Aristotle behavior. It also indicates that a person

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Aristotle began his work Poetics in 335 BC, defining genres such
as tragedy. Aristotle’s ideas were inspired by famous Greek playwrights who
believed “tragedy was the highest form of drama” (Lonardo). In 1592,
Shakespeare began writing his plays acquainted with the incredible work of
Aristotle. Aristotle stated that, “All human happiness or misery takes the form
of action…. Character gives us qualities, but it is in our actions—what we
do—that we are happy or miserable” (Lonardo). Aristotle believed that tragedy conveyed
the harsh truth of human existence. People are often deceptive, and emotions
can only really be understood through action and not words. It requires a
vigorous observer to discover what another is feeling because a person will
rarely disclose their honest thoughts and emotions (Lonardo). It’s often not
what the insane man has said that makes him insane but how he has said it and
the consistency of his actions. Aristotle understood the complexity behind
emotion that psychologists work with every day and Shakespeare continued this
trend among playwrights hundreds of years later. Ultimately, Shakespeare goes
beyond “evil” and portrays the harsh reality of human emotion through the
complexity of Iago’s mental state.

A tragedy requires that a
true tragic hero must ultimately not appear good or bad but simply be a human
being who suffers because that will most deeply affect the audience. There are
clear examples of this in many works of Shakespeare but Othello has the most interesting dynamic. The play can be used to
analyze what Shakespeare understood about human emotion. Specifically, the
character in Othello, Iago, is
clearly a psychopath which makes him more than the antagonist. Thus,
Shakespeare has created a character fitting a psychological profile that
psychiatrists struggle to understand to this day (West). On the other hand,
other characters experience a plethora of emotion while falling victim to
Iago’s master manipulation. This indicates that Shakespeare knew emotion is the
pinnacle influencer for thought and behavior. It also indicates that a person
can be far more complex than they appear. Aristotle and Shakespeare understood
that the perception of evil is false because, even though a person may appear
evil, they are ultimately a human being experiencing the fate of a detrimental
emotional state. 

Iago is different from other
characters in Shakespeare’s plays because he possesses a more complex
conscience. 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 process
for Macbeth. Lady Macbeth and Macbeth experienced so much guilt that Macbeth
began to have hallucinations. This is an example of a normal human reaction
when committing a horrendous act. Iago, however, shows no remorse for his
actions. His impulsive behavior seems motivated simply by his desire to cause
others pain. These are all traits of a psychopath. Dr. William Hirstein defines
a psychopath as a person who has “an uncaring nature”, “lacks empathy”, is “a
pathological liar” and “shows pathological egocentricity” (Cowie). Psychopaths
naturally manipulate and lie due to a lack of emotion, an inherently violent
nature, and desire to be in control. Specifically, psychopaths lack cognitive
ability in the ventral striatum of their brains which is the “award system”. It
is possible that psychopaths can visualize pain being inflicted on others and
enjoy it, but they are not in control of their lack of empathy. Being selfish
and using insincere speech is a way for them to deal with their confusing and
isolating mental illness (Cowie). Iago possesses all these characteristics which
infers that Iago’s character manifests more depth than being simply evil. Iago
is not twisted because of a force of evil but a force of nature (his
unforgiving conscience). Shakespeare portrays him this way because the world is
unforgiving and humans are far more complex than they seem.

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Iago’s psychopathic nature
is evident from the very beginning of the play. He effortlessly lies and
manipulates Othello when warning him of Brabantio’s anger: “And spoke such
scurvy and provoking terms Against your Honor, That with the little godliness I
have I did full hard forbear him. But I pray you, sir, Are you fast married? Be
assured of this, That the magnifico is much beloved, And hath in his effect a
voice potential” (1.2.10-17). Iago immediately conveys to Othello that he had
to restrain himself from assaulting Brabantio—using a lie to make himself
appear faithful. He speaks in a way which makes him seem loyal then subtly asks
if Othello has had sex with Desdemona. Iago seeks to gain information about
Othello so that he can obtain a position of power over Othello. Throughout the
play Iago possesses information, whether true or not, that he can hold over
people and use to manipulate or instill power (West). Iago takes the
information regarding the consummation of Othello’s marriage to hold over
Othello. Iago also uses Brabantio to stir fear, by stressing the power and
respect Brabantio holds when he says, “That the magnifico is much beloved, And
hath in his effect a voice potential”. Iago wants to instill fear in Othello
because it gives him a sense of power. Psychopaths often crave control over
other’s emotions. It is easy for most psychopaths to manipulate emotion because
they inherently lack feeling (Cowie). Iago shows no remorse or struggle when
telling Othello lies. For example, when he says: “And spoke such scurvy and
provoking terms Against your Honor,” Iago wants Othello to think he defended
his honor and faith which is a terrible lie. Shakespeare sets up Iago’s dynamic
from the beginning and flawlessly expresses a person who goes beyond evil and exhibits
an extremely complex conscious—a psychopath. 

 Other common traits of psychopaths are that
they are highly egotistical (Cowie) and incredibly charming. Throughout the
play, 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’s
emotions. In the beginning of the play Iago makes an egocentric statement
saying: “Were I the Moor I would not be Iago. In following him, I follow but
myself” (1.1.63-64). This shows how Iago feels he is superior to Othello and
only follows himself. He is also saying that he doesn’t care who has authority
and doesn’t fear the consequences his actions. For instance, he freely treats
his wife, Emilia, with enormous disrespect. Not only does he frequently tear
apart other characters’ emotions, such as Emilia’s and Othello’s, but he does
this in a clever and vindictive way. In one scene, Cassio kisses Emilia as a
sign 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 bestows
on me, You would have enough” (2.1.112-114). Iago uses his masculine
superiority to disrespect Emilia in front of Desdemona and Cassio. This is an
example of Iago’s impulsive and egotistical desire to appear dominate and in
control. He effortlessly builds his own reputation at the expense of others’
emotions which is a key characteristic of a psychopath. He demonstrates an
egotistical and impulsive desire to be overbearingly arrogant and manipulate
others’ emotions for personal gain (West). Another instance of this is when Iago
disregards 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 while
going 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 in
him: “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 is
coping with his feelings over a lost reputation. By persuading Cassio to
confide in him, Cassio will feel closer to Iago and be more willing to share
personal information. Iago ensures Cassio that his reputation is not lost and
says that those who are judging his reputation have false perceptions. He takes
advantage of Cassio so that he can have more control within the relationship.  Iago’s relationships, such as the one he has
with Cassio, are only necessary to him as part of a personal vendetta. Cleckley
says, “The
psychopath is always distinguished by egocentricity. This is usually of a
degree not seen in ordinary people and often is little short of astonishing” (Cleckley
395). Iago’s egocentric personality is evident in the way he doesn’t
possess 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’s
ability to portray such a complex troubling mental state in a character is

Iago continuously
schemes due to his impulsive nature and inability to control himself. This ultimately
causes him to lose track of his motives for ruining Othello. Originally, Iago’s
anger comes from not being given the lieutenancy by Othello, who gives it to
Cassio instead. As the play continues, this motivation is lost, and Iago begins
to lie impulsively and without reason. Towards the end of the play, Iago
strikes Cassio and immediately puts the blame on Bianca. “Do you perceive the
gastness of her eye? —Nay, if you stare, we shall hear more anon.—…. Do you
see, 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 no
remorse. He easily drags anyone into his scheme and uses them to manipulate
others. What is most strange about his vindictive nature is that Iago doesn’t
have a set plan or sense of motivation in place. He often lies and manipulates
on the spot, such as when he uses Bianca as a cover or when he tells Roderigo
to kill Cassio (West). Iago tells yet another impulsive lie in the scene when
Roderigo states that the gifts Iago gave him are not helping him win over
Desdemona. Iago suddenly implies that Desdemona and Othello will be leaving,
and Roderigo must kill Cassio in order to prevent this. “O, no. He goes into
Mauritania and (takes)
away, with him the fair Desdemona, unless his abode be, lingered here by some
accident—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 potentially
detrimental. Iago has no motive to kill Cassio since Cassio has been nothing
but helpful to him, but he decides it is necessary anyway. Iago pushes other
people into burdensome positions when most convenient and with no initial
purpose. The fact that Iago has no motive for being cruel is indicative of how
blatantly psychotic he really is. Iago lies without intent, and he is not
consciously aware of the pain his lies cause. (West). A sane person would only
cause others pain if they had an intended purpose or motive. The human species
is inherently empathetic and can’t easily cause others pain. Iago doesn’t
relate to this concept because he is a psychopath and lacks the ability to
empathize. Consequently, evil can’t be used to describe a person who doesn’t
understand pain. He can’t relate to others’ emotions, and therefore, he doesn’t
see the evil in his senseless manipulation (Cowie). Without the intention,
there is no evil. It is merely a human being experiencing the realities of

Othello was written in 1603 during the
Elizabethan era, a time when the concept of psychology didn’t exist and the
belief that the body and mind were separate entities was merely a theory. How
is it possible that Shakespeare knew anything about the depths of a human
psyche? More specifically, how could he develop a character who so perfectly
fit the guidelines of a psychopath? Shakespeare’s basic comprehension of the
complex mind can be best described with this quote: “All the horror is in just this—that
there is no horror” (Cleckley 153). 
Shakespeare wrote plays that tug at people’s emotions and still feel
relatable hundreds of years later (West). This is due to the influence of
Aristotle and Shakespeare comprehension of evil. Iago causes many people horror
and pain but in reality, he is effected by a mental state that is out of his
control. 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 effect
of a cause and that cause is more complex than something so blatant as “evil”.

There is an
understanding in Shakespeare’s plays that humans often experience darkness when
life has taken a turn, such as the consequence of an immoral act or the effects
of negative emotion. Every tragic hero has a fatal flaw. A fatal flaw seems to
be 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 and
blind him from the truth. Our emotions have the power to control us, and
Shakespeare’s tragedies dramatically execute the reality of how emotion can
influence behavior.  Psychology defines
emotion as a complex state of feeling that can change a person’s mental and
physical state and that can impact a person’s thought and behavior (Cleckley
187). This is
evident in Shakespeare’s writing with Iago, who lacks emotion and is not
condemned to a tragic fate. Iago does not experience normal human emotions, and
because of this he doesn’t have a tragic flaw that interferes with his
scheming. This ultimately allows Iago to survive.  “Evil is … united with an intellectual
superiority so great that one watches its advance fascinated and appalled”
(Bradley 145). Pure evil is something so foreign to the human conscious, it
would take a highly intellectually advanced human to live out acts of evil
while lacking emotion (West). Iago is a fascinating character because he is
able to act immorally without showing guilt.

Ultimately the
horror Iago causes is driven by a mental illness, one that allows Iago to be
successful and causes Othello to fall. This is because Iago is a psychopath who
has no emotion and, therefore, has no tragic flaw/fate. Evil doesn’t win or
lose because evil is a false concept; in reality, evil is human beings
experiencing the effect of their detrimental emotional state. Life is not black
and white, good and bad. Shakespeare possessed the intelligence to comprehend
this concept and knew that his audience would relate to the inconsistent
uncertainty of human existence. 

Categories: Emotions


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