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Shakespeare's "Othello": Madness Through Jealousy, the Tragedy of Othello's Misguided Love for Desdemona

Pam McElprang is obsessed with writing, all things history, and her new corgi, Nigel. Find her on Twitter @PamMcElprang

Shakespeare's Othello and the tragedy surrounding it

Shakespeare's Othello and the tragedy surrounding it

Othello's Descent Into Madness

From a psychological perspective, Othello’s tragic descent into madness prompted by jealousy and his love for Desdemona can be analyzed as to whether or not Othello was in control of his own reality or whether Iago, with his mastermind-like plans, managed to skew Othello’s reality to the point that his actions are solely responsible for the dramatic body count by the final Act of the play.

Othello “is not a play or character to which one has a passive reaction; Iago’s medicine works upon us in ways from which we cannot seem to inoculate ourselves. Our sight is poisoned by something that we never see, long before we even know what it is we thought we were seeking” (Newstok, 29). Shakespeare’s tragedy is offset by the power Iago holds over the audience, as his plan is, from the beginning, out in full view. The audience knows what Iago plans for Othello and what that must mean for Desdemona, but the audience is incapable of stopping the tragedy.

Even more, “in our worrying what might possibly count as proof, itself a preoccupation of Othello’s, Iago has uncannily produced in us an occupational hazard: ‘the quest for material origins’” (Newstok, 29). The problem with Othello is that too much is at work that the audience is aware of—so the tragic descent into madness that Othello spins into is not a surprise. In fact, the true surprise of the play is that Othello becomes so swept up in his passion for Desdemona that he is literally unable to comprehend that she might just be telling the truth.

Psychological Parallels

In looking at Shakespeare’s tragic love story, certain parallels can be drawn to psychology, which, “like humoral theory, has been largely hesitant to appraise the most esteemed of human passions, love, in any terms other than symptomatic ones. That is, both discourses might be characterized as treating love somewhat suspiciously, in almost wholly affective terms” (Trevor, 87).

The hesitancy here, is to commit Othello’s love for Desdemona to one simple explanation, where there might be many instead. First, Othello loves Desdemona with a passion so great that he is unable to think or reason, which signals not only his loss of reality, but also that he is capable of being controlled by that passion. In this respect, Othello can almost be said to have high-school love for Desdemona, the kind where sixteen-year-olds find themselves in love and are willing to kill their own parents to be together. There is no reason remaining, and really, there is no real love. In this type of passion there is only blind obsession for the other, there is no reason or thinking ability.

Secondly, Othello and Desdemona’s love is easily tamperable. Othello might love Desdemona with every speck of his human soul, but he does not trust her, and thus, Iago is able to create a foothold within their love which will allow him to destroy both characters. Again, this is not an example of true love—for true love is inescapable, unable to be defined or destroyed by another. And always, there is a complete cohesion of trust between both parties.

Iago's Dark Plans

Shakespeare used Iago in a unique fashion in Othello, allowing him to have soliloquy’s that explain his entire plot to the audience. This in itself is not a unique literary device, however, but it is in the first Act that Iago’s soliloquy occurs. Thus, from the essential starting point, the audience is clearly aware of the events about to transpire and Iago’s dark plans for all characters within his path. Indeed, Iago is set up as the antagonist from the very first lines of the play where he cites that “were I the Moor I would not be Iago/In following him I follow but myself/Heaven is my judge, not I for love and duty” (Act I, scene I, lines 57-59), roughly meaning that he does not follow Othello out of love or duty for his superior officer. Further, any plans that he might have involving Othello’s future Iago feels no remorse for, knowing that heaven will be his judge, but he can act without compromise now. He is in full control and Othello is just a means to an end. He goes on to say that “but seeming so for my peculiar end/For when my outward action doth demonstrate/The native act and figure of my heart/In compliment extern, ’tis not long after/But I will wear my heart upon my sleeve/For daws to peck at. I am not what I am” (lns 60-65). As the audience is about to find out, Iago suspects Othello of being with his wife, Emilia, and as things stand, Iago also holds a personal grudge towards Othello, due to Othello’s appointment of Cassio to lieutenant. It seems, from this moment on, that Iago has made his decision to destroy Othello at all costs. He does not even take a moment to consider the possible ramifications for completing such a plot. Even more, he considers Othello a foolish opponent, one he can crush without much thought or delay.

As the plot itself unfolds, the malevolent actions of Iago come to pass and his quest to destroy Othello and Desdemona reaches a conclusion. The body count by the end of the play is the true tragedy, as every death could have been avoided had Othello simply took a moment to listen to reason instead of falling into a deception based upon lies. Even more, his love for Desdemona should have been enough, and her protestations of innocence should have been more than enough; but, for Othello, it is the word of his back-stabbing friend that he trusts most of all—and a handkerchief that made its way from the chastity of Desdemona’s hands into the evil-intentioned hands of Iago—the handkerchief in Cassio’s room that is all the proof that Othello needs to exact his revenge upon his clearly unfaithful wife. From this point, he understands that there is no future for him or Desdemona, as an unfaithful wife is the greatest of all sins.

Othello's Tipping Point / Descent into Madness

Othello’s ultimate descent into madness is tempered by his final soliloquy in which he says that “then must you speak/Of one that loved not wisely but too well/Of one not easily jealous but, being wrought/Perplexed in the extreme; of one whose hand/Like the base Indian, threw a pearl away/Richer than all his tribe; of one whose subdued eyes/Albeit unused to the melting mood/Drop tears as fast as the Arabian trees/Their medicinable gum” (Act V, scene II, lns 352-360). In this, Othello finds a calmness never seen before in his passion for Desdemona. He feels guilt at his actions, and yet, he finds peace in what he must now do. He has been utterly destroyed by Iago, yet he is willing to make amends, spiritually, for everything that has passed.

Then he moves on to his former glory, saying that “and say besides that in Aleppo once/Where a malignant and a turbaned Turk/Beat a Venetian and traduced the state/I took by th’ throat the circumcised dog/And smote him thus” (lns 361–365). Othello was a powerful military force in his time, and he goes down with that ideal in his mind—that he was once a great hero, even though he was brought down by an unsuspected hand. In his last words, Othello’s madness finds a certain clarity as he realizes that the only evil left to destroy is himself, which he swiftly takes care of.

In this, Othello becomes a martyr. The audience knew from the beginning that this man would be destroyed by the actions of the play, but his demise is a thoughtful one, signaling a change in the tragedy. Even though he takes his own life, there is a peace to be had in the end. And, despite the bodies piled up around him when he takes his final breaths, Othello does manage to regain a bit of his former hero-self. In a way, he is redeemed.

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Truth in Human Emotions: The Love was Never Real

To analyze Othello is to understand the inner-workings of human emotions. Mainly, incomprehensible love powered by jealousy and mistrust. Indeed, “jealousy is a Darwinian adaptation and therefore was associated with reproductive success in the past because of the potential costs of being cuckolded (for males) or abandoned (for females) in ancestral environments” (Seto, 79). For Iago, this aspect of Othello’s emotions makes the game he has set up even easier to play out. Jealousy is Iago’s main goal, and Othello is insecure enough in his love and relationship with Desdemona that he is willing to believe anything that Iago says about her, without compromise. Even more, “jealousy can be understood as an emotion that motivates behavior when the fidelity or commitment of one’s partner appears to be threatened” (79). In Othello’s case, his only motivator is jealousy. Every action that he takes is powered by the dark emotion and insecurity that he has become swept up in.

Furthermore, “jealousy can also be viewed as an indication of the value that the jealous person places on a relationship. In fact…jealousy may sometimes be evoked to test a partner's commitment” (Seto, 79). Indeed, Iago invokes Othello’s jealousy as a way to set his malevolent plan into motion. For Othello, this means that his relationship will be tested by how clever Iago’s threats about Desdemona’s fidelity are. In this case, Othello is willing to believe anyone except the protesting Desdemona, even when his jealousy peaks and he is holding a pillow over her face, ready to smother her for her adulterous behavior.

In truth, Desdemona and Othello possess a transcendent love that bypasses race, but the question must be asked: “what makes something worth loving? And when something is worth loving, what is the difference between loving it well and loving it badly?” (Callan, 525). Ideally, finding a love, or a soul mate, should have an impacting effect on a person’s life, to be sure. However, finding love should never be a matter of the tragedy and drama that Desdemona and Othello share. Their love, while worthy of a love ballad, is not the sort that a little girl dreams of someday. Their love is tragic from every angle, exposed by its tragedy to the machinations of evil intentions. Their love, while heart-pounding and gut-wrenching, was never meant to last simply because there was never a level of trust. And, without trust, true love cannot exist—and it was this crack in the passion between Othello and Desdemona that Iago was able to compromise.

Other Tragic Heroes and their Victims

The “difference between Othello and Shakespeare’s other jealous husbands—Leontes, Claudio, Posthumus, Master Ford—is the far greater depth and intensity of Othello’s love for his wife. What is interesting is that of all Shakespeare’s jealous husbands, the one who is black is the one who wins most sympathy and admiration, not only from all those around him, but also from audiences” (Vanita, 341). Indeed, “Othello’s blackness does not diminish his power over his wife. Paradoxically, social prejudice against him results in an outcasting of Desdemona which isolates her even more than other wives and places her more completely at her husband’s mercy” (341). Race, of course, is one of the major themes within Othello—but it is one that is so widely discussed that, it seems, critics have forgotten about the deeper theme of their transcendent love which results in the tragedy itself.

Another aspect that separates this tragedy from the others is that the “murder of [the] wife is different from many other kinds of murder (for example, those represented in…Macbeth) insofar as the victim is more definitely placed in the murderer’s power” (Vanita, 341). In Macbeth, King Duncan never stands a chance against the virile and prophecy-driven Macbeth, who sees, because of the three witches, that the king is the only thing standing in his way from taking the throne. He is righteous in his cause, backed by prophecy and the ambitions of his wife, Lady Macbeth, and thus, cannot fail.

However, in Othello, Desdemona is fully within Othello’s mercy. He comes into their room, where she has been in bed waiting for him, and gives her a few last moments to plead her case. But, he is not really listening, for, the more she protests, the more he feels it is his duty to destroy her for her unfaithfulness. Even further, in comparing the tragic deaths to those in, for example, Macbeth, Iago serves as the same plot function as do the three witches who foresee the power that Macbeth will one day attain and set events into motion which not only make their forecast come true, but also, much like Iago does with Othello, destroys Macbeth’s very foundation and sends him into a tailspin of madness that he is unable to return from. In this, Othello and Macbeth are literally the same character, played by an outside force who had more to gain by their destruction than their happiness.

Overall, from a psychological perspective, Othello’s tragic descent into madness prompted by jealousy and his love for Desdemona can be analyzed as to whether or not Othello was in control of his own reality or whether Iago, with his mastermind-like plans, managed to skew Othello’s reality to the point that his actions are solely responsible for the dramatic body count by the final Act of the play. In the end, it has become clear that Iago, like the three witches in Macbeth, had ultimate control over Othello’s actions, knowing how and when to pull the trigger that would set Othello off into a rage that would destroy every character within his path.


Callan, Eamonn. “Love, Idolatry and Patriotism.” Social Theory and Practice 32.4 (2006): 525+.

Newstok, Scott L. “Touch of Shakespeare: Welles Unmoors Othello.” Shakespeare Bulletin 23.1 (2005): 29+.

Seto, Michael C. “The Dangerous Passion: Why Jealousy Is as Necessary as Love and Sex.” Archives of Sexual Behavior 32.1 (2003): 79+.

Shakespeare, William. The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. Germaine Greer, ed. London: HarperCollins, 1994.

Trevor, Douglas. “Love, Humoralism and ‘Soft’ Psychoanalysis.” Shakespeare Studies 33 (2005): 87+.

Vanita, Ruth. “‘Proper’ Men and ‘Fallen’ Women: The Unprotectedness of Wives in Othello.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 32.4 (1994): 341+.

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