'The Falling Sickness' in Literature

Jeffrey M. Jones, MD, Neurology of Battle Creek, Battle Creek, Mich.

South Med J. 2000;93(12) 

In This Article

Julius Caesar

Although there is still controversy regarding who actually wrote Shakespeare's plays, there is no question that their deep knowledge of human nature gives them a lasting appeal. Two of Shakespeare's plays have characters with epilepsy: Othello and Julius Caesar.

Julius Caesar was first performed in 1599 and is a tragedy about political rivalries. The main seizure of the play occurs in the first act when Antony offers the crown of dictator for life three times, and Caesar does not respond. Shakespeare describes the incident through the conversation between Casca, Cassius, and Brutus:

Casca. . . . And then he offered it the third time. He put it the third time by; and still as he refused it, the rabblement hooted, and clapped their chapped hands, and threw up their sweaty nightcaps, and uttered such a deal of stinking breath because Caesar refused the crown that it had, almost, choked Caesar; for he swooned and fell down at it. And for mine own part, I durst not laugh, for fear of opening my lips and receiving the bad air.

Cassius. But soft, I pray you. What, did Caesar swound?

Casca. He fell down in the market place and foamed at mouth and was speechless.

Brutus. 'Tis very like. He hath the falling sickness.

     Julius Caesar (Act I; 2; 249-260)[3]

Caesar has a seizure, and Brutus tries to justify the insult of refusing the crown by saying Julius has epilepsy. While this picture of epilepsy is not clearly that of a person being possessed, it does begin to depict an epileptic as one who is not responsible for his actions. The senate really does not want Julius Caesar to be dictator for life anyway, and subsequently he is assassinated.

Even though Shakespeare's plays are fiction, they were often based on historical events. Julius Caesar really did have epilepsy. Of the six documented episodes, two happened during the civil war, during his martial occupations in Gaul. The other four episodes were during the last 2 years of his life; one occurred when the senate offered him honors, and the final episode occurred before he left home for the capitol on the Ides of March, 44 BC. During that time, Julius Caesar had headaches, personality changes, and depression. This information, along with the lack of distinguishing features of other causes, led Gomez et al[4] in 1995 to raise the possibility that Julius Caesar had a meningioma or a slow-growing supratentorial glioma.

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