Ancient Valor and Modern Humility: A Reading of Othello

In Shakespeare’s Othello, we are whisked off to the sixteenth century cosmopolitan empire of Venice as it wrestles with an ongoing military conflict against the Ottoman Turks. The setting is the Mediterranean world which serves as a backdrop for the war between the East and West, and on a much deeper level, it conveys the longstanding philosophical dispute between classical antiquity and modern thinkers. In the war between the Venetians and the Ottomans, I took note of the Battle of Lepanto (1571), a particularly hard-fought naval battle where none other than Miguel Cervantes once served (author of the ever-illuminating Don Quixote) before he was captured and enslaved. For Shakespeare’s Venice in Othello, these kinds of battles along the outer Venetian colonies are a common occurrence, and since war is a horrifying teacher of many things, the setting of Othello provides a unique testing ground for Shakespeare to explore a characteristically modern moral conflict, the likes of which can also be found in Hamlet and Macbeth. In all three plays, Shakespeare takes us to the geographic outer periphery of Europe, each of which which forms a triangulation along the extant borderlands of the Continent: Hamlet (Northeast in Denmark), Macbeth (West in Scotland), and Othello (South in the Mediterranean). In Hamlet, our young protagonist is driven mad by the impossibility of heroic revenge in a modern context, in Macbeth, our older classical war hero is compelled to commit the grave crime of regicide, and in Othello, an aging Turkish mercenary is consumed by delusions that his young bride has been unfaithful. In each play, the tragic hero is confronted with various competing notions of The Good which are then found to be tragically irreconcilable with one another.

Now, to examine The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice. Who is Othello? He is a Moor from North Africa, perhaps approaching his older years or at least middle-age. His mother has died some time ago. After many years of fighting on the Turkish battlefield, he has developed an impenetrable reputation as a warrior, even though in the play we do not actually witness any of his military successes in action. For example, at the very moment Othello is set to confront the Turks on the high seas, the Turkish fleet is destroyed not by military conquest, but rather by a foul tempest. Thus, we rely exclusively on Othello’s reputation alone to verify his military valor. Notably, the idea of reputation and rumor serve as key themes in the play.

Desdemona and Othello, by Antonio Muñoz Degrain, 1880

Like Macbeth or Hamlet, Othello represents a classical hero tragically confronted with his placelessness within modern Christian civilization. He is regularly addressed as “noble Othello” or “valiant Othello” who has a “constant nature” which is “all sufficient.” Of course, this stands in stark contrast to the “wealthy curl’d darlings” of Venice, a city devoid of thumos and lacking the warrior spirit. We may surmise that Othello takes place during the Ottoman-Venetian War (1570-1573), which was only a few short decades before Shakespeare’s Othello was first performed. Therefore this play represents one of the closest time periods to Shakespeare’s own contemporary age. In the play, Venice is portrayed as a prosperous commercial hub filled with financiers and businessmen –a cosmopolitan pleasure capital that allows for relatively open sexual tolerance (in contrast to the austere Ottoman Turks). Venice is a republic which controls the commercial shipping lanes between North Africa (to the south) and Europe (to the north) as well as the Silk Road (to the east). As such, Venice has devolved into a vast seafaring empire, claiming colonies like Corfu, Crete, and Cyprus, the latter of which is a key strategic military outpost perched along the Mediterranean. Cyprus serves as a disputed territory in Othello –a borderland region caught between opposing worlds, the Christian West and the Ottoman East. It is in this context that we are asked to consider the play.

Shakespeare’s tragedies are often rife with just such a metaphorical borderland, a confluence of ideas and a conflict of values. Shakespeare’s own age, the Renaissance, was a unique moment that found itself looking both backward and forward at the same time, not unlike the Roman god Janus. With nostalgia, it gazed back at the majesty of the ancients (i.e. ancient Greece and Rome) and at the same time, it hailed a newfound philosophic optimism for the dominant modern Christian ethos in the hopes that it could somehow be harmonized with the virtues of classical antiquity. Within this duality, we see a tragedy begin to emerge as this apparent contradiction is shown to be impossible, at least for Othello who echoes the conflict in both Hamlet and Macbeth. In each play, Shakespeare exposes the tragic impossibility of two opposing value systems, which suggests that the true spirit of classical antiquity cannot be revived– and as such, the Renaissance comes to light as a uniquely tragic era. The greatest values in Venice can be either meekness and humility (the Christian ideal), or else pride and magnanimity (the classical ideal). Will Venice decide to be compassionate or valorous? In Othello, Venice attempts to maintain the former while importing the latter from abroad.

Perhaps written in 1601-1602, Othello may well have been influenced by an August 1600 visit from the ambassador of the King of Barbary to meet with Queen Elizabeth I for a ‘half year’s abode in London.’ His delegation very likely witnessed a performance by Shakespeare’s company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, during the Christmas season of 1600-1601. Perhaps this meeting inspired the character of Othello, and it may have even sparked the “willow” folksong once sung by Desdemona’s maid named Barbary, which Desdemona uses as her death song. Shakespeare also likely consulted John Leo’s A Geographical Historie of Africa (1600), along with Pliny’s Historie of the World (1601), and Sir Lewis Lewkenor’s The Commonwealth and Government of Venice (1599).

Additionally, Shakespeare’s other chief source for Othello was likely a 1565 prose story by Italian writer Giambattista Giraldi (nicknamed “Cinthio”) entitled “Un Capitano Moro” (“A Moorish Captain”) as found in Gli Hecatommithi (1565), a collection of tales a la Boccaccio’s Decameron. The original story is something akin to morality play warning European women against the dangers of marrying foreign men because they are temperamental and unaccustomed to the virtues of Western culture. While generally regarded as a vice in our own present cosmopolitan age, this notion of inalterable racialized “otherness” is central to Othello’s character. He is a militaristic Turk in search of an entry point into the high culture of Venice, a city which has lost its capacity to successfully defend itself and so it employs a foreign mercenary to fight its war against the Turks. And while, Othello is welcomed into Venice as a commander, he is never fully embraced as a Venetian –he remains foreign, exotic, strange, and “other.” Yet it is precisely his permanent status as a stranger which beckons Desdemona to fall in love with him (Desdemona’s name means “ill-fated”). She loves the myth of this great-souled man, a warrior who proudly declares himself in possession of a “perfect soul” –unlike the tender commercial businessmen of Venice.

Whereas Othello desires to become fully Venetian by embracing the city’s senatorial bureaucracy, he views Desdemona as his point of entry into the dignified material comfort of Western society (Desdemona’s father is Senator Brabantio, her cousin is Lodovico, and her uncle is Gratiano –all are prominent patricians in Venice), however, in contrast, Desdemona sees Othello as her portal out of Venice. She has grown unimpressed by the wealthy tradesmen of Venice, and she longs for excitement. She is infatuated with Othello’s tall tales of faraway lands, cannibals, and Anthropophagi (or “man-eaters” in the vein of Homer’s Odyssey) –do we trust Othello’s story-telling? Perhaps not, he may simply be a weaver of yarns in the vein of Odysseus. Regardless, Desdemona falls in love with the idea of Othello, and above all, she yearns for him to remain a Turk. While Othello longs for safety in Venice, Desdemona yearns for Turkish adventure. Thus, their marriage is troubled from the start. Perhaps their marriage would have collapsed with or without the conniving aid of Iago (whose name is rife with Biblical allegory with regard to “James” and “Jacob”). In truth, their matrimony actually occurs prior to the start of the play –offstage and in secret– and already we can see Othello’s foibles begin to unfold. Why does he not seek her father Brabantio’s blessing for Desdemona’s hand in marriage? Surely, to secretly marry the morally-upstanding daughter of a prominent Venetian senator would have raised quite a stir in the city, and also it may have led to a fraught political relationship between Othello (Venice’s military commander) and his superiors in the Senate, including his new father-in-law. Despite having a reputation of being a great warrior, Othello is not a particularly shrewd politician, nor is he a strong judge of character. Love and war make for strange bedfellows when disharmoniously united within a man like Othello. He does not seem to understand the delicate art of statecraft. In the case of lies and deception, Othello is impressionable, almost like a child. However, during the heat of battle, Othello is not fooled when the Turks make a deceptive military maneuver –they feign a landing at Rhodes when, in truth, they make haste for Cyprus to launch an invasion. Yet, on the other hand, Othello is quite easily swindled by the whims of Iago, whom he routinely regards as an “honest” man. In the former instance, he is able to see through the fog of war clearly, but somehow he cannot see not through the deceptions of his own ensign.  

Who is Iago? He is a Venetian soldier, presently serving as Othello’s ensign (or “ancient”). He has been fighting the Turks for at least several years during which time he has witnessed Othello’s skills in fighting both ‘Christians and heathens’ in places like Cyprus and Rhodes, among others. In other words, Iago has witnessed Othello in battle prior to his defection to Venice, and perhaps Iago has become aware of Othello’s deep paranoia of betrayal, as Othello, himself, has essentially betrayed the Ottomans. At any rate, Iago is a deeply envious person (in the spirit of Nietzschean ressentiment) and he is a schemer who hides his true intentions (“I am not what I am” –is his infamous inversion of the Biblical God’s declaration). Iago begins the play by expressing dissatisfaction at being passed over for the position of Othello’s lieutenant in favor of a soft-handed Florentine, Michael Cassio, a bookish “arithmetician” who has hardly seen the field of battle (in fact, he has “never set a squadron in the field nor the division of a battle knows more than a spinster”). Cassio’s somewhat possessive mistress (not his wife) named Bianca lurks frequently in his shadow. Iago despises Cassio. In addition to his existing grievances, Iago claims there were “three great ones” in Venice who supported his bid for lieutenant, but Othello still chose Cassio for the position instead. With this in mind, I might suggest that Othello’s selection of an inexperienced, non-Venetian lieutenant, like Cassio, is yet another instance of his lack of tact. Othello may be a great warrior, despite being a clumsy politic. Iago observes these failings, and he concocts an elaborate ploy in which to ensnare Cassio in the hopes of taking over as lieutenant. However, he does not stop there. Why? Because Iago is bitterly resentful. He longs not only to witness the advent of his own personal fortunes, but rather he hopes to bring down a great-souled man like Othello, and in doing so, he hopes to witness the ruination of a classical hero. Iago represents a uniquely modern source of rage, or wrath –a brand of vengeance which seeks a scorched earth path of destruction because “we cannot all be masters.” His steady diet of revenge is a perverted form of justice which comes by means of certain excesses and deprivations –it is the nasty presence of schadenfreude which gives him a vicious, discontented soul that ‘gnaws at his innards.’

The people surrounding Iago become mere pawns in his nihilistic plot –including poor Roderigo and his impossible love for Desdemona, but also, and perhaps most strikingly, Iago’s own wife, Emilia, who serves as a mere cog in his ugly machinations. Even prior to his plans, the marriage of Iago and Emilia seems to ring hollow – Iago believes his wife Emilia is too loose-lipped, and, in general, he believes women are deceptive creatures “who rise to play, and go to bed to work.” In some respects, he echoes Hamlet in their mutual suspicion of women whose attractive exterior betrays an evil interior. In turn, Emilia, claims men are mere stomachs which consume and belch up women –both spouses carry a most vulgar prejudice against the opposite sex. While serving as Desdemona’s handmaid, Emilia suggests there is indeed a price she would accept to cheat on her husband, because ‘every small vice has its price.’ Unlike Desdemona, Emilia had chosen a customary and acceptable husband in Iago, the Venetian military ensign, and when Desdemona’s cousin Lodovico arrives, Emilia claims she knows “a lady in Venice who would walk barefoot to Palestine for a touch of his nether lip.” Here, again, we see the loose sexual mores of Venice on display. However, Emilia still obeys her husband’s whims, going so far as to steal Desdemona’s prized handkerchief (“her first remembrance from the Moor”) which Othello later explains was an important keepsake from his dying mother, a gift from an Egyptian which carries mysterious supernatural powers –its magic will offer an amiable marriage to its possessor. The handkerchief was apparently crafted by a sibyl using the silk from hallowed worms and mummified maidens. Do we believe Othello? A skeptical reader might suggest Othello is again spinning elaborate yarns. However, if this account of the handkerchief is true, perhaps there was witchcraft involved in Othello’s courtship of Desdemona after all –an accusation her fearful father once leveled. Regardless, the handkerchief comes to symbolize the collapsing marriage between Othello and Desdemona, especially Othello’s growing rejection of domestication and his reassertion of his heroic spirit. Continually fed an unfolding web of lies from Iago, Othello is driven mad at the thought that his wife has been unfaithful. On the field of battle, Othello is accustomed to simply taking what he pleases a la Achilles in Homer’s Iliad, however a marriage requires listening, compromise, and mutual subordination. Building on his initial transgression (taking Desdemona as his bride without the blessing of her father) Othello suddenly snaps after discovering her handkerchief is missing, and he berates and smacks Desdemona in front of a delegation of Venetians, yielding audible shock from the gentle senators. In a mere three day’s time, Othello has been turned against his wife and has devolved into an epileptic marital tyrant. He is convinced that Desdemona must die, so as to prevent her infidelity from ever occurring again –evil must be rooted out from the earth. In spite of being born a Turk, Othello assumes the garb of the Christian West and becomes intoxicated by the resentful, envious spirit of Iago’s embodiment of its greatest extreme. His perceived victimhood is transformed into righteous vengeance.

The murder of Desdemona comes in spite of the fact that Othello is driven mad by pure mania and suspicion, rather than true evidence of infidelity. At first, he plans to poison her, but even that is too weak a punishment for Iago to accept (recall the poisonings in Hamlet), and so Othello suffocates Desdemona instead –snuffing out her light in a most uncharacteristic fashion for a brutal warlord. In the end, Roderigo is murdered, Cassio is wounded (“by and by a fool, presently a beast!”), Emilia is killed, Iago is wounded, and Othello sorrowfully commits suicide when he realizes the horrid truth. He asks that the Venetians remember him not as a villain, but as their hero (he reminds the Venetians of a time that he smote a Turk at Aleppo). He dies while kissing his late bride, a brief reclamation of the heroic ethos as Othello shows that he would rather die than live with the shame of dishonour (perhaps not unlike Ajax as portrayed in Sophocles’s Ajax). In life, Othello struggles to distinguish love from war, and friends from enemies, but in death, Othello manages to claw back a piece of his ragged reputation (“who can control his fate?”). Cassio is then given command in Cyprus (how might this relate to the popular rule of Montano, governor of Cyprus?), Iago is led away to be tortured, and Lodovico returns to the senate in Venice. The empire of Venice continues onward, only without a heroic leader at the helm.  

Of course, history has brought to light what has happened to Venice. By 1573, Venice had lost its colony at Cyprus and in the ensuing century or two it would also gradually lose its other colonies as the empire fell into a state decline. At the time of Shakespeare’s writing, Venice was still a powerful trading rival of England with roughly the same population size as London. Therefore, Shakespeare’s Venetian plays (Othello and The Merchant of Venice) were of great public interest upon release. However, his portrayal Venice speaks to something more universal, addressing questions which extend beyond a particular time or place. In Othello, Venice and its colony of Cyprus come to light as a Renaissance mirror held up to our own world. Perhaps in some ways we share certain commonalities with a cosmopolitan republic like sixteenth century Venice, with an expansive international empire in support of commercial activities, various proxy wars which require the employment of foreign mercenaries, and a boundless belief in the rule of law which engenders a vast senatorial bureaucracy. On the periphery of this empire, Cyprus becomes a unique testing ground for the virtues and vices of the Venetian republic. And even today, Cyprus remains a politically disputed island, tenuously divided between the Greek West and the Turkish East.

For this reading I used the essential Arden 3rd Edition of Shakespeare’s Othello as well as the magnificent writings and lectures of the late Paul Cantor.

3 thoughts on “Ancient Valor and Modern Humility: A Reading of Othello

  1. Interesting reading of the play. I think it’s true that a western audience would have thought then, as now, those dark foreigners don’t think like us, big mistake to marry one. And sometimes, they’re right.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Must have been quite controversial for its time. In this era when we see a dark-skinned actor or actress playing a villain or anti-hero, we can of course be all the wiser to easily look passed the skin color and focus purely on the individual. But one lesson that storytelling may always teach us is how the most controversial kinds of stories can generate the most interest. I think that this is what Shakespeare has earned the most credit for with Othello.

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s