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An enemy in their mouths’:
Alcohol and Secular Possession in
Othello

This article explores the way in which William Shakespeare’s use of contemporary beliefs about witchcraft to present alcoholic intoxication in Othello reflects larger questions regarding conceptions of demonic influence in early modern England. As the Devil became an increasingly internalized presence, as opposed to an external force, condemnations of drunkenness appropriated language that had previously been used to describe cases of possession. Written at the turn of the seventeenth century, Othello is historically placed at the intersection of the decline of witchcraft literature and the increase of anti-drinking rhetoric, and consequently provides a valuable study of how the language of witchcraft and intoxication began to merge.1 Specifically, Othello draws on rhetoric surrounding the way in which both possession and drunkenness weakened the distinction between man and beast. Cassio’s drunken quarrel is an example of man surrendering to passions and sacrificing his reason, thus becoming bestial in his actions. The language of Othello reveals how the ideas regarding rationality and self-control that originally applied to instances of witchcraft began to be used to describe and condemn alcoholic intoxication.

While scholarship regarding early modern conceptions of witchcraft and alcoholic consumption does contain cursory acknowledgments of their similarities, it has failed to fully examine these connections. In his introduction to Religion and the Decline of Magic, Keith Thomas outlines the social factors, specifically poverty, which contributed to the prominence of witchcraft cases in the sixteenth century.2 The context he disusses is similar to that informing Peter Clark’s discussion of the popularity of the alehouse in ‘The Alehouse and the Alternative Society.’3

Stuart Clark makes passing mention of how the tone and intentions of texts discussing witchcraft and magic ‘ran parallel […] to discussions of such things as sexual behaviour […] the evils of drinking and dancing, and other issues of lay morality,’ but he does not provide examples of these similarities or how they might be connected.4 His observation that the concept of transformation in witchcraft ‘suggested that instinct might replace reason and brutishness virtue’5 comes very close to Adam Smyth’s discussion of how ‘the most consistently noted characteristic of drunkenness — particularly in condemnations — was that it introduced a loss of rationalism.’6 Questions of rationality and self-control are at the forefront of both topics, warranting a closer examination of what these intersections mean. Though ‘witchcraft’ can be defined as only coming from a demonic pact and while maleficarum caused through earthly agency is considered ‘sorcery,’ the term ‘witchcraft’ will be used throughout this article to describe any kind of influence thought to be related to the use of magic or demonic influence. Beliefs about both witchcraft and sorcery during the early modern period were similar enough to make this broader use of ‘witchcraft’ appropriate.7 Similarly, ‘supernatural’ will be used to describe instances, including possession, that are perceived as related to or are a consequence of witchcraft, while ‘secular’ will be applied when describing incidents that have earthly explanations.

With these definitions in mind, it is important to understand the respective trajectories of witchcraft and anti-drinking literature. The first documentary pamphlet describing an incidence of witchcraft was published in 1566, and more were published in the last thirteen years of Elizabeth’s reign than in the previous two decades combined.8 Reginald Scot’s The Discoverie of Witchcraft, a largely skeptical examination of witchcraft accusations and persecutions, was published in 1584 and prompted responses from such authors as John Darrell, Henry Holland, William Perkins and even King James I.9 King James’ accession to the throne of England in 1603 corresponded with a number of theatrical treatments of witches. These plays capitalized on the new monarch’s professed interest in the supernatural, evidenced by his authorship of Daemonologie (1597) and Newes from Scotland (1591). Despite this outpouring at the turn of the century, popular attention to witchcraft then began to wane. The height of European witchcraft persecutions has been identified by Stuart Clark as between 1580 and 1630,10 and James Sharpe posits that by the 1630s witchcraft ‘had been to a large extent marginalized among officialdom and the educated’.11

  1. Scholarship places the year as between 1601-1604., ‘Introduction,’ in Othello by William Shakespeare, ed. by E. A. J. Honigmann, The Arden Shakespeare, 3rd edn. (London: Thomson Learning, 1997), pp. 1-112 (pp. 1-2). All further references to Othello will be cited from this edition. []
  2. Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic: Studies in Popular Beliefs in Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century England (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1971), pp. 5-8. []
  3. Peter Clark, ‘The Alehouse and the Alternative Society,” in Puritans and Revolutionaries: Essays in Seventeenth-century History Presented to Christopher Hill, ed. by Donald Pennington and Keith Thomas (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978), pp. 47-72 (pp. 53-57). []
  4. Stuart Clark, Thinking with Demons: The Idea of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe (Oxford: Clarendon, 1997), p. 438. []
  5. Stuart Clark, ‘Inversion, Misrule and the Meaning of Witchcraft’, Past and Present, 87 (1980), pp. 98-127 (p. 120). []
  6. Adam Smyth, ‘“It were far better to be a Toad, or a Serpent, then a Drunkard”: Writing about Drunkenness,’ in A Pleasing Sinne: Drink and Convivality in Seventeenth Century England, ed. by Adam Smyth (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2004), pp. 193-210 (p. 196). []
  7. Thomas, Decline of Magic, pp. 463-465. []
  8. Kirilka Stavreva, ‘Fighting Words: Witch-Speak in Late Elizabethan Docu-fiction’, Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies, 30 (2000), pp. 309-38 (p. 309). []
  9. James Sharpe, Instruments of Darkness: Witchcraft in Early Modern England (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996), p. 55. []
  10. Clark, ‘Inversion,’ p. 127 []
  11. Public concerns regarding witchcraft would re-emerge later in the century, as evidenced by the Matthew Hopkins witch-hunts. As such a re-emergence could not be predicted at the time, the decline in public concern remains significant. James Sharpe, ‘The Debate on Witchcraft,’ in A New Companion to Renaissance Literature and Culture, ed. by Michael Hattaway, 2 vols (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), II, pp. 513-522 (p. 521). []

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