Friday, April 22, 2011

Witchcraft and Warcraft

I put a spell on you, because you're mine
You better stop the things that you're doin'
I said "watch out, I ain't lyin..."
I ain't gonna take none of your foolin' around
Ain't gonna take none of your puttin' me down...
I put a spell on you, because you're mine.

Well, that's Othello in a nutshell. Okay, just kidding. But that's the soundtrack to today's post. If you want to hear the cheesy 1960's version I grew up with--i.e., the Creedence Clearwater Revival one--you can laugh at a goofy Jurassic-era video here. I love the spinning heads, and the bowl-cut hairdos. Believe it or not, this was the essence of cool back when I was a tween.

Witchcraft, love spells, infatuation. We still think in these terms, don't we? Although it's usually gender-specific. Women put spells on men, rendering them stupid and malleable. Whipped, as my brothers used to say. It's a ancient idea--remember that the witch Circe turned Odysseus' men into pigs, just because she could. Women bewitch men sexually, strip them of their rational armor, and leave them grunting in the mud. Long before the invention of literature, women's witchery--sexual allure--was seen as a threat to civilization itself.

If you make the idea more gender-neutral, i.e., if you concede that women can be as bewitched by sexual desire as men, it makes some sense. How else to explain the fact that so many brilliant, gifted, and hyper-rational people have been known to behave like lunatics when in the throes of infatuation? Infatuation makes us fatuous. Seduction leads us away from the truth, into the land of fantasy. Etymologically, "love" derives from the same root as "belief." Love is an act of faith, a turn away from reason, a leap into the emotional abyss that Freud called the Unconscious. No wonder people thought of it as a kind of enchantment.

Will invokes this idea a lot. In Antony and Cleopatra, Antony and Pompey both refer to Cleo as a seductive "witch." In Much Ado About Nothing, a comedy that's thematically analogous to Othello (in that both deal with irrational jealousy fueled by the poisonous rumors of a malevolent misanthrope), Claudio contends that is a witch
Against whose charms faith melteth into blood.

I like that quotation, because it perfectly captures both the magic of sexual attraction and the violence of jealousy. Faith melteth into blood, indeed. A lot of what we call "domestic violence" can be understood in just that way.

In Othello, Brabantio turns the tables, accusing Othello of bewitching his daughter into marriage. As the exotic outsider, Othello takes on the feminine role. He's mysterious, alluring, dangerous. And to a European audience, ugly by virtue of his color. Lacking beauty, he must have used necromancy. Desdemona's way out of his league, so how else could he have won her? Brabantio isn't subtle here--he's sure that Othello must have used some dark arts to make Desdemona overlook his dark skin:

O thou foul thief, where has thou stowed my daughter?
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,
Whether a maid so tender, fair, and happy,
So opposite to marriage that she shunned
The wealthy curled darlings of our nation,
Would ever have, t'incur the general mock,
Run from her guardage to the sooty bosom
Of such a thing as thou--to fear, not to delight.
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. I'll have't disputed on.
'Tis probable, and palpable to thinking.
I therefore apprehend and do attach thee
For an abuser of the world, a practiser
Of arts inhibited and out of warrant.

What did you do with my daughter? Because logically, she has absolutely no reason to want you. You're freakish, and so ugly that people would mock her for choosing you. She's not even interested in marriage--she rejected all the "wealthy curled darlings of our nation," after all.

I love "wealthy curled darlings." It conjures up (so to speak) images of obnoxious prep-school date-rapists in the William Kennedy Smith mold. Like Roderigo. I can definitely see him as captain of some lacrosse team on the East Coast. Date rape isn't a bad analogy here--Brabantio asserts that Othello may have "abused" Des with "drugs or minerals/That weakens motion." Slipped her some roofies, as they say these days. So he's either enchanted her, or he's drugged her. Because that's the only way a good girl of good family could possibly fall for a sooty-bosomed thing like him.

And how does our hero answer these wild accusations? Like a civilized man of reason. Othello's aware that he's too valuable to the Venetian state to be thrown in prison by an irate dad. Public achievement trumps private shenanigans every time--or at least when municipal security is at issue. Othello's services to the state shall, in his own words, "out-tongue" Brabantio's complaints. The Turks are threatening to invade Cyprus, and Venice--as well as Venetian trade--is in peril. Othello, a gifted general, is too valuable to imprison. Brabantio, for his part, is sure that the Duke will be on his side, because

...if such actions may have passage free,
Bondslaves and pagans shall our statesmen be.

If a sooty-bosomed foreigner can steal the daughters of good Venetian aristocrats, then all social hierarchies will surely topple, and mere anarchy will be loosed upon the world. So we have two threats--a military threat, from the outside, and a social threat, from the inside. Venice may fall to the Turks, or to the lower classes. Brabantio is pretty clear about which threat he takes more seriously.

In the midst of this squabble, the Duke and his cabinet--or whatever they called it--arrive in a flurry of anxiety over the impending Turkish invasion. The private world recedes before the threat of war. It's a bit disconcerting, this interruption--but not unlike the structure of Antony and Cleopatra, where the drama shifts continually between the public world of Rome and the erotic, dreamy realm of Egypt. Will plays with a similar opposition here--Venice is the rational, ordered world of public men, while Cyprus will prove to be a far more subversive place, where unconscious fears and desires overwhelm reason and law.

But that's for later. Now, Othello has to answer the charge of kidnapping and witchcraft. Brabantio states his case before the Duke, claiming that his daughter's been enchanted and/or drugged by the Moor:

She is abused, stol'n from me, and corrupted
By spells and medicines bought of mountebanks,
For nature so preposterously to err,
Being not deficient, blind, or lame of sense,
Sans witchcraft could not.

"For nature so preposterously to err..." What does it mean? It means that Desdemona has veered off course, emotionally and, by implication, morally. Maybe even metaphysically--that would be a racist's take on it, for sure. Will uses "err" here (and elsewhere) in the sense of "knight errant," but also in the sense we understand it now--making a mistake. To err was to wander morally, to take the sinister left-hand path. Desdemona has wandered away from her own nature. Since she's not intellectually disabled or mad, she must be bewitched.

So how is this standoff resolved? The way everything unfolds in this play--through storytelling. Othello, though he claims to be a rough, crude man of war, nonetheless promises to tell a story that will answer the charge of sorcery:

...Rude am I in my speech,
And little blessed with the soft phrase of peace,
For since these arms of mine had seven years' pith
Till now some nine moons wasted, they have used
Their dearest action in the tented field,
And little of this great world can I speak
More than pertains to feats and broils of battle.

From the age of seven until nine months ago, I've been a soldier. So I don't know how to talk to fancy, peacetime folks like yourselves. I totally hear an echo of Henry V  here, when King Harry is wooing Catherine, and says all that stuff about being a plain soldier who can't talk pretty to ladies. Which is an act, of course. Harry's an actor, and everything he does is contrived.

But Othello isn't. He really is a man's man, a soldier first and a lover second. He doesn't know much about women, or courtship, or any of it. He continues,

Yet, by your gracious patience,
I will a round unvarnished tale deliver
Of my whole course of love, what drugs, what charms,
What conjuration and what mighty magic--
For such proceeding I am charged withal--
I won his daughter.

A round unvarnished tale. That's the witchcraft, of course. Othello wins Desdemona by telling her stories about his adventures. Travel narratives, really. It's a long speech, this unvarnished tale about tale-telling, so I'll save it for next time.

Or rather the time after next. Next time--this Saturday, to be exact, I'll be blogging with about fifty other bloggers in honor of Shakespeare's birthday. Alleged birthday. It's a blog-a-thon sponsored by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. I'll have a link to the "birthday site," so you can (I think) read what other people are writing, too. It should be fun.


  1. As a dad, and now a grandfather, I relate to the whole father-in-law [Brabino's]dismay-thing. It's certainly not miscegnation, but why in God's name did my daughter make a baby with that kid?! And all the while the romance preceding progeny was enough to make any adult witness sick to their stomach, or so I thought. You've explained it though, Gayle, it was witchcraft. My grandson's biological dayd is a warlock. I'm so relieved. Just when I thought that there was no genetic good to come from the male genes conributing to the creation of my new favorite baby-guy.

    Thanks for the great post on Othello. I need to catch up with my reading in your awesome blog. Oh, and I subscribed as you suggested to the Bard Birthday Bash.


  2. Yes, BL, we now have an explanation for the horrendous mis-matches we see everywhere. I, myself, was passionately enamored of a total loser when I was 19. I still, to this day, can't understand what attracted me to this jerk. The only logical explanation is a hex. While I was scribbling his name all over my school notebooks, he was secretly collecting my hair and fingernails for use in some powerful occult ritual. Fortunately the effects lasted only a year or so. More fortunately still, my memories of this idiot are hazy. Perhaps that was a collateral effect of the enchantment.

    Teach your grandson to use his hereditary powers for good...maybe to bewitch evil politicians into doing something selfless for a change.