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Shakespeare and the Psychopath

An Exploration of Othello's Iago

English 348A Term Paper, Erika Gundesen (14531081)

When first examining the overall structure and themes of Shakespeare's Othello, the model of a

psychomachia becomes clear and apparent, with the title character as the Everyman figure. As

we delve deeper into the characters, however, their complex human characteristics come to

the forefront. This makes the idea of 'devil' and 'angel' figures, in this case Iago and

Desdemona, far too simplistic. As Fred West puts it, "It is not sufficient to simply drape Iago in

allegorical trappings and proclaim him Mister Evil."1

It is important to remember that Shakespeare, although obviously interested in morality play

structure and theological connotations, was primarily celebrated for his understanding of

human nature in his plays. In fact, after introducing these types of models, he often subverts

them: for example, angelic characters such as Desdemona can be rebellious and emotional as

well as pure. In contrast, clearly evil or criminal characters in other tragedies such as Macbeth

can inspire audience sympathy despite their actions.

West also mentions the writings of Daniel Stempel, who wished to put Iago forth as a

Machiavellian figure rather than a direct personification of Satan. Iago, in his view, has no

sense of the typical Christian morality and believes humans to be much more subject to the

basic laws of nature rather than divinity.2 While this can go a long way to explain Iago's

ambiguity, amorality and contradictory motives, the idea is a bit too general and doesn't go

quite deep enough into his psychology for my own tastes.

The Machiavel believes in the idea of a free will to be either "good" or "bad", as opposed to the

Christian belief of the freedom of choice leading only towards sin. This was highly shocking for

Fred West, "Iago the Psychopath," South Atlantic Bulletin, 27.
Daniel Stempel, "The Silence of Iago," PMLA, 252.
Elizabethans, because it implied an idea of hell serving heaven.3 The Machiavel demands

acceptance for who they are, exactly who they are, and in being as he is Iago in a way demands

that acceptance from the audience as well. At the same time, though, he remains mysterious

and more complex from the moment he pronounces the unfathomable phrase, "I am not what I


Although such a thing was obviously not part of Elizabethan culture or scientific practise, I find

it most interesting to examine Iago's behaviour and personality through the lens of modern

psychology. As Stempel explains, "Iago embodies the mystery of the evil will, an enigma which

Shakespeare strove to realize, not analyze."4 I believe that Shakespeare, master of perception

and the understanding of character, realized a psychological profile which has become the

subject of fanatical interest in today's popular culture: the psychopath.

With countless articles in psychological journals describing the characteristics and symptoms of

this mysterious disorder, it is hard to find a complete and specific definition. Only in recent

decades has the psychopath become more clearly delineated. In 1990, Professor Robert Hare,

a Canadian researcher in criminal psychology, compiled a list of 20 symptoms for use in

diagnosis. This is known as the Psychopathy Check List Revised, or PCL-R. Patients are given a

score on this scale, essentially comparing them to the personality of a prototypical psychopath.5

Several of these symptoms connect with a "diagnosis" of the character of Iago.

Ibid. 253.
Ibid. 252.
Unknown Author, (12 March 2012), Hare Psychopathy Checklist - define, person, people, used, personality, score,
traits, Definition, Purpose. Encyclopedia of Mental Disorders.
The first relevant trait is "glib and superficial charm." Iago presents a certain charming façade

to everyone he meets in the play, removing it only slightly in his soliloquies to the audience. He

seems to be well-adjusted socially, for example in his interactions with the officers when he

pressures Cassio into inebriation, or even the scene where he makes rather vulgar jokes to the

women of the play. They are amused, and many seem to find him agreeable. In the all-

important final scene where his guilt is revealed, so many characters (including his own wife)

seem deeply shocked by his inconstancy and malignant intent.

Iago shapes language as his tool, creating a face of honesty when there is none; what reasons

do Roderigo, Cassio or Othello actually have to trust him? It is all based on an illusion he has

managed to create. Iago seems to possess the inherent ability of knowing what others want to

hear, which relates directly to another key psychopathic trait: pathological lying.

Part of the proof of this symptom stems from Iago's dishonesty to basically all the characters on

stage, most detrimentally of course to the tragic protagonist. There is something especially

malevolent about this, because Iago only rarely lies as a defense mechanism, to protect himself,

or to give himself some false attribute, as one might expect from this type of pathology. When

he is discovered, he doesn't even lie to save his own skin; this silence is very unsettling. Iago is

of course serving himself, but he is also serving chaos, and all his intentions seem to be toward

the downfall of others. This applies not only to Othello but also to Cassio and Roderigo,

resulting in the death of two out of the three.

The other proof of pathological lying is that Iago even lies to his audience, although they cannot

affect him at all with the fourth wall remaining intact. Even by the end of the play, the
audience cannot clearly demarcate his exact motives. Are the reasons brought up in Act I - such

as Cassio's promotion over his own - any truer than those motives that spring up later,

seemingly out of nowhere, such as a consideration that Emilia could be an adulterer? It could

be possible that all his motives are impulses, mere thoughts and ideas to snatch from his own

mind and mold into Iago's vision of the world. It should be noted that impulsivity is also on

Hare's PCL-R. As West writes, "His [motives] come more as afterthoughts, not as stimuli toward

the heinous actions he perpetrates."6 He doesn't even need these excuses, as it were, since as

a psychopath he is devoid of self-criticism (another element on Hare's checklist). Only when

prompted by the audience does he come up with some sort of insight into his actions, but in

hindsight this is just an impulsive gesture.

"Cunning and manipulativeness" is another key point, and an absolute given for Iago. No one

can escape his verbal clutches for long. It is easy to imagine him as a spider in a web, casting

out many lines at the beginning of the play, but gradually drawing them ever closer until they

all intertwine into his final solution. Again, I bring up his inherent ability of knowing what

others need to hear in order to bring them to his side. This to me suggests a kind of

understanding of human nature that could only be possible in a cold, detached observer with

little interest in emotional matters.

He manages to sway Othello in only a few sentences, completely changing his mind about his

beautiful new wife. Although the Moor waits to act upon Iago's suspicions, the hard work is

already done: the idea is planted. It seems astonishing that it could be so quick and simple, but

Iago understood perfectly where his barb needed to be placed to latch on, completely
West. 29-30.
comprehending the way Othello's mind works while the audience has perhaps just begun to

catch on. And since he shows none of the anxiety of a liar and all the exceptional intelligence of

a genius, Othello trusts him, leaving the audience "fascinated and appalled".7

"Shallow affect," or a lack of emotional responsiveness, is a little blurrier to apply here since so

much could depend on the interpretation of the soliloquies. An actor could make the character

absolutely avid with excitement as he illuminates his schemes, or he could remain cold and

impassive throughout the play. This also connects to Iago's lack of remorse or guilt, however,

which will be discussed below.

A compulsive "need for stimulation" can be considered for this situation, and even work as a

possible unspoken motive for the character. Iago seems bored by Roderigo's passion for

Desdemona in the opening scene, but once he realizes how it can all work to bring down

Othello he shows extreme interest. The violent end of so many, directly or indirectly at his

hand, supposes that violence and death could act as stimulation as well, or perhaps as an

ultimate goal that has to do with the creation of chaos, once again.

The element of risk-taking in Iago's scheme, particularly the danger of being caught in a lie by

the highly dangerous Othello, also adds to the idea of a need for excitement. Iago cannot

achieve this excitement by normal human means, such as emotional stimulation, and so he

must search elsewhere. The metaphor of a shark is often used in this context, as it must keep

moving in order to survive... and as it moves, naturally it hunts as well.

Ibid. 33.
"Lack of remorse or guilt," the final trait to be discussed here, is what most plainly labels Iago as

a psychopathic character. Nothing and no one can get between him and his final goal. He is

extremely single-minded, and has no qualms whatsoever, not even when it comes to stabbing a

man in the dark or murdering his own wife in public. This is where Iago clearly deviates from

Shakespeare's other "criminal" characters, even Macbeth, who paints the town red (as it were)

in order to feel nothing at all.

Iago starts from this point, in a way; he has no empathy, he cares for the safety and well-being

of no one, and he is never wracked with any kind of moral pangs or feelings of responsibility.

Shakespeare excels at redeeming his characters for an audience, if not through their actions

then through their guilt. Here he sought instead to show the world true evil as he saw it, cold

and dead and without shame. There is no need for remorse, as Iago takes no issue with his

actions. Means to achieve an end.

His silence at the end of the play is again key here; this isn't obstinacy, or some kind of manly

show of bravery in the face of his downfall. Iago's final solution has been reached; Stempel

puts forth that he doesn't need to speak at all because his "play" has reached its logical

conclusion.8 The sight of the bodies and violence as some sort of psychopathic stimulation

could even imply that Iago in that moment is in some sort of state of mental bliss. This kind of

psychological villain is far more terrifying than any bloodthirsty, violent beast of a man.

In terms of thematic centrality, the idea of the psychopath now fleshed out can be returned to

the original model of the psychomachia. The devil figure now takes on a different role; going

Stempel. 252.
along with the themes of darkness and evil pervading the entire play, we now have the human

element that makes it complex and daring. The Everyman is not someone the audience can

simply chide for listening to Satan on his shoulder, as in a morality play. We can see ourselves

in Othello; more disturbingly, however, we can see ourselves in Iago. The average person could

most likely look at the PCL-R and relate one or two characteristics to their own behaviour; this

obviously does not make them a psychopath. Perhaps a more accurate statement would be

that we can see Iago in ourselves.

It is much subtler to see the devil of the play as a shadow within Othello and within all of

humanity, rather than a very corporeal being whispering in his ear. Iago's psychopathic

qualities lend to him an almost inhuman aura, and so he can fulfill this role easily while

remaining a man in everyone's eyes. As a shadow, Iago can remind the audience of that bit of

darkness within all of us, but we are also strangely thrilled by the ideas he presents of the

freedom to transgress without moral consequence.

The shadow within Othello is a deep sense of mistrust, stemming most likely from a life of

military violence and fighting to get anywhere. The loss of his mother as the most important

woman in his life makes Desdemona a confusing figure in terms of his manhood, acting as she

does as both a lover and maternal figure; in other words, a field day for Freudian analysts. All

humour aside, however, the part deep within Othello that believes that Desdemona too will

betray him or leave him in some way is the part that becomes Iago.

By bringing Othello's own hidden, barely-formulated notions into the light, Iago makes them

real and somehow sanctifies them. It is alright for Othello to be thinking these things, because
Iago is thinking them as well, introducing them as actual possibilities. Part of the trap is to

place ideas in Othello's head in such a way that he believes them to be his own. The other part,

however, is to take what is already there, buried deep, and make it real. The familiarity of his

own thoughts personified is my interpretation of Othello's trust of Iago over his own sweet


Once again, this can only be accomplished by a human being with no moral sense, emotions or

remorse. These things, once eliminated, are what enable Iago to slip through the cracks in the

minds of others around him. In other words, Shakespeare created for us a psychopath before

the word had ever been spoken aloud or the idea even imagined. His own understanding of

human nature, however beautiful or terrible, is what truly makes Othello one of the most

compelling tragedies of the entire repertoire.


Shakespeare, William, and E.A.J. Honigmann. Othello. [Nachdr.]. ed. London: Arden
Shakespeare, 2008. Print.

Stempel, Daniel. "The Silence of Iago." PMLA 84.2 (1969): 252-263. JSTOR. Web. 5 Mar. 2012

West, Fred. "Iago the Psychopath." South Atlantic Bulletin 43.2 (1978): 27-35. JSTOR. Web. 4
Mar. 2012

"Hare Psychopathy Checklist - define, person, people, used, personality, score, traits, Definition,
Purpose." Encyclopedia of Mental Disorders. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Mar. 2012.