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William Shakespeare


Act 4, Scene 1
lines 1 - 42
Othello's epileptic fit!

Keith Tankard
Updated: 22 January 2014
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In order to get Othello convinced, Iago sets him up to eavesdrop on a conversation between himself and Cassio.

Iago and Cassio will, however, be speaking about the courtesan, Bianca, whereas Othello believes they are talking about Desdemona. When Desdemona appears, Othello strikes her in anger.


Etiquette -- i.e. how to behave when in company -- is a relatively new thing dating back to the 15th and 16th centuries, the time of the Renaissance.

In the medieval world -- that era which preceded the Renaissance -- etiquette virtually did not exist. People behaved instinctively, as children do. They belched if they felt like belching. They farted if they desired to relieve themselves.

There were no rules for how to treat a lady. Men sulked publicly if they felt offended, or would launch into fist fights at the drop of a hat. The stories of knights rescuing damsels in distress? It is far more likely that the knights would put an unprotected damsel into distress!

This all changed during the Renaissance -- or, for England, the Elizabethan Age -- when suddenly men became concerned about how they should be behaving when in public. To give them guidance, manuals began to drafted on what manners were good and what was to be avoided.

The manuals examined almost every facet of life: from eating to drinking, how to speak, how to walk and dress, how to behave in the presence of women. Men in high society now had something to guide them, rules which they could follow meticulously.

The rules were first formulated in Northern Italy, in Venice and Milan. From there, Renaissance etiquette slowly filtered across the length and breadth of Europe. It would take time, however, and sometimes even centuries for the upper classes to change.

Indeed, during the Elizabethan Age, the English were generally regarded as uncouth, while the English in turn viewed the Italians as fops.

Notice how Iago is highly critical of the way in which Cassio continually kisses his fingers when he speaks to Desdemona. Iago thinks it stupid, and his viewpoint probably echoed that of the average Englishman.

Etiquette would also take ages to filter down to the lower classes of society, with the working classes not being affected until the 19th century, perhaps even later. Indeed, even today, people of the lower socio- economic class battle with the elementary rules of behaviour at formal gatherings like weddings, where they still like to drown out anyone making a speech.

One finds this differentiation of manners very obvious in Othello. Desdemona and the Duke are perhaps the most sophisticated. Brabantio's behaviour, on the other hand, was at times questionable in that he allowed his instincts to lean towards revenge. Cassio knew the rules but possibly applied them slavishly, while at times overdoing it.

Iago? Well, he was very much a law unto himself, although he appeared to know how to behave in the presence of a lady. Note, for example, how he treated Desdemona with the utmost respect but, on the other hand, treated his own wife in the most uncouth way. And Iago was a person who took revenge to an extreme.

Emilia is almost typical of the lower cast, so much so that she is often referred to almost as if she were a prostitute. At the same time, however, she was able to recognise poor behaviour in others, and especially noted the intense jealousy which Othello exhibited.

Othello himself found it a problem to balance his own behaviour. When he was in Venice and everyone about him was behaving to the book, he followed suit. When in Cyprus, on the other hand, and there were few people to guide him, his etiquette slipped badly.

Notice his outbursts of jealousy even when there was little to provoke it -- typical of pre-Renaissance behaviour. Observe his crassness when addressing his innocent wife about her apparently missing handkerchief. And, of course, his unprovoked striking of Desdemona in full view of the gathered dignitaries.

In many ways, therefore, the play is all about Othello's descent from the status of a dignified man who portrays all the expected etiquette of Venice. By the end of the play, however, he is behaving like an uncouth medieval barbarian.

With the various levels of etiquette -- or lack thereof -- all around them, the sophisticated Elizabethan audiences would have noticed immediately Othello's slide into pre-Renaissance depravity.

Have you looked at the questions
in the right column?
Read the left column and then answer
the following questions:

"Or to be naked with her friend in bed
An hour or more, not meaning any harm?"
  • Iago and Othello appear on stage deep in conversation. What do you think they are talking about? (4)

[Need help?]

"But if I give my wife a handkerchief, --
Why, then, 'tis hers, my lord; and, being hers,
She may, I think, bestow't on any man."
  • Why does Iago mention the handkerchief? (4)

[Need help?]

  • When Iago says that the wife is free to give the handkerchief away, is he right? Why then does Othello become angry at the idea? (4)

[Need help?]

"He hath [said something], my lord; but be you well assured,
No more than he'll unswear."
  • Why does Iago counter his statement with the fact that Cassio will "unswear" anything he says? (4)

[Need help?]

"Lie with her, on her; what you will."
  • To what is Iago alluding? (1)

[Need help?]

  • Why does he add the words, "What you will"? (4)

[Need help?]

"To confess, and be hanged for his labour; -- first, to be hanged, and then to confess."
  • Othello is speaking openly here of the revenge he intends to take on Cassio. What is wrong with his taking such revenge? (6)

[Need help?]

"Othello falls into an epileptic trance."
  • What is the significance of Othello suffering from epilepsy? (4)

[Need help?]

  • How would Iago feel about this trance? (2)

[Need help?]

  • In a 1964 West End production of the play, Iago is seen putting the point of his dagger into Othello's mouth during the trance. What would be the significance of that? (4)

[Need help?]

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