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When Othello is brought before an “ad hoc” court of law for surreptitiously marring Desdemona, Brabantio essentially accuses him of using “witchcraft” as a means of seducing his daughter suggesting,

She is abused . . . By spells and medicines bought of mountebanks . . . Sans witchcraft could not. (1.3.60-64)

Othello emphatically denies any witchcraft and claims his amazing stories are the only "charm" he used. However, later Othello admits that the handkerchief he had given Desdemona (his first gift to her) was given to his mother by a “charmer” and was actually used by his own mother to “subdue [his] father” (3.4.58ff).

While Othello is convincing in his defense of not using witchcraft to woo Desdemona, this story of the Egyptian woman in Act 3 makes it appear that Othello was lying previously. Was his defense a harmless inexactitude; or was he (understandably) lying to save himself from the allegation of using witchcraft to charm Desdemona?

Sources

Bate, Jonathan and Rasmussen, Eric. Othello. The Modern Library, 2009.

3 Answers 3

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In Act 3, scene 4, lines 65-67, Othello says about the handkerchief:

(...): she [Othello's mother], dying, gave it me;
And bid me, when my fate would have me wive,
To give it her. I did so: (...)

Based on this, it is possible to argue that Othello gave the handkerchief to Desdemona only after she had married him or after she had consented to marry him. In either case, there would be no evidence that the handkerchief was used in the seduction of Desdemona.

Of course, it may be difficult to pinpoint at exactly what point in the play Othello would have given Desdemona the handkerchief: just before the beginning of the play, before the "trial", at some point between the trial and the departure for Cyprus? The timeline between the last scene in Venice (Act I, scene 3) and the arrival of various characters, who travelled on different ships, on Cyprus seems a bit messy; this should be treated as "dramatic time" rather than literal time in a consistent fictional universe.

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  • Astute observations! Thank you!
    – user10067
    Commented Jun 5, 2020 at 19:42
3

Of the four major tragedies, Othello is the play most grounded in reality. Yes, the handkerchief is a family heirloom, and Othello honors his dying mother's request to give the handkerchief to his wife when he decides to marry. This doesn't necessarily mean that Othello believes in enchantments.

It seems a misinterpretation to view Othello, a general to the Duke, as knowingly dabbling in enchantments to win Desdemona, who is very devoted to Othello. Even when the handkerchief is taken by Emilia, we can presume that Desdemona remains faithful to Othello.

Before Brabantio accuses Othello of using enchantments, the father accuses Othello of theft. The escalation of the charges in public is the histrionics of a man beside himself with grief.

Brabantio has said:

...For my particular grief
Is of so flood-gate and o'rebaring Nature
That it engulfs, and swallows other sorrows,
and it is still itself.

Oth. 1.3.57-60

Othello's defense should be understood as direct and honest. He is not telling a "harmless inexactitude" nor is he in a circumstance that he would need to lie. After all, it is a fact that Othello has married Desdemona. Brabantio, once he sees that Desdemona is safe and happy, is quick to accept Othello as his son-in-law. Othello's defense is his life story, which is remarkable, and Desdemona is enchanted to hear it.

Othello's defense should be viewed in its full context at Oth. 1.3.130-171 in the Bantam edition, or at Oth. 1.3.120-179 in the Arden Edition. Preceding the line in the discussion question, Othello says:

She loved me for the dangers that I passed,
And I loved her that she did pity them.

These lines are, of course, very ironic when one knows how the play turns out. But Othello could not have foreseen the outcome, and there is no reason to think that in Act One, he is lying.

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  • Well done indeed! Thank you!
    – user10067
    Commented Jun 6, 2020 at 2:37
1

Indeed, Othello described the use of magic in 3.4, where he wanted to scare Desdemona and observe her reaction. But he denied the use of magic twice in this play—first in front of the Council and Brabantio (1.3), second in front of his wife's dead body and all characters in Cyprus (5.2).

And she did gratify his amorous works
With that recognizance and pledge of love
Which I first gave her: I saw it in his hand,
It was a handkerchief, an antique token
My father gave my mother.
(5.2.212-216)

You see the difference: in 3.4 the handkerchief was given by his mother, to "subdue my father" (3.4.36); but here, when he was describing the crime of Desdemona, he spoke the opposite—which is the truth?

In my opinion, and according to the Spirit of Tragedy, the description of magic is deceptive. Because in 3.4 Othello was already poisoned by Iago, and he wanted to gain his "satisfaction" (3.3) by scaring Desdemona—and Desdemona, in her fear, did not answer the whole truth.

OTHELLO
Most veritable, therefore look to’t well.
DESDEMONA
Then would to God that I had never seen’t!
OTHELLO
Ha! Wherefore?
DESDEMONA
Why do you speak so startingly and rash?
OTHELLO
Is’t lost? Is’t gone? Speak, is’t out o’th’ way?
DESDEMONA
Heaven bless us!
OTHELLO
Say you?
DESDEMONA
It is not lost, but what an if it were?
OTHELLO
How?
DESDEMONA
I say it is not lost.
OTHELLO
Fetch’t, let me see’t.
DESDEMONA
Why, so I can, sir; but I will not now.
This is a trick to put me from my suit.
Pray you, let Cassio be received again.

Mrs. Jameson said "she was betrayed by her fears into a momentary tergiversation.", but Furness suggested that Desdemona did not tell the lie, "she did not believe it to be actually lost, irrecoverably gone; it was merely mislaid ... If she had not been terrified she might have told all this to Othello ... but, as it is, I think in her soul she believed she was telling the truth."

Whatsoever, 'tis fair that Othello's deception did not lead to the truth, and when he finally told the truth, Emilia brought the Justice:

EMILIA
’Twill out, ’twill out! I peace?
No, I will speak as liberal as the north.
Let heaven and men and devils, let them all,
All, all cry shame against me, yet I’ll speak.
...
EMILIA
She give it Cassio? No, alas, I found it
And I did give’t my husband.

In conclusion, in 1.3 and 5.2, when Othello was in his peak of heroism, he told the truth, which leaded to his fortune and justice; and in 3.4, he was poisoned by Iago, and thus told a lie about the handkerchief, which "over-excited Desdemona" (Cowden-Clarke), and received a non-truth from his wife, leading to "the tragic loading of this bed." (5.2.363). And the differences of these description represents the mastery of Shakespeare's plotting technique.

Source: A New Variorum Edtion of Othello, edited by Horace Howard Furness.

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