'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


The other Shakespeare play dealing with epilepsy was Othello, probably first presented in 1604.[5] In it, the character of Othello illustrates the growth of unjustified jealousy. He is a Moor who serves as a general in the Venetian army. He marries the beautiful Desdemona, who Iago, Othello's evil lieutenant, admires. Iago causes Othello to think Desdemona is carrying on an affair with Othello's loyal assistant, Cassio. In a jealous rage, Othello murders Desdemona. After Desdemona's lady-in-waiting exposes Iago's plot, the anguished Othello kills himself, saying that he "loved not wisely but too well" (Act V; 2; 34).[5]

Fogan[6] in 1989 described some of the features of the seizures Shakespeare describes. Othello has a seizure on stage, preceded by extreme emotional agitation, thus raising the issue of whether emotions can trigger seizures. After this seizure, Iago points out to Cassio that he should leave because, after lethargy and confusion, Othello will act "with savage madness." Finally, Shakespeare portrays Othello killing his wife while in a rage. Even Desdemona supports the idea that he must be in the midst of a seizure when she whispers while being strangled:

And yet I fear you; for you're fatal then
When your eyes roll so . . . .
Othello (Act V; 2; 37-38) [5]

This raises another interesting question: whether a person can commit a crime while having a seizure and, therefore, not be held responsible.


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