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What you know, you know: the mind of Iago

Shakespeare's villains are an interesting group of men and women; and none more interesting than Iago. There have been many rich reflections on Iago's state of mind from luminaries such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, W.H.Auden, A.C.Bradley and F.R.Leavis; of which probably the most famous is Coleridge’s description of Iago as a man of 'motiveless malignity'. I am grateful to be offered the chance to offer my own comment on Iago's mind; a perspective based on my experience as a psychiatrist and psychotherapist working with violent men.

I am not the first person to have commented that, far from being motiveless, Iago offers a plethora of motives for his hatred of Othello.  His manifest list includes Othello's failure to promote him; Othello's preferment of Cassio and his belief that Othello may have slept with his wife, Emilia. Perhaps more by inference, his hatred is also fuelled by Othello's success, and his evident honesty and popularity. Given his racist comments about Othello in the opening scene and at other points in the play, it is also possible that he harbours dislike and contempt for Othello because he is a Moor.  Many have questioned whether Iago is jealous of Othello's relationship with Desdemona – either heterosexually or homosexually. What is striking is how Iago's hatred for Othello is the emotional centre around which the action of the play turns; without it, there would be no affective motor to drive the story forward. His hatred voices the beginning of the play, and is reiterated at regular intervals until the final scene, where he refuses to speak. There is a term in law called 'mute-of-malice'; one wonders if this was current in Shakespeare's time.

There is an irony that in psychiatric textbooks, there is a disorder called 'Othello syndrome', which is described as an unusual paranoid psychosis in which a partner (usually male) develops a delusion that his partner is unfaithful to him, and means him ill. The irony lies in the fact that although this syndrome is named after Othello, it could just as well be 'Iago's syndrome'. Iago appears to believe that Othello has done him wrong, and broken faith with him, whereas all the evidence that Shakespeare provides suggests the opposite. The whole play is arguably a reflection on how we form our beliefs about others, and how we make and maintain those beliefs. Research into the psychology of delusions suggests that people vary in their readiness to jump to conclusions; and it is hard not to think that both Othello and Iago mirror one another in their tendency to make quick and negative assumptions about the world and their place in it.

Hatred has been described as 'the longest pleasure'; and another key aspect of the dramatic relationship between Iago and Othello is Iago's evident pleasure in Othello's distress. It is this quality that we call 'sadistic'; that state of mind where there is contempt for vulnerability and distress, combined with a type of excitement. Shakespeare wants us to understand Iago as a cruel and vindictive man who enjoys manipulating others’ weaknesses and who is contemptuous of those he has duped. The enactment of sadistic cruelty in a drama has been enticing and fascinating audiences since drama began; the success of Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones is a reminder that audiences love the thrill of watching with appalled fascination while somebody suffers.  I wonder if it is exciting only in fantasy: indeed, even in fantasy, there is an art to having just the right amount of sadism in a drama; enough to draw in but not to repel.  There is an interesting discussion to be had about the subtle relationship between sadism and voyeurism, and whether sadism only 'works' with an audience to watch. 

It is sometimes argued that hatred is a response to fear, and it is possible to wonder if Iago's hatred is fuelled by fear of loss: loss of status as Othello's right hand man, but also the loss of a cherished relationship with him. Shakespeare makes a point of stating Iago's age as 28, and implies that Othello is older; and that they have spent much time together as soldiers. Gay or straight, I wonder if Iago's hatred is a defence against the loss of a relationship with Othello that he has valued, from which he is displaced by Desdemona. By the middle of the play, Othello and Iago are bound tightly together in their secret 'knowledge', perhaps as they used to be before Othello met Desdemona and told her his stories. There is an intimacy between Othello and Iago that is common in those who have conspired to bring about a death; a type of connection that is carnal, rather than erotic.

Empson famously wrote an essay on how many times the word 'honest' appears in Othello, and noted that it occurs most often in the context of dishonesty; when people are not being what they seem to be.  In Richard III and Hamlet, Shakespeare had already articulated the self-reflections of a man with murder on his mind by his use of soliloquy. I find myself intrigued at Shakespeare's invitation to take Iago's statements about himself at face value, and if/why we do. As the audience, we can feel compelled to assent to Iago's view as some type of bitter honest truth about the world, and to see Othello as duped and confused. Some might say that Iago is demonstrating what might be characterised as 'glib and superficial charm', which Professor Robert Hare has argued is one aspect of 'psychopathy'; and that in Iago, Shakespeare once again shows us that he was writing psychologically ahead of his time. 

But I wonder if these 20th century terms, like psychopathy, really assist us in understanding what happens between Iago and the audience at a production of Othello. Writers on dramatic theory are often critical about treating dramatic characters as 'real' or 'true', and it seems to me that this is especially true for plays where the relationships between the characters are coming alive in the dramatic space in real time. Tragedies like Othello are complex narratives of experience that cannot be reduced to individual psychology; they invite us to be part of something together: to find parts of ourselves in all the characters. To say that Iago is 'psychopathic' will not stop us being charmed by him; amused by his conning of Rodrigo; paralysed by his cunning and in the end, still baffled by his cruelty. 

Theological accounts of evil have sometimes talked about 'evil' as absurd and meaningless. The term 'absurd' comes from the Latin, 'surdus', meaning deaf, so that term 'absurd'  can be understood conceptually as that which is out of tune or un-hearable. The last act of Othello is absurd in this sense: Othello's murderousness is deaf to Desdemona's pleas for mercy, and also deaf to Iago's duplicity. When explanations are demanded, Iago makes himself un-hearable; he refuses to engage in that most human of activities, the justification of dreadful action. It was a master stroke of Shakespeare's not to explain, not to tie up the loose ends: another example of the Renaissance man at his most post-modern.

Gwen Adshead