Evolutionary Psychology in the Humanities: Shakespeare’s Othello

| by Helen Pluckrose |

“We believe that works of art are shaped by our evolved human nature, by culture and by individual experience. We therefore distinguish ourselves from cultural constructivists who effectively give exclusive shaping power to culture. We give close attention to cross-cultural universals or regularities that derive from regularities in human nature but we also recognize the uniquely intense human capacity for culture.” (Boyd et al on the evolutionary psychological approach to literature. 2010. P3)

Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Othello: The Moor of Venice is a deeply psychological play concerned with questions of ambition, competition, jealousy and desire. I believe light can be shed on these questions of motivation by considering the play through evolutionary psychology. Evolutionary psychology has been undervalued in the humanities due to a reliance on what Jonathan Gottschall entitles the “liberationist paradigm;” a project of denaturalization which focuses solely on cultural constructionism. I will address some common criticisms of evolutionary psychology, and argue that its inclusion in literary criticism allows for a fuller exploration of the human subject and facilitates greater clarity in our identification and examination of social and historical forces.

In my reading of Othello, I will demonstrate how an understanding of the cognitive mechanisms underlying male intrasexual competition can inform our analysis of character and motivation. We will see that studies in evolutionary psychology provide evidence against the argument that race is of central importance to the character of Othello. Instead, an argument will be made that Othello and Iago represent dramatic extremes of two enduring behaviors whose conflicts over millions of years have shaped much of humanity’s theory of mind and moral emotions to the present day.

Evolutionary psychology is rooted in evolutionary biology and cognitive psychology. It reveals that many functions of the brain, evident in human perceptions and behaviour, are the result of mechanisms formed by natural selection. These are adaptations — evolved traits which helped our ancestors survive and reproduce — and include modes of communication, alliance formation, mating strategies and self-preservation. There is very little opposition to the idea that non-human animals display such behaviors but when scientists suggest that humans do too, they meet with resistance from the humanities.

The literary critic, Jonathan Gottschall, who advocates the use of evolutionary psychology, describes a “great project of denaturalization” beginning in the late 1960s which included literary scholars “who set out to show that anything considered natural — gender roles, sexual orientation, suites of attitudes, ideologies and norms — were actually the local, contingent and endlessly malleable product of specific social and historical forces” (2008 p4.) Gottschall includes much of post-structuralist, Marxist, postcolonial, new historical, queer and feminist theory in his “liberationist paradigm” (2008 p3.) Although there has been what he describes as a “mellowing with age,” he asserts that “buzzing rumors of the demise of Theory … are clearly premature” (p5.) In Evolution, Literature and Film: A Reader, edited by Gottschall with Brian Boyd and Joseph Carroll, the editors argue that even academics who consider themselves “post-theory” and work with empirical data have, in fact, internalized this “denaturalized” liberationist paradigm (Boyd et al, 2010. P2)

This has been my experience as a feminist both in praxis and in academic writing. My attempts to discuss evolutionary psychology have met with objections that it reduces people to biology, denies the importance of culture and justifies rigid gender roles that oppress women. These are misconceptions. For many in the humanities, culture and nature are dichotomous. For evolutionary psychologists, cultural variation is an important distinguishing characteristic of humans. As evolutionary biologist, E.O. Wilson, states, “No serious scholar would think that human behavior is controlled the way animal instinct is, without the intervention of culture” (1975 p98.) Others confuse evolutionary psychology with Social Darwinism but evolutionary psychology is not prescriptive. It seeks to understand why we think and behave the way we do. This is both interesting in itself, and helpful in addressing anti-social behaviors.

There is also a feeling that reading for “nature” will result in conclusions that all human behavior is natural but, as we will see in my reading of racism in Othello, evolutionary psychologists will often find no evidence that a behavior is natural, and instead find that it is culturally variable. For those of us who are more interested in the cultural and historical than the biological, being able to distinguish between these is enormously valuable, enabling a deeper understanding of historical and social forces at play.

However, studies in evolutionary psychology often do reveal that a behavior is adaptive and these behaviors can be gender-specific. I am often told by fellow feminists that acknowledging gender differences is misogynistic but there is nothing inherently sexist in acknowledging that humans, like all other mammals, have physical, cognitive and psychological gender differences on average. That feminists can assume that “gender difference” is synonymous with “female inferiority” may be evidence of culturally constructed internalized misogyny but it makes no sense biologically. As we will see, evolutionary psychology recognizes women as a vitally necessary half of a sexually reproducing species actively involved in shaping the other sex by sexual selection. Furthermore, evolutionary psychology recognizes variation among individuals, and that gender traits overlap considerably.

“Many psychological traits relevant to the public sphere, such as general intelligence, are the same on average for men and women… (G)eneralizations about a sex will always be untrue of many individuals. And notions like “proper role” and “natural place” are scientifically meaningless and give no grounds for restricting freedom” (Pinker.S. 2002. p340.)

Evolutionary psychology, by accepting both nature and culture, and recognizing variation among individuals, allows for a fuller and more flexible approach to social justice issues and literary theory than prevailing theories which focus solely on culture as structures that contain “privileged” and “oppressed” groups.

It could be argued that to look at Shakespeare using evolutionary psychology is anachronistic but I’d suggest that it is far more so to read him through the denaturalized liberationist paradigm. Even the most “progressive” Renaissance Humanists understood themselves as creatures made in the image of God with a common nature positioned between the beasts and the angels. This was a time when Englishmen sought to understand themselves by studying Old Testament Hebrews and Classical Greeks. Robin Wells criticizes New Historicists and Cultural Materialists including Belsey, Sinfield and Dollimore who assert that the idea of a common human nature appeared at the Enlightenment and make Shakespeare “in effect a postmodernist” (2005. P233.)

“The belief that Shakespeare and his contemporaries were radical anti-essentialists is not supported by historical evidence. Wherever you look in Elizabethan England, you find the same emphasis on the importance of understanding human nature” (p233.)

Various approaches to reading Shakespeare through evolutionary psychology have been essayed. Daniel Nettle analyses the themes of Twelfth Night and Richard III to demonstrate their explicability by evolutionary psychology. He argues that almost any Shakespeare play can be understood as “desires by different characters to maximize their biological fitness [likelihood of passing on their genes] by mating, status enhancement, coalition building or kinship nepotism” (2005 p324.) Elsewhere, he insists that “if we ask what themes would most interest a non-human primate, those are the themes most prominently featured in Shakespeare and indeed all literature” (in Wilson.D 2005 p121.) Michelle Sugiyama explores the benefits of looking at nature and culture in her re-evaluation of Laura Bohannan’s study into the very different interpretations of Hamlet by western audiences and the Tiv of West Africa. Sugiyama demonstrates common human concepts of justice, revenge, loyalty and the supernatural, read through different cultural maps, and finds no cognitive differences. In one example, she notes that “The Tiv do not lack the concept of revenge, rather, they have somewhat different rules for exacting it” (2003. p486.) Marcus Nordland’s analysis of sexual jealousy in Othello will be particularly useful to my broader analysis of the play.

Nettle’s “biological fitness” hypothesis is strongly borne out in Othello. Male intrasexual competition drives the plot from the first scene when Iago expresses his hatred for Othello for denying him the status of lieutenant he felt he deserved,

“I know my price, I am worth no worse a place:
But he; as loving his own pride and purposes
Evades them, with a bombast circumstance
Horribly stuffed with epithets of war” (1.1: 11-14)

and his emasculating contempt for the man who had obtained it,

“One Michael Cassio, a Florentine…
That never set a squadron in the field,
Nor the division of a battle knows
More than a spinster” (1.1: 19-23)

The primary motivation for the tragedy that will unfold is revealed to be competition for status, a male drive directly related to improving biological fitness by attracting mates. Iago makes the sexual competition explicit when he reveals his own desire for Desdemona and suspicion that Othello has slept with his wife,

“Now, I do love her too;
Not out of absolute lust …
But partly led to diet my revenge,
For that I do suspect the lusty Moor
Hath leap’d into my seat” (2.1: 278-283)

Iago’s primary aim is to displace Othello and Cassio, and improve his own status (and therefore his biological fitness). This requires the help of Roderigo.

“(A)cross the primate world a subordinate will usually require coalition partners to displace a dominant male. If they can be made to believe their fitness will be enhanced by the process, they will join” (Nettle.2010 p327.)

This is Roderigo’s sole motivation. Twice, Iago explicitly assures him that his assistance will result in sexual access to Desdemona with the promise that he will “enjoy” her. (1.3:348 & 4.2:256)

The play revolves around the conflicting desires of four men in competition to attain or keep status and mates, but do we need evolutionary psychology to tell us this? The themes of status, power, sex and competition for a woman valued for her youth and beauty are explicit. They could be addressed historically and also by prevailing theories.

Psychoanalysis might detect the masculine symbolic order and oedipal motivation in Iago. Feminism could argue that a patriarchal culture produces toxic masculinity and objectifies women, and Marxism might claim that the imbalance is the result of men controlling the means of production. They will all present us a with a male-focused assumption that power and status are objectively desirable, that men took them because they could, and then used them to oppress & objectify women who had no choice but to submit. In short, men’s roles in early modern society are formed by men and women’s roles in early modern society are formed by men.

However, “Adopting an evolutionary perspective enables us to build theories of literature and film not from near the end of the story but from the start, from the ground up. We can ask altogether new questions, and return to older questions with sharper eyes & surer hands” (Boyd et al. 2010 p3.) How did these behaviors emerge in the first place? What continues to drive them psychologically? Evolutionary psychology reveals a far more active and on-going female role. In his seminal study “The Evolution of Human Intrasexual Competition,” David Buss tested the hypothesis that

“(M)ate choice preferences exerted by one sex should influence the resources over which intrasexual competition occurs in the other sex. Under conditions of female choice, males are predicted to compete most strongly to display those characteristics and possess those resources that females value in their selections … [and] male choice should influence female-female competition in an analogous way.” (1988. 616.)

He finds that they do. Women compete more in youthfulness and attractiveness while men compete more in displays of status and material resources. (1988. p617-8.)

Men and women have shaped themselves and each other by competing to provide what the other sex wanted over evolutionary time, and what each sex has wanted has been strongly influenced by reproductive differences. A man can maximize the chances of his genes being passed on by having sex with as many women as possible because some offspring will survive. His only requirement is that they be fertile. Youth and beauty (which indicates health) are the best indicators of these, and natural selection favors men who seek these qualities and women who supply them. “The beauty myth is no myth” argues Gottschall (and feminist concern is warranted) but the pressures are “not a creation of western cultural values …or a patriarchal conspiracy. They are evolutionary legacies” (2008.p149.) A woman can only pass her genes on by ensuring that as many of her offspring as possible survive. She needs protection and provision whilst she is pregnant and her offspring are young. Evolution favors women who seek men who possess combat and survival skills, a position of power and material resources, and men who possess them. These qualities are exactly what attract Desdemona to Othello, “Wherein I spake of most disastrous chances,/ Of moving accidents by flood and field /Of hair-breadth scapes i’ th’ imminent deadly breach,” (1.3:133-6.) Of course, women are often denied that choice but Shakespeare gives us a woman who chooses, and Desdemona chooses a man who gained status and resources through battle and survival skills. She “bade me, if I had a friend that loved her/I should but teach him how to tell my story/ And that would woo her. Upon this hint I spake” (1.3:510-12) Despite Brabantio’s claims that “For nature so preposterously to err/ Being not deficient, blind or lame of sense/Sans witchcraft could not” (1.3:163-5,) Othello’s explanation is accepted as perfectly natural by the Duke. “I think this tale would win my daughter too” (1.3:170.)

Having won his mate, Othello now needs to keep her, and this brings us to the murderous, jealous rage that has produced so much analysis. In evolutionary terms, violence motivated by male sexual jealousy can be understood as a deterrent to fitness reducing behavior “Perhaps aside from death, cuckoldry — the unwitting investment of resources into genetically unrelated offspring — was the most severe recurrent threat to fitness our male ancestors faced” (Goetz et al. 2008. p482.) A woman’s fitness is threatened by abandonment which, in our evolutionary history, reduced her offspring’s chances of survival. Accordingly, evolution has favored women who act to deter a partner’s emotional infidelity, and men who act to deter their partner’s sexual infidelity (Easton et al. 2007.) We see this in in Othello. Bianca complains of neglect and waning emotional attachment, “What, keep a week away? Seven days and nights?” (3.4:168) and “You do not love me” (3.4:192) but it is the idea of sexual infidelity that drives Othello into his homicidal rage. His words ‘I’ll tear her into pieces’ (3.3:347) are a response to the erotic imagery that Iago has planted in his mind so vividly when he describes the sleeping Cassio:

“Cry ‘O, sweet creature!’ then kiss me hard
As if he plucked up kisses by the roots
That grew upon my lips, lay his leg
Over my thigh, and sigh, and kiss” (3.3:326-9)

Marcus Nordland criticises cultural constructivist accounts of male sexual jealousy, particularly Mark Breitenberg’s argument that early modern men’s anxieties were “historically rather than essentially constructed” as was the masculine subject himself (p334). The work of Aaron Goetz supports Nordland’s argument,

“The male mind might be designed to be hypersensitive to cues of sexual infidelity motivating more false positives (a man incorrectly concludes infidelity has occurred) than false negatives (a man incorrectly concludes infidelity has not occurred) because the ancestral benefits of the former error outweigh the ancestral costs of the latter error” (p 482-3.)

Iago says of Emilia’s alleged infidelity with Othello, “I know not if’t be true, But I, for mere suspicion in that kind, /Will do as if for surety”(1.3:370-2,) and Othello insists “Nature would not invest herself in such shadowing passion without some instruction”(4.1:38-9.) Both men assume guilt largely due to the strength of their feelings.


Nordland does not neglect social factors in his analysis, and considers the influence of class, religion and nationality on claustration practices imposed upon women in the early modern period. However, he argues that sexual jealousy is an evolved cognitive mechanism in men, and provides evidence that the same neuropeptide underpins affection to females and aggression towards rivals in male mammals (p.336.) This strongly suggests that that violent mate-guarding predates not only humanity but the diversification of primates. In humans, however, the extent to which punitive violence against and “honor killing” of allegedly unfaithful women is mandated, condoned or prosecuted varies hugely with culture, geographically and historically. In all primates, an individual’s tendency to violence varies greatly, and is also affected by his immediate environment. Othello’s environment is Iago.

To Othello, Iago is “of exceeding honesty/And knows all quantities, with a learnèd spirit, /Of human dealings” (3.3:262-3.) He is deceived in the first but the second is undeniably true. “Nature” is referred to twenty times in Othello, and nine of these are by Iago. Iago’s mastery of psychology enables him to invoke murderous jealousy in both Othello and Roderigo. This raises an interesting question mark over the race issue because it suggests that the psychology of the Moor and the white Christian are not fundamentally different.

For Albert Gerrard, the differences are presented as fundamental. Othello’s “negroid physiognomy is simply the emblem of a difference that reaches down to the deepest levels of personality” (1977. P13.) Michael Neill suggests that “Shakespeare does not oppose racism but (much more disturbingly) illuminates the process by which such visceral superstitions were implanted in the body of the culture” (2002.p268.) But is racism a visceral (by which we understand deeply instinctive) superstition? Evolutionary psychology says not, “From an evolutionary perspective, it’s unlikely the mind would be designed to attend to race as race would not have been a feature of the social environment over evolutionary time” (Pietraszewski et al. 2015. P26.) While biological sex has existed for millions of years, humans were all African until fifty to sixty thousand years ago, and then lived in small hunter-gatherer groups defined by kinship until ten thousand years ago. There has simply been no longstanding need to form cognitive mechanisms for racial categorisation. Pietraszewski tested the significance of race to alliance detection, and found that whilst gender and age remain firm categorizations, race does not become significant until correlated with patterns of association, co-operation and competition. When someone of our race supports the other side or someone of a different race supports our group, racial categorizations are far less made. Jonathan Haidt makes the same claim:

“There’s nothing special about race. You can make people care less about race by drowning race differences in a sea of similarities, shared goals, and mutual interdependencies” (2012.p276.)

This is exactly what we see happen in Othello. Othello is a Christian on the side of the Venetians against the Ottomans, and his expertise and experience raise him to the highest status. His title “Moor” is elevated to an honorific by being prefaced so often with “valiant,” “brave” or “noble.” Even Iago admits that “Another of his fathom they have none /To lead their business” (1.1:153.) The duke emphasizes their common goal when he says “Valiant Othello, we must straight employ you/Against the general enemy Ottoman” (1.3:48-9.)

Evolutionary psychology tells us that racism is culturally constructed, and it is not entirely clear that it was so constructed in early modern England. Michael Neill describes “a certain ethnographic objectivity” existing in the sixteenth century. In the travel literature collected by Hakluyt, Neill notes, “variations of dress, weapons, manners, custom, social organization, and (above all) religion figure at least as prominently as differences of skin and feature” (1998. p366.) Colour prejudice begins to gain a special significance in the seventeenth century, and Shakespeare was writing at the very beginning of this century. Of course there is evidence of colour prejudice in the play too. Roderigo refers to Othello as “The thicklips” (1.1:66,) Iago calls him an “old black ram” (1.1:89) and Brabantius makes contemptuous reference to his “sooty bosom” (1.2:71.) However, it is significant that these racial epithets come from the three men engaged with Othello on a personal level, in competition for the “ownership” of the same woman. I’d suggest that Shakespeare does not present us with a murderous Moorish nature but a standard one poisoned by a malevolent one.

We are brought, time and time again to the character of Iago and its effect on Othello’s, and I’d argue these types can be best understood as opposing but successful mating strategies. The co-operative male improves his fitness by gaining a reputation for honesty and co-operation which earns him status and therefore reproductive opportunities and the transmission of these “moral” genes. The anti-social type, known as the Dark Triad Personality because it incorporates psychopathy, narcissism and Machiavellianism, presents enough attractive features to facilitate an effective short term mating strategy which achieves the passing on of his genes before his inevitable exposure and ostracism or death (Jonason. 2009.) Othello and Iago are dramatized extremes of the moral co-operator and anti-social free-rider, but the interaction between various degrees of these two types have long existed, and been formative of our interpersonal evaluations and morality. “In evolutionary terms, every time a population of individuals became good at detecting these liars, the liars became better at concealing their lies…a never-ending arms race“(McNamara & Trumble. 2007 p11.)

Humans have evolved strategies both to exploit and avoid being exploited by others. Time will eventually reveal a free-rider or anti-social opportunist, and we are alert to them. To thrive in a human society, one must build and protect one’s reputation. Cassio reveals how central reputation is when he cries, “Reputation, reputation, reputation! Oh, I have lost my reputation! I have lost the immortal part of myself, and what remains is bestial. My reputation, Iago, my reputation!”(2.3:246-8.) Although Iago dismisses this at the time, he later says, “Good name in man and woman, dear my lord/ Is the immediate jewel of their souls” (3.3:160-1.) Cassio and Iago use the cultural map of early modern Christianity here in which an immortal soul is the distinguishing characteristic of humanity, but their concern is for the opinions of other people.

Othello’s reputation has been earned legitimately. In his personal dealings, he is “of a free and open nature” (1.3:381) and a “constant, loving noble nature,”(2.1:276) but he is of so exceptional a character he has also earned a leadership role. McNamara and Tremble’s in-depth study of the evolutionary psychology of leadership describe the characteristics of “prestige” leadership as a “sterling reputation for high moral character, high intelligence and high accomplishment” (p2,) and also “the ability to stay calm and focused and to think clearly in times of crisis” (p 50.) That Othello was held to possess all these is most clearly shown by Lodovico’s comment,

“Is this the noble Moor whom our full senate
Call all in all sufficient? Is this the nature
Whom passion could not shake? Whose solid virtue
The shot of accident nor dart of chance
Could neither graze nor pierce?” (4.1:261-5.)

Othello, on his own admission, excelled in the art of war but was not prepared for deception in the realm of his personal life,

“Little of this great world can I speak/More than pertains to feats of broil and battle” (1.3:86-7.)

Much of what makes the play so compelling and so agonizing is watching Othello fail to detect Iago’s malevolent deception as the tragedy unfolds. It is plausible that a Dark Triad Personality would not be easily identifiable by him. The same traits which make them attractive to women could also appear to make a good soldier. Psychopaths experience low anxiety, and exhibit risk taking behavior which gives the illusion of bravery and strength, “This is the night that either makes me or fordoes me quite” (5.1:3298.) Narcissists display resources ostentatiously, and have a grandiose self-view which may convince others “I am worth no worse a place” (1.1:11.) Machiavellians feign positive emotions including friendship and love convincingly for a short period. “When devils will the blackest sins put on/They do suggest at first with heavenly shows” (2.3:325-6.) “Common to all three are extrovert behaviors likely to make a good first impression” (Carter et al. p3.)

Iago is seen (by us) as cold and calculating. We are repelled by his narcissistic callousness, “Since I could distinguish betwixt a benefit and an injury I never found man that knew how to love himself”(1.3:311.) His Machiavellian glee is even more disturbing, “Work on, My medicine, work! /Thus credulous fools are caught/And many worthy and chaste dames even thus/All guiltless, meet reproach” (4.1:42-5.) Today’s Western, liberal society might not condone torture as Lodovico does “If there be any cunning cruelty /that can torment him much and hold him long. /Let it be his” (5.2:342-5,) but don’t we recognise the urge to punish and remove this man from society? Similarly, we are likely to utterly condemn the “honor killing” of Desdemona even if she had been “guilty,” but it is hard not to feel some sympathy for the deceived Othello who acts in passion and does naught “in hate, but all in honour” (5.2:301.) Despite the wide differences between our cultural map and that of early modern England, todays readers recognize a substantial difference in the natures of Othello and Iago, and continue to respond to Shakespeare’s call to our common moral emotions to punish and pity.

Othello provides strong supporting evidence for some of the most fundamental findings of evolutionary psychology. Here, I have addressed intrasexual competition, sexual jealousy, racism, and the problem of the free-rider and anti-social personality. This type of reading may feel a little “clinical” but it provides a strong base which can be enriched by layers of historical and cultural analysis. If we recognize the adaptive cognitive mechanisms underlying motivations and behaviors, the influence of cultural values, customs and discourses are revealed more clearly. Employing evolutionary psychology alongside social and historical analyses could facilitate the building of new theories to explore literature more fully and rigorously. I think we should embrace it.


Helen Pluckrose is a researcher in the humanities who focuses on late medieval/early modern religious writing for and about women. She is critical of postmodernism and cultural constructivism which she sees as currently dominating the humanities. You can connect with her on Twitter @HPluckrose


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