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Is there any implication in Shakespeare's text that Othello had impostor syndrome, or any feeling of inadequacy (in love, or another aspect of interpersonal relationships) because his background is different? Something that was made evident/suggested by the text of the play, and could be linked to Othello's background.

Logically, since he was much more successful than other men with a similar background, he could have had it.

And, if he had it, it could have made him more vulnerable to Iago's lies.

Is there any evidence in the text of the play to support this hypothesis?

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    I doubt that Shakespeare ever heard of "impostor syndrome" as I believe that was invented in the twentieth century. – user14111 Aug 6 at 0:40
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    @user14111 the term might be new, but the phenomenon certainly isn't. – Yulia V Aug 6 at 8:51
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    "Impostor syndrome" may be way too broad a classification here. He might have felt entirely confident in military matters, but completely inadequate in matters of love. (And I would be surprised if this difference of confidence in different areas didn't reflect real life.) – Peter Shor Aug 6 at 13:24
  • @PeterShor I was looking for any feeling of inadequacy (love, or another aspect of interpersonal relationships) that were made evident by the text of the play, and could be linked to Othello's background. This is a much better way of putting my question than my original version. Thank you! – Yulia V Aug 6 at 15:48
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+100

I doubt that Othello suffered from impostor syndrome. If he did, I would expect this to be reflected in at least some of his speeches.

When he speaks in his professional capacity as general in the Venetian military, his speeches are metrically very regular, which, combined with their actual content, can be interpreted as a mark of self-confidence. From the point of view of content, he know that the Venetian needs him because of the services he has rendered them. See for example, Act 1, scene 2:

Let him [Brabantio, Desdemona's father] do his spite:
My services which I have done the signiory
Shall out-tongue his complaints.

Commenting on Act 1, scene 3, Norman Sanders writes in his edition of the play (New Cambridge Shakespeare, 1984; emphasis added):

Every line Othello utters in his normal manner illustrates how all he has experienced has been related to himself with a breathtaking egocentricity which is clearly signalled by the grammatical focus of his avowal of the sincerity of his love for Desdemona: "She loved me for the dangers I had passed, / And I loved her that she did pity them" (1.3.166-7).

Such egocentricity hardly seems compatible with the self-doubt of someone with impostor syndrome. If Shakespeare had wished to make us think Othello experienced impostor syndrome, I would have expected soliloquies that counter the above impression, e.g. telling us that his public attitude is just bravado. However, it is Iago who gets almost all the soliloquies, which expose him as a Janus-faced schemer.

(In The Story of the Night: Studies in Shakespeare's Major Tragedies (1961), John Holloway showed that Othello's manner and speech conform with the sixteenth-century conduct manuals on how princes should behave.)

For evidence of an impostor syndrome in his private life, one would look at the speeches in which he talks to or about Desdemona, i.e. to look for indications that he might not feel he deserves her. For example, this is how he greets Desdemona after his arrival on Cyprus (Act 2, scene 1):

It gives me wonder great as my content
To see you here before me. O my soul's joy!
If after every tempest come such calms,
May the winds blow till they have waken'd death!
(...)
If it were now to die,
'Twere now to be most happy; for, I fear,
My soul hath her content so absolute
That not another comfort like to this
Succeeds in unknown fate.

I man who believes he is not worthy of his wife would not be so unreservedly relieved and happy at seeing her again; his relief would be dampened by his self-doubt.

A more interesting speech is his soliloquy in the middle of the play, after Iago has started sowing the seeds of doubt (Act 3, scene 3):

Haply, for I am black
And have not those soft parts of conversation
That chamberers have, or for I am declined
Into the vale of years,--yet that's not much--
She's gone. I am abused; and my relief
Must be to loathe her. O curse of marriage,
That we can call these delicate creatures ours,
And not their appetites! I had rather be a toad,
And live upon the vapour of a dungeon,
Than keep a corner in the thing I love
For others' uses. Yet, 'tis the plague of great ones;
Prerogatived are they less than the base;
(...)

The first few lines mention him being black and older than Desdemona, but he dismisses these reasons saying, "yet that's not much". Instead of feeling loathed, he says, "my relief / Must be to loathe her", i.e. the negative feelings are now aimed at Desdemona instead of at himself. Then they seem to shift back to himself: "That we can call these delicate creatures ours, / And not their appetites! I had rather be a toad". However, the reason he gives for this is Desdemona's unfaithfulness, not a belief in his own (real or imagined) shortcomings, since he continues, "'tis the plague of great ones"; these are not the words of someone who doubts his own accomplishments.

Finally, there are his last words before he stabs himself in Act 5, scene 2:

Soft you; a word or two before you go.
I have done the state some service, and they know't.
No more of that. The tone is now of one who is used to giving commands but who know that he has been horribly deceived: "Soft you" commands silence rather than politely requesting it; "they know't" sounds like an allusion to his words on Act 1, scene 2 cited above. He then turns his attention to what happened in his private life:

I pray you, in your letters,
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;
(...)

He asks those around him to describe himself and his actions as objectively as they can. He regains his dignity and nobility, not just by taking responsibility for his mistakes but by doing this in measured language using mostly end-stopped lines. I think it would be difficult for someone experiencing impostor syndrome to show so much dignity in their last words, just before they take their life.

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  • Thank you for the detailed answer, much appreciated. I have awarded you the bounty. However - please forgive my arrogance - I am not sure I am convinced. I will go through your points one by one, and I will number them so that it would be easier to refer to them if you would want to answer to my comments. – Yulia V Aug 14 at 12:31
  • 1. "When he speaks in his professional capacity ... self-confidence... breathtaking egocentricity": as Peter Shor has told in the comment to the question, he might have felt entirely confident in military matters, but completely inadequate in matters of love. So impostor syndrome could apply to his self-perception in the matters of love. – Yulia V Aug 14 at 12:34
  • 2. "For evidence of impostor syndrome in his private life... how he greets Desdemona after his arrival on Cyprus" Could you explain why you interpret this as confidence? For me, these are the words of a man who, after being alone for long long years, has finally found someone who was beyond his dreams, and it gives him great happiness: "My soul hath her content so absolute" – Yulia V Aug 14 at 12:39
  • 3. "his soliloquy in the middle of the play" - could it be just sour grapes? Is not it quite common to try and say something like this in the attempt to heal hurt pride? We are often dishonest with ourselves, at least in the short run, are not we? – Yulia V Aug 14 at 12:42
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    Hi @YuliaV, would you like me to address these questions in my answer or in a chatroom? Comments are not well suited to this type of discussion. – Tsundoku Aug 14 at 14:18
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Most likely, it is the case. His wealth, social status and even marriage were due to his military successes.

In every other matter, he was an outsider, and he was constantly reminded of that. Brabantio told that

To fall in love with what she feared to look on?
It is a judgment maimed and most imperfect
That will confess perfection so could err.

Even his wife, when summoned by the Duke, firstly referred to him as "Moor" and only then as "Othello".

And so much duty as my mother showed
To you, preferring you before her father,
So much I challenge that I may profess
Due to the Moor my lord.

Most probably, when constantly reminded that he is different, unworthy of love etc. anyone will start feeling inadequate no matter how strong-willed they are.

(Only adding my own answer as there are no alternative answers. This is the initial version, I will add more details later.)

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    This answer relies on external evidence, looking at the way other people treat Othello. But someone can be treated as an outsider, or even looked down upon, while still feeling self-confident. I think better evidence can be found by looking at how Othello himself acts and speaks (as Tsundoku's answer does). Sorry that there were no alternative answers until now - this site does move a little slowly sometimes :-) – Rand al'Thor Aug 13 at 18:38
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    The word "Moor" is also used by characters who describe or address Othello as "valiant Moor", "brave Moor", "noble Moor". In fact, before Iago manages to influence Othello's behaviour, everyone except Iago, Roderigo and Brabantio talks about Othello with respect (and Iago and Roderigo don't reveal to Othello what they think of him). – Tsundoku Aug 14 at 9:59
  • @Randal'Thor I think one can overlook the opinion of the others if 1. there is family/friends/etc. who provide support 2. one is stupid enough not no be able to see what the others think. Othello did not have 1., and 2. does not work either because he is clearly very intelligent, he would not have the brilliant career if he was not. His only weekness seem to be his craving for love, this is when his emotions block his reason. – Yulia V Aug 14 at 12:56
  • @Tsundoku "So much I challenge that I may profess Due to the Moor my lord." (sparknotes.com/nofear/shakespeare/othello/page_42) Where in other Sh's plays the characters call their spouses by nationality? Was it ever normal, in any culture? This phrase is both giving ("my lord" is very respectful) and taking ("the Moor" is alienating, even if she does not mean it this way, but that's how all others were always referring to Othello, so she just repeats it). – Yulia V Aug 14 at 13:04

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