Sunday, March 08, 2009

The Iago syndrome

I am probably the least qualified person to discuss Shakespeare, and my experience of 'live' Shakespeare is limited to one viewing of Othello (and that was the recent one with Lenny Henry playing in the title role FFS). But I was gripped by the psychological content of this play. That Iago -- a man who would probably nowadays be diagnosed with a narcissistic or some other cluter B personality disorder -- managed to manipulate Othello to kill his wife thus punishing Othello for (among other things) promoting Cassius to his leuitenant over him (Iago). Iago's reputation for honesty (he is frequently referred to as 'honest Iago') is essential to his goal. 

What I find interesting about this is not particularly the fact that one man can manipulate another in this way, but rather the psychological reality of this play to the everyday interior of the mind. Freud was undoutedly a well-read man (and a good writer). So it amazes me that Freud never wrote specifically about this particular play. Like many classical scholars he probably thought that the Greeks and also the Romans had nailed all of the important psychological conflicts. 

Psychiatrist have, however, identified a diagnostic category of mental illness that some call Othello syndrome, in which the sufferer displays pathalogical jealousy, frequently about a spouse or other romantic partner. (DSM-IV-TR, the diagnostic book used by many psychiatrists identifies a similar disorder called 'delusional disorder -- jealous type.)

An Othello syndrome, then, but not an Iago syndrome, why not? Because there cannot be an Othello without an Iago. We have probably all felt the excoriating blast of our own internal Iago  manipulating our personal Othello into a frenzy of paranoia. Why did that person hang up when I answered the phone? Who is he texting? Is that person spreading malicious rumours about me? Iago has the answers and they are seldom balanced. In this article the sociobiologist David Buss discusses the evolutionary function of jealousy which, he says, is designed to prevent our investments in our social and romantic relationships from becoming compromised by the actions of a third party. If our jealousy makes us want to act to become closer to our close friends, to make amends, perhaps for years of neglect, then this is for the good. But if we are gripped by Iago our jealousy -- even if it doesn't lead to physical violence or murder as for Othello -- can drive the relationship into the dirt: relationships seldom thrive in a climate of suspicion as Elvis Presley pointed out.

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