Kinda wish we had just read Othello

Maybe it’s just me, but I can’t stand reading literature analysis without having read the literature first. I’ve never read Othello, but reading analyses about it just isn’t the same. It’s boring. I want to form my own opinions about something instead of just hearing other people’s thoughts. There’s not much I can learn from it without forming my own thoughts first.

Shaw’s essay was an interesting walkthrough of his thoughts on the text. However, I have a major complaint that carries over to really any essay discussing disability in text, and that is the need to diagnose what the character’s disability is if it isn’t stated:

In five short lines, Iago provides three different diagnoses for Othello’s condition — epilepsy, lethargy, and the potential for
madness — and Cassio suggests that Iago ‘rub him about the temples’ (4.1.50–5,
53).

So often I see this conflicting argument: people are not defined by their disabilities, but we MUST label characters (and real people too!) to further understand their condition. The portrayal of disability in Othello is important to what Shakespeare wants to say, but why do we need to pick apart a disabled character in order to “really understand” what the message is supposed to be? Just because we don’t have a name for what Othello suffers doesn’t mean that he isn’t disabled, so why do we feel that desire to label and dissect?

This is something that people do in real life to real people, too. Everyone turns into a doctor the second a person displays any behavior that isn’t normal, and for both physical and mental disability. Disability doesn’t define people, but labels certainly do.

6 thoughts on “Kinda wish we had just read Othello

  1. I’m with you on wishing I had read Othello beforehand. The comic strip certainly did help me understand the basic plot, but reading Shaw’s essay on disability was still confusing. I don’t understand some of the points because I don’t have the complete background knowledge of the text. I hope we dissect his essay more in class, those conversations are always super intelligent.

    1. First, yes, we absolutely should have read *Othello* for Shaw’s essay and Cobb’s *American Moor* to really land properly. When I opted to cut a major reading from the remainder of our course, there weren’t any good answers. Sadly, we really need another two weeks to do *Othello* justice. I will say, though, if anyone’s interested in post-graduate education in English, reading criticism about works you haven’t yet read is a thing that will happen. Sometimes what you may want to glean from an article isn’t the specific commentary on a play or a poem, it’s the general ideas about close reading, about race and disability. A sad truth about life as well as about pandemic pedagogy is that there simply isn’t enough time to read everything. Sometimes you have to jump into the middle of an ongoing conversation. Disorienting, yes! But also necessary.

      1. Regarding diagnosis: I’m with you on the difficulty and danger of diagnosing fictional characters with contemporary mental and physical health categories. For instance, there’s a footnote in Shaw’s essay that mentions that Othello’s “distraction” is often connected to autism. I definitely raised an eyebrow at that! In general, though, I think Shaw is pretty careful about the terms he’s using and their fuzziness. We should definitely talk about all this! In the specific case of epilepsy, however, he’s spot on: epilepsy has been a known disorder *at least* ancient Rome, and it’s well theorized in scholarship. Othello actually has a seizure on stage during the play, and Iago and Cassio (I believe) talk about Othello’s “fits” at length.

        1. But to your final comment: “The portrayal of disability in Othello is important to what Shakespeare wants to say, but why do we need to pick apart a disabled character in order to ‘really understand’ what the message is supposed to be? Just because we don’t have a name for what Othello suffers doesn’t mean that he isn’t disabled, so why do we feel that desire to label and dissect?” 100% this! The difficulty is that ‘disabled’ as a political and social identity has only recently been forged in the last few decades. A lot of older scholarship is very invested in a medical model of disability, which is of course predicated on specific diagnoses. I think that Shaw and others doing work with disability and Shakespeare (it me!) are imagining readers who have no idea what the social model of disability is, and who aren’t really aware of ‘disabled’ as a political and social identity. As such, there’s an attempt to *justify* Othello’s status as disabled by an appeal to a broad swath of possible diagnoses.

          1. …and that might be a failing rhetorical strategy! Or it might be incremental progress toward a newer understanding of disability for a somewhat broader audience.

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