Shakespeare’s tragedy Othello devotes much of its first act to charges and denials of witchcraft. Brabantio, Desdemona’s father, accuses Othello of having used witchcraft to charm Desdemona into marrying him. Othello effectively refutes such charges by explaining the development of the mutual love he shares with Desdemona. At the very end of the first act, it is Iago, if anyone, who seems to be in league with the devil.
The first act’s emphasis on witchcraft serves a number of relevant purposes, especially in helping to characterize Desdemona and (later) Emilia. The theme of witchcraft is relevant to these two women in various ways, including the following:
- Witches were generally considered evil figures with Satanic motives and Satanic connections. Usually witches were thought of as females, as in the opening scenes of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. References to witchcraft have the effect of highlighting, by contrast, Desdemona’s purity and innocence. She is so virtuous that she seems almost the opposite of a witch.
- Witches were often thought of as old and physically ugly, a fact that helps highlight, by contrast, Desdemona’s youth and physical beauty.
- Witches were often thought to operate in covens – groups of similarly malign figures. There are, for instance, three witches at the beginning of Macbeth, not just one. The fact that Desdemona has such little contact with other women for most of the play (her only real female companion is Emilia) helps highlight her isolation and thus her vulnerability. She has no large group of female friends to rely on when Othello begins to become increasingly jealous and belligerent. Her only female companion is also her social inferior and thus is not in much of a position to help her in practical ways.
- Just as witches were often considered to be emasculating figures and could be viewed as projections of male neuroses, so Othello feels emasculated by Desdemona’s alleged adultery. Her supposed crimes are really reflections of Othello’s own overheated imagination.
- Just as witches were persecuted and often killed for crimes they did not commit, so the same thing happens to Desdemona.
- Just as witches were often slain by men who felt a special religious calling, so Othello sees himself as an instrument of divine justice when he kills Desdemona:
. . . confess thee freely of thy sin . . .
. . . Thou art to die. (5.2.53, 56)
- Just as witches were often accused of sexual transgression, so is Desdemona.
- Just as witches were often punished without recourse to genuine justice, so the same thing happens to Desdemona.
- Just as witches were supposed to operate with the assistance of other witches, so Othello accuses Emilia of assisting Desdemona in her supposed adultery by “keep[ing] the gate of hell” (4.2.91).
In short, the theme of witchcraft, first introduced into the play by Desdemona’s own father, helps highlight, mainly through contrast, many positive traits of Desdemona herself and also of Emilia.