Shakespeare and Psychoanalysis: The Pressure to Do Great Things and the Impulse to Resist It: The Case of Iago in Othello

by Saundra Segan

August 25, 2005


In Shakespeare's play, Othello has risen to high status in a short time and has brought his lieutenant Iago with him. Iago is brought into conflict by Othello's success and has an urge to interfere with Othello's passionate experience of leadership and love because he feels envy and jealousy of him. He sees Othello as a man of beauty in contrast to his sense of himself as ugly, and out of this sense of inadequacy, he also sees Othello's preferment as something that he ought to have. Iago's revenge comes out of both his idealization and devaluation of Othello. His own feelings of unworthiness make him envy Othello himself while his jealousy makes him want what Othello has. Iago does not have sufficient narcissistic supplies to sustain an integrated internalized object which would deepen his own emotional life. Only coldness and ruthlessness remain.


     Iago, in Shakespeare’s “Othello,” has often been characterized as one of the great prototypes of evil, someone whose lies and manipulation are designed to destroy his commander, Othello. The Moor of Venice not only achieved high status in a short time but also brought his trusted lieutenant Iago along with him. Most attention to the play focuses on the effects of that misguided trust rather than on possible motives behind the obsessive need of Iago to destroy Othello. To many readers, Iago’s single-minded devotion to the destruction of Othello makes him a two dimensional character, a mechanical device designed to produce the destructive effects on Othello we follow throughout the play, or perhaps Iago is someone whose obsession itself reveals his complexity.

      In his short essay entitle, “Concerning the Stupidity of Evil,” Donald Meltzer recapitulates Melanie Klein’s formulation of the concept of envy through his own ideas about aesthetic conflict. He speaks of envy as an urge to interfere with the object’s capacity for passionate experience and begins his essay by quoting Iago who says of Cassio, “He hath a daily beauty in his life/That makes me ugly.” (V,1) Here, Meltzer believes, Iago is not speaking of Desdemona or Bianca, Cassio’s consort. The “daily beauty of which he speaks is an “inner beauty” of innocence and good will which he also sees in Othello and exploits to his destruction. To Meltzer, the beauty of the world incites conflict because of its primal representation, the breast and the face of the feeding mother. Meltzer points out that this conflict is aroused by the impact of the manifest external forms and the ambiguous internal mental state – feelings, intentions, attitudes

-- of the object of attachment. Meltzer thinks of this conflict as activated in the new-born, arousing passionate emotions of love, of hate, of a yearning to know the inside of the object, the “heart of the mystery.”

     Meltzer comes to this formulation through Klein’s identification of psychic reality as psychic space, a world different in its laws from the external world. Penetration into this world occurs through the omnipotent fantasy of projective identification which becomes a major factor in the structuring of psychopathology. Personality forms through the daily experience of external life as well as through the internal life of emotional relationships and meaning. The mental apparatus grows through the digestion of emotional events, learning from experience, and the most important emotional experiences that contribute to the development of the mind are those of a passionate quality, in which love, hatred, and a search for the truth are held in integration and not split into separate objects.

     Splitting of the passionate response occurs as a defense against aesthetic conflict, a primal developmental event. The splitting itself involves a painful state of uncertainty about the external form of objects (the beauty of the world) and the enigmatic interior qualities. To Bion this occurs through revulsion from emotion itself, something which becomes anti emotion rather than one emotion by another, that is, love by hatred. Melanie Klein’s formulation on envy would formulate primal envy not as the breast-that-feeds-itself but as an urge to interfere with the object’s capacity for passionate experience, and thus with the relationship to truth. To Bion, positive processes by which emotional experiences are digested into true thoughts may be paralleled by negative ones for the construction of lies.

     Cassirer pointed out how truthful thought is imaginative and constructs symbols by which dream thought can be transformed into language and other symbolic forms while false thought would operate by means of the simple techniques of mimicry and negation. Meltzer uses Bion’s categories of anti-emotion (Puritanism), anti-hate (hypocrisy) and anti-knowledge (philistinism) to show how essentially stupid such negative thoughts are in their operation. Meltzer concludes by saying.

    Insofar as individuals have sacrificed their capacity for passionate response to the beauty of the world, they are prey to the envy of others who seem to have “a daily beauty in their lives,” an inner beauty. But here again stupidity mistakes outward form for inner beauty and sees “secrets of success” instead of a “heart of mystery.”

      Winnicott explains “outward form” or “secrets of success” in terms that speak of either an authentic sense of self or one with a warp. In Winnicott's terms, such a warp is an "impingement," a feeling of being overwhelmed by a clash between one's felt needs and the possibility that the environment, or object, might not be able to satisfy those needs. Impingement occurs when transitional experience and object usage do not provide an opportunity for self differentiation. Beyond attachment, the child needs to develop through stages during which the parent remains constant while the child attempts to glorify, expose, and destroy its omnipotence. Interruption of these stages aborts the recognition of separateness and the finding of an authentic, spontaneous, creative self, capable of appropriate interaction with another. One form of interruption occurs through misuse of the idealizations that are part of normal growth. When distortions occur, they sometimes take the form of an intensified need to please, of feeling the pressure to do great things. Even seeming indifference or rebellion turns out to be a variation on pleasing a formidable parent. If the parent cannot survive the child's aggression or rage, or the child its own reactive aggression or rage, ambition becomes a guessing game about how to please, how to make a developing self more lovable. Since its security is so dependent on reducing anxiety, the pursuit of prestige, power, and entitlement as solutions perpetuate the experience of an interrupted self and a vicious cycle ensues whereby the developing child creates further idealizations and fictitious selves.

     Feelings of envy and jealousy demonstrate these distortions, and to Harry Stack Sullivan, such feelings reveal a limited capacity for satisfaction in interpersonal relations. With envy, a real thing or person is longed for as the object that will reduce a sense of inadequacy. "Envy," says Sullivan, "is an acute discomfort caused by discovering that somebody else has something that one feels one ought to have." An envious person has been raised to have too much expected of her or too little. She has learned to appraise herself as unsatisfactory; she has an inadequate sense of self. Here, the pressure to do great things comes out of a sense of inadequacy expressed through envy; the impulse to resist this pressure, out of a more healthy on-going developing self. Jealousy, like envy, evolves out of a sense of inadequacy experienced as a limited capacity to be close to another person, out of an inability to find unique satisfaction with another, but in Sullivan’s construct, jealousy is a much deeper and more painful state. It occurs when the idealization of another has been transformed into devaluation. Jealousy occurs when one person imagines that two other people with whom the subject person is involved experience greater satisfaction from one another than either does with the subject. Jealousy, then, always occurs in a context of three people, which is quite different from envy. When jealousy is a component in the pressure to do great things, it has emerged out of the original parent/child relationship. Jealousy is learned by the developing self from a parent who is jealous. When it exists, the feeling is ubiquitous and as such even includes feelings towards the child. A parent then can be jealous of a child's imagined relationship to the world or to another person in the parent's orbit, and the child learns to be jealous of the parent's and everyone else’s imagined relationship to the world or to another It is a self-perpetuating scheme.

     The jealous person both idealizes and devalues. That person feels that he does not deserve the friends of whom he is jealous, who have more capacity for whatever is going on between them than he has. At the same entanglements, by feeling superior and deserving of more than they, by focusing on his own satisfactions more than on those of another. Hera, the great ancient prototype for jealousy, defended against these feelings by enacting revenge. In The Iliad she gave support to Agamemnon and Achilles, but only so that they could destroy Troy, the source of her losing a beauty contest to Aphrodite. Her jealousy is, in fact, envy which is more frivolous than jealousy despite its destructive effects. Envy is a dark passion of which we are ashamed and over which we try to gain control. Jealousy is more difficult to harness because it lives entirely in our fantasy life and usually finds expression through projection and through projective identification.

      In "Othello," jealousy exists in a world in which the ways of giving preferment are in a state of change while the old medieval order continues the same; it is a world where "great ones" are beginning to emerge through means other than a time established order. In the early sixteenth century world of this play (1470-1522), Othello has received preferment through accomplishment and favor. Iago not only recognizes this but also that the old order is beginning to give way, that position can now be earned. In such a world, jealousy gets lots more opportunity for play. He tells Roderigo, his pawn, that he hates the Moor for giving preferment to Cassio. No one else in the play ever knows anything about Iago as a candidate for lieutenant, and Iago never mentions it again, but he creates this fiction for his own manipulative purposes. He successfully communicates his fantasy about himself to the envious and foolish Roderigo because the idea of preferment through issues other than inheritance is in the air, and he implies to Roderigo that he too can benefit by it.

      Iago’s observation about others gaining position through questionable means is a projection of his feelings about himself. His calculated and maneuvering statements to Roderigo reflect Iago's own self-loathing. When Roderigo speaks of his infatuation with Desdemona as making him want to drown himself, Iago belittles his dupe by saying that he has "never found a man who knew how to love himself," who knew how to exercise free will as opposed to following a moral code. "Virtue, he offers Roderigo, "is a fig:"

    ... 'Tis in ourselves that we are thus and thus. Our bodies are gardens, to the which our wills are gardeners; so that if we will plant nettles or sow lettuce, set hyssop and weed up thyme, supply it with one gender of herbs or distract it with many, either to have it sterile with idleness or manured with industry, why, the power and corrigible authority of this lies in our wills. We are, then, self-created, and we create ourselves out of hate. He ascribes to man a capacity to balance reason with sensuality, "the blood and baseness of our natures," to use reason to cool our raging motions, our carnal stings, our unbitted lusts,..." He privileges reason in enacting his cunning manipulations of others, but his use of reason and seeming exercise of individual will is propelled by an ambiguous and inadequate sense of self in an ambiguous world. Whatever notion of free will is emerging in this Renaissance moment, it is doing so in the midst of a military and political medieval order that has no new psychological frame yet to support it.

      The world of choice, of competitiveness, of individual responsibility for one's actions and well-being is still in its infancy. When Iago broods over Othello's choice of Cassio for lieutenant, he is assessing him in relation to himself. He describes Cassio as bookish and implies that he is less capable militarily than Iago who served Othello at Rhodes and at Cyprus. He says:

There's no remedy. 'Tis the curse of service.
Preferment goes by letter and affection,
And not by old gradation, where each second
Stood heir to the first.

He envies the choice of Cassio, but he is also jealous of him. In his jealous fantasy, he sees the choice of Cassio by Othello to be his lieutenant as the result of some special relationship between them. This gives power to both, idealizes both, and also devalues them. Although Roderigo is used by Iago as a dupe, this fool does ask Iago a poignant question about why he follows the Moor if he has been so badly treated by him. Iago answers with:

It is as sure as you are Roderigo,
Were I the Moor, I would not be Iago.
In following him, I follow but myself;
Heaven is my judge, not I for love and duty,
But seeming so for my peculiar end.

Although Iago boasts here of using Othello for his own advantage, he also reveals his confusion, or splitting, if you will, of his own sense of self. A "false" enraged, jealous self urges Iago to fictions about Othello as as disloyal. He attends the hated Moor and at the same time projects his jealous fantasies onto him. Like the first son brooding over the fact that the power of the family has been passed to the second son, Iago feels envy of Cassio, but his feelings of jealousy come from a deeper place where he experiences himself as unworthy. Here, his split selves, where "were [he] the Moor, [he] would not be Iago," struggle in opposition to each other. He cannot tolerate the relationship between Othello and Cassio nor that between Othello and Desdemona (towards whom, he confesses privately, he feels desire) because he cannot tolerate his own feelings of inadequacy. The manipulations he directs in order to exact revenge come out of a need to erase the evidence of his own unworthiness of the relationships between Othello and these others. After his first act of revenge, exposing the elopement between Desdemona and Othello, has failed to destroy the equilibrium of the couple's new marriage, Iago continues compulsively to perform vengeful acts, enactments of his hateful feelings about himself. This hatred urges him on compulsively to more jealous fantasy when he imagines Othello sleeping with his own wife, Emilia, and muses:

And it is thought abroad that 'twixt my sheets
He's done my office. I know not if't be true,
But I, for mere suspicion in that kind,
Will do as if for surety.

Betwixt the fantasy and reality of jealousy and envy, Iago both thinks that Othello has slept with his wife and knows better, but when he later observes that he deserves to have Desdemona for himself, it is pure jealousy. By thinking of new ways to prevent Othello from having what he himself does not or cannot have, Iago moves into a jealous rage that emerges from a sense that others truly deserve more than he does. Unable to tolerate such feelings, he projects them onto Othello and gets the Moor to feel what he can thereby disown.

      As an early Renaissance figure who does great things by virtue of his own abilities, Othello might indeed be made to doubt his own good fortune both politically and personally. He began as a soldier, was later sold into slavery, escaped harrowing adventures that included contact with cannibals and Anthropophagi, and eventually rose to be leader in the military forces of Venice. He married the light-skinned and motherless daughter of a senator who fell in love with him when she learned of the hardships he had endured and overcome. Her father came to accept their marriage and Desdemona exacted permission from the Duke to join her husband in Cyprus. All of these events disturb the old order; preferment has become possible through achievement as much as through birth. At the same time, Othello cannot believe fully in his own success, in part, because a new order has not yet taken sufficient hold.

      Despite his survival through the practice of open aggression, Othello does not understand cunning. This allows Iago, a master of cunning, to plant seeds of jealousy where his motives are never called into question, and Othello is a fertile bed for these seeds. Iago's innuendo about Cassio's involvement with Desdemona meets with little resistance. When Iago suggests to Othello that when Desdemona left her father for him, she demonstrated her capacity for betrayal, he manages not only to refer obliquely to her potential for disloyalty to her husband but also to get Othello to hear it. Othello compares Desdemona to a wild hawk which, if caught when mature, is found to be irreclaimable and unamenable to the discipline of falconry and needs to be set loose to live on its own. Undoubtedly, he also refers here to himself. Othello feels inadequate to court life and could be shaken by Iago's persistent innuendo, but when he embraces Iago's suggestions and becomes consumed by jealousy, he is reaching down to a deeper sense of inadequacy than only a lack of courtly manners would belie. It is this undeveloped sense of self that allows the handkerchief to become the means through which we come to understand fully the psychological limitations of this military leader. Iago is successful in triggering his captain's obsession with the handkerchief as a symbol of loyalty and betrayal because this cloth has served this function for him for all of his adult life. The handkerchief is an emblem of an object with the potential to save Othello or to frustrate and abandon him, and Othello is, in fact, destroyed by it. After demanding that Desdemona tell him of the whereabouts of the handkerchief he gave her at their marriage, he tells her its history. He says:

That handkerchief
Did an Egyptian to my mother give.
She was a charmer and could almost read
The thoughts of people. She told her, while she kept it,
'Twould make her amiable and subdue my father
Entirely to her love, but if she lost it
Or made a gift of it, my father's eye
Should hold her loathly, and his spirits should hunt
After new fancies. She dying gave it me;
And bid me, when my fate would have me wive,
To give it her. I did so,--and take heed on't;
Make it a darling like your precious eye.
To lose or give't away were such perdition
As nothing else could match.

For Desdemona to keep what was a transitional object and for Othello to use it without destroying his wife would be for the Moor to have already gone through and survived the necessary developmental stages, but he has not.

      Finally, if we take one last look at Iago through the prism of our object relations/ interpersonal glass, the disturbance in his self-regard suggests that his developmental experience offered him insufficient narcissistic supplies. He lives as if he is interactive with people, but he treats them as things. His emotional life is shallow; he shows little empathy for the feelings of others; his relationships are exploitative and parasitic. It is as if the right to control and possess others and to exploit them without guilt feelings is a given, for behind his engaging surface lies ruthlessness and coldness. "Dependence" reveals itself through the need to use cunning for manipulation of others, yet there exists no real capacity to depend on anybody because of deep distrust and depreciation of others. Haughty, grandiose, and controlling behavior serves as a defense against paranoid traits related to the projection of rage that is at the center of this psychopathology. Iago's interactions reflect intense, primitive, internalized object relationships of a frightening kind that do not allow him the capacity to move beyond his destructiveness. Iago presents as someone who sees the world through the profoundly painful and lonely enactments of jealousy because he does not have the developmentally acquired tools to see it any other way.


Works Cited

Bion, W, R. (1967). Second Thoughts. London: Heinemann [Reprinted London, Karnac Books, 1984.]

Klein, M. (1975). Envy and Gratitude and Other Works. London: Hogarth Press. [Reprinted London: Karnac Books, 1993.]

Meltzer, D. (1988). Concerning the Stupidity of Evil. [Reprinted from The Apprehension of Beauty: The Role of Aesthetic Conflict in Development. London: Clunie Press.]

Shakespeare, W. (1601-2) Othello. [Reprinted in The Complete Works of Shakespeare, eds. Kittredge, G.L. & Ribner,I. London: Ginn.

Sullivan, H.S. (1953). The Interpersonal Theory of Psychoanalysis. New York: Norton.

Winnicott, D.W. (1971). Playing and Reality. London: Tavistock.

To cite this article, use this bibliographical entry: Saundra Segan "Shakespeare and Psychoanalysis: The Pressure to Do Great Things and the Impulse to Resist It: The Case of Iago in Othello". PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. Available March 3, 2024 [or whatever date you accessed the article].
Received: January 1, 2005, Published: August 25, 2005. Copyright © 2005 Saundra Segan