Let us in this essay discuss the abnormal outlook on life found in Shakespeare’s tragedy Othello. Is a distorted view on life expressed only by the villain?
Iago is generally recognized as the one character possessing and operating by abnormal psychology. But Lily B. Campbell in Shakespeare’s Tragic Heroes tells of the time when the hero himself approached “madness”:
Othello himself cries:
thou hast set me on the rack.
I swear ‘t is better to be much abus’d
Than but to know a little.
And then we find him torturing himself with the thoughts of Cassio’s kisses on Desdemona’s lips, and he reiterates the property idea in his talk of being robbed.
From this time on, Othello has become the slave of passion. As he cries farewell to the tranquil mind, to content, to war and his occupation, as he demands that Iago prove his love a whore, as he threatens Iago and begs for proof at the same time, he is finally led almost to the verge of madness [. . .] . (165)
Fortunately the protagonist regains his equilibrium, and when he does kill, it is for the noble reason of cleansing the world of a “strumpet.” On the other hand, the baseness of the villain Iago never alters. David Bevington in William Shakespeare: Four Tragedies describes the irrationality and self-destructiveness of the ancient’s behavior:
Emilia understands that jealousy is not a rational affliction but a self-induced disease of the mind. Jealous persons, she tells Desdemona, “are not ever jealous for the cause, / But jealous for they’re jealous. It is a monster / Begot upon itself, born on itself” (3.4.161 – 163). Iago’s own testimonial bears this out, for his jealousy is at once wholly irrational and agonizingly self-destructive. “I do suspect the lusty Moor / Hath leaped into my seat, the thought thereof / Doth , like a poisonous mineral, gnaw my innards” (2.1.296 – 298). (223)
Blanche Coles in Shakespeare’s Four Giants affirms the Bard’s commitment to abnormal psychology, and his employment of same in this play:
That Shakespeare was keenly interested in the study of the abnormal mind is commonly accepted among students. [. . .] The suggestion that Iago may have been intentionally drawn as a psychopathic personality is not new. [. . .] Even a casual scrutiny of a book on case histories of psychopathic patients will find Iago peeping out from many of its pages.
The Character of Iago of Shakespeare’s Othello
Perhaps the most sinister of all characters ever created by the Bard of Avon is in his tragedy Othello. It is Iago – the cause of everyone’s problems in the play. Let us focus a strong light on his character in this essay.
David Bevington in William Shakespeare: Four Tragedies enlightens us on the ancient:
Iago’s machinations yield him both “sport” and “profit” (1.3.387); that is, he enjoys his evildoing, although he is also driven by a motive. This Vice-like behavior inhuman garb creates a restless sense of a dark metaphysical reality lying behind his visible exterior. Even his stated motives do not always make sense. When in an outburst of hatred he soliloquizes that “I hate the Moor; / And it is thought abroad that twixt my sheets / He’s done my office,” Iago goes on to concede the unlikelihood of this charge. [. . .] The charge is so absurd, in fact, that we have to look into Iago himself for the origin of this jealous paranoia. (223)
And looking within Iago for the cause can yield the answer that the ancient is psychologically sick. In Shakespeare’s Four Giants Blanche Coles comments on the mental illness that appears to afflict the despicable Iago:
When such old time critics as H. N. Hudson, who wrote nearly a hundred years ago, saw that Iago was not acting from revenge, one is more than surprised to find modern critics, who have had the advantage of the progress that has been made in the study of abnormal psychology, accepting Iago for anything but what he is, and what Shakespeare intended him to be – a psychopathic personality. (79)
Evidence of his psychopathic personality is seen early in the play. He manipulates the wealthy Roderigo into awakening the senator Brabantio (“Rouse him: m…
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…erits for himself the full punishment of the law – administered, surprisingly, by his arch-enemy Michael Cassio, the new “lord governor”: “To you, lord governor, / Remains the censure of this hellish villain, / The time, the place, the torture. O enforce it!”
The audience laments that Othello did not heed his original evaluation of the ancient at the beginning of the “temptation scene”: “There is some monster in his thought too hideous to be shown.”
Bevington, David, ed. William Shakespeare: Four Tragedies. New York: Bantam Books, 1980.
Coles, Blanche. Shakespeare’s Four Giants. Rindge, New Hampshire: Richard Smith Publisher, 1957.
Shakespeare, William. Othello. In The Electric Shakespeare. Princeton University. 1996. http://www.eiu.edu/~multilit/studyabroad/othello/othello_all.html No line nos.