In August of 1600, a 42-year-old man named Abd el-Ouahed ben Messaoud sailed to London. An ambassador from the court of Barbary, the highly educated aristocrat met Queen Elizabeth twice, conversing with her in Spanish through a translator. An anonymous portrait survives from this visit, noting his age, name, and title in Latin. Sharp-eyed and bearded, el-Ouahed looks out confidently from the canvas, fixing the viewer’s eyes. An ornamented scimitar dangles from his belt. He would stay in London a further six months, during which time Shakespeare’s company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, performed at court. Shakespeare himself may have met and shaken the man’s hand. Or perhaps he overheard intensely whispered conversations about this visitor and his prohibitive diet, secretive manners, and worship of a strange God.
Scholars debate exactly when, but Othello was almost certainly written after this visit. Among the play’s remarkable achievements is its imagining of a world unique in Shakespeare’s geography. It looks outward from Venice to the lands beyond the Mediterranean Sea, bounded by Barbary to the West, Turkey to the East, and dotted in the middle by ports and islands such as Aleppo, Alexandria, Cyprus, and Rhodes. Today we think of these as separate regions—North Africa, Arabia, and the Middle East—but at the time it was the domain of the “general enemy Ottoman,” an empire that stretched, at its greatest extent, from Africa to Asia to the doorstep of Europe itself.
Shakespeare’s audience, watching the play, would have already known that Venice lost Cyprus to the Turks in the 1570s. They would have known that Othello’s peacekeeping mission there was bound to be a quagmire, much like that of the Great Powers in World War I, or like the wars being fought today in the Middle East. The mere idea of shifting the scene from Venice to Cyprus would have sent a shudder of terror and a thrill of excitement down their spine.
This area also served as a locus for the racist imagination, as it still does today. It was seen as a world beyond the reach of civilization, a land of savage sensuality and irrationality, of enormous harems attended upon by black eunuchs, of “black” magicians and snake-charmers, of strange beasts and even stranger men, exotic if not deformed in their appearance. In Shakespeare’s time, men such as Abd el-Ouahed were euphemistically termed “Moors,” “Turks,” and “Barbarians,” but today we hear the religious slur behind such euphemisms: they were Muslims. Continuing an Islamophobic tradition that had sprung up during the Medieval Crusades and the Arab Conquests of southern Europe, Muslims were the religious and cultural bogeymen of the Western imagination. If his world was savagely sensual, haunted by black magic, exotic in appearance, then so was the Muslim man.
Othello comes from this world. He is from North Africa, not from Venice. And he was originally a Muslim, not a Christian. Perhaps not coincidentally, from the very beginning of the action, he is discussed in terms more fitting for a beast than a man. In the space of a few short minutes, Iago terms Othello a “Barbary horse,” an “old black ram,” and contributes an inimitable phrase to the English lexicon: “I am one, sir, that comes to tell you your daughter and the Moor are making the beast with two backs.” Throughout the play, Iago’s menacing intonations of “the Moor” ring out like a clarion call, yoking Othello to the unspeakable associations which cohered around the figure in the Elizabethan mind.
And yet, when we first see Othello, he could not be more impressively human. He strikes a calm and imposing figure among the Venetian Senate, answering Brabantio’s charges of “witchcraft” with Shakespeare’s grandest verse. G. Wilson Knight termed it “the Othello music,” and it fills the stage with visions of plenury. He has charmed Desdemona, Brabantio’s young daughter, with romantic tales of sub-Saharan Africa, and he repeats the feat for us, casting a spell with his stately couplets. His language, Shakespeare seems to hint, is that of the assimilated outsider: seemingly modest, yet carefully selected for impressive outward presentation.
Part of the horrific effect of this play lies in witnessing this proud and self-made man’s disintegration under the incessant attacks of the racist imagination. As the plot constricts around him, Othello’s heroic verse becomes corrupted, turning into a version of Iago’s prose. It is an idiom ugly where Othello’s is beautiful, emotionally volatile in place of Othello’s sublime calm, a lexicon stuffed with profanities, obscenities, and lurid images of bestiality. The great man’s expansive vision of the world is transformed into a nightmare of beasts, of monkeys and goats fornicating over the nasty sty.
At the very end of the play, the Othello Music returns, but it looks beyond those standing onstage to a personal, private history. Othello speaks not of Desdemona but of the “turbaned” and “circumcised” Turk he slew once in Aleppo, in modern-day Syria. With these unambiguous references to Islamic identity, Othello draws attention to his own oxymoronic condition as the Moor of Venice. It is one of Shakespeare’s most disturbing endings, a tacit repudiation of the dream of assimilation.
Three centuries after Shakespeare’s play was written, diplomats would again try to resolve Europe’s relations with the Middle East. Over four months in 1915 and 1916, Great Britain and France carved up the fallen Ottoman Empire between them, from Cyprus to Barbary. What they produced instead was a century of almost endless warfare and more Iago-like imaginings. When we look at Othello from the vantage point of four centuries, we see a world alarmingly like our very own.
Mapping the Play
THE VENETIAN REPUBLIC
In Act 1, Othello is sent from Venice to defend Cyprus against a Turkish fleet headed there from Rhodes. The two islands were important naval strongholds in the Venetian Republic’s crusading wars against the Ottoman Empire (in modern-day Turkey) for control of the Eastern Mediterranean.
Iago. And I, of whom his eyes had seen the proof
At Rhodes, at Cyprus, and on other grounds
Christian and heathen […] (1.127-30)
Iago. Forsooth, a great arithmetician,
One Michael Cassio, a Florentine (1.1.19-20)
Michael Cassio, the source of Iago’s envy, hails from Florence, famed for its “mathematicians”: bankers and accountants. Florence was also the home of Machiavelli, Iago’s antecedent in Renaissance deception.
Iago’s name may come from Sant’Iago (St. James or St. Jago) of Compostella, a hero of the Reconquista (718-1492) who was known as Matamoros (“The Moor-Killer”). Iago swears “Diablo!” in Act 2, Scene 3, the only character in Shakespeare to say that Spanish oath. At the end of the play, Othello talks about his “Sword of Spain” with its “ice-brooks temper,” referring to the practice in Toledo and Bilbao of tempering Spanish steel by plunging it into Spanish rivers fed by melting snows, such as the Tagus.
The capital of the “general enemy Ottoman” Empire (1.3.51). To “turn Turk” was common parlance for conversion to Islam, i.e. become an enemy of Christendom.
Othello. Are we turned Turks, and to ourselves do that
Which heaven hath forbid the Ottomites?
For Christian shame, put by this barbarous brawl. (2.3.133-5)
The northern coast of Africa (modern-day Morocco), was known as Barbary in Shakespeare’s day. Iago describes Othello as a “Barbary horse” (1.1) as well as an “erring barbarian” (1.3). Desdemona’s sudden remembrance of her maid, also named Barbary, in Act 4, scene 3, provides one of Shakespeare’s most famous “ghost” characters. Did Desdemona have an African maid?
SUB-SAHARAN AFRICA (Arrows pointing off the map)
Othello’s extravagant account of his “travailous history” in Act 1, scene 3, with its evocation of cave-dwelling troglodytes, flesh-eating tribes, and headless men, seems to draw from a variety of early traveler’s accounts, notably Leo Africanus’s Geographical History of Africa (1600).
[…] Of being taken by the insolent foe
And sold to slavery; of my redemption thence
And portance in my travailous history:
Wherein of caverns vast and deserts idle,
Rough quarries, rocks, and hills whose heads touch heaven,
It was my hint to speak—
And of the Cannibals that each other eat,
The Anthropophagi, and men whose heads
Do grow beneath their shoulders […] (1.3.135-144)
Halfway through the play, Othello begins to recollect cryptic details from his Middle Eastern upbringing. Perhaps telling another tall-tale, he interweaves details both quotidian (an Egyptian handkerchief-weaver) and magical (a charmer and a prophetess), of arts both real (breeding silkworms) and fantastical (dying wool in embalmed bodies, preparing potions from the hearts of virgins).
Did an Egyptian to my mother give:
She was a charmer and could almost read
The thoughts of people. (3.3.47-50)
[…] There’s magic in the web of it.
A sibyl, that had numbered in the world
The sun to course two hundred compasses,
In her prophetic fury sewed the work.
The worms were hallowed that did breed the silk,
And it was dyed in mummy, which the skillful
Conserved of maidens’ hearts. (3.4.60-66)
THE TURKISH STRAITS
Perhaps paraphrasing Pliny, or remembering his own military battles, Othello has a virtuosic command of the bodies of water in the Ottoman Empire: the Pontic (Black Sea), which connects to Europe through the Propontic (Sea of Marmora) and the Hellespont (or Dardanelles Straits).
Like to the Pontic Sea,
Whose icy current and compulsive course
Ne’er feels retiring ebb but keeps due on
To the Propontic and the Hellespont […] (3.3.462-5)
Emilia and Desdemona, discussing her handsome cousin Lodovico late in the play, seem to evoke a pilgrimage to the holy city of Jerusalem: “I know a lady in Venice would have walked barefoot to Palestine for a touch of his nether lip” (4.3.36-7).
With his last words, Othello speaks not of Desdemona or of Iago but of an encounter he had once in Aleppo, in modern-day Syria. Then an independent trading port with Venice, it was a capital crime in Aleppo for a Christian to strike a Muslim. Referring to the “turbaned” and “circumcised” Turk, Othello perhaps describes his own oxymoronical condition as both an Islamic Moor and a Venetian Christian.
And say besides that in Aleppo once
Where a malignant and a turbaned Turk
Beat a Venetian and traduced the state,
I took by th’throat the circumcisèd dog
And smote him, thus. (5.2.339-43)