The Plague of the Crazy Spleen

A quote from Act IV in which Iago is speaking to Othello about Desdemona’s infidelity struck a chord in my mind. Iago says: “Marry, patience,/Or I shall say you’re all-in-all in spleen,/And nothing of a man.” (IV, i, 85-87). He is referring to Othello reacting to finding out Cassio and Desdemona are sleeping together behind his back, all of which is a fabrication created by Iago to cause turmoil in Othello. In his advice, Iago tells Othello to not be “all spleen” or he will not be considered manly. This euphemism is a rather old one, one of Shakespeare’s time period. It was widely assumed that in woman, their spleens were cause of madness. I have done some research on the topic, and most physicians of the time were adamant that chemicals from the spleen mixed with hormones from the female reproductive system and seeped into a woman’s brain causing her to become insane. Of course, in many of these instances of madness, women were driven to a state due to a mental and emotional catalyst that had nothing to do with the condition of her spleen. These biological ideas were developed by male doctors in order to give husbands concrete reasons to commit their wives to psych wards, rather than take responsibility that maybe their drinking or promiscuous behavior was enough to drive her turn into a crazed being. Therefore, Iago warning Othello not succumb to his spleen or aka not become crazed with jealousy and rage, relating it back to him not being manly, says a lot about the opinions of women in the play and in the time period. It is obvious in this remark and theĀ treatment of female characters in the play that females are not regarded highly on the social hierarchy. It is looked down upon if a man begins to exhibit qualities of female, whether that be madness or simply playing a subservient role. Rodreigo finds himself in this feminine role with Iago, as he uses him as a pawn in his plan to derail Othello and gain a promotion in the Venetian army. Iago feeds Rodreigo false ideas and tricks him to foolish situations in order to make him subservient to him. As we see in this scene, Othello also begins to take on a subservient role to Iago; he hangs on every word Iago utters and primarily is at his disposal for information about Desdemona’s infidelity. The irony lies in this remark from Iago, telling Othello not to adopt the characteristics of woman and become lesser than the man he is expected to be, as Iago is phallically debasing him right in front of his face. This disheartening attitude towards woman is then later seen after Othello hits Desdemona for speaking out at him, and she runs away in tears: “If that the earth could teem with woman’s tears,/ Each drop she falls would prove a crocodile./Out of my sight!” (IV, i, 240-242). In this Othello is saying that Desdemona’s and women in general tears are not genuine, that they are a result of the craziness of the spleen and don’t truly signify sadness. Just like the craziness of the spleen, the tears were used to manipulate husbands. Yet, further on in the play, Othello cries over Desdemona’s infidelity, a lie that had been spun by Iago in order to unravel him. Therefore, Othello’s tears can be seen as not genuine. The irony Shakespeare surrounds the notion of a woman’s madness and her spleen can speak for the play in many ways. It could be Shakespeare again making a comment about his society’s backwards ideals or simply just comic relief, a he knows the humor of his audience. Despite the reasonings why, this motif of madness and its relation to a feminine behavior and reproductive system showcases the patriarchal ideas of the time period.

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About stewingthepot

Colleen Stewart is a freelance writer and photographer based in the Hudson Valley. She received her Master's degree in English Lit at SUNY New Paltz and has published work has appearing in The Valley Table, Hudson Valley Magazine, The Shawangunk Review and Edible Hudson Valley. She is also a self-taught cook and avid photographer.

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