Shakespeare Shrink : inside the fevered minds of ‘Othello’

Portland Center Stage enlists psychologist Barbara Hort to help actors understand the PTSD, sociopathy, and codependency of their characters.

chris and barbara

Barbara Hort and Chris Coleman pose for Nikki Coble.

It pays to maintain a few friendships outside your field. Just ask Chris Coleman, artistic director of Portland Center Stage, about his friend Dr. Barbara Hort, a Jungian psychologist who—when she’s not busy seeing clients and running FarmHill Equestrian Center—becomes Coleman’s go-to for psych insights about his plays’ characters.

Hort recounts how their collaboration began in 2012 while Coleman was directing Sweeney Todd. “He took me to what he called ‘lunch and an ambush,'” she says. The “ambush” part was asking her, out of the blue, to decode Sweeney’s fractured psyche. “Why would he say, ‘I’m alive again and filled with joy,’ just before a murder spree?” Coleman had wondered. Why, indeed.

Hort, of course, had a few theories—which led to conversations with actors, further consultation and collaboration, and eventually admission into the guarded sanctum of the PCS rehearsal room. She gradually assumed a unique role as Coleman’s “psycho-dramaturg,” participating in the development of not just Sweeney Todd, but later Clybourne Park, JAW, and Fiddler on the Roof. Now she turns her talents to an especially fraught script: Othello, Shakespeare’s ultimate case study of sociopathy.


Daver Morrison plays an emotionally war-wounded Othello.
Image by Patrick Weishampel

For uninitiated or rusty Othello readers, a quick primer: Othello, a decorated war general and a black foreigner in Venice (specifically, a Moor), elopes with young white Venetian native Desdemona. Meanwhile, Othello’s closest counsellor, Iago, is secretly plotting against him…and this guy is a piece of work, with no moral qualms. To undermine Othello, Iago’s perfectly willing to destroy any other characters within arms’ reach. The story unfolds as Iago’s human chess game: He frames Desdemona for cheating, which drives Othello mad; he coaxes the alcoholic Cassio off the wagon, causing Cassio to lose his job; he goads Desdemona’s spurned former suitor Roderigo into a fight with Cassio while bilking him out of money; and he coaxes his own wife and Desdemona’s handmaiden, Emilia, to steal and plant evidence—specifically, a handkerchief—which, true to Shakespeare’s tragic form, ends in everyone’s doom. No wonder the PCS set frames Iago’s machinations within a labyrinthine, MC Escher-esque design. No one but the depraved social engineer himself can navigate the ins and outs of Iago’s twisted plan.


Hort meets me in the PCS mezzanine just prior to a rehearsal she’ll attend. I’ve just read two essays she’s prepared on Othello, Mining or Declining the Treasure of the Unconscious Mind: A Cautionary Tale from Othello, and Iago as Prodigy and Predator: Profiling the Seductive Sociopath. She makes quite a few fascinating assertions, especially in the latter, where:

  • The character Iago is a textbook sociopath. He’s incapable of empathy, and his only motivations are power and amusement.
  • Iago is also ahead of his time. People of Elizabethan times were unaware of the subconscious as such, misattributing its impulses to demonic possession, madness, or a sinful nature. Iago’s recognition of unconscious thought in others predates Freud’s and Jung’s epiphanies, putting this character at the forefront of psychological insight. Of course, since he is fictitious, his creator Shakespeare is the actual prodigy.

I ask Hort, “So…is now the time for sociopaths? Or…when is? If ever?”

I realize as I say it that I’ve conflated two separate thoughts, but something in Hort’s tone has encouraged such an overlap. In Seductive Sociopath, she seems to modernize and glorify the trait:

“The most successful sociopaths are masterful seducers, which makes their campaign of exploitation all the more irresistible to us, especially when we are not among their victims. Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lector, Bryan Cranston’s Walter White, Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock, Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh and Raul Silva, and nearly every potent vampire in that bloody canon — such characters both terrify and tantalize us with their combination of heartless omnipotence and uncanny allure.”

But perhaps this question, right off the bat, is another “ambush.” Hort pulls back and laughs.

“We can assume that sociopaths, psychopaths, and narcissists have always been among us, all the way back to Caligula—what was he, if not a psychopath? Shakespeare was just able to see that people were what they knew they were, and they were also what they didn’t know they were. And he knew he knew. His characters sometimes share that knowledge. Hamlet suffers with it, Richard III is rendered psychotic by the end of that play, and Iago, as I’ve said, is very aware. Shakespeare doesn’t kill him at the end of the play, interestingly….

“It’s important to note that just because someone has that consciousness, doesn’t mean they’ll exploit it. Someone who has feelings can still acknowledge a dark side. It’s only those who leverage their understanding to win and amuse themselves whom the rest of us must watch out for.”

Okay, I propose an exercise. Can we pretend that Hort is counselling each of Othello’s characters—the characters, now, not the actors—and tell them what to do in their given situations?

“Well, I wouldn’t tell them what to do,” she replies. “It would be more like asking them a series of questions to help them discover their own true feelings, what we call the ‘shadow self.’”

“Okay. Say I’m Othello. What would you tell me to—I mean, what questions would you ask me?”

“Okay, we can do that. It’s important to note that a psychologist maintains the approach that every client is fighting a great battle. There’s no judgment; you’re on the client’s side. When we pass negative judgment on a client, it’s a situation called ‘negative countertransference,’ and it ruins the therapeutic relationship. It’s just important to note that.”

“Sure. I am Othello. What do you ask me?”

Therapist’s Notes:


Othello is a tragically recognizable type. A lot of men are socialized to feel little more than joy and anger—which, by the way, is classified by some psychologist terms as a reaction to emotions, and not an emotion itself.  I would ask Othello , “What combination of the five primary emotions are fueling your anger?”

1.  affinity/love
2.  sadness/grief
3.  fear/terror
4.  surprise/shock
5.  guilt/shame

Men like Othello are forced out of their mid-brains and into their more primitive brain functions, in a cycle of hunger and satiation. In complex situations, they’re lost, they’re at sea. As a soldier, spending a lot of his time in tough, warlike, survivor mode, and having suddenly come into this romance where he can be vulnerable and sweet…it’s a tough transition.
His seizure-like symptoms are typical for PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder]. They call it “epilepsy” in the play, but it’s probably a flashback, so I would ask him what he knows about the feelings and images that trigger his “fits.”  I might also ask him what he admires and trusts about Iago, to help him identify whether Iago is really serving Othello’s needs…or his own.


Tell me what you love about Othello. What do you see in him as a warrior? How is he with you in peacetime versus what you imagine he’s like in wartime?” I’d invite her to look at both of his potentials. “What triggers his ‘dog of war’ side? What makes him a great general? He’s willing to kill to defend his turf, right?” I would try to tiptoe around to get her to realize what he might do when [what he perceives as] his personal property [his wife] is threatened. Obviously there’s a danger there.


Yeah. She’s actually a very complicated character. She’s been with Iago a long time, so her defenses are up more. I might ask, “What do you love most about Iago? And what might you change about him?” I’d try to get to her real feelings: fear, shame, disgust, sadness, love, surprise…. Sometimes people end up making better decisions when they open their eyes and look at the landscape they’re actually in.


He’s young! He idealizes Desdemona, even though from the story we’re not sure if he even knows her. There’s a phenomenon called “splitting” associated with this situation, wherein when we fall in love, we idealize the object of our love, and then we get angry with them when we discover that they’re not perfect…hence our skyrocketing divorce and abuse rates…. Poor Roderigo is willing to lay his life on the line for an ideal, not a person. I would ask, “Why do you adore Desdemona? Where do you see these traits in yourself?” because he’s projecting his best characteristics onto her. That would reduce her power. I’d also ask, of course, “What’s so wonderful about Iago?” because Roderigo abdicates [his power to Iago] a lot, poor guy.


Cassio’s got a drinking problem, and he knows he has one. He has a “one is too many, and 1,000 are not enough” orientation to alcohol. He says that if he had as many mouths as Hydra, they couldn’t be quenched. He’s very concerned, too, with his own righteousness. I’d say he has an addiction to perfection. I might ask him, “Make a list of traits you don’t like about yourself,” then ask him to reframe them more positively. If he says, “I’m lazy,” reframe that as “relaxed.” or if he says, “I’m hot-tempered,” say he has spirit. “Stuck up?” “High ideals.” Often the addict is a seeker, looking for something larger than ourselves. A quest for sweetness in life becomes an addiction to sugar. For spirituality, it becomes spirits. There’s a Buddhist saying about “worshipping the finger that’s pointing at the moon rather than the moon.” Maybe Cassio’s true calling is as a monk rather than a soldier.

[The Dreaded] Iago

Iago would never come for counseling at all, unless he was trying to learn new techniques for manipulation and winning. He might be a better case for my husband, who has worked in the prison system, basically training people how to behave in ways that don’t hurt other people. But you couldn’t instill the same nuance of feeling that other people have. This is the appeal of that TV show Dexter or even The Sopranos—trying to use therapy to change a sociopath’s behavior to be more pro-social.

But sociopathy isn’t an either/or…there’s a continuum. And there is a place, or a use, for such a temperament in society, especially in war. MacArthur, Patton, and Rommel were probably all a bit sociopathic. Everyone has a place in this world. He’s obviously a master strategist, and considering how often people call him “honest Iago,” it seems that he must tell a lot of truths [mixed in with the lies].

Well…our hour is up, and soon Hort is due at rehearsal. And I guess I leave our session with an assignment: see Othello, and report how it makes me feel.


Othello is currently in previews and runs April 11-May 11 at Portland Center Stage ‘s Gerding Theater Mainstage.

A. L. Adams also writes the monthly column Art Walkin’  for  The Portland Mercury, and is  former arts editor of Portland Monthly magazine. Read more from Adams: Oregon ArtsWatch | The Portland Mercury
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