Freudian Reading on “Othello”
Is it possible for other people to act as our superegos? What are the effects of never resolving your oedipal complex? And when a situation becomes to over whelming, do we project our thought and feelings on to our peers? I am using “Through the Literary Looking Glass: Critical Theory in Practice” by Sian Evans and “Othello” by William Shakespeare to analyse the characters Othello and Iago as well as the major theme jealousy through a Freudian lens. The aim of this psychoanalysis is to try and give a better understanding of the character’s motivations and unconscious, narcissistic desires. The theme jealousy is revealed by both these characters throughout the play shows us how we need to be well rounded people, and the effects this has if we are not. The opening act of “Othello” begins with the marriage of Desdemona and Othello in Venice, Italy. Here we see a black, middle aged man, marry a fair, young, Venetian woman in front of an upper class white society. (This was highly frowned upon at that point in history). As the play proceeds Iago suggests to Othello that Desdemona is sleeping with Cassio, and tries to corrupt their marriage.
This behaviour seems somewhat childish coming from a grown man and shows us how Iago doesn’t use his superego to control his id, as well as displaying his immense jealousy of Othello. However Othello believes what Iago is saying, as he has a reputation of being an “honest man”. Iago continues to insinuate Desdemona’s dishonesty to Othello and provides fake evidence. Othello gets increasingly “green-eyed” by the “poison” that Iago is telling him and becomes so overwhelmed by this jealousy that he goes back to his natural instincts, resolving issues through murder. This is a result of him joining the army at 7 and since then all he has known is war. The play ends with Othello acting on impulse and under the influence of his violent superego, murdering Desdemona, and then Iago after he realises Desdemona was innocent. He then proceeds to commit suicide as he believed this act would be considered noble, restore his reputation, and relieve his conscious mind of his violent actions. Othello is a mentally and emotionally frail character in the play. He joined the army at a young age and gradually became recognised in society as something other than a then a “middle aged”, “black moor”, due to his high rank in the army and then marrying Desdemona.
However when a supposedly “honest Iago” starts suggesting Othello’s wife is unfaithful, he is easily able to mentally control Othello through him never having resolved his oedipal complex. Othello had never resolved his oedipal complex because we see him give his mother’s handkerchief to Desdemona. Freud describes this as a method of transference and Othello is transferring his repressed love for his mother on to Desdemona. Iago then acting as Othello’s id then reveals Othello’s murderous superego which was caused by decades of warfare. We visually see this in the play when he says “How shall I murder him Iago” when Iago implies Cassio is sleeping with Desdemona. Here, Othello is also showing that his oedipal complex is still not resolved by transferring his repressed emotions on to new objects through his desire to murder Cassio (being the father) in order to be closer to Desdemona (being the mother). Later in the play we see his superego again when Desdemona (the woman he loves) becomes his enemy and he kills her. This act of murder was purely out of jealousy and the fear of him losing his reputation he has worked so hard for. “Yet she must die, else she’ll betray more men,” Shows us how Othello is subconsciously protecting his soldiers.
Though a Freudian perspective it appears that Shakespeare has used Othello as a character to show us that if you are brought up with murder or warfare when you are young, you might never be able to overcome your violent superego as you get older and the detrimental effects this has. Shakespeare has also shown us how sublimation is applied through Othello, as he is someone that has the urge to hurt and kill and thus joined the army, so that the act of killing is morally justified by “protecting their country or soldiers”. He may not kill the person he wants to kill necessarily, but they will release their feelings by killing the enemy, if unless these feelings are manipulated by an external factor (Iago). Although many years have passed since “Othello” was written, people can still relate to it because human nature does not change. We all question those who are close to us, and whether or not they are honest and loyal. Shakespeare is using Othello to warn us of disastrous consequences that may arise when you are manipulated by a person (Iago) that capitalises on the jealous nature of another human. Iago is an extremely jealous character in the play. He is envious of Othello’s reputation, higher rank in the army, wife, and that he is more respected in a white society than him; even though he is middle aged and black. This shown through the quote; “But for my sport and profit. I hate the Moor”…“He has done my office”. Reputation means to a lot to Iago, and overall that’s all he cares about most, which shows narcissism and racism in his character. He believed that Othello robbed him of his reputation. We see this through the quote; “But he that filches from me my good name, Robs me of that which not enriches him, and makes me poor indeed”.
Iago doesn’t use his superego to control his id so his urges and desires are unrestrained. This is shown throughout the play in his successful attempt to corrupt Othello’s marriage. Nearly one hundred per cent of the time when Iago is with Othello he is using reverse psychology to act as Othello’s superego and make him more jealous of Cassio; “O beware, my lord, of Jealousy! It is the green-eyed monster”. This is displaying two perspectives on Iago’s physiological state. Either Iago has zero control over his id, and just lets his jealous mind run wild. Or, he chooses not to control his psychopathic mind with his superego. This results in him tricking Othello into consciously thinking he’s jealous when he unconsciously isn’t. For example, when Othello asks for “living reason” (proof) that Desdemona’s been “disloyal,” Iago tells him about an erotic dream that Cassio supposedly had one night while he was lying in bed next to Iago. In sleep I heard him say “Sweet Desdemona, let us be wary, let us hide our loves”. After Iago tells these rumours he then covers his tracks by deceiving Othello. An example of this is when he says; “Men should be what they seem” which is ironic coming from him, as he is not what he seems. He is deceptive and believable, and for Othello that is bad news for someone who is so easily jealous and mentally frail. “He hath a person and a smooth dispose, to be suspected, framed to make women false. The Moor is of a free and open nature, that thinks men honest but that seem to be so” This quote is reinforcing how Iago believes Othello will be easy to manipulate and deceive.
Through this psychoanalysis we have a greater understanding of Iago’s motivations and unconscious desires. We see how he projected an overwhelming amount of jealousy he had for Othello on to him, and even though he thought he was in control of the situation and that he would come out on top, it led to both of their demise. For Iago jealousy played on the trust he developed in his relationship with Othello and whether Othello would believe him. However even though Othello did believe and trust Iago, Shakespeare still shows us that jealousy destroys relationships and consumes the mind.
My psychoanalysis of “Othello” has given me a new understanding of the play for a different perspective from what I would normally view it from. Iago and Othello both had major flaws in their characters which ultimately lead to their demise. Iago couldn’t control his id, which meant he was always acting on impulse without control of the superego and there was only a matter of time before he slipped up. Then Othello never resolving his oedipal complex meant someone like Iago could easily manipulate and mentally corrupt him. Both these characters have shown us as readers how we need to be well rounded people so we are not as easily susceptible to jealousy, and the effects this has if we are not.