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As inconsequential as they may initially seem, the various types of abnormalities in William Shakespeare’s tragic drama Othello do impact upon the audience. Let us explore this subject of the deviant in this play.
In the essay “Wit and Witchcraft: an Approach to Othello” Robert B. Heilman discusses the abnormal attitude and plans of the ancient as manifested in his verbal imagery:
If we take all the lines of one character out of context and consider them as a unit, we have always a useful body of information; but if, when we study Iago’s lines, we find that he consistently describes himself in images of hunting and trapping, we learn not only his plans of action but something of his attitude to occasions, to his victims, and to himself; and beyond that there is fixed for us an image of evil – one of those by which the drama interprets the human situation. (331)
And how about epilepsy? In Act 4 the evil Iago works up Othello into a frenzy regarding the missing kerchief. The resultant illogical, senseless raving by the general is a prelude to an epileptic seizure or entranced state:
Lie with her? lie on her? – We say lie on her when they belie her. – Lie with her! Zounds, that’s fulsome. – Handkerchief – confessions – handkerchief! – To confess, and be hanged for his labor – first to be hanged, and then to confess! I tremble at it. [. . .] (4.1)
Cassio enters right after the general has fallen into the epileptic trance. Iago explains to him:
IAGO. My lord is fall’n into an epilepsy.
This is his second fit; he had one yesterday.
CASSIO. Rub him about the temples.
IAGO. No, forbear.
The lethargy must have his quiet course.
If not, he foams at mouth, and by and by
Breaks out to savage madness. Look, he stirs.
Do you withdraw yourself a little while.
He will recover straight. (4.1)
Epilepsy on the part of the protagonist is unusual and physically abnormal. But the more serious abnormalities in the play are psychological. 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”:
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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)
Evidence of his 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.” The abnormal behavior of the ancient is partly rooted in his misogynism. In “Historical Differences: Misogyny and Othello” Valerie Wayne implicates Iago in sexism. He is one who is almost incapable of any other perspective on women than a sexist one:
Iago’s worry that he cannot do what Desdemona asks implies that his dispraise of women was candid and easily produced, while the praise requires labour and inspiration from a source beyond himself. His insufficiency is more surprising because elsewhere in the play Iago appears as a master rhetorician, but as Bloch explains, ‘the misogynistic writer uses rhetoric as a means of renouncing it, and, by extension, woman.’ (163)
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 owner. He manipulates the Moor into incorrect views about Desdemona, about Iago himself (“Iago is most honest.”), about Cassio’s relationship with Desdemona, etc. Iago even diverts suspicion of the ambush against Cassio against his prostitute-friend Bianca. In cold blood he eventually murders his gift-giver, Roderigo, so that the wealthy playboy can’t discover that Iago has been stealing the jewelry rather than giving it to Desdemona. Likewise, in cold blood he stabs his wife of some years because she stands up for the truth. His psychopathic behavior has disastrous consequences for those who listen to him.
Iago’s treachery is initially repulsed by Othello and his young wife in the council chamber at Venice before the duke as judge. From the episode there is one casualty, Brabantio, who remains a lifelong enemy of not only the Moor but also of his own daughter, denying her permission to live temporarily in his home during the campaign against the Otomites. Later in Cyprus, it seems that Iago’s treachery against Cassio might be cancelled out by the efforts of Desdemona (“I do beseech you / That by your virtuous means I may again / Exist, and be a member of his love / Whom I with all the office of my heart / Entirely honor”), but no, Iago has already influenced Othello too deeply, converting him to a strong suspicion against Cassio and Desdemona: “I’ll tear her all to pieces!” The wife’s appeals for Cassio only work to further enrage the general and drive nail after nail into her own coffin. The ancient’s psychopathic plan comes unhinged because of her change in attitude: Instead of allying herself with Iago as she did when passing the kerchief to him, she allies with truth and justice. Iago’s scheme, being constructed on lies, collapses to the ground with Emilia’s revelation that “She give it Cassio? No, alas, I found it, / And I did give’t my husband.”
Iago’s self-seeking, destructive psychopathic condition creates not only physical violence, but also mountains of mental anguish, for those around him. Consider the lamentation of Othello who stands convinced by the ancient of his wife’s depravity: “O, now, for ever / Farewell the tranquil mind! farewell content!”
Mixed in with the Moor’s deep mental anguish and turbulent thoughts is the desire for revenge – a component which Iago has been careful to include in his indoctrination of the general:
Never, Iago: Like to the Pontic sea,
Whose icy current and compulsive course
Ne'er feels retiring ebb, but keeps due on
To the Propontic and the Hellespont,
Even so my bloody thoughts, with violent pace,
Shall ne'er look back, ne'er ebb to humble love,
Till that a capable and wide revenge
Swallow them up. (3.3)
Iago is so in control of the general’s disturbed, contorted mind that he specifies how the Moor should kill Desdemona: “Strangle her in her bed, even the bed she hath contaminated.” And the general dutifully responds, “Excellent good!” The enthusiastic answer causes one to suspect that the ancient’s psychopathology has taken possession of the Moor. In the volume Shakespeare and Tragedy John Bayley explains how the abnormality of the protagonist’s behavior brings on rejection by the critics:
In our own time more genteel, but also more intellectualized versions of Rymer’s disfavour have been voiced by T.S. Eliot and F.R. Leavis, who both consider and reject the personality that Othello presents to the outside world, pointing out that he is not so much deceived as a self-deceiver, a man presented by Shakespeare as constitutionally incapable of seeing the truth about himself. So the detached, ironic view of the creator contrasts with the tragical and romantic view taken of himself by the created being. (201)
But Othello is defended by other critics. In her book, Everybody’s Shakespeare: Reflections Chiefly on the Tragedies, Maynard Mack defends the Moor as one who is not necessarily the victim of a psychological deficiency, as some critics maintain:
What should be noticed in particular is that, essentially, Shakespeare invented Iago; set him down in his dramatis personae with the single epithet “a villain”; and devoted most of the play’s lines and scenes to showing in detail the cunning, malignancy, and cruelty of his nature, including the cowardice of his murder of his wife. It seems to me therefore impossible to believe, as some recent critics would have us do, that the root causes of Othello’s ruin are to be sought in some profound moral or psychological deficiency peculiar to him. (137)
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)
Bayley, John. Shakespeare and Tragedy. Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd., 1981.
Bevington, David, ed. William Shakespeare: Four Tragedies. New York: Bantam Books, 1980.
Campbell, Lily B. Shakespeare’s Tragic Heroes. New York: Barnes and Noble, Inc., 1970.
Coles, Blanche. Shakespeare’s Four Giants. Rindge, New Hampshire: Richard Smith Publisher, 1957.
Heilman, Robert B. “Wit and Witchcraft: an Approach to Othello.” Shakespeare: Modern Essays in Criticism. Ed. Leonard F. Dean. Rev. Ed. Rpt. from The Sewanee Review, LXIV, 1 (Winter 1956), 1-4, 8-10; and Arizona Quarterly (Spring 1956), pp.5-16.
Mack, Maynard. Everybody’s Shakespeare: Reflections Chiefly on the Tragedies. Lincoln, NB: University of Nebraska Press, 1993.
Shakespeare, William. Othello. In The Electric Shakespeare. Princeton University. 1996. http://www.eiu.edu/~multilit/studyabroad/othello/othello_all.html No line nos.
Wayne, Valerie. “Historical Differences: Misogyny and Othello.” The Matter of Difference: Materialist Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare. Ed Valerie Wayne. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1991.