Possessed by Trauma: Infamous Narrative in Othello (1603) and A Yorkshire Tragedy (1608)

Sophie Shorland


How do we as an audience understand why a man kills his children, stabs his wife, and brutally mauls two servants? Thomas Middleton’s 1608 play A Yorkshire Tragedy, based on the real-life murder of his children by Yorkshire landowner Walter Calverley, offers a satisfying resolution to these questions. The Husband (Calverley) kills his children because he is possessed by the devil, and the play ends with an exorcism. Demonic possession dehumanises violence as a property of the devil, an explanation that enables catharsis, the play healing the very sense of rupture it has created in its portrayal of “Unnatural, flinty, more than barbarous” murder. Violent, apparently senseless acts are part of a greater battle between good and evil and exorcism of the evil presence simultaneously exorcises the trauma of these brutal onstage murders for its audience. Shakespeare’s 1603 domestic tragedy Othello seems set up to follow the same narrative pattern, tantalising its audience with hints at devils, witchcraft, and demonic possession/obsession. However, due to Iago’s refusal to explain his motivations for murder, catharsis is never achieved. Why are two innocent women killed? (Alongside the near-death of an innocent man and the death of a partially-guilty man). As all explanation is refused, violence cannot be distanced and the devil is not exorcised. Othello, then, provides no cathartic relief for the trauma of its audience, problematising infamous narratives of inhuman violence. Using the language of trauma, of psychological wounding and healing, this article will reveal the cathartic function of domestic tragedy.


Shakespeare; Othello; Iago; Middleton; A Yorkshire Tragedy; domestic tragedy; witchcraft; possession; obsession; trauma

Full Text: PDF


  • There are currently no refbacks.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License.