What is Othello Syndrome?

Instructor: Bryan Cowing

Bryan is a freelance writer who specializes in literature. He has worked as an English instructor, editor and writer for the past 10 years.

''Othello'' is a play written by William Shakespeare. In this lesson, we will take a look at some of the parallels between a condition called 'Othello syndrome' and the behavior of the main character of the play.

That Green-Eyed Monster

Most of us who have been in a relationship have felt the uncomfortable twinge of jealousy. Sometimes the jealousy is warranted, other times it's irrational. Most people can take a step back and realize that their mind is going over-board, but some people are overcome by it.

In William Shakespeare's Othello, the main character is tricked into thinking his wife had an affair. He is overwhelmed with jealous rage and kills her. In real life, Othello syndrome refers to a person experiencing illogical and unfounded rage. Also called morbid or delusional jealousy, this is a psychiatric disorder exhibiting obsession, delusion, violent tendencies, and is often (but not always) associated with a mental illness.

A person who suffers from such jealousy shares much in common with Othello. Let's take a look at several examples of Othello's unreasonable obsession to help explain why the Othello syndrome was named after him.

The Cause of Othello's Jealousy

Cases of Othello syndrome are usually related to the idea of mental health problems. For Othello, it is hard to say if he had any issues with mental stability. One of the stereotypes about people of color at the time of the play was that they were passionate and easily given to fits of anger and lust. So Shakespeare could be playing on that stereotype to set up the play. Though, by looking at how Othello's jealousy started, we can see that he was manipulated by the cunning Iago rather than simply mentally ill. This outside trickery is the true cause of Othello's jealousy, and so is one of the main differences from the syndrome.

The very first example we see of Othello's jealousy is in Act 3, scene 3, when Cassio hurries away from Desdemona as Othello approaches. The ever-scheming Iago says 'Ha! I like not that.' When Othello hears this, he questions Iago, asking 'Was not that Cassio parted from my wife?' Iago responds by telling him that it can not possibly be Cassio who was sneaking away from his wife in such a manner. This is the very first spark of jealousy that later rages into a destructive blaze.

Later, in the same scene, Iago pretends to not want to talk of the subject any more. Finally, when Othello is pretty much begging Iago to tell him what he is thinking, Iago says 'The man who / knows his wife is cheating on him is happy, because at / least he isn't friends with the man she's sleeping with.'

Othello still rejects the suggestion that his wife is unfaithful until Iago reminds Othello that his wife lied to her own father in order to pursue a relationship with him. With this, Othello descends deeper into unfounded jealousy.

Obsession and Violence

One of the other aspects of Othello Syndrome is an obsession about a partner's perceived sexual infidelity. We see Othello's obsession begin in act 3 scene 3 when he says 'I had been happy if the general camp, / Pioneers and all, had tasted her sweet body, / So I had nothing known.' In other words, Othello is saying that he would not have cared if his wife had slept with the entire military company as long as he did not know. Now he feels that he will never be at peace because his mind will obsess over his jealousy. Othello seems to realize that he is going off the deep end when he says 'Farewell the tranquil mind! Farewell content!'

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