As inconsequential as they may initially seem, the various types of abnormalities in William Shakespeare’s tragic drama Othello do impact upon the audience. Let us explore this subject of the deviant in this play.
In the essay “Wit and Witchcraft: an Approach to Othello” Robert B. Heilman discusses the abnormal attitude and plans of the ancient as manifested in his verbal imagery:
If we take all the lines of one character out of context and consider them as a unit, we have always a useful body of information; but if, when we study Iago’s lines, we find that he consistently describes himself in images of hunting and trapping, we learn not only his plans of action but something of his attitude to occasions, to his victims, and to himself; and beyond that there is fixed for us an image of evil – one of those by which the drama interprets the human situation. (331)
And how about epilepsy? 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.” On the other hand, the baseness of the villain Iago never alters. David Bevington in William Shakespeare: Four Tragedies describes the irrationality and self-destructiveness of the ancient’s behavior:
Emilia understands that jealousy is not a rational affliction but a self-induced disease of the mind. Jealous persons, she tells Desdemona, “are not ever jealous for the cause, / But jealous for they’re jealous. It is a monster / Begot upon itself, born on itself” (3.4.161 – 163). Iago’s own testimonial bears this out, for his jealousy is at once wholly irrational and agonizingly self-destructive. “I do suspect the lusty Moor / Hath leaped into my seat, the thought thereof / Doth , like a poisonous mineral, gnaw my innards” (2.1.296 – 298). (223)
Evidence of his psychopathic personality is seen early in the play. He manipulates the wealthy Roderigo into awakening the senator Brabantio (“Rouse him: make after him, poison his delight”);…