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American Imago 60.4 (2003) 481-499

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Psychoanalysis and the Problem of Evil:
Debating Othello in the Classroom

Barbara A. Schapiro

Since "evil" has become a term much in vogue in our current political climate, it seems ever more important to explore its psychic meanings and origins. What, first of all, do analysts and therapists mean by the word "evil"? The grandiosity of the term, as well as its traditionally religious connotations, perhaps make it unsuited to the therapeutic context. As Ruth Stein (2002) has commented, "'Evil' may sound too allegorical or too concrete, too essentialist or too objective for psychoanalytic ways of thinking that are oriented towards the study of individual subjectivity" (394). In an article entitled "Evil in the Mind of the Therapist" (2001), Robert Winer surveyed a number of practitioners and found a general consensus that "an evil person is someone who knowingly deeply hurts innocent people" (613). The emphasis here, he says, is on the "knowingly"—conscious deliberateness is key—as it is on the extremity of the hurt inflicted: "negating the other person's soul, . . . destruction as an end in itself" (613). Winer discusses how his own psychological engagement with a patient works against his ever seeing that patient as evil, "no matter how outrageous his crimes" (614). The social psychologist Roy Baumeister (1997) has observed that even serial killers never see themselves as evil but "regard themselves as victims" (47). Winer suggests that it is easier to experience characters in books and movies as evil because we know them only through their evil actions. Even so, he concludes, "Our inability to identify with a character we understand to be evil seems connected for me to our inability to acknowledge our own destructiveness" (621). [End Page 481]

Othello (1604) is a text that forces us to consider the nature and problem of evil, as well as the difficulty of acknowledging our own destructiveness. The play is also enjoying a sort of renascence in our present time, as several recent film and television adaptations attest. 1 The vexed questions that Othello raises, I believe, are particularly timely: How do we understand Iago, for instance, as a representation of evil? Is he a figure of irrational destructiveness for whom we can find no motivation, no understanding based on reason or cause? Does he suggest an instinctual basis of evil, a destructiveness intrinsic to the human psyche, as Freud or Melanie Klein would have it? Or should he be interpreted as inextricable from Othello and his anxieties about his race and Desdemona's love for him? Can Iago be interpreted as a projection of Othello's enraged but disavowed destructiveness, a destructiveness that is in fact rooted in the terrors of humiliation and disintegration that narcissistic injury and erotic dependency can arouse? This paper will consider these questions, along with various responses of students in my classroom, as they speak to current debates in the play, in psychoanalysis, and in our culture.

Critics have long pondered the issue of why Shakespeare deliberately stripped the Iago character of clear motives when he reconceived Giraldi Cinthio's original story from the Hecatommithi, a collection of tales printed in Italy in the sixteenth century. In Cinthio's story, the Iago figure, known as the Ensign, is himself passionately in love with Desdemona. He is also convinced that Desdemona is secretly in love with the Captain (Cassio), and thus the Ensign's wicked machinations are spurred by genuine sexual jealousy. Shakespeare removes this motive, mentions Othello's promotion of Cassio over Iago, and leaves only a few vague, passing references to possible sexual jealousy. Iago alludes twice to his suspicions that both Othello and Cassio may have slept with his wife: "I do suspect the lusty Moor / Hath leaped into my seat" (2.1.295-6); and only parenthetically, "(For I fear Cassio with my nightcap too)" (2.1.307). When Iago first refers to the rumor about Othello and his wife, however, he adds oddly, "I know not if it be true, / But I, for mere suspicion in that...


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