Thursday, March 1, 2018

Iago: Shakespeare's Psychopath

By Heidi Hiatt

Will you, I pray, demand that demi-devil
Why he hath thus ensnared my soul and body?

While reading a legal newsletter I subscribe to this week, I came across an article about Iago, the villain in Shakespeare’s Othello. Dallas lawyer Michael Maslanka asked “What Can Lawyers Learn From ‘Othello’?”
Maslanka makes two fantastic points in this piece about being on guard against manipulation and rationalization. In Othello, Iago manipulates everyone around him to achieve his goals of revenge and self-promotion. He does so as if he’s everyone’s friend and is genuinely concerned about their well-being. He plays all sides against each other.
“One of the ways he’s so successful at controlling others is by leveraging their positive qualities to serve his own ends,” Maslanka says. He also points out Iago’s ability to disguise himself as something he is not: “Always remember, as Iago warns us:When devils will the blackest sins put on, They do suggest at first with heavenly shows, As I do now.’
When Iago’s mind-bending, seductive influence finally drives Othello to kill his wife, Othello rationalizes the murder as an honor killing. Noting Othello’s attempt to justify this atrocious act, Maslanka reminds his audience that people often believe what they want to believe. For that reason, people’s ability to “impose narratives on events”, he says that attorneys should “be skeptical… rigorously examine their narratives, and probe for the story beneath the story.”
Why didn’t I think of this? Iago is the perfect example of the type of sociopath/narcissist I wrote about in my Hypnotic Milfoil blog entry earlier this week. He has been referred to as the greatest of villains and loathed for his cunning destruction of others’ lives for over 400 years.
When I began to think about just how perfectly Iago represents the self-serving, scurrilous vampires I write about, I was floored. As a longtime believer in the validity of Dr. Robert Hare’s Psychopathy Checklist Revised (PCL-R), I reviewed that list of common characteristics of psychopaths to find that Iago fit the bill:

  • -glib and superficial charm
  • -grandiose estimation of self
  • -need for stimulation
  • -pathological lying
  • -cunning and manipulativeness
  • -lack of remorse or guilt
  • -shallow affect (superficial emotional responses)
  • -callousness and lack of empathy
  • -parasitic lifestyle
  • -poor behavioral controls
  • -impulsivity
  • -irresponsibility
  • -failure to accept responsibility for own actions
  • -criminal versatility
There were only six characteristics on the list that I did not see in Iago, sexual promiscuity, early behavior problems, lack of realistic long-term goals, many short-term marital relationships, juvenile delinquency, and revocation of conditional release.
Perhaps if we knew Iago’s backstory, or more about his private life, we would see those traits as well. It is interesting to note that Iago and his wife Emilia were not close, and it is Emilia who exposes him for what he is.
Iago also meets many of the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV-TR) criteria for narcissism:

  • -a grandiose sense of self-importance
  • -is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love
  • -requires excessive admiration
  • -has a sense of entitlement, unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his expectations
  • -is interpersonally exploitive, takes advantage of others to achieve his own ends
  • -lacks empathy, is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others
  • -is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him
  • -shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes
There is an ongoing debate in academia about the difference between sociopaths and psychopaths, both being people without conscience that use and abuse others for their own ends. Some argue that psychopaths are born and sociopaths are made, although that may be too simplistic of an explanation.
Modern science has shown that there are physical differences in the brains of people with issues like psychopathy and borderline personality disorder. But some scientists have shown that you can have such a brain and never indulge its negative potential; it is external factors combined with personal choices that usually turn the mental disconnects on.
Iago was an opportunist who probably wasn’t new to his game of manipulating people, and ultimately, he admits his crimes but refuses to speak about them. For the purposes of this discussion, I’ll refer to him as a sociopath, one notch down on the “people lacking empathy” scale from a psychopath, which is considered the most extreme form of this condition. His deviancy may have been formed as he went through life and found chances to exploit others instead of being inherent.
Now that we know what Iago is, we can put this in perspective. Othello begins in Venice with Iago and his friend Roderigo discussing their dissatisfaction over two major events. Roderigo has just learned from Iago that the woman he wanted to marry, Desdemona, has eloped with Othello, a Moorish general in the Venetian Army. Iago is complaining to Roderigo that Othello has made a younger man, Cassio, his lieutenant instead of him.
Iago, already Othello’s ensign, believes that he is far more deserving of the rank of lieutenant because of his firsthand experience with battle. Cassio is well-educated and qualified for the position, but does not yet have real world experience with war. We have no reason to question Othello’s judgment in promoting Cassio to lieutenant or in marrying Desdemona; he obviously recognized qualities in both of them that made them most worthy of their titles.
Because Othello and Desdemona were married in secret, Iago incites Roderigo to tell her father, a senator, before the happy couple can. They wake the senator in the middle of the night and inform him of the marriage in an inflammatory and discriminatory way. Iago then goes to Othello and tells him the senator is coming for him.
Othello successfully defends himself to her father and others, then leaves for Cyprus to quell a Turkish invasion. When Othello, his wife, and their staff arrive there, they find that the Turks’ ships were destroyed in a storm, and they host a celebration. Iago seizes this opportunity to get Cassio drunk, and uses Roderigo to start a fight with him. Cassio gets blamed for the altercation, and Othello demotes him, allowing Iago to move in closer.
Othello and Iago had a history, but Othello should have maintained a strictly business relationship with him. Instead, Iago becomes the demon whispering in his ear, dropping lies into his brain like poison into a glass of wine. When Iago, feigning unwavering loyalty and deep devotion, convinces Othello that his wife is having an affair with Cassio, Othello makes him lieutenant.
Cassio, in the meantime, has asked Desdemona to intercede on his behalf since he has been falsely accused. Othello misinterprets her advocacy for Cassio as further proof of her infidelity, and Iago is able to plant evidence to further Othello’s suspicions.
Believing that Iago’s great “love” for him is real, Othello proceeds to abuse and humiliate his wife. His hatred of her becomes so strong that he publicly attacks her, strikes her in front of her family, and falsely accuses her. Desdemona, completely innocent and genuinely in love, cannot understand why this is happening to her. She knows she has does nothing wrong and is horrified at her husband’s behavior.
Othello subsequently loses his post and Cassio rises to take his place. Iago convinces Roderigo to murder Cassio, and while Roderigo is attacking him in the street, Iago, in disguise, sneaks up behind Cassio to join in. Cassio does not die but is seriously wounded, and Iago comes back to the scene to coordinate the rescue effort. Iago kills Roderigo to hide their plot and accuses Cassio’s love interest of the crime.
Desdemona, reeling from her husband’s abuse, tells her maidservant, Emilia—who is also Iago’s wife– that she cannot comprehend that any woman could be capable of committing adultery. She is completely committed to Othello and would never do such a thing to him.
Even so, Othello calls his wife a litany of degrading, insulting names, and after she begs for one more night to live, then one more half hour, then just one more prayer, Othello kills her. By this time he is so ensnared by Iago’s web of lies that he tries to convince himself this was necessary.
Emilia arrives soon after the murder and realizes that her husband, Iago, is responsible for everything. She exposes his deception and manipulation based on hard evidence, and here Iago’s true nature explodes into vivid Technicolor for all to see. He can no longer hide the self that has been seething below the surface, moving other human beings around like pawns on a chess board.
“Villainous whore!” he shouts at his wife. “Filth!” Out of loyalty to Desdemona, Emilia refuses to be quiet or go home as Iago is screaming at her to do, and enraged, he stabs her to death. Like the coward he is, he runs away as reality begins to melt Othello’s hypnotic obedience to him.
Othello berates himself loudly and mourns his wife, realizing that he was manipulated into homicidal rage by the scheming Iago. Iago is brought back to the scene by Cassio and others, and Othello plunges a sword into him, only to wound him, not kill him. Othello wants him to live with the consequences of his actions.
Othello apologizes to Cassio, at which point he asks him about Iago, “Will you, I pray, demand that demi-devil/Why he hath thus ensnared my soul and body?” Then, after admitting that by killing Desdemona he threw away a priceless treasure, he acknowledges the extreme pressure that reduced him from being a renowned general to a game piece. Before he can be taken into custody, he kills himself.
It is critical to understand one truth about this story: no one was having any problems until Iago came along. Had he never come into the story, Othello and Desdemona, and everyone else, could have had a wonderful marriage and happy lives, barring any future problems. Iago and his sociopathic influence over others started the chain of events that led to their demise.
Through the centuries, people have analyzed Iago as if he were some exceedingly complex creature that is difficult to understand. This is not an original thought, but there is nothing complex or gifted about Iago. By his nature, not even by virtue of his intelligence, he instinctively exploited others’ areas of weakness and attacked what was dearest to them.
This is typical sociopathic behavior that such people can exhibit without consciously trying. This is a base, average human being with its conscience and empathy stripped away. There is a fundamental part of them that is suppressed or missing. Sociopaths, psychopaths, narcissists, and others like them are possessed by their condition. It’s not a part-time job. It’s who they are.
Nothing—no conquest, no rank, no triumph, no accomplishment—would have been enough to satisfy the bottomless pit inside this cowardly sociopath who got everyone else to do his dirty work. His insatiable hunger cost Othello, Desdemona, Roderigo, and Emilia everything.
The promotion he gained when he robbed Cassio of his position only served to fuel his ego. He was not satisfied with convincing Othello that Desdemona was having an affair, he had to take it farther and destroy Othello for not giving him that coveted promotion in the first place. Iago wrongly believed that what Cassio had was rightfully his.
Because of his nature, Iago was incapable of ever really being loyal to anyone but himself. That is what we as individuals and a society need to realize about what author Sandra Brown calls the “Low Empathy/Conscience Spectrum Disorders”—sociopathy, psychopathy, antisocial personality disorder, narcissistic personality disorder, borderline/borderpath personality disorder, and combinations thereof.
People with many of these disorders are their own god; in some cases, nothing truly matters more than themselves. These are not disorders that anyone else can fix for them—there is no amount of love or punishment that can cause permanent change. Many such people stay this way for life, and without the invited intervention of God’s grace combined with repentance and long-term commitment to suitable therapy, there is unlikely to ever be change.
Please be mindful that sociopaths and psychopaths are particularly adept at using their presence in church, in counseling, in support groups, and in the social realm as “proof” that they have changed. This can be especially true when there is a repeated pattern of them utilizing these means to convince others that they are reformed. Christianity is an often-cited cover for those lacking a real conscience. They know exactly what terminology to use and actions to showcase to convince others of their “sincerity.”
Sociopaths and psychopaths are largely beyond conventional help, meaning that counseling and other means of self-improvement may have no genuine effect on them. Even more disturbing, they may be using their self-help quest to learn to become better at their deception. They can also use therapy to shift the blame for their issues onto others, acting as if their family or partner has shared responsibility for the hole in their soul.
If we are to protect the genuine and the innocent among us, we must acknowledge that there are truly wicked, soul-sucking, pathological people out there—Iagos– who will never change. They may mellow with age, they may improve at hiding their true nature, but they are driven by forces of darkness that rejoice in the destruction of others, use others without remorse, and rationalize deception. They may be so used to their condition that they are not even consciously trying to be this way.
Othello, the great leader, the exceptional man who earned a position of prestige in a prejudiced society, the distinguished husband whose stories of trials and tribulations had won the heart of an adoring, faithful woman, was reduced to being Iago’s pitbull. By allowing his insecurities and fears to be probed and his ego to be stroked, he lowered his standards and became someone quite different from his authentic self to “satisfy” a sociopath.
Here in the 21st century, the same tragedies and consequences of sociopathic behavior are playing out all over our nation. Because of power-hungry devils like Iago, healthy relationships are broken up, loving marriages are stopped in their tracks, and children who would have otherwise existed will never be born as a result.
Innocent children repeatedly have their hearts broken by such self-absorbed behavior, and are conditioned to experience personality disorders, dysfunction in their own relationships, substance abuse, and domestic violence through it. Innocent men and women are increasingly finding their lives and livelihoods blown apart by it. Entire family trees and family legacies are being obliterated by the Iagos of our time.
Let us pray that the Iagos in our lives are exposed for what they are before they escalate and do even worse damage than they already have


  1. Thanks! Major credit goes to Michael Maslanka for the original idea!

  2. Very well-done. Your analysis gives readers a great deal to think about. I hope schools will use this example you cite from Shakespeare -- afterall, what better way to teach about sociopaths than through dramatic stories like this, with so many examples of the discord and chaos caused by a sociopath. Discussions can then be related to fictional characters and real life, as in: "Do you know people(without naming)who behave like this,as if they are the only ones who if other people should be manipulated and if others have no rights?"

  3. Fannie, thank you. You have a great idea, and again, I must give credit to Mr. Maslanka for elaborating on the Shakespeare analogy in the first place.

    It really did throw me for a loop when I realized just how perfect Iago is an analogy for the sociopaths and narcissists in our lives.

    Let's hope Maslanka takes on more of The Bard soon to give us more to think about!

  4. I've been referring to my ex narcissist/psychopath husband as Iago for several years now.
    And I doubt that I was the first person to recognise Iago's character as matching Dr Hare's list. It's pretty obvious to anyone who is familiar with Othello and also knows a narc/psycho.

  5. Iago was the shit without him there wouldn't even be a story.


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