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What Can Othello Teach Us About Body Language

Othello: The Shakespearian tragedy written sometime around the 1600s (1603-ish) follows an age-old tale of a jealous lover who suspects his beloved is lying and (spoiler alert) end up killing her.

What Can Othello Teach Us About Reading Body Language

It plays on our emotions as at some point, each and every person on this planet has succumbed to jealousy and understands the pain that it causes not just for ourselves but those around us. The tragedy with Othello is that we as an audience know that the jealousy felt by Othello is unfounded and are left to witness the spiral of emotions that follow.

  • Othello fails to believe his lover and what’s more, takes her emotional reaction to accusations as a further sign of her guilt.
  • Othello highlights a very special lesson to us much that he fails to discern even when she’s telling the truth.

A personal hero of mine, Dr. Paul Ekman, coined the phrase “Othello Error”, when the lie catcher fails to consider that a truthful person who is under stress may appear to be lying”, their non-verbal signals expressing their worry at the possibility of being disbelieved. For me and many others, this error highlights the role that context plays when we’re analysing a person’s nonverbal and kinesic cues, and how a failure to apply context can (and often does) lead to devastating results.

One such example is that of Teddy Gray who was accused, forced to conduct a polygraph test, failed and then arrested for rape. He served 70 days, had his life turned upside down and suffered great distress despite being completely innocent. The worst bit of this is that the actual rapists were free to attack again.

This is an example of the dangers of analysing without context and without taking into account the stress that being accused of something will produce. To add insult to injury, polygraph tests – which were invented precisely for this kind of scenario! – still miss signs from truthful people caused by their anxiety and worry about being disbelieved. Shakespeare was ahead of his time as usual; I suppose all we can do now is remember what happened between poor Desdemona and her dismal end…and try not to repeat it.

Author: Gary Simpson, Director of Training, Special Projects Group

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