A psychoanalytical approach to Othello

A psychoanalytical critic would focus on the inner realms which propel a character to act in a certain way. Following the theories of Freud, they might pay attention to what dreams reveal about the hidden reality within.

Iago’s quest for influence

Powerless to enable his own promotion (and economic security), mistrusting his ability to command the affections of his wife, Iago spends the entire drama seeking to compensate for this vulnerability by exerting influence. Shakespeare presents him as a creature of the shadows who shies away from exposure, the puppet-master who does not wish to be seen himself.
In one sense, Iago can be considered complex, having a host of reasons for which to be resentful and bitter. As well as his being overlooked career-wise, we wonder what has caused his unhealthy attitude towards sex, illuminated from the start by his description of Othello and Desdemona’s elopement in bestial and degrading terms. In another sense, his single-minded goal of ‘serving but himself’ is very simple. He adopts whatever persona serves his purposes to destroy his colleagues. The audience witnesses the reality of his nature only when he addresses Emilia with no one else to overhear or when he soliloquizes. 
Iago is clear-sighted enough to perceive that his enemies have redeeming features: 
The Moor – howbe’t that I endure him not – 
Is of a constant, loving, noble nature,
 (Act 2 Scene 1)     
but that does not impinge on his implacable desire to bring them down. Yet, like any villain, Iago justifies his behaviour, desiring the audience’s collusion and understanding – seeking, in fact, to manipulate us:
And what’s he then that says I play the villain,
When this advice is free I give, and honest,
(Act 2 Scene 3)     

Insecurity and failure

Iago shows self-awareness to a degree, in that he admits of his rival: 
Cassio .. hath a daily beauty in his life
That makes me ugly;  (Act 5 Scene 1)     
Iago exhibits here a sense of inferiority, yet he does not seem to grasp the power of the moral qualities that he lacks but which elevate others. 
Ultimately he is trapped by his own machinations, needing to kill simply to stop the finger pointing at him (as well as to retain his ill-gotten gains). Though starting as the manipulator of others’ thoughts and feelings, he ends as a slave of the outcomes which he himself engineered. In psychoanalytical terms, he can be seen as a victim of the turbulent emotions within him.
When he is finally exposed and all his plans have been thwarted, he takes refuge in a petty, childish refusal to confess or even speak of his crimes. There seems to be no redemption open to him. 

The significance of dreams

After outlining his plans to engineer the officers’ brawl in Act 2 Scene 3, Iago refers to it as a ‘dream’, which will allow his ‘boat’ to sail ‘freely, both with wind and stream.’ The imagery speaks of a desire to proceed smoothly onwards and (presumably) upwards in society, dependant on his skill to navigate opportunity, rather than be thwarted by the ‘glass ceiling’ of class.
Iago uses to his own ends the idea, common in Shakespeare’s day, that dreams display a reality kept otherwise hidden. He reports to Othello that Cassio supposedly revealed his lust for Desdemona in his sleep. Othello is only too ready to believe that ‘this denoted a foregone conclusion’ (Act 3 Scene 1). Substance is given to the significance of dreams when Brabantio admits that Desdemona’s flight is ‘not unlike my dream: / Belief of it oppresses me already.’
Desdemona also has a premonition (rather than a dream): 
Good faith! how foolish are our minds!     
If I do die before thee, prithee, shroud me
In one of those same sheets. (Act 4 Scene 3)
Along with the sad song Willow, which ‘Will not go from [her] mind’, a modern psychoanalyst would read these as the psyche’s warnings that Othello will prove to be Desdemona’s doom. It is ironic that neither she nor her father act on their (correct) premonitions, yet Othello proceeds all too violently on the basis of a false dream.
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