Magic and Witchcraft

Foreign exoticism

In an era when hard knowledge of the world was limited, people who were clearly ‘other’, such as the Moor Othello, had all sorts of myths attached to them. One such was that people coming from pagan lands would be likely to indulge in practices forbidden by the church, such as witchcraft. Shakespeare utilises this assumption to fuel prejudice against Othello by both characters and the audience.

Brabantio’s grief

When Brabantio learns of his daughter’s elopement with Othello, he struggles to find a reason why she should so betray him. He can only think that she has somehow been bewitched: 
Is there not charms
By which the property of youth and maidhood
May be abused? (Act 1 Scene 1)     
He repeats this idea when he confronts Othello in the next scene:
Damned as thou art, thou hast enchanted her,
For I’ll refer me to all things of sense,
If she in chains of magic were not bound…..
Judge me the world if ‘tis not gross in sense
That thou hast practised on her with foul charms,       
Abused her delicate youth with drugs or minerals
That weakens motion. (Act 1 Scene 2)     
In the next scene he goes further and suggests that Desdemona has been ‘corrupted by spells and medicines bought of mountebanks,’ and later on that:
with some mixtures powerful o’er the blood,
Or with some dram conjured to this effect,
He wrought upon her.’  (Act 1 Scene 3)    
He is convinced that Othello could not have honestly succeeded with his daughter: ‘sans witchcraft could not.’ Othello contradicts him strongly but it is only when Desdemona persuades him that she made a free choice in marrying him that Brabantio reluctantly accepts the situation.

Othello’s suspicions

Iago reminds Othello, in Act 3 Scene 3, of Brabantio’s accusation that Othello had used witchcraft to win Desdemona’s love, as well as the fact that she did deceive her father in marrying Othello. All this serves to increase the nagging suspicions Othello is beginning to feel about his new wife. 
In Act 3 Scene 4, he uses the idea of witchcraft to frighten Desdemona, describing the lost handkerchief as having special powers which would bring harm to anyone who mislaid it:
She told her, while she kept it
’Twould make her amiable, and subdue my father
Entirely to her love; but if she lost it,
Or made a gift of it, my father’s eye
Should hold her loathed. (Act 3 Scene 4)     
We cannot know if Othello is telling the truth here but Desdemona is clearly shocked and horrified at what Othello tells her. When she cannot produce the handkerchief, Othello’s suspicions of her adultery increase dramatically and the tragedy hastens to its conclusion. The audience is left with an uneasy sense of the possible influence of witchcraft on the outcome of the story. It could also be argued that there is a demonic contribution to the success of Iago’s betrayal because it works so successfully in such a short space of time.
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