Othello Syndrome: Passion Can Be Pathological and Deadly

An assortment of factors can turn love into psychosis

Posted Sep 02, 2016

When you shall these unlucky deeds relate,

Speak of me as I am. Nothing extenuate,

Nor set down aught in malice. Then must you speak

Of one that loved not wisely, but too well.

-- Othello, Act V, Sc. ii

Consider these cases:

  • A 63 year old man, who had long accused his wife of having affairs, strangled her to death and then hanged himself because he could no longer cope with his obsessive suspicions.
  • A 42 year old woman interrogates her lover before and after he leaves home.  She inspects his cell phone and email accounts, and won’t let him watch television in fear that he will see attractive woman and fall in love with her. 
  • A 39 year old man constantly accuses his wife of infidelity.  When leaving the house for work or some other purpose, he frequently doubles back and sneaks into the house to catch her in flagrante delicto.  He has confronted several neighborhood men with false accusations regarding his wife.  He often spies on her from afar with binoculars.
  • A 31 year old woman accuses her mate of infidelity whenever she hears love songs, sees romantic movies, notices an attractive female in any situation, or reads news articles in which unfaithfulness is mentioned.

Each of these possessive lovers was delusional in his or her suspicions.  These cases illustrate morbid jealousy that has reached the stage of psychosisParanoia and extreme fear of abandonment have rendered these individuals incapable of distinguishing what is real from what is unreal insofar as infidelity is concerned.  Stalking, murder, suicide, or some combination of these are frequently the result.

Othello syndrome was first diagnosed by Dr. John Todd, a British psychiatrist, in the 1950s.  It can arise spontaneously, or in conjunction with other mental illness (e.g., schizophrenia), or as a side effect of medication or brain trauma.  Men and women represent about 60% and 40% of the cases, respectively. 

In Shakespeare’s Othello, the title character is tricked by his Machiavellian “friend,” Iago, into believing that Othello’s wife, Desdemona, is cheating.  Falsely convinced of her betrayal, Othello murders Desdemona.  Then Iago tells Othello the truth, whereupon Othello laments that he had “loved not wisely, but too well.”

When it comes to love, too much of a good thing is not wise.  And when it plunges one in psychosis, the outcome can be deadly – in fact as well as fiction.