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Sociopaths in classic dramatic arts

Last week my husband and I went to the opera to see Carmen. We saw the opera at the beautiful Academy of Music in Philadelphia. Before the performance, an opera expert gave the background of the story and the characters.

Carmen was written by Georges Bizet, and premiered in Paris in 1875. Here’s the basic story, as described by Wikipedia:

The story is set in Seville, Spain, around 1820, and concerns the eponymous Carmen, a beautiful gypsy with a fiery temper. Free with her love, she woos the corporal Don José, an inexperienced soldier. Their relationship leads to his rejection of his former love, mutiny against his superior, and joining a gang of smugglers. His jealousy when she turns from him to the bullfighter Escamillo leads him to murder Carmen.

In his presentation, the opera expert explained that Carmen was a complex character, apparently based on one of Bizet’s lovers. She was seductive, headstrong, flirtatious, demanding, temperamental, argumentative, quickly became bored of her lovers and wasn’t terribly concerned about predictions that she would die.

“Gee,” I said to my husband. “She sounds like a sociopath.”

After watching the entire opera, it sure seems to me that this character is, in fact, a sociopath. Here’s the famous aria from the first act, called The Habanera. To set the scene, Carmen flirts with all the men in the village, and they all want to be her lover. She has everyone captivated, everyone except the soldier Don José. He, then, becomes a challenge.

Habanera from Carmen, performed in Covent Garden in 2006.

As the story progresses, Carmen gets in trouble and is sentenced to prison. Don José is supposed to guard her, but she seduces him. Don José forsakes his sweet village girlfriend, falls in love with Carmen and lets her escape, ending up in trouble himself.  Then he throws his entire military career away and joins Carmen’s band of gypsies. Carmen, however, gets bored of Don José; she falls in love with a bullfighter and flaunts it. Don José tries everything to get Carmen to return, from pleading to threats. Carmen knows the former soldier is on edge, but throwing caution to the wind, she taunts him with her love of the bullfighter. Don José flies into a rage and kills her.

The story was right out of the sociopath playbook: Over the top love bombing, followed by devalue and discard. Don José tries desperately to recapture the original euphoria, but failing, he becomes somewhat sociopathic himself—like some abused partners do—and lashes out.

Othello

A few months ago, I saw another classic drama with a sociopathic theme—Shakespeare’s Othello.  This is a tragedy of love, deception and death, written in 1603. Othello is a Moorish general in the Venetian army, married to Desdemona. Iago, Othello’s trusted ensign, is angry because the general has promoted a younger lieutenant above him, and he hatches a plot to play people off each other so he can get what he wants. Here’s an explanation from Wikipedia:

Although eponymously titled, suggesting that the tragedy belongs primarily to Othello, Iago plays an important role in the plot he reflects the archetypal villain, and has the biggest share of the dialogue. In Othello, it is Iago who manipulates all other characters at will, controlling their movements and trapping them in an intricate net of lies. He achieves this by getting close to all characters and playing on their weaknesses while they refer to him as “honest” Iago, thus furthering his control over the characters.

The Shakespearean dialog is admittedly a bit difficult for our modern ears to understand, but with good acting we can see what is going on. Iago actually talks directly to the audience and reveals his intentions. You can see it here:

Iago’s monologue in the 1995 film Othello.

As a result of Iago’s plot, many of the characters in Othello end up dead.

Don Giovanni

Another opera that I saw (my husband likes opera) was Don Giovanni. This opera was written by Mozart and premiered in 1787. However, it is based on the legend of Don Juan. Yes, that Don Juan—the guy who went around seducing women for the fun of it.

The original legend dates back a play published in Spain around 1630. Here’s how Don Juan is explained in Wikipedia:

Don Juan is a rogue and a libertine who takes great pleasure in seducing women (mainly virgins) and enjoys fighting their men. Later, in a graveyard, Don Juan encounters a statue of Don Gonzalo, the dead father of a girl he has seduced, Doña Ana de Ulloa, and impiously invites the father to dine with him; the statue gladly accepts.

In the first act of Mozart’s version, Don Giovanni first tries to seduce a woman, Donna Anna. Her father shows up and Don Giovanni kills him, then escapes with his servant, Leporello. They come across another woman, Donna Elvira, who is upset because her lover has abandoned her and she wants revenge.  And who was the cad? Don Giovanni. He makes a quick exit, and tells Leporello to tell Donna Elvira the truth about his character.

Leporello does, in a famous aria called Madamina, il catalogo e questo. He tells Donna Elvira about all the women Don Giovanni has loved—640 in Italy, 231 in Germany, 100 in France, 91 in Turkey, but in Spain, 1,003. Watch how Donna Elvira reacts to the news—it will seem familiar to many of us who were involved with cheating sociopaths.

Leporello’s aria, Little lady, this is the catalog, in a 1988 performance at London’s Royal Opera House.

Moral of the story

So why am I writing about opera and Shakespeare? To point out that sociopaths have been with us forever. I’m sure the playwrights, librettists and composers who created these characters were drawing from people they knew in real life. Watching these characters, we can all see reflections of what we experienced. The characters may have seemed unbelievable and outlandish to many audiences, but we know that the behaviors are real.

The only problem I saw with these particular stories was that in each one of them, justice was served. Carmen was killed, Iago was arrested and Don Giovanni was turned into stone. In the real world, as we know, that doesn’t always happen.



49 Comments on "Sociopaths in classic dramatic arts"

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  1. skylar says:

    Still in shock,
    you must be my long lost sister. ((hugs))
    My dad is an N and treated me the same way.
    My mom is a P and when I came home with ANY grades, she would ask me about how other people in my class did. She knew their names and even if they weren’t my friends, she would ask me about their report cards. puke.

    In a way, I wish that I had not fought back against my parents and allowed them to beat me for as long as they wished. Because I fought back, they changed their tactics. Instead of raging at me, they love bombed me and did all their stabbing in my back. I didn’t realize how many knives I had in there until I was 43.

    If I had allowed them to think they were beating and controlling me, they wouldn’t have kept up such perfect masks. The mind fuck was so much worse than any beating.



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  2. Emi says:

    1. In reading the article and some of the comments, it struck me that my own instigating event happened as the result of an abusively aggressive dog aka Psycho Dogg!!! Psycho Dogg belonged to a housemate…who had two dogs… one of which was obnoxious, out of control, abusive. The housemate always had an in your face excuse for this obnoxious, totally out of control dog…who jumped up my clothes and jumped up on chairs at the table and slobbered in my meals. That dog never gave up, watching closely to pounce into his next “assignment”. I did finally research dog behavior and training. I began to stop facing the dog at all and that worked a lot of the time. The dog seemed to have a neurological disorder and a personality disorder. Long story short…when my housemate went away for a couple weeks and the dogs were staying elsewhere, I became obsessed with Psycho Dogg. I found myself planning all sorts of ways to “do away” with the dog. This lasted for about a week. These plans were all consuming. It was as if a demon had taken charge of my thoughts and feelings. It actually became very painful to experience. I felt ashamed yet compelled to move forward with fantasies about the dog’s demise. My thoughts jumped from plan to plan to plan about how I would accomplish the dog’s “end”. Thankfully, I got sidetracked with healthier thoughts and feelings. Before the housemate returned, I had moved on. But today I know that I allowed myself to get pushed over the edge by that personality disordered Psycho Dogg. It is a bit scarey to think about today – the result of reading that article brought everything to the forefront – because typically these kinds of thoughts aren’t something I dwell on. Today I can see some humor in my over reaction. But it’s just one more example of what can happen when I allow myself to get sucked in by the rest of the sociopaths/psychopaths that have crossed my path over the past 15 years or so. They know how to push your buttons and are ruthless about it. It requires no effort for them because it’s their natural state of being. Nothing can stop them…except being annihilated. This is why no contact is the most effective way to deal with them.



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  3. stillinshock says:

    Thank you, Ox Drover. I do feel pretty good about school. I actually love it and I am excited about the field I am going into.
    skylar… HI sis! 🙂 And I’m sorry to hear about the mind games that were played on you, that is absolutely worse than the beatings….My mom was actually pretty nurturing when I was little. It pretty much ended though when I hit puberty. Fun was over! I think the FOO comes from living with a self-made martyr and an emotionally absent Drill Sergeant.

    I also know that the reason I choose emotionally absent men is because I am looking for the love I needed from my dad (yeah, I’ve done some therapy….)

    I haven’t quite figured how to break that cycle yet, but I am working on it.



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  4. Ox Drover says:

    Stillinshock, I think it takes us a long time to break the cycles, and each time we get stronger in one area, we are forced to confront another area in which we had challenges…but as we “peel the onion” of our dysfunction, each layer we peel gives us another chance to improve our lives and weed out the problems. (sorry about the mixed metaphors! LOL) None of these problems goes way on their own, we have to confront them and deal with them, clean up the “mess” as it were. If we keep on working though, each day our internal “rooms” become more orderly and peaceful, so just keep on keeping on! One day you can change your screen name to NOT IN SHOCK! (((hugs)))



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