The Abnormal and Unusual in Othello

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The Abnormal and Unusual in Othello

In how many Shakespearean tragedies is there a noble hero will falls into an epileptic seizure – as we find in Othello? Let us consider some of the more abnormal occurrences in the drama.

In Act 4 the evil Iago works up Othello into a frenzy regarding the missing kerchief. The resultant illogical, senseless raving by the general is a prelude to an epileptic seizure or entranced state:

Lie with her? lie on her? – We say lie on her when they belie her. – Lie with her! Zounds, that’s fulsome. – Handkerchief – confessions – handkerchief! – To confess, and be hanged for his labor – first to be hanged, and then to confess! I tremble at it. [. . .] (4.1)

Cassio enters right after the general has fallen into the epileptic trance. Iago explains to him:

IAGO. My lord is fall’n into an epilepsy.

This is his second fit; he had one yesterday.

CASSIO. Rub him about the temples.

IAGO. No, forbear.

The lethargy must have his quiet course.

If not, he foams at mouth, and by and by

Breaks out to savage madness. Look, he stirs.

Do you withdraw yourself a little while.

He will recover straight. (4.1)

Epilepsy on the part of the protagonist is unusual and physically abnormal. But the more serious abnormalities in the play are psychological. Iago is generally recognized as the one character possessing and operating by abnormal psychology. But Lily B. Campbell in Shakespeare’s Tragic Heroes tells of the time when the hero himself approached “madness”:

Othello himself cries:

thou hast set me on the rack.

I swear ‘t is better to be much abus’d

Than but to know a little.

And then we find him torturing himself with the thoughts of Cassio’s kisses on Desdemona’s lips, and he reiterates the property idea in his talk of being robbed.

From this time on, Othello has become the slave of passion. As he cries farewell to the tranquil mind, to content, to war and his occupation, as he demands that Iago prove his love a whore, as he threatens Iago and begs for proof at the same time, he is finally led almost to the verge of madness [. . .] . (165)

Fortunately the protagonist regains his equilibrium, and when he does kill, it is for the noble reason of cleansing the world of a “strumpet.
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