In Act Four, Scene One of Othello, in the midst of his conversation with Iago, the Moor falls into what Iago calls “an epilepsy” (IV.i.50).
But how to portray this on stage? A fainting? Spasms? Or do we go full-fit and foam at the mouth (like Hoskins did in the BBC version)?
A little dip into the Oxford English Dictionary can give us some options…
You might remember the “falling sickness” reference in Julius Caesar (I.ii.254).
During Shakespeare’s day, “epilepsy” meant one thing: “A disease of the nervous system, characterized (in its severer forms) by violent paroxysms, in which the patient falls to the ground in a state of unconsciousness, with general spasm of the muscles, and foaming at the mouth. The English name is falling sickness (now little used)” (“epilepsy, n.” Oxford English Dictionary Online. Oxford University Press, December 2015. Web. 3 February 2016.). So this gives the actor the option of spasming and foaming at the mouth in general.
However, Iago later says that Othello “foams at the mouth” (IV.i.54) only if the incident doesn’t run its own “quiet course” (IV.i.53).
Iago also refers to this as a “fit” (IV.i.51). In Shakespeare’s day, this could mean “a paroxysm, or one of the recurrent attacks, of a periodic or constitutional ailment” (“fit, n.2.3a” OED Online.) or “a sudden and transitory state of activity or inaction, or of any specified kind of activity, feeling, inclination, or aptitude” (“fit, n.2.4a” OED Online.). Interestingly, while “fit” would not come to mean “a sudden seizure of any malady attended with loss of consciousness and power of motion, or with convulsions, as fainting, hysteria, apoplexy, paralysis, or epilepsy” (“fit, n.2.3c” OED Online.) until after Shakespeare’s death, during his day it could mean “a paroxysm of lunacy” (“fit, n.2.3b” OED Online.).
So, the actor playing Othello could go catatonic. There’s also the possibility of insanity. But should the actor do this? Remember that only under the conditions of the fit not running its “quiet course,” is Othello prone to the “break[ing] out to savage madness” (IV.i.55). Iago also refers the current fit as a “lethargy” (IV.i.53), which would push the actor toward a physical representation of “torpor, inertness, or apathy” (“lethargy, n.2” OED Online.), rather than craziness.
Iago also says this is Othello’s “second fit” (IV.i.51), having had one the day earlier. Iago says it, but there’s nothing in the text that supports it. Does that mean he’s lying (here)? Possibly. But the Hoskins’ performance does have that wonderful moment at “Perdition catch my soul” (III.iii.90), when his face seems to go slack and his eyes seem to begin a subtle rolling back, so there may be (and maybe even should be) some kind of physical foreshadowing of this fit, so that the Act Four fit doesn’t seem so out-of-the-blue.
And what should his physical position be?
Well, this is where the usually unreliable stage directions come into play. Of course, in the Pelican Shakespeare edition I’m using (edited by Russ McDonald), after Othello’s confused pre-fit speech, the stage direction reads, “He falls in a trance” (IV.i.43 stage direction). But what about the earlier published texts? Based upon the facsimiles at Internet Shakespeare Editions,
- Quarto 1 (Boston Public Library) has no stage direction
- Quarto 1 (British Library): “He falls down.”
- First Folio (Brandeis University): “Falls in a traunce [trance].”
- First Folio (New South Wales): “Falls in a traunce [trance].”
So “down” or “trance”?
Well, depending on the definition of trance, you can go either way: “an unconscious or insensible condition; a swoon, a faint” (“trance, n.1.2” OED Online.) or “a state of mental abstraction from external things; absorption, exaltation, rapture, ecstasy” (“trance, n.1.3b” OED Online.).
Definitive answers, no. But definitely some direction.
And one last question: How much of a fit (if any) should be played in the run-up to Othello’s murder of Desdemona? She does mention that Othello’s “eyes roll so” (V.ii.38), that he “gnaw[s] so [his] nether lip” (V.ii.43), and that “some bloody passion shakes [his] very frame” (V.ii.44).