By | January 30, 2008 27 Comments

Iagoism: Or, passive aggression is still aggression

In Shakespeare’s Othello, perhaps the most unwatchable/watchable play there is, Othello murders his wife Desdemona believing as he does that she has cheated on him with Casio. It’s an awful business; for one thing, she’s entirely innocent. How does it come about that noble Othello’s moral vision is so entirely clouded that he commits this heinous act?

Well, he needed some help in breaking that terrible taboo. The help comes from Iago who subtly poisons Othello’s mind. Two questions emerge: How does Iago do it and why? Let’s start with the second question first.

Why does Iago destroy Othello (and Desdemona too, let’s not forget)?
This question has puzzled scholars through the ages. Iago has been passed over for promotion: is that the motive? Iago is a racist and Othello is a dark Moor? Is that it? Perhaps Iago is unconsciously attracted to Desdemona? Alternatively, there is a rumour that Othello slept with Iago’s wife, Emelia (at least Iago claims there is such a rumour):

I hate the Moor,
And it is thought abroad that ‘twixt my sheets
He’s done my office. I know not if’t be true
But I, for mere suspicion in that kind
Will do as if for surety.

In other words, any excuse will do. Iago intends to destroy Othello – reasons can come later. Now who behaves like this if not the psychopath? They say that the dingo – an Australian wild dog – must kill every day, whether it is hungry or not. The psychopath must destroy – reasons are superfluous when there is the drive to do evil (title of Liane Leedom’s forthcoming book).

How does Iago destroy Othello’s moral mind?
He does this first through a campaign of misleading and then by a perfect paramoralism.

The campaign
Iago works on Othello to make him suspicious of Desdemona and Cassio. Desdemona drops a handkerchief that was Othello’s first gift to her, and Emilia obtains this for Iago, who has asked her to steal it, having decided to plant it in Cassio’s lodgings as evidence of Cassio and Desdemona’s affair. Emilia is unaware of what Iago plans to do with the handkerchief. After he has planted the handkerchief, Iago tells Othello to hide, and goads Cassio on to talk about his affair with his mistress Bianca, but since Bianca’s name is not mentioned Othello thinks that Cassio refers to Desdemona.
The paramoralism
A paramoralism is a statement which, under the guise of moral speech, serves to undemine the moral thinking of the other person. Iago’s is a single, perfect word: ‘Lie–‘.

Hath he said any thing?

He hath, my lord; but be you well assured,
No more than he’ll unswear.

What hath he said?

‘Faith, that he did–I know not what he did.

What? what?


It is the merest suggestion – Othello’s mind does the rest.

With her?

With her, on her; what you will.

Lie with her! lie on her! We say lie on her, when
they belie her. Lie with her! that’s fulsome.
confess, and be hanged for his labour;–first, to be
hanged, and then to confess.–I tremble at it.
Nature would not invest herself in such shadowing
passion without some instruction. It is not words
that shake me thus. Pish! Noses, ears, and lips.
–Is’t possible?–Confess–handkerchief!–O devil!–

Falls in a trance

Passive aggression is still aggression
Readers have written movingly and bravely about some of the gross, overt abuse and neglect of psychopaths. Do you have an account of this kind of more subtle, roundabout means by which the psychopath gets another to do his destructive bidding?

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Hi Dr. Steve,

I always had a hard time with Shakespeare but I might have a general example.

After about 1/2 a year with the Bad Man, I recognized that he likely told people things about me very selectively and out of context so that he could get a reaction out of them that he wanted. Then, he could come back and tell me “my friends say X about you. They can’t believe you would do X.”

A real example was some kind of crisis happened to him at work and he told people that I “left a good man in his darkest hour” and that his “crew” couldn’t believe I didn’t stand by him. Perhaps they did say that, I will never know. But if they did, I suspect he forgot to mention that when I did rush to his side and ask what happened and what could I do and is everything okay? His answer was, “You don’t even know. You didn’t ask the right questions. X knows. She is a better woman than you.” This was accompanied by drunkeness and covering his head with a pillow like he was 5 years old. It was the strangest thing I had ever seen. It was also the first time I saw him drunk. I had no idea what was going on. He was acting so distraught and so bizarre that I thought maybe one of his children had died. It turned out that there was just a minor boat accident at work. It was ridiculous.

He also nearly swayed a friend against me once after just a brief conversation. He convinced my friend for about 5 minutes that maybe I was a dishonest “cheesy” girl. Luckily, my friend snapped out of it and ultimately, he was the person that helped me to escape the situation in the end.

Does this answer your question? I will admit I had a hard time understanding the Shakespeare dialog. Anyone else?


Oh Lordy, I think this is one of my husband’s specialties. He is so good at manipulating others to do his bidding and they don’t even know what’s happening.

A for instance is (and I hope I can succintly tell the story), middle of December I unexpectedly dropped by the house he was–and still is–staying. Now, mind you, at the time, he was saying he wanted to come home, he was not going to have relationships with other women while we were separated.

Anyway, I got to the house and there was a large Christmas decal, said “Happy Holidays” attached to his bedroom window by a little clear plastic suction cup. The decoration was facing the inside of his bedroom, for him to read, not to the outside, the way you’d usually attach such a thing.

I knew he’d been seeing a woman from AA at the time, so when he came outside I asked if this woman gave him the decal. He said, no, that his roommate “B” bought it for him. In fact he told me that B put it up on his bedroom window.

I knew he was lying. I said guys don’t buy shit like that. Plus I knew his roommate was hard up for money. I said unless he’s gay, which he’s not, there is no way he would have bought this.

Husband was adament–as always. What a liar.

Later that day, his roommate called me and told me he did buy the decal, that he picked it up for 99cents.

I have no doubt he was lying, lying to cover for my husband. Husband is so convincing, making himself look like the victim, probably told B that he bought the decal himself and I’m giving him such a hard time, and B just picked the ball up and ran without having to be directly asked.

One of my daughters pointed this out to me. She said my husband doesn’t even have to ask people to lie. He tells them his sob story and they offer to do it for him; they think they’re doing a good deed for this poor hapless innocent fellow.

In the 19 years I’ve known my husband he has never ever bought so much as a single Christmas decoration and I’m sure B never has either.

And then, two days later I dropped by again and this time the decal was facing the outside. That was interesting. Why would he have done that if he was so innocent?

Two days after that, it was gone altogether (which I realized by detective work that he had had a different woman over; so of course he would have to get rid of the decal. No other woman is going to believe he or B bought it either, give me a break ).

There are so many other examples of similar machinations, I could go on for hours.

He is having an endoscopy soon (today in fact) and he said he wanted me to take him so I could ask him any question I wanted while he was under effects of anesthesia, it would be like truth serum and he couldn’t lie even if he wanted to (geez, don’t you think they’d give this stuff to criminal defendants if this were the case).

Anyway, I told him I don’t need to ask him anything under any kind of truth serum because I already know the truth, and i was pissed at the implication that he is an innocent man wrongly accused.

A few days later he called my 32 year old son and left a message that his mom (me) obviously wasn’t really interested in knowing the truth).

Then he called me to apologize for having done so because obviously, he said, my son would naturally take my side.

He is a f%^$&ng manipulator, it’s unbelievable.

He’s done similar things with my friends, all under the guise of being sincere and concerned about me.


Of course a lot of people would believe him because he sounds so concerned and plays the act of devoted husband so well and he has that warm voice and deep brown eyes, why he is almost a super-hero. He’s a nurse and a ski patroller and a used-to-be firefighter and he shows everyone pictures of his family and he used to call me 5 times a day (which now I realize accomplished two things: fooled them and fooled me), and he’s doing all these things and saying all these things that make it look like he really wants to come home when it is all a manipulation solely for the purpose of making it LOOK like he wants to come home so he can carry on with his original scheme of leaving me for another woman and no one knowing the truth.


And then of course if I try to explain all this to anyone other than those who are family or very close friends, I end up sounding like the crazy one.

They have no idea what these people are like, they have no idea that these monsters can appear so angelic. No matter what I say, they’ll say things like, well, if he didn’t tell you that your brakes were completely shot, he probably just forgot or he probably figured you’d realize on your own. Or they’ll say they still believe that he really loves me and wants to come home. They’ll even say they think I must still want him!!!!!!

The husband of a dear friend thinks this way, my friend told me last night, and I told her it is just so frustrating to not have people believe me. No matter the mountain of evidence, they want to automatically opt for the innocent explanation because, like most normal people, they can’t imagine anyone being so devious.

They apply their own way of thinking to others, and assume others think the same way.

And I do understand that, because even having lived with this man for so many years and having finally discovered the truth, even seeing with eyes fully open for the first time, seeing how over the phone he can tell me he adores me all the while he is looking at his girlfriend sitting in her parked car down the street, even despite all this I still cannot completely get my head around the way he is.

I will never completely “get” it. I just can’t. I’m unable to understand how anyone can be so indifferent to another person’s pain.


the dialogue was difficult for me too.

i have had someone threaten me with telling lies to destroy my reputation and make people think badly of me or to get them to side with him against me. it happened many times because it was my father. once someone pointed out to me that his lies were so absurd no one with any sense would believe them anyway.

definitely if he had done something wrong he would do this to turn the tables on me so he wouldn’t get in trouble. it is amazing that people took his side against mine. i also think that they pick stupider/spineless types to try this maneuver on. otherwise it wouldn’t work.


He was a master at Iagoisms. A master. And he’d be proud to tell you so, too. I’ve been debating about posting anything since I read this earlier today. It’s still very painful in many ways. I actually took part in his Iagoisms, much to my own chagrin. Just when I think I’m over the whole thing, something swings around and knocks me out. That’s been happening all week.

After I found that he was involved with someone other than me, I told him we were through and wished him well. That simply would not do! He still adored me! I’d done soooo much for him, after all. I was special beyond belief! In truth, my specialness had more to do with my credit limit than the things that are actually special about me, but I wanted to believe him when he said he needed me in his life, that he wanted us to remain friends forever because after all, he was still separated from his current wife and it was too soon to commit to anything, so he NEEDED to date around (and sleep around) to be sure I was The Right One. So what did he do? He proceeded to develop relationships with other girls and put them in touch with me, his Very Best Friend. Oh, I was certainly the willing victim. He actually let me warn them that the competition for his attention was fierce and that they’d have to do everything he said when he said it if they expected to even have a remote shot at him. Then he’d get angry with me for hurting his dates and frightening them because I was ruining his life! He was using me to gain further power over his considerable harem while I thought I was actually warning them. Of course, I was to be punished and screamed at for telling girls that he would control their entire lives, even though he was the one GIVING THEM MY CELL PHONE NUMBER. And I played along for months, deliberately blinding myself to the actual circumstances, believing that he just might come back to me because I was His Special Girl. I shudder to think of my own behavior and the ways in which I was a very willing victim AND perpetrator at the same time. I’m not a terribly religious person in my adulthood, but I hope that if there is some sort of God and final judgment, that there will be mercy for my soul.


Dr. Steve,

I love what you said about getting away from the puzzle of trying to understand the Sociopath/Psychopath. Powerful. He did what he did because that is what they do. (Sounds like I am paraphrasing from a recent ML Gallagher post.)

Now, I look at who I am and why did I do that to myself.. or allowed that. Anytime we are trying to fix someone else, we are off track.

I just work on me now. If I see someone other than me that needs work… I feel TIRED. No can do!

That’s a good thing. I am happy with that. :o)



I think passive violence can be as much devastating as physical violence. Sociopaths can act and say things that can be as painful as a punch in the face. My ex is a compulsive buyer and this drove him to a financial mess. I was warning him about his spending habits and he use to call me “the cheap lady”. When he started asking me for money to pay his debts and I refused, he started doing his passive violence. I remember one episode when he decided to punish me with a cold Christmas. He was ignoring us (me and my daughters) during the all Christmas. Around dinner time he decided to go out and made me and my daughters wait for him for almost three hours for dinner. When he returned home and I confronted him he coldly told me that he had his financial problems and was not in a mood to enjoy dinners with me and my daughters, and that he went out to have fresh air and to look for some friends to help him to go through that hard moment of his life, because I refused to do so. After dinner I gave him his gift… he looked sarcastically to me, received the gift and said nothing not even a thank you… left and went to sleep. I was crying like crazy. That behaviour hit me more than a rock in the face. It was the saddest Christmas of my life.


Pitanga. I had the Christmas before last ruined by my ex. He said he was coming over for dinner. I bought dinner, presents and really went to town to make it all nice, then, on Christmas Eve, he said he had to work Christmas Day and couldnt make it. I ended up taking the presents back on Christmas Eve. They know how to scupper the ‘special days’. Im rid of him now and dont have to waste any more energy trying to work out what was up to.

When I parted from him, physically I felt so raw and sore, I looked like I had been in a boxing ring. My health was poor and I couldnt even have the osteopath touch me, I said I felt like I had been stabbed all over. All though he never laid a finger on me, he gave me plenty of mental and emotional abuse. I still feel angry with him for keeping secret the fact that he had a personality disorder. He said he had difficulty in keeping girlfriends – now I know why!


alohatraveller – I so relate to your “tired” feeling – in relation to others who need work. I said so many times, I felt so worn out trying to date my S. It took so much mental energy to figure out what was being done/said and trying to interpret it all each day. I have been away from my S for close to a month now – but it has affected my health and mental health enough that I come home from work and just sleep or watch tv and I think it is a period of hibernation to lick my wounds. I have a stress test on my heart Monday – I ended up having chest pains constantly in the end.. and I dont know if its Him or if its really something wrong but I have a feeling its 2 years of being TIRED and worn to a pulp emotionally by his wordy games.


yes i felt physically sick for sometime after, i lost a lot of weight didnt enjoy food at all much. he on the other hand was out the very night he moved out, with his mate. i did not feel like going anywhere for some weeks at least . also i saw a phone bill of his and he was calling friends girls most of them the very next days after he left and probably before that too. like he was rounding up the troops to see who was next. spoiling special days: we always called each other for our birthdays even since we broke up, but this last birthday i didnt hear a thing, it was new years eve, my birthday, so when i didnt hear from him i called to say happy new year. and i said you couldnt call me for my birthday? he said he was busy, he was at a birthday party for the daughter of a woman he was obsessed with and trying to be with, she rejected him and is pregnant to another man by the way, but he went to the party and didnt even bother to call me to say happy birthday. very nice. i felt terrible and thought why did i bother to do it for him on his birthday. but i did feel good when i found out the other woman had rejected him and was pregnant to another man wha t a blow for my ex. karma! does anyone think karma comes back to the s paths sometimes i see little things that make me think it does.


Dr. Steve:

I would so much appreciate a forthcoming post about physical consequences or PTSD of an association with a Sociopath. Nearly 5 months hence, and past the “why” and figuring out the “puzzle” (identifying him as a sociopath and doing intensive investigation/research as to who he really is and what he has done), there is still a lot of emotional pain. I find myself in a high state of anxiety and barely functional, although typically I am high functioning. I cannot say I “loved” the sociopath more than any other man, but trusted him implicitly, and the deep sense of hurt and betrayal are sometimes overwhelming and debilitating. It affects one to the core of their being, causing one to question everything, including oneself. I also now have major trust issues (and so do my children). Thank you.


i thought of another one. not my dad but my x.

my x either had no dignity and no shame. an example of that would be when my x went into blockbuster and said that one video was “niggerific” to two total strangers.

meanwhile other people do have dignity and a sense of shame and embarrassment. frankly everyday i was not up to fighting him in public and telling him off for every abnormal thing that he said and did. when i did tell him or stand up to him he didn’t care anyway.

i don’t know how to explain how sometimes he would get me to do what he wanted. sometimes i would be desperate for advice and he would just give me the worst advice imaginable. i didn’t know any better because i was lost as it was. sometimes he would just order me around. it was intimidating for one thing but i also remember he would preach about loyalty and how i should listen to him and that his girl needs to stand by him and there was definitely a lot of that.


dr steve, sleep loss is another big thing ive experienced since this s path during and after i still have trouble sometimes sleeping, like my mind will not shut off. and during being with the s apth i was trying to work out what the hell was going on and trying to work things ou in my head stopped me from sleeping well. which makes your head even more clouded. i would also say my s path had some weird physical things going on too. he had restless leg syndrome, was engrossed in stupid tv shows that most adults would not like and made funny little grunting noises while eating, he was also obsessed with super man. very child like a lot of these things i thought when you put them all to gether he also had weird twitches on his face sometimes too. also he would get very giggly and highly strung when he was in a good mood, maybe something happens during development . these things he did also made me think somethings not right with this guy, i mean apart from all the other bad things he did. i work with kids and i saw a lot of things kids do in his ways and habbits. does anyone else see things like this or is there any factual evidence about them being developmentally delayed or something to make them so childlike and have other health problems like the twitches ect.


I never read Othello, but it sounds like it was told by a 3rd all-knowing person….someone who knew how all the lies and manipulation led to the tragic ending. For most of us who have been in relationships with sociopaths, we don’t have the benefit of knowing all that has been said and done to hurt us. I know that certain people who were once friendly to me….neighbors, family and friends of my ex are no longer friendly, I know that when my son was in counseling his counselor made the comment that I too had done “bad” things in my marriage…when I honestly did not, but this counselor would not elaborate on what. I know he lies and I can only assume by other people’s reactions that he continually lies about me.
Five years ago, my oldest child was ten. I was invited to go out. I put my three younger children to bed by 9:00 pm and allowed my oldest son to stay up with the babysitter to watch a movie that he had picked out at the video store. My son was excited for the night. He liked the babysitter, looked forward to the movie, and liked the fact that he got to stay up. I left at 9:00 pm and was back by 11:30. When I got back, my son was gone. The babysitter said he talked to his dad on the phone and then his dad came and picked him up. I tried calling my ex, but he would not answer. I called the police to report that my son was taken. The police man put me on hold and came back to say that my ex and my ten year old son had come into the police station earlier that night. He said my son had called him in tears because his mother had “once” again left him to go out. He told the police that my son said he was afraid and wanted his dad to come get him. My ex told the police he picked my son up for his own well-being. He anticipated that I would call and he wanted the police to know the “true” story. The police then told me that this was an issue of the family court and that they would not intervene. When I checked with the babysitter, she said my ex called my son(not the other way around). My son was not crying or scared in any way, and he told the sitter that his dad said he had to go over his house.
I thought this was very manipulative…the message to me from my ex was…you go out, I’ll take the kids and cause you trouble. No one will believe you. I will make you out to be the bad mother.


Dr Steve
Talking about physical consequences of being around bad stuff for seven years in my case, I don’t know if this applies but there is one thing that makes me think is the fact that my blood pressure got so much better. I used to have high blood pressure during the last four years with him. Since I left him for almost six months I don’t even need to take medication and I’m sleeping so much better these days.

Ox Drover

Years ago when my children were young we lived in a really nice neighborhood where it was like the old TV show “Happy Days” all the mothers looked after all the herd of little kids between the ages of 4 and 9 that roamed from house to house in the summer time.

We did have problems with one kid though (her mother shoved her out the door in the morning for the rest of the mothers to watch) This chihld was always causing problems in the group of kids. Her way of doing it was “Let’s you and him fight” or “hey, Joe, throw rocks at Sam”

She never actually “did” any of the bad things, but she got the other kids to do them for her . Since there was always chaos when this girl was around and her her mother didn’t participate in our “neighborhood” caretaking, we all got together and decided to ground HER. We explained to our children that they could no longer play with “Susie” and why. Then we told them that they had to stay in the yards of one of our houses, not play in the dead end street—so when Susie would come over, the mother whose yard it was would tell her that she was “grounded” for her behavior and must go home for two weeks. Of course she had no one to play with at home and her mother didn’t want her there messing up the house, so we ended up being successful with this child in stopping her passive aggressive and chaotic behavior, which by the time it had progressed to the rock-throwing stage and stitches was smore than any of the other mothers wanted to have going on. Fortunately, her parents moved not long after that.

Since the rest of the neighborhood mom’s all pretty much agreed on what was acceptable beahvor in the group of kids and made sure that it was taken care of on the spot, our kids had a great place to grow up.

The psychopath’s ability to cause pain and chaos in our lives with a subtle ability to start a smear campaign cannot be over estimated. Most people don’t believe that such “evil” (for lack of abetter word) people really do exist who will do “things like that” for no motive that makes sense to anyone except a psychopath. A “normal” person has a difficult time accepting the “real” truth about a psychopath. Their ability to turn people against their victim is uncany. It destroys lives, reputations, and companies, and even whole countries. Iago is a perfect example of a psychopath and Othello is a perfect example of someone who is duped by the psychopath.

sea storm

I truly love the play “Othello”. There is no easy answer to why Iago kills Desdemona and Othello. Envy is prominent in his disordered mind and I can grasp that.
The genius of this play to me is how Shakespeare shows how the subtle manipulation of information and events can destroy a life. All these powerful, smart, successful people are manipulated so slickly. They are oblivious to his machinations but the outcome is orchestrated to destroy lives and we get a front row seat to how all the characters work for Iago. He does not have to do it all himself.

It is such a brilliant play. I can’t think of anywhere else where the psychopath is revealed so clearly. We walk away wondering why???????? After my years of personal experience I would say envy, personal gain and for the sheer fun of it. He got to put one over on the great Othello.

This was no easy con but he acted out his evil with such
finesse. An intelligent sociopath or psychopath is a predator who is a wonder to behold. Too bad his brilliance is hell bent on destruction.

sea storm

Oh…….. I went back and saw that your question was “why did Othello let his vision be so clouded that he did not believe in Desdemona?”

Because he loved her passionately and he was vulnerable. He was led to believe that she did not love him and he could not stand it. You have to love Othello for that even if he did go psycho and kill poor old Desdemona. He was led like a lamb to the slaughter. Being an honorable and brave man himself, he could not believe that others were liars. This is the plight of the man of conscience.

Dr. Hare says that ANYONE can be fooled by a psychopath. God help the people who get in the cross-hares.

Ox Drover

QUOTE SEA STORM: “An intelligent sociopath or psychopath is a predator who is a wonder to behold. Too bad his brilliance is hell bent on destruction. ”

Well said, sea storm….very well said. They are “interesting” at least, but if you are the target or the duped minion, they can ruin your life

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