To what extent is the science of abnormal psychology involved in the characterization in William Shakespeare’s tragic drama Othello? This essay will answer that question.
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. Still more, Iago’s name will be found appearing occasionally in bold print in books on abnormal psychology.(89-90)
Evidence of the ancient’s psychopathic personality is seen early in the play. He manipulates the wealthy Roderigo into awakening the senator Brabantio (“Rouse him: make after him, poison his delight”); and then he utters very offensive smutty lines about a black ram and white ewe, which indicate the way his sick mind operates. He seems to be motivated by love of money which he has been receiving from Roderigo for some time (“thou, Iago, who hast had my purse / As if the strings were thine”). Iago himself says that he is motivated by revenge on the Moor (“I follow him to serve my turn upon him”) because of the promotion of Michael Cassio to the lieutenancy. But regardless of the question of motivation, it is a fact that Iago hasn’t a single true friend in the play; in his disordered personality he can only manipulate or use people; he is incapable of loving them. His manipulation of his general repeats time and again from the first meeting:
Nay, but he prated,
And spoke such scurvy and provoking terms
Against your honor
That with the little godliness I have
I did full hard forbear him. (1.2)
While he and Desdemona and Emilia are lounging about at the port in Cyprus awaiting the arrival of the Moor’s ship, Desdemona tries to analyze how his mind and feelings work, for he seems to be habitually critical of his wife. She concludes that he is a “slanderer” and that he is full of “old fond paradoxes to make fools laugh in th’ alehouse.”
His clever machinations cause grief for every character who has continued contact with him. He deceives Roderigo about the affections of Desdemona: “Desdemona is directly in love with him [Cassio].” He deceptively lures Cassio into drunkenness where he is vulnerable to taunts and thus loses his officership. He further lures him into Desdemona’s presence so that Othello can find him there and be more suspicious: “Was not that Cassio parted from my wife?” Iago misinforms Montano regarding Cassio (“And ‘tis great pity that the noble Moor / Should hazard such a place as his own second / With one of an ingraft infirmity.”) Iago uses Emilia to pass the kerchief, which “so often you did bid me steal,” to him rather than to its...