Shakespearean Jealousy

William Shakespeare was an English poet, playwright, widely agreed to be the greatest writer in the English language, and considered the world’s greatest dramatist. Shakespeare wrote many comedies and histories but his well enounce works stem in the genre of tragedies, with among them being Othello. Othello is a play that revolves around the Moor, Othello, and his unfaithful officer, Iago. Othello consists of a variety of themes from racism to love, jealousy, betrayal, and even to revenge. The theme of jealousy is not only found in Othello but in many of Shakespeare’s work as he seemed to investigate and indulge in the psychoanalytic critical theory of personality within his characters. Psychoanalytic critical theory, stemming from Sigmund Freud, is the study of personality development in which one’s personality is formed through conflicts. These conflicts can revolve around the three fundamental structures of the human mind: the id, ego, and superego (Boundless). When Shakespeare looks into his own characters in his works, specifically Othello, each character’s root of jealousy stems from one of the structures of the human mind.

Breaking down the three fundamental structures of the human mind involved in the psychoanalytic critical theory of personality, each of the three works together to keep a good psychological balance. The id, the most primitive of the three structures, is concerned with the instant gratification of the mind’s basic physical needs and urges. The id operates entirely unconsciously (outside of one’s conscious thought). For example, if one’s id was to get annoyed with a stranger, it would most likely take any action it would like to get rid of the annoying stranger itself. It does not know, nor care, if what it does is rude or illegal to get rid of the annoying stranger; it would only care that one was annoyed (Boundless).

Next, the superego is concerned with one’s social rules and morals; in relation to what many people call their “conscience” or their “moral compass”. Many individuals’ superego develops as a child as one learns what their culture considers right and wrong. If one’s superego was annoyed with the same stranger, it would not take action to get rid of them because it would know that that would be rude. However, if both the id and the superego were involved at the same time, and the id was strong enough to override the superego, one would still get rid of the annoying stranger, but the feeling of guilt and shame may result afterwards (Boundless).

Lastly, contrasting with id and superego, the ego is the rational part of one’s mind and personality. It is less primitive than the id and is partly conscious and partly unconscious. This is what Freud considered to be the “self,” as its job is to balance the demands of the id and superego in the most practical and rational way. If one was annoyed with the same stranger one more time, the ego would mediate the conflict between the id and superego to decide to just leave the situation and get away from the stranger. While this may not be what one desired as they may have wanted to stay where they are, which frustrates the id, the ego decides to make this sacrifice as part of the compromise to avoid any feelings of shame and guilt (Boundless).

After breaking down Freud’s psychoanalytic critical theory of personality, it is now easier to take it to Shakespeare’s Othello and understand where and what it has to do with the characters and the central point of jealousy. Jealousy is one of the most ambiguous emotions because it contains hate and love; perhaps for this reason it has been notoriously difficult to define and analyze (Yates). In Othello, one of the most prominent characters to exhibit jealousy is Iago, the Moor’s unfaithful officer. Iago wants to seek revenge on another character, Cassio, because he is jealous of him for being appointed lieutenant, but also Othello because Othello overlooked Iago for the position. Iago also develops jealousy when he believes that Othello has slept with his wife. Due to Iago’s jealousy, he manipulates Othello so that he thinks Cassio and his wife, Desdemona, are having an affair. This choice of action of Iago’s shows that his mind is fixed around his id, as he does not care about the consequences of his actions such as hurting others. He also does not feel shame or guilt for this manipulation on Othello, therefore his id coming to light once more and overpowering his superego.

However, Othello, growing more jealousy as he receives more “evidence” of the affair and decides to kill his wife, very much shows shame and guilt at the end of the play. Othello’s final speech shows his character’s greatness as he declares he may serve his position well, but he does not want that to cover what he did or blame anybody else. When he explains why he killed his wife, Othello says that he “loved not wisely, but too well” (Shakespeare V.II.344), meaning because he loved Desdemona so much, he let his jealousy blind him but made it clear it is not excusing himself from what he did. Othello is seemed to run by his superego rather than arguably his ego, as his id is stronger than his superego but does not mean he feels no compassion for his wrong mistakes. If Othello’s mind was ran by his ego, he would of not been blinded by his jealousy and therefore would not have acted out against Desdemona and murder her.

A study from Mark Breitenberg has observed a lack of a viable cause in this typical feature of Shakespeare’s jealousy plays. The most horrifying and bewildering aspect of Othello is that its main protagonist does not hesitate to swerve so quickly from the role of a loving husband into a murderer. Looking to another one of Shakespeare’s works, the jealousy that grips the character Leontes in The Winter’s Tale, has been described by critics as “essentially unexplained”, and indeed “almost miraculous”. As stated, there seems to be no exact causes of jealousy in Shakespeare’s time, Breitenberg along with some writers on this subject, seem to agree that jealousy in the time was a very strange but inordinate passion among many (Nordlund). It seems Shakespeare took this notion of “passion”, and put it in his dramatized play and tragedies as his way of getting himself and the audience to understand this emotion. Iago and Othello are great characters to understand jealousy as their jealousy stems from two different mind structures and reasons, but both at the same time are very vibrant due to their passion; Iago’s passion against Othello for not being chosen as lieutenant and Othello’s passion against Desdemona for possibly having an affair when he loves her so much.

While the psychological reasoning and cause of jealousy is unknown in where and why Shakespeare incorporates it so much in his plays, actor David Suchet, who played the role of Iago for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1985, suggests in his 1988 essay that this character’s somewhat obscure motivation to do evil originates in his reactions to the other characters in the play and not just his general jealousy. The psychoanalysis Edward A. Snow’s study of Othello showed a different time of jealousy present in the play and that is sexual jealousy. Snow asserts that in a male-dominated social order, Othello’s superego emotions of guilt and desire are the feelings that become manifest in his violent and jealous rage toward his wife (“Jealousy”).

Acknowledging that sexual jealousy is also a central theme of the play, nevertheless, Millicent Bell asserts that this act of sexual jealousy is actually used as device by Shakespeare to emphasize the reliance and distrust of the characters relationships; this shows to the audience the reasons and purposes of why the plots in the play work and lay out the way they do. Maybe this could be the answer Breitenberg was looking for in his study as it has often been pointed out that in Shakespeare’s works, the purpose of the word ‘jealous’ could also denote a more general state of watchfulness or fearfulness of losing one’s love object to a rival.

Millicent Bell goes into more detail in his own work, titled Shakespeare’s Tragic Skepticism, where he asserts a claim that sexual jealousy can cause hallucinations in the main protagonist as seen in many of Shakespeare’s works. For Othello, this would be indulged in his characteristics of seeing what is not there and writhing before the inner vision of his wife’s betrayal. Bell describes sexual jealousy to have the ability to make virtual what words have only suggested and to make one, like Othello, witness the scene he has been described in such detail it can be confused to be real. This would explain why Othello’s superego and id could not be overwritten by his ego to reason with the situation and maybe not believe everything Iago says without question and hesitation.

However, if this be true, it would contrast with the overall psychoanalytic critical theory of personality by Freud as it asserts the id is the most primitive mind structure and could not be overwritten by the superego without the ego. This makes Othello an even more interesting and dynamic character and why Othello is such a success and still read today.

With so many topics and connections covered, the overall take away in terms of the central theme of jealousy, Othello, and the psychoanalytic critical theory of personality is that logic and reasoning can always be applied to every work read especially in terms of Shakespeare. When reading Othello, it may be difficult to understand and interpret but if one can understand the makeup of the theme and characters, it is much easier to get into the feelings and atmosphere of the play. Without getting into the mind of Iago, his actions may seem unreasonable and cruel, but getting into his mind shows the reader the root of his actions coming from pure jealousy, and same goes for Iago.

The ability to understand the sexual jealousy central in the play is also helpful in understanding the play as the actions of secondary characters such as Roderigo, Cassio, and even Desdemona are more reasonable as Roderigo wanted to be the only one with affect towards Desdemona which in the end gets his killed. Looking through the lens of Freud’s theory and at Othello, pointing out which character is run by which mind structure is very noticeable and makes the purpose and meaning of Shakespeare’s work visible: jealousy can poison a true love and have consequences when letting an unfounded obsession dominate one’s actions.