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Body-Mind Aporia in the Seizure of Othello


One of the most curious events in Othello is the titular character’s epileptic fit, which does not appear in the story by Cinthio that is the accepted source of the play’s plot. Why does Shakespeare invent such an incident? The easiest direction to take is the equation of epilepsy with demonic possession, a common belief in the early modern period. In this essay, however, I argue from textual and critical evidence for a philosophical interpretation of Othello’s epilepsy: namely, that his seizure, particularly in relation to the play’s conflict of reason and emotion, can be seen as a challenge to early modern orthodoxy concerning the mind-body problem, in that it conflates the distinction between body and soul.