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April 15, 2024

The Theme of Magic in Othello

By Matthew Chabin

Magic in the Web

"If Humpty Dumpty's an egg, witchcraft cannot even make him wobble. If Humpty Dumpty's sentient, witchcraft can make him fall off the wall and perhaps break his neck..." - (Seabrook 13)

By the time William Shakespeare penned the first line of what would become his masterpiece, Othello, The Moor of Venice, magic was already a very old idea. It was an ancient, ubiquitous, mercurial idea, older than memory, known to Elizabethan England as the shadowy counterfeit of divine grace, the dread traffic of demons, evil spirits, or evil people under their power. In the centuries that followed, science drastically reshaped the landscape of belief, and these fanciful attributions lost their appeal. Finally the advent of psychology gave us a whole new method of understanding man's experience of the supernatural. And yet, here lay a pitfall. How appallingly easy it was to conclude that since devils and all their works were cut from a purely psychological cloth that they consequently had no teeth in the real world, and that magic was nothing but impotent nonsense, a paper-daemon to be sealed in quotation marks, never to be released! This was wrong, as Shakespeare well knew.

It is clear at least that his understanding of the real nature of magic far exceeded the wisdom of his age. At a time when Europeans where burning each other alive over charges of witchcraft, Shakespeare was writing Othello, a work which not only anticipates the psychological understanding of magic by over three hundred years,1 but offers a brilliant object lesson in the actual use of magic, properly understood and practically applied. Through masterly expansion of the theme, Shakespeare opens vistas on the mind which our vocabulary has only recently grown to accommodate.

Act One, Scene Three of Othello is a microcosmic staging of the play's main conflict: the love of two against the scheming of a third. Under the stern eyes of the city fathers, Othello and Desdemona are pleading their case against the malicious rumors that have been circulating. Othello is accused of bewitching Desdemona, of using sorcery to warp her mind and possess her body. Othello answers this by recounting how he and Desdemona became lovers.

"She loved me for the dangers I had passed,
And I loved her that she did pity them.
This only is the witchcraft I have used" (1.3 166-168).

By giving the name of witchcraft to the love between Othello and Desdemona, Shakespeare is making an interesting statement, drawing a contrast, as it were, between coercive black sorcery and the communion of soul and body that the Greeks elegized as Eros. This delineation of two distinct kinds of magic is important, as we shall see.

But before we speak any more of kinds of magic, we should probably consider what exactly the word signifies. It's a tricky definition to lay hold of, because wherever the word appears it refers to an operational obscurity, the action of a force not understood, or at least inexplicable. Nonetheless, I believe it suits us to call magic the perceived interaction of subjective awareness with objective reality. We find some precedence for this in Lucien Levy-Bruhl's concept of participation mystique, that being the state of consciousness general to primitive peoples (and occasionally resonant in moderns), whereby the individual feels that his thoughts participate directly with nature and the community, to the point of subsuming his own individuality. In Freudian lingo it is the omnipotence of thoughts, and the same idea corresponds to Jean Gebser's category of magical consciousness (Jung 14; Freud 73; Gebser 45).

Many paths open to this garden of mysteries, whether by ritual immersion, drug use, psychosis or meditation. We spend much of our early childhoods there, lost in an imaginary dimension which overlays and outstrips the real. Lovers enter this awareness via their raptures, each experiencing a loss of identity in the other, a participation in each other's experience at a level transcending the duality of their physical bodies. This kind of magic is so universally recognized that even the great religions have drawn legitimacy from its familiar forms.

It is this same universal, anti-doctrinal legitimacy that Othello and his bride invoke before the lords of Venice in answer to her father's suit. And love wins a victory here, but with a disquieting caveat. Desdemona's father, his charges defeated, gives over his daughter with the following words to Othello. "Look to her, Moor, if thou hast eyes to see. She has deceived her father, and may thee." (1.3 291-292)

No sooner have the happy lovers left the stage than evil shows its face, in the person of Iago. Othello's ancient, who suspects the Moor of seducing his wife and feels he has been passed over for promotion in favor of the Florentine Cassio, has some plans of his own. "I have't. It is engendered. Hell and night // Must bring this monstrous birth to the world's light" (1.3 385-386).

It sounds almost like an invocation. What sort of magic is this?

William Seabrook, an eccentric and underappreciated writer of the Lost Generation, a sort of name-dropping, cannibal-romancing, Hunter S. Thompson-of-occult-anthropology, contributes a useful theory here. It formed the basis for his 1940 book Witchcraft - Its Power in the World Today, and stemmed from a paradox which he sets down on the very first page beneath the cover:

"A confirmed disbeliever in the supernatural, refusing to believe in demons, jungle gods, and devils, refusing for that matter even to believe in spiritualism, telepathy, clairvoyance, or ghosts, I yet became convinced after years in the jungle that the witch-doctors wield a seemingly "occult" power, deadly dangerous, and real ... I became convinced they can kill by the use of witchcraft solely, that is, by pure sorcery, without recourse to poison, pseudo-accident, violence, or any chemical-physical-material contributory causes whatsoever" (Seabrook i.).

Seabrook believed that the essence of the witch-doctors' power amounted to what he termed induced autosuggestion, and explained it with a simple analogy. If one were to continually berate a child over being awkward, the child would eventually internalize the criticism and become awkward. Tell a man he looks ill, and by and by he begins to feel ill. Convince him to his bones that he is marked to die, and watch him waste away.

The term induced autosuggestion signifies that this process is seeded in the victim's mind by an outside agent (rather like a poison), and that it then takes hold and becomes self-perpetuating, a psychic malignancy feeding on itself. Magic dolls, death charms, dead animals or inscriptions of power are the physical props of this psychological terrorism, as are nail clippings, locks of hair, and articles of clothing stolen from the victim.

The aim of this kind of magic is to warp the victim's subjective relation to the objective world, to bedevil and confuse in the pomp and duality of maya. It is the polar opposite of that love-magic mentioned earlier, which by shared subjective experience, overcomes duality and transcends the world of objects. Iago's modus operandi, as we shall see, is essentially the same as that of Seabrook's witch-doctors, with the exception that Iago has cast aside the crutch of superstition and acts with full understanding of his method. "Dangerous conceits are in their natures poisons ..." (3.3 330).

The inducement comes in the third act of scene three, as Othello and Iago spy Cassio departing from Desdemona. Just a few cryptic words, the ancient to his general: "Ha, I like not that." (3.3 33) Iago has been busy arranging Cassio's disgrace, setting the stage as it were, and he sets upon his pernicious course with the lightest tread. It's enough to snare Othello though, and from this point on Iago need not venture any unsolicited accusation or conspicuous opinion. He makes Othello pry the most damming testimony from him, always feigning reluctance, and this strategy keeps Othello from asking the one question that could save him: What if Iago is not honest?

But is it not enough that he thinks Desdemona honest? "My life upon her faith," he tells Brabantio, and in the same breath he entrusts her to the care of "Honest Iago" (1.3 293). Is his faith in his wife not sufficient vaccine against creeping jealousy, just as the white sophisticate may shrug off a jungle curse with an assured eye to his science or his God? Seabrook weighs in on this as well.

"The intended victim [of witch-craft] may be armed with complete intellectual disbelief, defiance, scorn, against the witch-doctor's mumbo jumbo, but if a residue of unconscious or subconscious fear is there, he may succumb even more quickly than the victim whose fear is on the surface" (Seabrook 12).

And so Othello, who secretly doubts that Desdemona could ever really love such an old, black and blood-speckled warhorse as himself, finds his mind revolting against his heart's most noble aim. This is the true tragedy of the play: the failure of the valiant Moor to keep love's faith, his willingness to condemn his beloved and innocent Desdemona before doubting such a one as Iago.

Having drawn Othello into his trap, Iago works his venom slowly into the wound. "I see this hath a little dashed your spirits ... I'faith, I fear it has ... But I do see you're moved ... My lord, I see you're moved" (3.3 229-228). How could he not be at this point?

"Oh, beware, my lord, of jealousy.
It is the green-eyed monster, which doth mock
The meat it feeds on" (3.3 169-171).

Iago knows full well that his warning will not be heeded. That it will in fact drive Othello into the jaws of that very beast.

In the course of two short dialogues Iago has whipped Othello into a froth of vengeful torment. Now the Moor not only condemns Desdemona in his mind, but openly declares his intentions to kill her. It is here that Iago raises the specter of the handkerchief, the physical token which binds the imagined affair to the world of concrete reality in a meaningful interaction of subjective and objective, just as in fetish magic a doll or a charm anchors the victim's fears and makes the curse real. Iago knows: "Trifles light as air // Are to the jealous confirmations strong // As proofs of Holy Writ." (3.3 326-328)

Murder dolls and death charms are known to be most effective when they are constructed from intimate possessions of the victim, and since Othello and Desdemona are Iago's dual-victims, what could serve better than a token of their courtship? Nor is this a common handkerchief, but one crafted by an Egyptian sorceress, given to Othello's mother. "There's magic in the web of it," he tells Desdemona. (3.4 68)

This is not the first mention we've heard of a web. "With as little a web as this will I ensnare as great a fly as Cassio" (2.1 169). This, as Iago observes an innocent hand-shake between Cassio and Desdemona, the physical sign which he will bring to bear on Roderigo's jealous, lust-addled mind. And later he speaks of using Desdemona's virtue and fondness for Cassio as a net "That shall enmesh them all" (2.3 336).

What is it about the image of a web that Shakespeare resorts to it not once but three times in this play? Shakespearean scholar Louis Marder estimated that Shakespeare used some 7,000 words -- more than all the words in the King James Bible -- only once and never again (Pressly 1). So surely two webs and a net add up to something. We may parse our question down even more and simply ask: what is a web?

A web does not occur spontaneously in nature, but is the meticulous and purposive construction of consciousness, of a wondrous little locus of same, called spider. It is perhaps nature's most elementary and lucid expression of the tenuous border between real and imagined, of the will of consciousness to cross over and become actualized in the world. It binds spider to life as it binds fly to death, and so we have the dual nature of Shakespeare's metaphor, the potential in magic for good or for ill. To find the same idea reflected in another culture, we need look no further than the Native American tradition of the dream-catcher, a net-like construction which stands for the web woven by Spider Woman, the purpose of which is to filter evil emanations from the minds of sleeping children. But if such a web were differently woven and evil filtered through rather than out..?

We get a pretty good idea in Act Four, as Iago completes his diabolical opus. The image of Iago gloating over the unmade hero as he lies in paroxysms of anguish, is one of the most inhuman in all of Shakespeare's works, and strongly underscores his magic theme by showing the physical manifestation of a psychological state.

"Work on // My medicine, work!" intones the villain. "Thus credulous fools are caught // And many worthy and chaste dames even thus // All guiltless, meet reproach" (4.1 41-43).

Now comes the little farce Iago plays with Cassio, causing Othello to think that he hears a confession of adultery with his wife. This bold trick would likely fail if Othello could still perceive the exchange clearly, but his mind is so eaten up with jealousy, his relation to reality so warped, that he sees what he expects to see, what Iago has primed him to see, and not what actually transpires. It's a case of stage magic (misdirection of the eye), being used to achieve real magic (misdirection of the mind).

When Iago then bluntly exhorts Othello to strangle his wife in her bed (a decidedly personal and vengeful method of execution), he is in direct contradiction of his earlier advice to spare her. But he wraps all these changes in the guise of an earnest and tortured friend, and times his reversals to match Othello's shifting moods. His work is mostly done now. He has ingeniously obtained permission to kill Cassio, and this leaves only his pet fool Roderigo yet to silence. Othello, for his part, has essentially gone mad with jealousy, unable to check his violence even in public. The witchcraft has done its work, and we all know what happens next.

These days we might comfortably label Iago a sociopath, and note how well he fits the profile, citing his lack of conscience, his charisma, his ability to overthrow weaker and less guarded minds. Our task would be made easy by ready-made profiles and warmed-over theories. But it is important to remember that Shakespeare crafted his monster in the dark, without precedent in literature or science, a feat of sheer intuitive genius. Such prescience in a writer is instructive, especially in an age where it has become fashionable to regard authors as mere "author functions," disposable stenographers of the prevailing hegemony. It reminds us that writers are not mere mouthpieces of culture, but movers and shapers of culture as well.

It is hard not to read in Othello a despairing lament for the failures of love to overcome deceit and jealousy. I do not believe Shakespeare intended to shield us from such a reading; the lifeless bodies on the bed give heavy testimony. But if we stop there, we overlook something.

Desdemona never renounces her love for Othello. Even as she watches him grow dangerously unstable, even as he strikes her, even as he murders her, she keeps love's faith. Shakespeare even hazards a highly improbable moment in his play when he revives her -- after she is stifled -- long enough to reaffirm her love for her killer. This may be one of those rare instances where we catch Shakespeare being a writer -- a mortal one -- leaning on the drama just enough to say what's in his heart. If so, what he seems to be saying is this: that love, the right kind of magic, can and does prevail in some. That the struggle is within us.

That all is not lost.


1. The idea of the unconscious mind reached a general readership with the publication of Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams in 1899.

Works Cited

Freud, Sigmund. Totem and Taboo, Essay Three. Trans. A.A. Brill, Ph.D., M.D. Ed.
   Aaron H. Esman, M.D. Barnes and Noble Books 2005.

Gebser, Jean. The Ever-Present Origin: Part One, Foundations of the Aperspectival
   World. Trans. Noel Barstad, Algis Mikunas. Ohio University Press 1991.

Jung, C.G. The Development of the Personality The Collected Works, Vol. 17.
   Trans. R.F.C. Hull Ed. Sir Herbert Read, Michael Fordham M.D., M.R.C.P., and
   Gerhard Adler, Ph.D. Bollingen Foundation 1981.

Pressley, J.M. "The Language of Shakespeare" The Shakespeare Resource Center
   Jan. 23 2007
   Apr. 25 2007

Seabrook, William S. Witchcraft - Its Power in the World Today. New York: Lancer
   Books, Inc. 1968

Shakespeare, William. "The Tragedy of Othello the Moor of Venice"
    The Norton Shakespeare Ed. Stephen Greenblatt, Walter Cohen, Jean E. Howard,
    Katharine Eisaman Maus
   W.W Norton & Company, Inc 1997

Article © Matthew Chabin. All rights reserved.
Published on 2015-01-19
Image(s) are public domain.
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