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an online postgraduate research journal

STET #2 | MAY 2012 | POLTRACK, University of Warwick

‘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 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.

Stet is the online journal of the postgraduate community of the English Department at King’s College London.

© EMMA POLTRACK 2012 2 an online postgraduate research journal STET #2 | MAY 2012 | POLTRACK, University of Warwick 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’ 7 Similarly, ‘supernatural’ will be used to describe instances, appropriate.

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.


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).


Stuart Clark, Thinking with Demons: The Ideas 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.

Stet is the online journal of the postgraduate community of the English Department at King’s College London.

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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 At the same time that witchcraft literature was in decline, more and more was written about the perceived dangers of alcohol. 12 The large amount of writing concerning drunkenness found in the early to the middle of the 1600s corresponds with an increase in public drinking, partly due to the increasing 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).


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).

12 It is important to note that the term ‘alcohol’ is anachronistic to the time period being examined, but will be used within this paper to generally describe drinks that are able to intoxicate. ‘Alcohol,’ def. 3a, The Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd edn. 1989.

Stet is the online journal of the postgraduate community of the English Department at King’s College London.

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number of alehouses. Though the lack of accurate records makes it hard to determine with precision, Peter Clark estimates that the ratio of alehouses to inhabitants in 1577 was reduced by more than a third by the 1630s. 13 Parliament passed four statutes against drunkenness between 1604 and 1625 – an indication drinking was increasingly becoming a public concern. 14 Alehouses served a role previously fulfilled by the church as a gathering place for community events and shelter for vagrants looking for work, and drink ‘played a part in nearly every public and private ceremony, every commercial bargain, every craft ritual, every private occasion of mourning or rejoicing.’ 15 Whether or not the average Englishman’s consumption of alcohol grew during this time period, it is clear alcohol itself was more visible as a community staple. This heightened awareness led to more and more written condemnations of its effects, many of which referenced alcohol as related to the Devil. Alehouses were ‘nests of Satan’, and the ‘Devils castles […] the campus Martius of Satan.’16 Thomas Heywood’s Philocosthonista (1635) presented drunkenness as ‘a sweete sinne, a pleasant poyson, and a bewitching devill’, and A looking-glasse for drunkards (1627) called it ‘a flattering Deuill.’17 Though different drinks were physiologically thought to have different effects on the body, the practical symptoms of drunkenness are common to all types of alcohol. For instance, whereas wine was thought to heat a man’s blood and inspire choler and small ale was believed to make one sluggish and dull, excess of either would lead to intoxication. 18 Literature focusing on ale and theatrical presentations of the ill 13 Peter Clark, The English Alehouse: A Social History 1200-1830 (London: Longman, 1983), pp.


14 Clark, The English Alehouse, p. 109.

15 Clark, ‘Alternative Society,’ p. 61; Thomas, Decline of Magic, p. 17.

16 Clark, ‘Alternative Society,’ p. 47; Henry Wilkinson, Miranda, stupenda (1646), p. 26.

17 Thomas Heywood, Philocothonista, or, The drunkard, opened, dissected, and anatomized (London, 1635), p. 8.; Anonymous, A looking-glasse for drunkard, or the hvnting of drunkennesses (London, 1627), sigA2.v.

18 David Shelley Berkeley, ed. by Peter C. Rollins and Alan Smith (New York: Peter Lang Publishing Inc., 2001), pp. 19-42 (pp. 21-22).

Stet is the online journal of the postgraduate community of the English Department at King’s College London.

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effects of wine, such as Othello, is part of a larger discussion regarding alcohol consumption in early modern England.19 What linked discussions of witchcraft and alcohol was the destabilizing threat both of them posed to the hierarchies that formed the foundation of early modern English society, hierarchies which allowed a measure of control to be enacted over both society and the larger natural world. Chains of order were recreated again and again in increasingly narrower contexts, as evidenced in the Elizabethan homily ‘An Exhortation Concerning Good Order and Obedience to

Rulers and Magistrates’:

Almighty God hath created and appointed all things in heaven, earth and waters, in a most excellent and perfect order […] The earth, trees, seeds, plants, herbs, corn and grass, and all manner of beasts keep themselves in their order […] Every degree of people […] hath appointed to them duty and order. Some are in high degree, some in low; some kings and princes, some inferiors and subjects; priests and laymen, masters and servants, fathers and children, husbands and wives, rich and poor.20 These hierarchies were seen as evidence of God’s design on Earth, making their destabilization a serious threat which would then weaken God’s divine order.

Of all of these dichotomies, the delicate distinction between man and beast was the most pressing concern: as Thomas points out, ‘wherever we look […] we find anxiety, latent or explicit, about any form of behaviour which threatened to 19 Smith, ‘Of Lively Grapes,’ pp. 29-30; Clark, The English Alehouse, p. 5.

20 Anonymous, An exhortation concerning good order and obedience to rulers and magistrates (1562) in Certain Sermons or Homilies Appointed to be Read in Churches in the Time of Queen Elizabeth of Famous Memory, 2 vols (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1851), I, pp. 109-122 (pp. 109-110).

Stet is the online journal of the postgraduate community of the English Department at King’s College London.

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transgress the fragile boundaries between man and the animal creation.’21 Within Christianity, these boundaries had been established by God in the Garden of Eden, and were strengthened in the classification of souls.22 The vegetative and sensitive souls were common to both animals and humans, the sensitive evidenced by the existence of passions. The rational soul, unique only to humans, was required to subdue these passions, giving humans the ability to reason and allowing them to exert control not only over animals, but over themselves as well. 23 To lose this control was to sacrifice the most important characteristic that separated man from beast.

Anxieties surrounding the effects of alcohol and witchcraft often focused on the ability of both elements to diminish this control and to blur the boundaries between what was human and what was bestial. In A delicate Diet, for daintiemouthde Droonkardes (1576), George Gascoigne explicitly states the connection between drinking and beastly behaviour when he ‘set[s] downe this for [his] generall proposition, That all Droonkardes are Beastes.’24 Later, other authors continued to build upon this language, including in their writings specific catalogues of the various types of drunks and their animal counterparts. Thomas Young’s England’s bane: or, The Description of Drunkennesse (1617) named nine types of drunkard, eight of which were identified by likeness to an animal, including the ‘Lyon drunke, which breakes glasse windowes […] strikes, fights or 21

Keith Thomas, Man and the Natural World: Changing Attitudes in England 1500-1800 (London:

Allen Lane, 1983), p. 38.

22 Philip C. Almond, Demonic Possession and Exorcism in Early Modern England: Contemporary Texts and their Contexts (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), p. 34.

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