Volume 64, Number 3
The Burdens of Mind Reading in Shakespeare’s Othello: A Cognitive and Psychoanalytic Approach to Iago’s Theory of Mind
Critics have generally agreed that Iago’s power over Othello stems from his exquisite attunement to Othello’s temperament. Iago’s evil seems to reside in his talent for what cognitive theorists would describe as “mind reading,” the relative ability to access imaginatively another’s mental world and, in Iago’s case, to cruelly manipulate that world. Inversely proportional to Iago’s mind reading ability would be the mind-blindness or metacognitive deficits of Othello, who seems too obtuse and closed off from others to fathom Iago’s unimaginable designs. This essay attempts to integrate a cognitive and psychoanalytic approach to understanding Iago’s character: if theory of mind helps us to understand Iago’s hyperattunement to others (as well as his problems with self-attribution), psychoanalytic theory helps us to assess the manner in which Iago works through his theory of mind impairments.
“Iago’s Theory of Mind”: A Response to Paul Cefalu
Paul Cefalu argues that cognitive analysis needs to be supplemented by a psychoanalytic approach in order to furnish a more fully “critical hermeneutic for understanding Iago’s intractable self-deceptions.” His conclusion about the limitations of a cognitive approach might be pushed even further. The basic idea of Theory of Mind, that our species possesses the capacity (and existential need) to infer intention, has been generally understood for centuries; why then do we require cognitive analysis to make the point, even in the form only of an “opening critical gambit”? In his main argument, Cefalu teases out the meaning of Iago’s actions in terms of an underlying masochism bordering on the death drive. The claims here seem to me breathtakingly compelling on their own terms, but the terms themselves deserve some critical scrutiny. Cefalu’s concentration on Iago overwhelms all other objects of interest in the play. In this respect, he goes with the flow of both critical and theatrical practice, which has for so long been Iago-centric that we may not realize that it was not ever thus. What are we getting out of a production of the play, the main effect of which is to burden its audience with a guilt that cannot be expiated?
“If it be love indeed”: Transference, Love, and Anthony and Cleopatra
“Love” is a term too often deployed in an insufficiently examined way. As such, it turns out to be remarkably vague—in fact, confused. Bringing the harder-edged psychoanalytic notion of transference love to bear upon the relatively fuzzy notion of “true love” can help to clarify some of this confusion, placing pressure upon the essential nature of what we call “love.” In particular, the concept of transference love highlights some of the complexities surrounding the ideas of genuineness (rather than, say, performance or fakeness), constancy or stability (rather than infidelity or promiscuity), and uniqueness (rather than repetition or substitutability). Both Shakespeare (in Anthony and Cleopatra) and Freud (in his gradual working out of the idea of transference) engage in a keen interrogation of what love is, how it may be inflected through repetition, what forms its ambivalence takes, and whether it can be said to exist in the absence of (re)enactment. For Freud, in the end, what we call “love” is haunted by transference love; conversely, transference love is the very condition of what we call true love. This essay suggests that Anthony and Cleopatra undoes the apparent opposition between Freud’s echte Liebe and Ersatzliebe. Both Shakespeare’s play and Freud’s comprehension of transference offer a paradoxical perspective that transcends the divide between genuineness and (mere) make-believe, between emotion and (mere) performance, between faithfulness and fungibility, between psychic fixity and mobility, and between chance (or haphazardness) and choice (or careful arrangement).
Shakespeare as Rorschach: A Response to David Hillman
This essay takes up the analogy of Shakespeare’s plays to “particularly powerful Rorschach blots,” as David Hillman writes, in order to revisit the value of psychoanalysis for understanding works of the imagination. Like Rorschach’s inkblots, Shakespeare’s works seem radically open to interpretation. In the legendary projective test devised by Hermann Rorschach (1884–1922), we can see parallels to literary criticism generally, which at its most basic encourages creativity in order to learn from and about imaginative works. Discussing such plays as A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Merry Wives of Windsor, Henry V, Hamlet, and Macbeth, “Shakespeare as Rorschach” argues that the elements of a projective evaluation would have been fully explicable in a Renaissance context. Yet if the history of the inkblot test charts the rise and decline of psychoanalysis, a discourse-centered discipline, its susceptibility to caricature also anticipates the weakening authority of literary criticism, which has increasingly turned from what we cannot see—such as the workings of the unconscious and social class—to that which can be measured and graphed. A turn to the pragmatism of science, surface reading, and a largely rational understanding of human activity thus imperils one of our richest languages for explaining human creativity.
Knots and Questions: A Response to David Hillman
Anthony and Cleopatra opens with what seems in retrospect, as the drama of the play unfolds, the statement of a theme. It is a play, as David Hillman’s wonderfully illuminating essay makes clear, that has so much to say about the unreliability of description, and the instability of definition; about how people change by remaining the same. The play keeps showing us that we, like the characters in the play, are tempted to jump to conclusions about who people are, and what they want, and how they mean what they say, and that we need to wonder what we are doing when we do this.
“That map which deep impression bears”: Lucrece and the Anatomy of Shakespeare’s Sympathy
In Shakespeare’s Rape of Lucrece, the audience’s sense of Lucrece’s consent concludes her ordeal, both within the poem and as a method of political and critical response. This essay suggests that Shakespeare turns away from consent as a legal and political remedy for Lucrece’s sorrow and turns to sympathy to imagine both his protagonist’s plight and the formal possibilities of his poem. By treating Lucrece’s ordeal as a search for sympathy, Shakespeare casts himself among her audience, an audience whose impulses and desires might not be authorized by Lucrece herself. Shakespeare formalizes this uncertainty in the relationship between tears and marble in his poem, practicing a poetics of “impression” that argues for the ethical priority of receptive observation over prescriptive voyeurism in the experience of sympathy. Ultimately, the ethics of sympathy that Shakespeare discovers in his poem constrains the politics of consent with which the poem ends and questions Shakespeare’s own capacity to speak for Lucrece. However, Shakespeare discovers a realm where his poetic voice is defined by sensitive observation, as opposed to the celebration of poetic virtuosity. The essays also considers Milton’s recognition of Shakespeare’s poetry of “deep impression” as a new model of reckoning poetic power.