One of the things that tripped me up often over the years when I was out of practice was that I “realized” how so much of magic seemed to just be “bad poetry” one was supposed to recite for, boom, results.[*] And I thought at the time that, well, how can wishing accomplish magic?
Of course, part of the problem was that I was thinking in terms of “mere” poetry as opposed to performance. Poetry often demands performance, to be spoken aloud–and at that point, poetry becomes a brief drama, even if perhaps more lyrical drama or symbolist drama or even storytelling.
The act of utterance, the speech act, entails an embodying of the word or spirit (inspiration) as our bodies literally exteriorize what otherwise would remain a mental activity. In a sense, speech earths and manifests something imagined into the world, and the same is true of other embodied expressions like dance and intentional, expressive movement. Similarly, for the action of creating art in its more conventional senses, like sculpture or painting, that action accomplishes a similar embodied en-acting and exteriorizing and earthing of the imaginal, the inspirational.
If you read/perform a piece of (even “bad”) poetic ritual aloud, then you are performing and enacting the words you’ve memorized or are reading. Let’s say you’re reading something good. For example:
Say over again, and yet once over again,
That thou dost love me. Though the word repeated
Should seem “a cuckoo-song,” as thou dost treat it,
Remember, never to the hill or plain,
Valley and wood, without her cuckoo-strain
Comes the fresh Spring in all her green completed.
Belovèd, I, amid the darkness greeted
By a doubtful spirit-voice, in that doubt’s pain
Cry, “Speak once more—thou lovest!” Who can fear
Too many stars, though each in heaven shall roll,
Too many flowers, though each shall crown the year?
Say thou dost love me, love me, love me—toll
The silver iterance!—only minding, Dear,
To love me also in silence with thy soul.
In reading the poem aloud, a curious thing can start to happen, especially if, in reading it, you can do so well enough to actually get into the experience. Many people who aren’t used to poetry or speaking a reading aloud tend to stumble over the words, and sometimes you still have to practice speaking the text until you figure out your particular rhythm for the speech. In essence, if you’re stumbling over the words—or if you’re reading-in-a-monotone–then you aren’t going to get at the text.
But if you can “make it your own” as you read it aloud, then you start identifying with the “speaker of the poem”—the poem’s I. And after reading that sonnet, you might start feeling the emotions of love and passion and desire and more that the poem “encodes” within it.
You Shall Shine More Bright in These Contents
And there’s magic there.
And if someone else is listening to you speak and “own” the poem, then, for them, the experience can be as if you’re the poetic I speaking those emotions at them, and they become the thou the sonnet commands to “toll / The silver iterance” (that is, say you love them).
In comparison, something like the psalms can take on a similarly performative and transformative quality:
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want
He makes me down to lie
Through pastures green he leadeth me the silent waters by
With bright knives he releaseth my soul
He maketh me to hang on hooks in high places
He converteth me to lamb cutlets
For lo, he hath great power and great hunger
When cometh the day we lowly ones
Through quiet reflection and great dedication
Master the art of karate
Lo, we shall rise up
And then we’ll make the bugger’s eyes water.
Here, if you get into the performance of the song, you’re essentially imagining and calling for The Lord to do these things even as your I within the song “shall not want,” is led by The Lord, has your soul released, and so on. In religion, we call this prayer. Elsewhere, we can call this magic.
In another performative context, consider the following:
…these fellows have some soul;
And such a one do I profess myself. For, sir,
It is as sure as you are Roderigo,
Were I the Moor, I would not be Iago:
In following him, I follow but myself;
Heaven is my judge, not I for love and duty,
But seeming so, for my peculiar end:
For when my outward action doth demonstrate
The native act and figure of my heart
In compliment extern, ’tis not long after
But I will wear my heart upon my sleeve
For daws to peck at: I am not what I am.
This is Iago from Othello speaking to Roderigo, trying to convince him that he’s on Roderigo’s side and opposed to Othello. The actor and Roderigo are probably using “representational acting”: they’re trying to be convincing as the characters so that audiences suspend their disbelief and imagine that they’re watching Iago and Roderigo and not the actors. (It’s like how you’re not watching Daniel Radcliffe as Harry Potter: you’re watching Harry Fucking Potter.) The passage above is also rhetorical: Iago is trying to convince Roderigo of his loyalty, and Roderigo isn’t particularly bright. Roderigo goes along with Iago even as a discerning audience may notice that Iago is telling Roderigo that he’s a liar, a hypocrite who avoids “demonstrate[ing] / The native [actual] act and figure [shape] of [his] heart / In compliment extern”—that Iago doesn’t act or show how he actually feels and thinks inside. Iago is a master of “seeming so, for [his] peculiar end,” and that’s ultimately true here for Roderigo. And while Iago tells Roderigo (and the audience) he’s this stage Machivel (a character type who relies on deceit and acting to trick others), he also says the odd “I am not what I am.” In a sense, Iago even performs diabolic deception and negation of the divine: I am not what I am rather than I am that I am.
And by the end of the play, Iago has become quite satanic. Even Othello calls him out for it.
Magic and the Transformation of Iago & Othello
Now, magic is all throughout Shakespeare. But let me focus on Othello for the moment:
- Brabantio (Desdemona’s dad) in act 1 repeatedly accuses Othello of using magic, witchcraft, poison, and drugs. (Brabantio can’t imagine how else his teenage daughter would have married Othello.)
- Othello notes this and references “what drugs, what charms, / What conjuration and what mighty magic” he used to woo Desdemona. He ultimately says that the “only…witchcraft [he has] used” on Desdemona was that “She loved [him] for the dangers [he] had pass’d” through the stories of his life he told, “And I loved her that she did pity them.”
- Othello describes the enchanted handkerchief his mother (or father) passed along to him to give to his wife—with “magic in the web of it” to ensure the loyalty of one’s beloved.
- Iago reminds Roderigo that they “work by wit, and not by witchcraft” (but see below).
- Iago reminds Othello that Brabantio “thought ‘twas witchcraft” that Desdemona, “so young, could give out such a seeming, / To seal her father’s eyes up close as oak” about her marriage to Othello.
- Iago plans to use the handkerchief he recovers clandestinely to use against Othello so that “Not poppy, nor mandragora,/ Nor all the drowsy syrups of the world, / Shall ever medicine [Othello] to that sweet sleep / Which [he had] yesterday.”
- Brabantio accuses Othello of using “spells and medicines bought of mountebanks”—hustling street magicians and charlatans. Iago also references figurative, imaginal medicines: the handkerchief above, but also the medicine he has put into Othello’s ears that leads to Othello’s epileptic seizure or trance. In comparison, remember how Claudius kills Old Hamlet with the old poison in the ear trick—using literal poison even as the poison reflects the rhetoric and deceit Claudius uses. In a similar way, Lady Macbeth plans to “pour [her] spirits in [Macbeth’s] ear” to convince him to murder Duncan to claim the Scottish throne.
- Charms come up often, as well. In addition to what I’ve already mentioned, Othello references the Egyptian who gave the enchanted handkerchief to his mother, and that “charmer…could almost read / The thoughts of people” (so, telepathy). Othello compares Desdemona’s eyes as “those charms” that would keep him from his planned murder of her. Emilia says she “will not charm [her] tongue; [she is] bound to speak” of the murder of Desdemona.
- The Devil is everywhere in Iago compares Othello to the devil when riling up Brabantio about the clandestine marriage and to motivate Roderigo, deploying racism and miscegenation fears to mobilize both men. Iago also compares women to “Saints in [their] injuries, devils being offended.” Cassio curses the “invisible spirit of wine…let us call thee devil!” He then reflects on “How am I then a villain / To counsel Cassio to this parallel course, / Directly to his good? Divinity of hell! / When devils will the blackest sins put on, / They do suggest at first with heavenly shows, / As I do now.” Othello calls Cassio “the fair devil,” and later calls Desdemona “a young and sweating devil… / That commonly rebels.” Cassio tells Bianca to “Throw [her] vile guesses” about what he’s been doing “in the devil’s teeth, / From whence you have them.” Othello speaks of “hypocrisy against the devil” as he ponders whether any couple could lie in bed “with her friend… / An hour or more, not meaning any harm.” Bianca curses Cassio: “Let the devil and his dam haunt you!” Othello calls Desdemona “Devil!” repeatedly, and finally calls on Desdemona to swear falsely and “damn [herself] / Lest, being like one of heaven, the devils themselves / Should fear to seize thee.” Emilia calls Othello devil after he admits he murdered Desdemona, and she says she “will speak as liberal as the north: / Let heaven and men and devils, let them all, / All, all, cry shame against [her], yet [she’ll] speak.” Othello calls on “ye devils” to “Whip [him.] He compares Iago finally to a devil: “I look down towards his feet, but that’s a fable. / If that thou be’est a devil, I cannot kill thee.” (Indeed, he can’t.)
Indeed, it’s a reasonable thesis to say that, even if Iago isn’t a devil at the beginning of Othello, his desire for revenge (for whatever reasons) changes him into one. In a similar manner, though, Iago has transformed Othello through his own diabolic magic: Othello has gone from the eloquent, commanding presence in a companionate relationship with Desdemona in the first two acts to become precisely the racist stereotype Iago deployed against Othello at the beginning of the play, and Iago accomplishes this by letting Othello’s increasingly twisted desires transform him.
Ovidian Art & Magic
And in these senses, Shakespeare’s drawing on a model of desire and transformation that the Renaissance gets from the Roman poet Ovid. Indeed, it’s a reasonable thesis to say that, even if Iago isn’t a devil at the beginning of Othello, his desire for revenge (for whatever reasons) changes him into one. In a similar manner, though, Iago has transformed Othello through his own diabolic magic: Othello has gone from the eloquent, commanding presence in a companionate relationship with Desdemona in the first two acts to become precisely the racist stereotype Iago deployed against Othello at the beginning of the play, and Iago accomplishes this by letting Othello’s increasingly twisted desires transform him.
Renaissance England rediscovered Ovid and his Metamorphoses primarily through Arthur Golding’s translation of 1567. Paul Barolsky offers a “generalize[d version of] Ovid’s implicit theory of art, [that] all art is a transformation or metamorphosis of something into something new.” Otherwise, as Peter Hyland notes, “Elizabethan readers craved Ovidian stories,” and those Ovidian stories focused on “the idea of transformation,” whether physical transformations or psychological ones. In a way, Ovid provides writers like Shakespeare a model for conceiving of “the sinister or disturbing aspects of the transformations wrought by desire.” Ovidian desire is transformative desire. For example, Apollo is transformed by the sexual desire he feels for Daphne (brought about by Cupid’s arrow), and Apollo transforms into a raving, rapine maniac. In turn, Daphne’s desperate desire to escape rape leads to her transformation into the bay laurel tree. In a similar manner, Iago’s desire for revenge transforms him into a (figurative or literal–it works out about the same) devil, and Othello’s desire for revenge for supposed cuckoldry leads him to become the brutish racist stereotype that Iago used to rile Brabantio in 1.1.
Now, the play’s extensive language of magic reflects in part the way late Tudor/early Jacobean culture spoke and thought, but it shows nevertheless the, perhaps often unconscious, magical conception of reality that undergird the London audience’s otherwise urbane surface. What gets my attention for this post, though, is how the play works to transform the audience.
Dramatic irony is one of those literary terms you’ve probably heard of at some point, and Shakespeare deploys it masterly and often. Dramatic irony is when the audience knows more about a situation onstage than the characters do. Iago tells the audience through his soliloquies precisely what he’s doing to Othello and Desdemona. The audience sees the eloquent Othello and Desdemona, sees how he leads and is calm and confident throughout the first two acts (well, through 2.1), sees how Desdemona expertly saves Othello’s life by speaking in front of the Venetian Senate by using patriarchal logic against the patriarchs[**], sees how much Othello trusts his life with her by calling for her to defend him to the Venetian Senate, sees the companionate relationship and love they have for each other, and sees how Iago is a conniving, evil fuck. Shakespeare knows how to manipulate audience sympathy and how to align the audiences sympathies through dramatic irony with some characters and not others.
And through dramatic irony, through the audience knowing that Desdemona is certifiably innocent of the charges against her—well, the audience then has to confront what Iago’s doing. For as much as he tells them what he’s doing, a reasonable audience is likely to feel for Othello and Desdemona and to feel anger and tension and anxiety about what’s building as Iago’s plan comes to fruition.
The audience is wanting to scream at Othello that Iago’s lying.
You see, sure, everyone might go into a Shakespearean tragedy knowing intellectually that most everyone is going to die. It’s another thing to get into the play and start sympathizing (or feeling compassion—suffering with) for characters—watching the doom come to pass. And in the case of a play like Othello, the audience has to ask how and why Iago can do these things.
Hint: It’s the demons of Misogyny and Racism.
Hint: Shakespeare wants to transform you into a not-Misogynist and a not-Racist.
A Headless Transformation
Thee I invoke, the Bornless one.
Thee, that didst create the Earth and the Heavens:
Thee, that didst create the Night and the day.
Thee, that didst create the darkness and the Light.
Thou art Osorronophris: Whom no man hath seen at any time.
Thou art Iabos:
Thou art Iapos:
Thou hast distinguished between the just and the Unjust.
Thou didst make the female and the Male.
Thou didst produce the Seed and the Fruit.
Thou didst form Men to love one another, and to hate one another.
I am _________ Thy Prophet, unto Whom Thou didst commit Thy Mysteries, the Ceremonies of _________:
Thou didst produce the moist and the dry, and that which nourisheth all created Life.
Hear Thou Me, for I am the Angel of Apophrasz Osorronophris: this is Thy True Name, handed down to the Prophets of _________.
So, magic—if you can get into the speech, the invocation, incantation, or however you want to call it, if you can feel something as you speak it, perform it aloud, then you start doing transformative things. In part, you start identifying as the I of whatever you’re saying aloud, and whoever you’re addressing becomes drawn into the ritual, as well.
That’s a feature. You want to get their attention, as Gordon White often says.
The best rule of thumb I have for whether a magical (or religious, if that’s your jam) rite is working is if you feel something as you’re going. What you feel should embody itself in some way: you shouldn’t have a real question whether it’s happening. For me, I totally will start going one-leggéd like the various Badbs in Irish folklore.
But for something like the Headless Rite, you first have the invocation of a demiurgic deity, but you also then have an assertion of authority and position on your part: “I am the [messenger] of [Pharaoh] Osorronophris”; “I am He! the Bornless Spirit! having sight in the Feet: Strong, and the Immortal Fire!” This rite is, in many ways, a matter of asserting and performing your authority to the cosmos and its denizens. At the same time, you are trying to transform yourself into that authority.
Or perhaps you’re managing to pass, much like Shakespeare’s Rosalind manages to pass as Rosalind-as-Ganymede, or like Iago-as-Honest-Iago does.
But you have to feel it, have to own it. But you have to perform it nonetheless.
And a rite like the Headless Rite, directed to such a cosmic being–well, the constellation Orion or whoever is identified with that constellation–also gets the attention of most everything nearby when you do it properly. And hopefully you also embody and perform the authority the rite would endue into you. But hopefully, as the messenger of the astrotheological pharaoh, you also remember that diplomacy is very much something a messenger should cultivate.
Featured Image: Rosalind from The Graphic Gallery of Shakespeare’s Heroines (1896), by Robert Walker Macbeth (wow), via the Folger Shakespeare Library Digital Image Collection, under CC Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International License. Here we see Rosalind wondering what the fuck Orlando was writing to her and stapling to every tree in the Forest of Arden.
[*] My title I adapt from Shakespeare’s sonnet 55. So’s my first heading. Meanwhile, one of the first texts that convinced me I was being a snob about this was Francesca de Grandis’s Be a Goddess!
 Elizabeth Barrett Browning, sonnet 21 from Sonnets from the Portuguese. What I actually love about SftP is how they show Browning owning the Petrarchan sonnet tradition and remaking it into a study in companionate marriage and desire.
 That’s Pink Floyd’s “Sheep” from Animals, by the way.
 Paul Barolsky, “Ovid’s Metamorphoses and the History of Baroque Art,” in A Handbook to the Reception of Ovid, edited by John F. Miller and Carole E. Newlands (Chichester: Wily Blackwell, 2014), 203.
 Peter Hyland, An Introduction to Shakespeare’s Poems (New York: Palgrave, 2003), 61-2.
[**] Although naive in comparison to characters like Emilia–go fig, Desdemona is young–Desdemona is fucking awesome you guys. Like Beatrice in Much Ado about Nothing, “she wished / That heaven had made her…a man.” Othello also chooses to call her his “fair warrior,” and that means something from a career soldier and general.
 There are questions of the form that racism takes within the early modern period and how constructions of early modern race are different from those we now know, but the fact remains that Iago deploys racism and miscegenation fears against Brabantio to lead him to form what, in mid-twentieth century America (and earlier), would be a lynch mob targeting a man of color.
 There are lots of variations and versions on the Headless Rite, or the Bornless Rite, or etc. I found this one at Wikipedia, and they identify it as Crowley’s. But I’m going to point you to Jake Stratton-Kent, The Headless One ([West Yorkshire]: Hadean, 2012).
 See, for example, the posture known as glám dícenn, via Morpheus Ravenna, The Book of the Great Queen: The Many Faces of the Morrigan, from Ancient Legends to Modern Devotions (Richmond, CA: Concrescent, 2015), 335-6. Also, yes, I totally pronounce the é syllable in one-leggéd, all early modern-like (depending on what the meter demands).
 I totally do not use Crowley’s version of this rite. I use Gordon White’s. As one does. If you’ve read The Chaos Protocols.