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"'I Am Not What I Am': viewing the psychopath on stage"

Research Register transfer thesis, University of Dublin, Trinity College.  20,148 words.  Supervisor, Eric Weitz.


Villainy has been an integral concept in drama since its inception.  Throughout the past centuries, the concept of villainy has taken many forms, from the classic “vice” symbol to the melodramatic foil, to the significantly more complex, Stanislavskian manifestation of coiled emotion.  As this concept develops in contemporary drama, villains are becoming more complicated, manipulators are motivated by intense pain, and those who deceive are desperately fighting for freedom in a claustrophobic society.  These advances have furthered the development of the antihero, the flawed main character who commits anti-social acts in order to fulfill his or her goal.  As drama continues to advance in this direction, there is room for a new concept which, in some ways, calls back to the ancient depictions of villainy: the psychopath on stage.

Dr. Robert D. Hare, whose research accounts for the most groundbreaking discoveries and diagnoses of psychopathy describes the disorder as such:

       [...] personality disorder defined by a distinctive cluster of  behaviours and inferred personality traits, most of

       which society  views as pejorative.  (Robert D. Hare, Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths among

        Us, (New York: Guilford, 1999) Kindle E-book, 14.)

Defined lay men’s terms, psychopaths have no conscience.  It may seem that this description bears little distinction from the traditional concept of villainy, however I will show that the concept psychopathy paints complex and intriguing portraits of the characters I will be analyzing.  With this thesis, I intend to prove beyond a reasonable supposition that an analysis of these specific canonical characters as psychopaths is at least, and in certain cases more, valid and natural to the original texts than popularly accepted analyses.

In the broad scope of my thesis, I will examine several canonical characters through the lens of psychopathy.  I will execute this parade of characters through a progression of normalcy.  This progression of normalcy will allow me to bring the reader through increments of psychopathy, the characters becoming decreasingly violent and malevolent, and increasingly sympathetic or appealing to readers and far from the familiar pop-psychology depictions of psychopaths. 


I will begin my analysis with Iago, the manipulative mastermind of William Shakespeare’s Othello.  Iago is immediately recognizable as a villain, and is therefore a prime candidate to commence the progression of normalcy.  His psychopathic traits are comfortably familiar to the average audience member.  Though numerous interpretations of the character have attempted to bring to light his particular complexities, when Shakespeare’s text is taken alone, Iago is revealed to carry the cluster of traits distinct to the quintessential Malevolent Psychopath. 


Once this lens of analysis is applied to Iago, the same lens can be applied one by one to the rest of the chosen characters, allowing one to easily follow this distinct cluster of psychopathic traits and behaviours through the increasingly more subtle manifestations of psychopathic displays by the continuing progression.  This progression will culminate in an analysis of  Irina Nikolayevna Arkadina, Nina, from Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull as the Heroic Psychopath, a staged version of Hare’s “Subcriminal Psychopath.”   I will use the lens of psychopathy to challenge the popular depiction and analyses of Nina as a fragile, tragic heroine and instead argue that it is precisely the cluster of psychopathic traits and behaviours I have traced from Iago through the canon and to Nina which endear her to audiences and young actresses alike.


For the purpose of this paper, I will limit my analysis to two well-known and widely analyzed characters - the aforementioned Iago, and Hedda Gabler, the titular character in Henrik Ibsen’s “Hedda Gabler” in order to demonstrate my method of analysis.

In his groundbreaking work, Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of Psychopaths Among Us, Dr. Robert Hare insists that a diagnosis should only be confirmed by a qualified professional, who has been trained in the use of and has full access to the “Psychopathy Checklist Revised” (PCL-R) and its manual, and who is able to conduct an interview with the subject in question.  This presents various problems with the analyses I wish to conduct, were I to intend a diagnosis.  First, I have not attended an accredited psychopathy workshop, which would provide extensive PCL-R training and diagnostic exercises.  Second, I do not have access to the PCL-R and its manual, as it is a highly restricted diagnostic tool, unavailable to those who are not licensed psychologists, psychiatrists, or in training to become one.  Finally, I am unable to interview the subject in question, as the subject is fictional, and unable to reveal anymore of him/herself than is already set down in the text.  It is for these reasons that I do not intend to diagnose or provide a full psychological profile of psychopathy with this paper.  To do so would be to violate the strict guidelines set in place by the international psychological and psychiatric community in order to safeguard against dangerous misdiagnosis. 

I intend, rather, to use psychopathy as a lens through which to analyze these characters.  I will use the abbreviated and more widely available Psychopathy Checklist Screening Version (PCL-SV), which I will address in a later section, to characterize distinct psychopathic traits and behaviours for each of the characters using three factors given to me in lieu of an interview:  what is said by the character in  question, what is said about the character in question, and what the character in question does, as described in stage directions or other evidence as to the character’s actions onstage.

I propose that the lens of psychopathy is a viable methodology of critical character analysis both in plays written before the definition of psychopathy and after.  Using clinical psychology to analyze theatrical characters will, by its very nature, bring many problems to the forefront.  The same issue academics face when using psychoanalytic theory appears with psychological methodology, that which I have mentioned in the previous section: the characters are fictional, and therefore incapable of thought and discussion with the analyst.  Clinical psychology, however, goes a step farther than psychoanalytic theory in terms of its physical complexity.  Though not always, clinical psychology and psychiatry often involve some sort of physical, rather than purely psychological ‘root’ to a particular disorder or illness.  In the case of psychopathy, for example, many recent studies support the claim that psychopathy is caused my a brain abnormality.  There is significant dispute about where this abnormality is centered.  Some forensic psychologists dispute this claim and argue it is rather the behaviour which affects the brain, not the inverse, and that early psychological trauma can lead to significant brain alterations which cause a subject to take on psychopathic traits and behaviour.  While research into Anti-social personality disorder and Affective Attachment Disorder support these theories, the majority of new research into psychopathy is starting to show that psychopathic behaviour is consistent, regardless of family background or upbringing, and therefore must begin with a biological factor.   I will discuss this in more detail later in the paper, however it is important to note now that this biological factor disrupts an attempt to cross the analysis of psychopathy with psychoanalytic theory, specifically Freud’s concept of the inadequate Superego, a common alternative analysis for many of the characters I will approach in this work.


The complicated semantics of the field of psychology come in to play when giving serious and accurate consideration to psychological methodology.  For example, terms like ‘diagnosis’ and ‘psychological profile’ by be abandoned in favor explanations of ‘specific clusters of personality traits and behaviours’ and ‘outwardly manifested attributes of’ disorder in question.  I will address another example of problematic semantics in the next chapter, dealing with a scientific community that is rife with inconsistent terminology, taken up and distorted in popular media. 

The most important aspect in dealing with these various problems is, when analyzing characters with clinical psychology is to show how they fit the distinct attributes and characteristics of any personality disorder and to stop short of explicitly labeling them.  However, when a director and actor approach these roles, anything goes.  One cannot analyze Hedda Gabler as a psychopath, but an actress can certainly play her as one.

Not only is the lens of psychopathy useful in analyzing the subject, but also the relationships that subject forms with the other characters in the play.  As I will discuss in Chapter 2 in more detail, psychopaths very often have a specific ‘type’ they choose for victimization.  Studies have demonstrated that it works as a predator/prey relationship, one study yielding the unexpected result that a psychopath can distinguish an easily victimized target simply from watching the way the target walks.   This has a profound impact on how the direct targets of the subject character’s victimization can be analyzed.  Their analysis is changed by virtue of their proximity to the subject.

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