Aristotle began his work Poetics in 335 BC, defining genres suchas tragedy. Aristotle’s ideas were inspired by famous Greek playwrights whobelieved “tragedy was the highest form of drama” (Lonardo).
In 1592,Shakespeare began writing his plays acquainted with the incredible work ofAristotle. Aristotle stated that, “All human happiness or misery takes the formof action…
. Character gives us qualities, but it is in our actions—what wedo—that we are happy or miserable” (Lonardo). Aristotle believed that tragedy conveyedthe harsh truth of human existence. People are often deceptive, and emotionscan only really be understood through action and not words. It requires avigorous observer to discover what another is feeling because a person willrarely disclose their honest thoughts and emotions (Lonardo). It’s often notwhat the insane man has said that makes him insane but how he has said it andthe consistency of his actions.
Aristotle understood the complexity behindemotion that psychologists work with every day and Shakespeare continued thistrend among playwrights hundreds of years later. Ultimately, Shakespeare goesbeyond “evil” and portrays the harsh reality of human emotion through thecomplexity of Iago’s mental state. A tragedy requires that atrue tragic hero must ultimately not appear good or bad but simply be a humanbeing who suffers because that will most deeply affect the audience. There areclear examples of this in many works of Shakespeare but Othello has the most interesting dynamic. The play can be used toanalyze what Shakespeare understood about human emotion. Specifically, thecharacter in Othello, Iago, isclearly a psychopath which makes him more than the antagonist.
Thus,Shakespeare has created a character fitting a psychological profile thatpsychiatrists struggle to understand to this day (West). On the other hand,other characters experience a plethora of emotion while falling victim toIago’s master manipulation. This indicates that Shakespeare knew emotion is thepinnacle influencer for thought and behavior. It also indicates that a personcan be far more complex than they appear. Aristotle and Shakespeare understoodthat the perception of evil is false because, even though a person may appearevil, they are ultimately a human being experiencing the fate of a detrimentalemotional state. Iago is different from othercharacters in Shakespeare’s plays because he possesses a more complexconscience. In plays such as Macbeth,characters are forced to grapple with conflicting feelings regarding evil.
Pondering the thought of committing murder was an extremely strenuous processfor Macbeth. Lady Macbeth and Macbeth experienced so much guilt that Macbethbegan to have hallucinations. This is an example of a normal human reactionwhen committing a horrendous act. Iago, however, shows no remorse for hisactions. His impulsive behavior seems motivated simply by his desire to causeothers pain.
These are all traits of a psychopath. Dr. William Hirstein definesa psychopath as a person who has “an uncaring nature”, “lacks empathy”, is “apathological liar” and “shows pathological egocentricity” (Cowie). Psychopathsnaturally manipulate and lie due to a lack of emotion, an inherently violentnature, and desire to be in control. Specifically, psychopaths lack cognitiveability in the ventral striatum of their brains which is the “award system”. Itis possible that psychopaths can visualize pain being inflicted on others andenjoy it, but they are not in control of their lack of empathy. Being selfishand using insincere speech is a way for them to deal with their confusing andisolating mental illness (Cowie). Iago possesses all these characteristics whichinfers that Iago’s character manifests more depth than being simply evil.
Iagois not twisted because of a force of evil but a force of nature (hisunforgiving conscience). Shakespeare portrays him this way because the world isunforgiving and humans are far more complex than they seem. Iago’s psychopathic natureis evident from the very beginning of the play. He effortlessly lies andmanipulates Othello when warning him of Brabantio’s anger: “And spoke suchscurvy and provoking terms Against your Honor, That with the little godliness Ihave I did full hard forbear him. But I pray you, sir, Are you fast married? Beassured of this, That the magnifico is much beloved, And hath in his effect avoice potential” (1.2.10-17). Iago immediately conveys to Othello that he hadto restrain himself from assaulting Brabantio—using a lie to make himselfappear faithful.
He speaks in a way which makes him seem loyal then subtly asksif Othello has had sex with Desdemona. Iago seeks to gain information aboutOthello so that he can obtain a position of power over Othello. Throughout theplay Iago possesses information, whether true or not, that he can hold overpeople and use to manipulate or instill power (West). Iago takes theinformation regarding the consummation of Othello’s marriage to hold overOthello.
Iago also uses Brabantio to stir fear, by stressing the power andrespect Brabantio holds when he says, “That the magnifico is much beloved, Andhath in his effect a voice potential”. Iago wants to instill fear in Othellobecause it gives him a sense of power. Psychopaths often crave control overother’s emotions. It is easy for most psychopaths to manipulate emotion becausethey inherently lack feeling (Cowie). Iago shows no remorse or struggle whentelling Othello lies. For example, when he says: “And spoke such scurvy andprovoking terms Against your Honor,” Iago wants Othello to think he defendedhis honor and faith which is a terrible lie.
Shakespeare sets up Iago’s dynamicfrom the beginning and flawlessly expresses a person who goes beyond evil and exhibitsan extremely complex conscious—a psychopath. Other common traits of psychopaths are thatthey are highly egotistical (Cowie) and incredibly charming. Throughout theplay, it is obvious that Iago is an extremely egocentric and charming character.His only true loyalties lie with himself, and he shows no concern for anyone’semotions. In the beginning of the play Iago makes an egocentric statementsaying: “Were I the Moor I would not be Iago. In following him, I follow butmyself” (1.1.
63-64). This shows how Iago feels he is superior to Othello andonly follows himself. He is also saying that he doesn’t care who has authorityand doesn’t fear the consequences his actions. For instance, he freely treatshis wife, Emilia, with enormous disrespect. Not only does he frequently tearapart other characters’ emotions, such as Emilia’s and Othello’s, but he doesthis in a clever and vindictive way. In one scene, Cassio kisses Emilia as asign of courtesy and then apologizes to Iago for being so forward. Iago replies,”Sir, would she give you so much of her lips, As of her tongue she oft bestowson me, You would have enough” (2.
1.112-114). Iago uses his masculinesuperiority to disrespect Emilia in front of Desdemona and Cassio. This is anexample of Iago’s impulsive and egotistical desire to appear dominate and incontrol.
He effortlessly builds his own reputation at the expense of others’emotions which is a key characteristic of a psychopath. He demonstrates anegotistical and impulsive desire to be overbearingly arrogant and manipulateothers’ emotions for personal gain (West). Another instance of this is when Iagodisregards Cassio’s feelings and comfortably uses him in part of his scheme.Iago allows Cassio to believe he is a trustworthy friend by using his charm whilegoing behind his back and deceiving him. People have an easy time trusting Iago,because he possesses the ability to persuade people. In this scene, Cassio trusts and confides inhim: “As I am an honest man, I thought you had, received some bodily wound.There is more sense, in that than in reputation. Reputation is an idle and,most false imposition, oft got without merit and lost, without deserving” (2.
3.285-288).Iago deceives Cassio and allows him to believe he can be trusted. Cassio iscoping with his feelings over a lost reputation. By persuading Cassio toconfide in him, Cassio will feel closer to Iago and be more willing to sharepersonal information. Iago ensures Cassio that his reputation is not lost andsays that those who are judging his reputation have false perceptions. He takesadvantage of Cassio so that he can have more control within the relationship. Iago’s relationships, such as the one he haswith Cassio, are only necessary to him as part of a personal vendetta.
Cleckleysays, “Thepsychopath is always distinguished by egocentricity. This is usually of adegree not seen in ordinary people and often is little short of astonishing” (Cleckley395). Iago’s egocentric personality is evident in the way he doesn’tpossess the emotional capacity to worry for others unless its benefits him (West).
He also has an impulse to tear others apart to gain superiority. Shakespeare’sability to portray such a complex troubling mental state in a character isastonishing. Iago continuouslyschemes due to his impulsive nature and inability to control himself. This ultimatelycauses him to lose track of his motives for ruining Othello. Originally, Iago’sanger comes from not being given the lieutenancy by Othello, who gives it toCassio instead. As the play continues, this motivation is lost, and Iago beginsto lie impulsively and without reason. Towards the end of the play, Iagostrikes Cassio and immediately puts the blame on Bianca.
“Do you perceive thegastness of her eye? —Nay, if you stare, we shall hear more anon.—…. Do yousee, gentlemen? Nay, guiltiness will speak, Though tongues were out of use” (5.1.125-130).Iago attempts to convince those around him of her guilt while showing noremorse.
He easily drags anyone into his scheme and uses them to manipulateothers. What is most strange about his vindictive nature is that Iago doesn’thave a set plan or sense of motivation in place. He often lies and manipulateson the spot, such as when he uses Bianca as a cover or when he tells Roderigoto kill Cassio (West). Iago tells yet another impulsive lie in the scene whenRoderigo states that the gifts Iago gave him are not helping him win overDesdemona. Iago suddenly implies that Desdemona and Othello will be leaving,and Roderigo must kill Cassio in order to prevent this.
“O, no. He goes intoMauritania and (takes)away, with him the fair Desdemona, unless his abode be, lingered here by someaccident—wherein none, can be so determinate as the removing of Cassio” (4.2.258-260).Iago suddenly and effortlessly drags Roderigo into a lie that’s potentiallydetrimental. Iago has no motive to kill Cassio since Cassio has been nothingbut helpful to him, but he decides it is necessary anyway.
Iago pushes otherpeople into burdensome positions when most convenient and with no initialpurpose. The fact that Iago has no motive for being cruel is indicative of howblatantly psychotic he really is. Iago lies without intent, and he is notconsciously aware of the pain his lies cause. (West). A sane person would onlycause others pain if they had an intended purpose or motive.
The human speciesis inherently empathetic and can’t easily cause others pain. Iago doesn’trelate to this concept because he is a psychopath and lacks the ability toempathize. Consequently, evil can’t be used to describe a person who doesn’tunderstand pain.
He can’t relate to others’ emotions, and therefore, he doesn’tsee the evil in his senseless manipulation (Cowie). Without the intention,there is no evil. It is merely a human being experiencing the realities ofpsychology. Othello was written in 1603 during theElizabethan era, a time when the concept of psychology didn’t exist and thebelief that the body and mind were separate entities was merely a theory. Howis it possible that Shakespeare knew anything about the depths of a humanpsyche? More specifically, how could he develop a character who so perfectlyfit the guidelines of a psychopath? Shakespeare’s basic comprehension of thecomplex mind can be best described with this quote: “All the horror is in just this—thatthere is no horror” (Cleckley 153). Shakespeare wrote plays that tug at people’s emotions and still feelrelatable hundreds of years later (West). This is due to the influence ofAristotle and Shakespeare comprehension of evil.
Iago causes many people horrorand pain but in reality, he is effected by a mental state that is out of hiscontrol. In all the chaos, there is no one victim experiencing all the horror.We are all victims of tragedy. What appears to be an act of evil is the effectof a cause and that cause is more complex than something so blatant as “evil”. There is anunderstanding in Shakespeare’s plays that humans often experience darkness whenlife has taken a turn, such as the consequence of an immoral act or the effectsof negative emotion. Every tragic hero has a fatal flaw. A fatal flaw seems tobe a natural trait of the character which causes them to suffer (Lonardo).
For example, Othello’s fatal flaw is his jealousy.This is a natural human emotion that he allows to take control of his life andblind him from the truth. Our emotions have the power to control us, andShakespeare’s tragedies dramatically execute the reality of how emotion caninfluence behavior. Psychology definesemotion as a complex state of feeling that can change a person’s mental andphysical state and that can impact a person’s thought and behavior (Cleckley187). This isevident in Shakespeare’s writing with Iago, who lacks emotion and is notcondemned to a tragic fate. Iago does not experience normal human emotions, andbecause of this he doesn’t have a tragic flaw that interferes with hisscheming. This ultimately allows Iago to survive.
“Evil is …
united with an intellectualsuperiority so great that one watches its advance fascinated and appalled”(Bradley 145). Pure evil is something so foreign to the human conscious, itwould take a highly intellectually advanced human to live out acts of evilwhile lacking emotion (West). Iago is a fascinating character because he isable to act immorally without showing guilt.Ultimately thehorror Iago causes is driven by a mental illness, one that allows Iago to besuccessful and causes Othello to fall. This is because Iago is a psychopath whohas no emotion and, therefore, has no tragic flaw/fate.
Evil doesn’t win orlose because evil is a false concept; in reality, evil is human beingsexperiencing the effect of their detrimental emotional state. Life is not blackand white, good and bad. Shakespeare possessed the intelligence to comprehendthis concept and knew that his audience would relate to the inconsistentuncertainty of human existence.