Melissa Dibene Westbrook
9 May 2018
The conscious and unconscious minds in Othello
Psychoanalysis is an effective technique of exploring repressed or unconscious impulses and anxieties, as well as internal conflict. This technique can often be quite effective when used on the characters in various fictional texts, such as Shakespeare’s, Othello. The psychoanalytical theory is a particularly illuminating approach to the play Othello. We can gain a much greater understanding of the characters, the ways their ‘minds’ work, and the effect their thought patterns have on the themes portrayed in the play.
Psychoanalysis is defined as a set of psychological theories and therapeutic techniques that have their origin in the work and theories of Sigmund Freud. The core idea at the center of psychoanalysis is the belief that all people possess unconscious thoughts, feelings, desires, and memories (Cherry). Sigmund Freud was the founder of psychoanalysis (McLeod). He was an Australian neurologist, who considered himself a scientist first before a Doctor (McLeod). Freud married Martha Bernays and had six children (McLeod). The youngest Anna Freud became a psychoanalyst like her father(McLeod). Sigmund Freud died in 1939, London England by suicide (McLeod). Sigmund Freud was 83 years old at the time of his death (McLeod). Freud work is viewed with skepticism today(McLeod). This skepticism results from Freud’s theories and observations of clinical cases and case studies (McLeod). Two of Freud’s famous case studies where that of Dora, Little Hans, and Anno O (McLeod). Those case studies had a significant influence on his development of psychoanalytic theory (McLeod). These case studies consist of the researcher studying the person so closely they gain insight into the person’s history and how it contributes to the behavior of the individual (McLeod). Freud work from these case studies is considered skeptical because each person has a different history. Thus, making it hard to generalize the results (McLeod). However, Freud’s theory did have a big impact on society: it has changed how we think about the human mind and behavior.
Sigmund Freud believed the human mind was composed of three elements: the id, the ego, and the superego (McLeod). These three elements are part of a person’s personality. “Id is the unconscious primitive impulse that leads to immediate gratification such as the need for air, and hunger” (Collins). This impulse wants whatever feels good regardless of the circumstances. Freud believed it was based on our pleasure principle (Freuds). The second aspect of personality is known as ego (McLeod). This part of the personality is the control aspect. This personality is what helps people interact with society, know as socially and behaviorally acceptable behavior(Freuds). For example, it is not socially acceptable to pick your nose, the ego forces us to engage in socially acceptable behavior that restricts us from picking our nose. Which is why some adults don’t pick their nose in public and children do. Children are still learning socially appropriate behavior. The final aspect of the personality is the superego. This personality contains our ideas and values. This would be categorized as our morals. We develop and learn our values and ideas from our parents/guardians and our contact with society (Freuds). This is what shapes each individual. Although you may have grown up with the same influences as your siblings, it is possible to have different morals and values based on your experience with society and influences around you.
Sigmund Freud created a model of the mind which he separated into three sections (The mind unleashed). The first the conscious mind, subconscious and unconscious mind. These three sections of the mind make up a percentage of your brain capacity. The conscious 10%, subconscious 50-60%, unconscious 30-40% (The mind unleashed). Freud’s theories are hard to prove scientifically, Freud’s has paved a way for psychoanalysis everywhere. Freud describes the conscious mind as the communication to the outside world and the inner speech through speech, pictures, physical movement, writing, and thought (Cherry). The conscious mind is what we as humans are aware of our actions and thoughts. The conscious mind is the boss of the operation. Continuing to the subconscious mind, it oversees our recent memories and communicates with our subconscious mind (The mind unleashed). The subconscious mind is made up of our memories and thoughts. Although not all memories are positive. The subconscious represses those memories that are no longer important to us or we consciously forget those memories(Freuds). The subconscious and unconscious mind are the labor works who report to the boss. This is how the three elements of our mind work together (The mind unleashed). Analyzing Othello, we can view how Iago manipulates each character through either conscious, subconscious, or unconscious mind.
Close examination and analyzes of the characters in Othello, we will be able to view in- depth the thought process that leads to the behavior of the character. We evaluate the different actions of the character, we will see the Antecedent, behavior, and consequence of the scene of the play. Antecedent the action before the behavior, the behavior is what happens after the action, and last is the consequence, what was the outcome of the situation. We will be able to identify the state of each character conscious, (aware of actions) unconscious, (not aware of actions) and subconscious (not fully aware of but influences one’s actions) state of mind (Cherry).
Reading Othello, we can see the relationship between Freud’s theory and the characters in the play. Iago, Amelia, and Desdemona represent id, ego, and superego. Each character influences Othello in their own way. The first personality Id is the one Iago represents. Iago is all about self-gratification. Iago will do whatever he needs to do to get self- gratification, he does not consider the consequences of his actions. Iago’s tells us of his manipulative plan:
Thus do I ever make my fool my purse.
For I mine own gained knowledge should profane
If I would time expend with such (a) snipe
But for my sport and profit. I hate the Moor,
And it is thought abroad that ‘twist my sheets
‘Has done my office. I know not if ‘t be true,
But I, for mere suspicion in that kind,
Will do as if for surety. He hold me well.
The better shall my purpose work on him (55.426-434).
Iago uses his manipulation to get money from this easily manipulated man, Rodrigo. Why else would he associate with this man other from his own gains? Iago knows there is a rumor that Othello slept with his wife. Although he doesn’t believe it, he still hates Othello. Othello believes Iago is a good honest man, “The Moor is a free and open nature that thinks men honest that seems to be so” (55.442-443). This works perfectly in Iago’s plan to manipulate Othello. Iago creates all this destruction for no other reason for fun and sport.
Iago relishes in the ability to stir up controversy and manipulate others; as he gains satisfaction from the misfortunes and pain of others. As Iago manipulates all the characters around him to gain what he wants, using his ability to subconsciously influence others It would be considered subconsciously influencing Othello because he did it in such a secretive way; Othello did not know he was being influenced. Iago subconsciously influences Othello into believing that Desdemona was unfaithful to him. Iago states, “The Moor already changes with my poison; Dangerous conceits are in their natures poisons” (141.373-374). Iago notices Othello demeanor changing towards his wife. Iago’s lies are beginning to work on the subconscious of Othello. The most influential piece of evidence would be Desdemona’s handkerchief. Iago plants the handkerchief in Cassio’s lodge. Iago does this for no reason other than self-gratification. As Freud’s theory of Id, Iago primal urge is to feel a sense of pleasure without considering the outcome of his behavior to others. Evaluating this scene, the Antecedent, the action before the behavior is the finding of the handkerchief, the behavior is a feeling of jealousy and the consequence is the distrust toward his wife. Iago was successful in triggering a behavior not characteristic of Othello by tapping into Othello’s sub-conscious.
The second personality ego, which is comparable to the character Emilia in Othello. Ego as Freud’s defines it is the balance between basic urges and reality (Heffner). Emilia is the balance and mediator between Iago and Desdemona. Although at the end of the play she is loyal to Desdemona. Emilia stats, “I must needs report the truth” (247.158). Emilia character remains the truthful conscious character. This balance Emilia plays is a hard line to follow. She wants to be loyal to both. When Desdemona drops her handkerchief, Emilia quickly picks it up and replies, “My wayward husband hath a hundred times wooded me to steal it” (137.336-337). She is pleasing her husband by giving him the handkerchief he has repeatedly asked for. Emilia is also concerned about Desdemona getting her handkerchief back. This is where you can see how this character’s balance correlates with Freud’s definition of ego personality. Emilia’s concern for the handkerchief so she tells Iago, “If it not be for some purpose of import, Giv’t me again. Poor lady, she’ll run mad when she shall lack it” (139.365-366). Emilia is telling her husband Iago, to give her the handkerchief back if he has no real importance for it. She warns him Desdemona will lose her mind looking for it. Iago ignores her, caring only about his self-gratification he gets out of manipulating people. Emilia very much aware of what she is doing, her classification of her mental state would be conscious. She is aware of the consequences of Desdemona not finding her handkerchief as much as she is conscious of how happy she is making her husband by bringing him the handkerchief. Freud’s description of ego is the balance between basic urges, ideals and reality (Heffner). Emilia is that balance in the play Othello. As we evaluate the Antecedent, behavior, and consequence; we can clearly see the antecedent was the picking up of the handkerchief, the behavior was handing over the handkerchief and the consequence is Desdemona no longer has her handkerchief.
The third element of the personality’s is superego. Superego is our ideas and values(Heffner). Some describe this personality as the Angel, the good, it strives to follow our moral compass. In Othello, Desdemona is the character that best represents the personality the superego. Throughout Othello, Desdemona has lived up to her morals. She has followed the orders of her husband Othello, she has been true to him. Desdemona shows compassion towards others trying to help Cassio get his position as Lieutenant back. Desdemona reassures Cassio, “If I do vow a friendship, I’ll perform it to the last article. My lord shall never rest: I’ll watch him tame him and talk him out of patience; Therefor be merry Cassio” (117.23-27). Desdemona promises Cassio she will not let Othello forget the how great of a Lieutenant Cassio is. Desdemona has conformed to what society expects of a woman. She is sweet, kind, loyal, obedient, and carries herself in such a manner that she attracts a lot of male attention. Although Desdemona is from a higher class than Othello, she does not look down on him. She does not see him as less than. She sees no color, just a noble loyal man. Desdemona is unconscious of what Iago is doing. She has no knowledge that her generosity and friendship towards Cassio plays a big role in Iago manipulating Othello into believing she is sleeping with Cassio. Desdemona has no reason to believe someone is out to hurt her and her marriage. She is viewed as the loyal, faithful, sweet angel, “Sweet Desdemona” (245.149) is what she is often called throughout the play. She is the opposite of Iago who is the representation of the personality element id. Id would be relatable to evil, one who cares only for one self, as superego would be compared to good and pure. Emilia, the conscious character can distinguish the evil in Iago and the good in Desdemona. Emilia, sees the purity in Desdemona and cries out, “she was heavenly true” (467). Emilia is referring to the cheating accusations her husband Iago lead Othello to believe. She is fully conscious of her husband’s evil doing and yells at Iago, “Villainy, villainy, villainy! I think upon’t. I think! I smell’t! O villainy! I thought so then, I’ll kill myself for grief! O villainy! Villainy (251. 226-230)! She calls her husband evil over and over. Emilia will kill herself out of grief. Emilia believes an angel has died and refers to Desdemona as an angel, “O the more angel” (245.161) as she cries out in pain. Throughout Othello, Desdemona has lived up to her morals. She has followed the orders of her husband Othello, she has been true to him. The personality of Desdemona is highlighted throughout the play. She is a true representation of what Freud’s would characterize superego to be. The ABC of this particular role Desdemona plays in behavior is the Antecedent is Cassio loses his position as Lieutenant. The behavior is Desdemona tries to convince Othello to give Cassio his position back and the consequence is Othello believes Desdemona had an affair with Cassio and ultimately kills Desdemona.
Further examination of the mind of the characters and how Iago was able to use manipulation to get self-gratification. Othello a black man who is not from the Venetian city has a highly respected position. Othello is referred to as the “Moor” (51.385) by Iago, his jealousy that Desdemona is in fact in love a black man. Othello has an unusual role, not many black men are viewed in such a manner that he is viewed. Othello portrayed as a strong, noble man has insecurities that lie deep in his subconscious mind. Othello views men as honest and transparent as he is. Othello states, “men should be what they seem” (127.147). This view and belief of other men are as honest and noble as he clouds his judgment of other men around him. Iago uses this to his advantage. He uses Othello’s insecurities to employ his evil and manipulate Othello to murder his wife. Iago manipulates not only Othello but Emilia, his wife. He uses her loyalty to him to exploit her spousal devotion. He tries to portray her as a disloyal spouse who sleeps around. At the end that is one thing, Iago failed to do. Emilia does not show any behaviors that make us think she is anything but a loyal wife. Iago’s manipulation of Desdemona although indirect is still manipulation. He exploits Desdemona’s natural nature to help others against her. Iago can control Desdemona through her character flaw of good will.
In conclusion, Sigmund Freud and William Shakespeare use incredibly similar ideas of personality through their theories and their characters. In the play, Othello, the characters Iago, Emilia and Desdemona each take a role as Id, Ego or Superego as they are manipulated by Iago. Each character’s personality has the same characteristics of Freud’s theory. Iago is also able to use the elements of the mind, conscious, subconscious, and unconcise to manipulate the characters. William Shakespeare and Sigmund Freud have many similar ideas of personality and mind of each character. Essentially- it is very interesting how similar they are.
Cherry, Kendra. “How Did Psychoanalysis Influence Psychology?” Verywell Mind, Verywellmind, www.verywellmind.com/what-is-psychoanalysis-2795246.
Freud, Sigmund, et al. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. (1901). Vintage, 2001.
Heffner, Dr. Christoper L. “Chapter 3: Section 5: Freud’s Structural and Topographical Model.” AllPsych, allpsych.com/psychology101/ego/.
“id.” Collins Thesaurus of the English Language – Complete and Unabridged 2nd Edition. 1995, 2002. HarperCollins Publishers 10 May. 2018
McLeod, Saul. “Saul McLeod.” Simply Psychology, Simply Psychology, 1 Jan. 1970, www.simplypsychology.org/psychoanalysis.html.
Shakespeare, William, et al. The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice. Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2009.
“The Conscious, Subconscious, And Unconscious Mind – How Does It All Work?” The Mind Unleashed, 6 Nov. 2014, themindunleashed.com/2014/03/