosexual tendencies. I now turn to an elaboration of the analytic hypotheses that illuminate this text. Psychoanalytic literary criticism begins with Freud. Since its origins, psychoanalysis has had an intimate relationship with literature. Freud was classically educated and was well read in the literature of many nations, in many languages. It is of interest that Freud gave priority for the deepest understanding of human psychology to the creative artists. He wrote, “...creative writers are valuable allies and their evidence is to be prized highly, for they are apt to know a whole host of things beween heaven and earth of which our philosophy has not yet let us dream. In their knowledge of the mind they are far in advance of us everyday people, for they draw upon sources which have not yet opened to science.” (S. Freud, “Delusions and Dreams in Jensen's Gradiva, SE IX, 1907, p. 8) And let's not forget that Freud named one of his most notable discoveries after Sophocles' drama, Oedipus Rex. Throughout the past century, literature has informed psychoanalytic thought and psychoanalytic concepts have contributed significantly to understanding the deeper structures of literature. While I consider the practice of psychoanalysis to be more art than science, and while psychoanalytic practice involves a good measure of creativity, it is principally a method for understanding the dynamics of mind; so we must not confuse an analytic investigation into the motives of a fictional character with Freud's case histories of hysterical and obsessive patients, even though these histories read like minor literary masterpieces. Parenthetically, it may be noted that the one official recognition that Freud received during his lifetime was the Goethe prize for literature.
So once again I am cautioning that we keep in mind that we are talking about the characters and
characteristics of Othello and Iago, only 'as if' they were living, breathing humans. Most pertinent to a
discussion of this play are Freud's writings titled “Psychoanalytic Notes Upon an Autobiographical Account of a case of Paranoia”, from 1911 and “Some Neurotic Mechanisms in Jealousy, Paranoia and
Homosexuality”, published in 1922. In these two works, Freud traces the development of paranoia from homosexual desires that stand in conflict with the conscious ideal of the self, and hence must be repressed, banished from consciousness. Freud describes a regular progression of contradictions that arise from an unacceptable homosexual impulse. The initial feeling of sexual love for another man is repressed and inverted, so that the initial contradiction is, “I don't love him, I hate him”; this is followed by a projection of the feelings of hate, producing the second contradiction, “I don't hate him, he hates me”; this last construction constitutes the paranoid position. Freud writes, “... it is a remarkable fact that the familiar, principal forms of paranoia can all be represented as contradictions of the single proposition, ' I (a man) love him, (a man)'.” (1911, p. 165) It is clear that Iago has arrived at the second level of contradiction, having changed love to hate. He says repetitively that he hates Othello. He has not become overtly paranoid in a belief that Othello is persecuting him. His paranoia takes a form that is limited to the realm of sexual jealousy, which is evident in his jealous fantasies and feelings of vengefulness. Delusional jealousy, Freud points out in his 1922 essay, arises from a similar wish to defend against unwanted homosexual desires and may be similarly portrayed by a formula; “I do not love him, she loves him”. Again this construct applies well to Iago in his several beliefs that he has no love for either Othello or Cassio, but that his wife has had sexual relations with them both, and he is certain that Cassio loves Desdemona and that she must return his love. Here we reference Iago's words in his soliloquy at the end of the first scene of Act II, “That Cassio loves her [Desdemona], I do well believe it,/ That she loves him, 'tis apt and of great credit. (II.1. 284-285) In other words, Iago envisions acts of infidelity all around him, failing to recognize that his convictions are merely products of his imagination.
That Iago is jealous of the love shared by Othello and Desdemona, there can be no doubt; that
his jealousy has reached delusional proportions is evident in his soliloquy at the end of Act I when he muses upon gossip about a possible liaison between Othello and his wife, Emilia, as previously noted, “I know not if't be true,/ But I for mere suspicion in that kind/ Will do as if for surety.” (I.3.387-389) His suspicion rises to the level not only of certainty, but to that of an obsession. In Act II, he reiterates, “...the lusty Moor/ Hath leaped into my seat, the thought whereof/ Doth like a poisonous mineral gnaw my inwards.../ And nothing can or shall content my soul/ Till I am evened with him, wife for wife.” (II.i. 293-297) But as we know, Iago's getting even with Othello, does not mean he wishes to seduce Desdemona in return for the liaison he imagines exists between Othello and Emilia. He, in fact, demonstrates no sexual interest in women during the course of the drama; rather he seeks Desdemona's death, in order to remove her as his rival. As none of Iago's fantasies have any basis in reality, it is fair to judge him as suffering from delusional jealousy, which, as Freud points out, constitutes a particular form of paranoia. In the 1922 essay referred above, Freud writes, “Delusional jealousy is what is left of a homosexuality that has run its course, and it rightly takes its position among the classical forms of paranoia.” (op. cit., p.225)
Iago is consumed with a desire for revenge, and psychoanalysis has much to say about the dynamics of vengeance and vindictiveness. Principally, feelings of revenge serve a defensive purpose, protecting a person from more painful feelings of loss of self-esteem due to rejection, and grief over the loss of love. Freud's student, Karen Horney (quoted in Searles), writes that vindictiveness serves to restore injured pride; and the creative psychoanalytic writer, Harold Searles (1965) states that, “...preoccupation with vengeful fantasies about that person serves in effect, as a way of psychologically holding on to him.” (“The Psychodynamics of Vengefulness”, p. 177) These theories fit Iago well. Obsessed with thoughts of vengeance towards Othello, Iago constantly has the object of his failed love at the center of thoughts.
So remembering that we are treating Iago only 'as if' he were a real person, once we postulate
that he harbored an unacknowledged love for Othello, his actions begin to make sense and can be
considered logical from his point of view . When Othello marries Desdemona, just before the play
begins, Iago must sense that his love for Othello is not returned; his love turns to hate and all that follows falls into place. Consider that if an offer of love is the most valuable gift one can give, when this gift is rejected, the injury cuts to the core of one's being. Thus, Iago's vengeful actions, his plot to have Othello murder Desdemona, serve as an attempt to repair self-esteem that has been deeply injured by the thwarting of his love. His revenge is complete in his inducing Othello to become the instrument by which he rids himself of his rival in love. But as his actions arise out of neurotic and psychotic mechanisms, all ends badly. While ensuring that Desdemona shall not have Othello, Iago also ensures that he can never attain the love he desires and that Othello will die only with expressions of revulsion and hatred for him on his lips.
Finally, a discussion of Iago's psychology is incomplete without a consideration of the affect of envy. I am not aware of there being any mention of Iago's envy in the psychoanalytic literature, but this concept was brought to my attention by Mac Davis, emeritus Professor of English at Ohio State and Shakespearean actor, in a discussion of how he would prepare to play the role. Envy is an emotion that is more primitive than jealousy; primitive both in the sense of arising prior to jealousy in human psychological development and in the sense of being more raw and destructive than jealousy. The jealous person may feel injured and angry that the one who is loved gives his love to another, but the envious person is enraged that he is unable to have what the envied individual possesses and is compelled to attempt to poison and destroy that which is envied. I submit that what Iago envies in Othello is Othello's capacity for love and his ability to sustain innocence. Iago is incapable of love, he hates everyone including himself. A sample of his self-hatred is reflected in his words (find quote in which Iago compares himself to Cassio – his beauty makes me look ugly). It is this envy, along with his delusional jealousy, which drives him to poison what he finds good in Othello. And in this he
succeeds. He destroys Othello's love for Desdemona and corrupts Othello's innocent but mistaken belief in Iago's honesty. (include lines of Iago in which he acknowledges his evil)
Thus, viewed through the lens of psychoanalytic constructs, Iago's apparently motiveless actions become meaningful and even reasonable when viewed from his distorted perspective. Did Shakespeare anticipate the findings of psychoanalysis by three hundred years? I do not believe so, but because he had a nearly infallible and uncanny genius for understanding human behavior, and intuited the psychological processes that lay behind that behavior, he had the capacity for creating characters whose complexities, actions and motives would only be illuminated centuries later through the tools that Freud and his followers have provided us.
The other major mystery in this play is the question, what made Othello so vulnerable to Iago's suggestions? There is little that I have discerned within the text of the play which helps us understand why Othello would succumb so readily to Iago's plots and lies. Nor does the text indicate why Othello never confronted Desdemona with his suspicions until he is in the process of strangling her. Othello appears to be completely naïve in his assessment of Iago's character, constantly referring to him as
We have little information about Othello's history and life. It appears that he has reached
middle age without having been previously married, having spent his youth and adulthood on the field of battle or as a captive and slave. Thus, he may be relatively naïve in matters both social and sexual. Though Iago in one instance refers to him as a 'lusty Moor', when imagining that Othello has seduced Emilia, there is plenty of evidence to the contrary in the speeches of both Othello and Iago. All indications are that any sexual appetite Othello may once have experienced is greatly diminished. But it is left entirely to speculation that when a dusky-skinned Moor of middle-age, marries a beautiful young Venetian woman of a different race, ethnicity and social class, he may experience significant anxiety, both in the sexual and social spheres. At the very least, we may be certain that he was not
secure in his marriage. A man who is entirely secure and confident of his fidelity and that of his wife, could not be so easily persuaded of his wife's infidelity. In fact, a mature man can even enjoy a spouse's flirtations, appreciating that other men find his wife attractive. But this is certainly not the case with Othello.
Othello was perhaps liable to imagine that he may not be able to satisfy his young bride, and that she may tire of him and turn to a handsome young man of her own background and status. Iago speculates on just such a possibility. However, this explanation for Othello's all too ready acceptance of Iago's suggestions is both superficial and highly speculative. Some psychoanalysts have attempted a deeper psychological reading of Othello's actions, but having so little textual material to depend upon, they rely almost exclusively on psychoanalytic theory to explain Othello's behavior. Thus they ask, what type of childhood would produce a personality such as Othello's? They then create a fictional childhood for a fictional character in order to explain his behavior. While such fabrications occasionally provide for some amusing reading, attempting to force a character into the Procrustean bed of psychoanalytic theory adds little to our appreciation or understanding of the play (for examples
of this approach see Stephen Reid  and M.D. Faber ). Perhaps some aspects of this play
shall remain forever mysterious and inaccessible to analysis, just as the origin of Shakespeare's genius
remains a mystery. It may even be that some measure of mystery adds to the our appreciation of the play's beauty.
Finally, I return to the question I posed at the outset. Why is this play called Othello? Why not
Iago? The psychoanalytic critic, Leslie Fiedler (1973) writes that not only has Iago caused the deaths of Desdemona, Emilia, Rodrigo and Othello, but “...he has imposed his world view on the play and on us.” (The Stranger in Shakespeare, p. 150) As I have described, Iago is obsessed with Othello. Shakespeare had the great insight to ask his audience, not necessarily to empathize with the villain, but to see the world from his point of view – and at the center of Iago's world is Othello.
Note: All citations from the play are taken from The Arden Shakespeare Othello, 3rd, edition, edited by E.A. J. Honigmann, Thomas Nelson and Sons, for Cengage Learning, London, 1997.
1. Cinthio, Giraldi (1565); Hecatommithi; the entire text of the story, “The Third Decade, Story 7”, upon which Shakespeare based his play can be found in the Arden Shakespeare edition of Othello, pp. 370 – 386.
2. Coleridge, Samuel T.; Coleridge on Shakespeare, ed. by Terence Hawkes, Penguin Shakespeare Library, 1969.
3. Faber, M.D.; The Design Within: Psychoanalytic Approaches to Shakespeare, Science House, New York, 1970.
4. Fiedler, Leslie A.; The Stranger in Shakespeare, Stein and Day, New York, 1973.
5. Freud, S.(1907); Delusions and Dreams in Jensen's Gradiva, Standard Edition, Vol. IX, Hogarth Press, London, 1975.
6. _______ (1911); Psychoanalytic Note Upon an Autobiographical Account of a Case of
Paranoia, in Three Case Histories, Collier Books, Macmillan Publishing Co., New York, 1963.
7. _______ (1922); Some Neurotic Mechanisms in Jealousy, Paranoia and Homosexuality, Standard Edition, Vol. XVIII, Hogarth Press, London, 1975.
8. Honigmann, E.A. J. editor; The Arden Shakespeare Othello, Thomas Nelson and Sons, London, 1997.
9. Kovel, Joel; “Othello”, American Imago, Vol. 35, 1978, pp. 113 – 119.
10. Reid, Stephen; “Othello's Jealousy”, American Imago, Vol. 25, 1968, pp. 274 – 294.
11. Searles, Harold F. (1956); “The Psychodynamics of Vengefulness”, in Collected Papers on Schizophrenia and Related Subjects, International Universities Press, New York, 1965.
12. Seymour, E. H.(1805); Remarks...Upon the Plays of Shakespeare, quoted in E.A.J. Honigmann.
13. Wangh, Martin; “'Othello': The Tragedy of Iago,” Psa. Quarterly, Vol. XIX, 1950.