How is the theme of witchcraft used in Shakespeare's Othello?

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vangoghfan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Witchcraft is prominently raised as a major theme in Shakespeare’s Othello in the first act, when Brabantio suspects that his daughter Desdemona may have been influenced by witchcraft to fall in love with Othello and marry him. When Brabantio first encounters Othello, he exclaims,

O thou foul thief, where hast thou stowed my daughter?

Damned as thou art, thou hast enchanted her! (1.2.61-62)

He then develops these accusations at length. Later, when both men appear before the ducal court at Venice, Brabantio again publicly charges Othello with having used “spells and medicines” to steal Desdemona (1.3.61). He says that she would never have consented to the marriage if “witchcraft” had not been used (1.3.64).  He elaborates further on such charges when he accuses Othello of “practices of cunning hell” (102).

Othello, in defending his conduct and explaining the mutual love between himself and Desdemona, concludes,

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. (1.3.166-68)

Shakespeare goes out of his way, then, to raise in the first act of the play the idea of humans in league with the devil.  This idea does not fit Othello (at least not until the very end of the work perhaps, when he is accused by Emilia of devilish conduct), but it certainly seems appropriate to Iago.  Again and again Iago acts almost as a Satanic figure who takes pleasure in evil and who for the most part lacks any kind of conscience. At the very end of the first act, for instance, when he has conceived the plan by which he will try to destroy Othello, he says,

I have’t! It is engendered! Hell and night

Must bring this monstrous birth to the world’s light. (1.3.392-93)

Part of the paradox of Iago’s behavior, however, is that he is less a witch (or a man with supernatural powers) than he is a coldly calculating, supremely rational man who corrupts God’s great and heavenly gift of reason in order to do evil.  Instead of using reason to tame his passions, he uses reason to plot and scheme and thus advance his passionate desires.  In the end, there is very little that is magical about his manipulation of Othello; just as Othello uses no witchcraft, neither does Iago.  Instead, Iago plays on Othello’s own passions and corrupts and undermines Othello’s own powers of reason. Othello, at the end of the play, openly compares Iago to a devil (5.2.285-86), but, by the conclusion of the work, witchcraft seems no more responsible for Desdemona’s death than it was for Desdemona’s marriage.