In Shakespeare’s Othello, perhaps the most unwatchable/watchable play there is, Othello murders his wife Desdemona believing as he does that she has cheated on him with Casio. It’s an awful business; for one thing, she’s entirely innocent. How does it come about that noble Othello’s moral vision is so entirely clouded that he commits this heinous act?
Well, he needed some help in breaking that terrible taboo. The help comes from Iago who subtly poisons Othello’s mind. Two questions emerge: How does Iago do it and why? Let’s start with the second question first.
Why does Iago destroy Othello (and Desdemona too, let’s not forget)?
This question has puzzled scholars through the ages. Iago has been passed over for promotion: is that the motive? Iago is a racist and Othello is a dark Moor? Is that it? Perhaps Iago is unconsciously attracted to Desdemona? Alternatively, there is a rumour that Othello slept with Iago’s wife, Emelia (at least Iago claims there is such a rumour):
I hate the Moor,
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.
In other words, any excuse will do. Iago intends to destroy Othello – reasons can come later. Now who behaves like this if not the psychopath? They say that the dingo – an Australian wild dog – must kill every day, whether it is hungry or not. The psychopath must destroy – reasons are superfluous when there is the drive to do evil (title of Liane Leedom’s forthcoming book).
How does Iago destroy Othello’s moral mind?
He does this first through a campaign of misleading and then by a perfect paramoralism.
Iago works on Othello to make him suspicious of Desdemona and Cassio. Desdemona drops a handkerchief that was Othello’s first gift to her, and Emilia obtains this for Iago, who has asked her to steal it, having decided to plant it in Cassio’s lodgings as evidence of Cassio and Desdemona’s affair. Emilia is unaware of what Iago plans to do with the handkerchief. After he has planted the handkerchief, Iago tells Othello to hide, and goads Cassio on to talk about his affair with his mistress Bianca, but since Bianca’s name is not mentioned Othello thinks that Cassio refers to Desdemona.
A paramoralism is a statement which, under the guise of moral speech, serves to undemine the moral thinking of the other person. Iago’s is a single, perfect word: ‘Lie–‘.
Hath he said any thing?
He hath, my lord; but be you well assured,
No more than he’ll unswear.
What hath he said?
‘Faith, that he did–I know not what he did.
It is the merest suggestion – Othello’s mind does the rest.
With her, on her; what you will.
Lie with her! lie on her! We say lie on her, when
they belie her. Lie with her! that’s fulsome.
confess, and be hanged for his labour;–first, to be
hanged, and then to confess.–I tremble at it.
Nature would not invest herself in such shadowing
passion without some instruction. It is not words
that shake me thus. Pish! Noses, ears, and lips.
–Is’t possible?–Confess–handkerchief!–O devil!–
Falls in a trance
Passive aggression is still aggression
Readers have written movingly and bravely about some of the gross, overt abuse and neglect of psychopaths. Do you have an account of this kind of more subtle, roundabout means by which the psychopath gets another to do his destructive bidding?