Dr. Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University
A “Moor” is a mixed Arab / North African descendant of the conquerors of Spain in the 8th century. “Blackness had been associated with sin and death in a tradition extending back to Greek and Roman times, and in medieval and later religious paintings evil men and devils were regularly depicted as black. Blackamoors in plays before Othello are generally wicked” (Wells 245). So when Othello appears as noble and impressive, magnanimous and commanding, reversing both what Iago has prepared us for and the general Elizabethan expectation, the effect is dramatic. In Shakespeare’s time the part would have been played by a white man in makeup.
“Moor” is also the pet name Queen Elizabeth used for the Duke of Alençon (Ogburn and Ogburn 508), her main suitor in the 1570s. (De Vere was her “Turk.”) At one level, this play may work somewhat as a political allegory, especially since the name Brabantio clearly comes from Brabant — a key city in the Netherlands, which was at the center of international and religious concerns into the 1580s. E.T. Clark insists on the international allegory and Alençon’s last years: the early ’80s. He rode to Antwerp on a Barbary horse, mentioned in more direct connection with Othello (Ogburn 568). But circumstances in the play simultaneously resonate with events in de Vere’s own misfortunes in the ’70s and early ’80s, making 1583 a declared date for the original writing of the play (Ogburn and Ogburn 467). A revision after Anne’s death seems also indicated (Ogburn and Ogburn 507, 776, 862), and perhaps “moor” then referred to Spain (Ogburn and Ogburn 522), since it was reported that Philip II was enraged by English court entertainments (Ogburn and Ogburn 723).
So Othello became Oxford, one who derived his “life and being / From men of royal siege”; Desdemona became Anne Cecil, who “was half the wooer”; her father Brabantio became Lord Burghley, “In his effect a voice potential / As double as the Duke”; and the villain of the drama became Oxford’s receiver, Rowland Yorke, with Henry Howard added to him: “Iago is almost a transliteration of “Y-orke.” Oxford’s sacrifice of Anne upon the rumors of her unchastity became Othello’s murder of Desdemona upon his being tricked into believing in hers by Iago, that “Spartan dog, / More fell than anguish, hunger or the sea.” (Ogburn 569)
In revision perhaps, Othello reflected Philip’s half-brother Don John and himself, with “Moor” as an English term of contempt for Spaniards. Don John won fame defending Venice from the Turks, then turned murderous against Antwerp, plus Philip was rumored to be the murderer of his third wife and of a mistress (Ogburn 693). Also, significant connections have been found between Don John’s half-brother, the cunning Antonio Pérez, and Iago, including a handkerchief incident and the report of Philip II murdering his wife by smothering her with a pillow. [See John Hamill, “A Spaniard in the Elizabethan Court: Don Antonio Pérez.” The Shakespeare Oxford Newsletter 45.1 (June 2009): 14-23.]
Shakespeare’s textual source is one of the Italian novels of Giraldi Cinthio’s Hecatommithi, a 1565 “blood-and-thunder novella” that emphasizes “Disdemona’s” poor marriage choice. Shakespeare completely changes the moral import. Othello doesn’t even have a name in the source. Shakespeare seems not to have used the 1584 French translation, and there was no English translation. The French version may have emerged only “after Lord Oxford’s play had called attention to it” (Ogburn and Ogburn 507).
This is a “double time” play, unlike the elongated Hamlet. In fact, time is so compressed here that it seems there is no time or opportunity for those supposed “stol’n hours of lust.” The play has the smallest cast among the tragedies, and the powerful scenes take place in private, making this a sort of domestic tragedy as opposed to being linked with national destiny (Wells 247), and more importantly, all of these features making the effect claustrophobic and more intense.
1)Identify two trumped-up reasons Iago hates Othello besides apparent racism. [If students answer that Iago is jealous because his dad likes Othello better, you know they’re trying to glide sleazily by watching the movie O.]
2)Brabantio, Desdemona’s father, tries to insist that Othello won her love how?
3)What unusual way does Othello propose to resolve the issue?
Tush, never tell me! I take it much unkindly…
Roderigo complains that Iago, Othello’s “ancient” or ensign, should have known about this: Desdemona has eloped with the Moor. The first line, even the first word, though, can operate thematically and significantly, as it does in many of the major plays. Here we have an indication of bunk and arefusal to listen and to know something.
Although Othello is not named yet, Iago insists that he hates “the Moor,” griping that he was passed over for promotion to lieutenant by Othello in favor of Michael Cassio, “a great arithmetician” (I.i.19), as Iago calls him with snarling anti-intellectualism, “That never set a squadron in the field, / Nor the division of a battle knows / More than a spinster — unless the bookish theoric” (I.i.22-24). (De Vere seems to have perceived himself lacking a key attribute of the ideal courtier because of his being withheld from military action. But he clearly knows “bookish” military history, as evidenced in the history plays.) With disgruntled-employee rhetoric (I.i.36f), Iago persuades Roderigo that he is faking loyalty to Othello rather than to “wear my heart upon my sleeve / For daws to peck at: I am not what I am” (I.i.64-65). Note that it’s not “I am not what I seem” but “I am not what I am” (Anderson 118)! The famous phrase, “I will wear my heart upon my sleeve,” here is not the romantic notion it has come to be; rather, Iago considers such emotional revelation to be idiotic — you open yourself up to victimization, or daw-pecking. “I am not what I am” echoes but reverses Yahweh’s revelation to Moses, “I am that [what] I am” (a phrase defiantly used by de Vere in a letter to Burghley, calling him out for setting household spies upon him).
Iago and Roderigo stir up commotion outside Desdemona’s father Brabantio’s house, shouting, “Thieves!” So Desdemona sounds like property, along with the house and “your bags” (I.i.80). Iago says, “an old black ram / Is tupping your white ewe” (I.i.88-89), that “your daughter and the Moor are now making the beast with two backs” (I.i.115-117), and that Brabantio will have horses for grandchildren (I.i.111-113). Gross animal imagery will play a thematic part throughout the play, as will references to monsters and monstrosity. So the Howard/Arundel charge against Oxford of “bestiality” infiltrates the play (Ogburn and Ogburn 508).
The dolt Roderigo almost ruins the point of this goading by emphasizing the wrong offense: “your fair daughter … / Transported with no worse nor better guard / But with a knave of common hire, a gundolier, /To the gross clasps of a lascivious Moor” (I.i.123-126). (It’s the “gross clasps” he should be emphasizing, not the class status of the taxi-driver.) The key term here is “gundolier.” The OED notes only one prior occurrence of the word in English text, and there it is presented as an alien term. Here, we catch the sense without intrusive or self-conscious definition, but with what is now an unfamiliar spelling. Before the term was anglicized with broader vowels into “gahn-doh-leer” via Gilbert and Sullivan et al., this would have been a viable spelling based upon hearing the Italian pronunciation.
Brabantio recognizes Roderigo as an unwelcome suitor and calls for light. He says, “This accident is not unlike my dream, / Belief of it oppresses me already” (I.i.142-143), meaning that the news only confirms his predisposed worries. As Iago hastily skulks off, he tells Roderigo, “That you shall surely find him, / Lead to the Sagittary the raised search; / And there will I be with him” (I.i.157-159). Footnotes still perpetuate the notion that the Sagittary was a tavern with the archer Sagittarius on its sign; but see below regarding another reference to this place (I.iii.115). Brabantio, frantically shifting between inquiries to Roderigo and exclamations to himself, practically makes Roderigo his lieutenant as they prepare to track down Desdemona.
The Cliffs Notes commentary claims, “Shakespeare makes a strong case for Iago’s anger toward Othello and for his motive for revenge” (Carey 236), but is this true? Note further ostensible “motives” as Iago drums them up later, some clearly unfounded and arbitrary, as even he will say. Consider the nature of gratuitous evil, or “motiveless malignity.” Goddard calls him a “moral pyromaniac” (Goddard, II 76).
Brabantio’s name must come from Brabant, the province of which Antwerp is the capital (Ogburn and Ogburn 511). The fortification of Antwerp was a “citadel,” a word mentioned many times in the play (Ogburn and Ogburn 514). Some think the play was originally an allegory with Desdemona representing Antwerp (and to some extent Elizabeth). This original play would have been more anti-Alençon, that is, with much less sympathy for Othello originally (Ogburn and Ogburn 509). The so-called “French fury” against Antwerp took place in 1583 (Ogburn and Ogburn 510-511). And the watchword of the attack was “broken leg” — literalized in Act V (Ogburn and Ogburn 511). Since the disgraced Alençon died in 1584, a revision was necessary afterwards (Ogburn and Ogburn 515).
Iago, both to cover his tracks and because he tends to like being on the scene to see the effects of his own conflagrations (Goddard, II 76), has run to Othello, claiming to have had his hypersensitive temper enraged at (presumably) Brabantio for his “scurvy and provoking” attitude towards Othello (I.ii.7). Iago mentions his inclination to have “yerk’d him here under the ribs” (I.ii.5) — a reference to Rowland Yorke’s introduction of some vicious dueling moves into England (Anderson 115). Othello himself remains calm and controlled and refuses to hide out. In fact, “The actor James Earl Jones once remarked that Othello was the only Shakespearean warrior we never see in a fight, and indeed throughout the play Othello avoids swordplay, or loses his sword, or urges others to put their weapons away” (Garber 595).
Note that Iago swears “By Janus” (I.ii.33), the Roman god of two faces. This works perfectly well as is, but some Oxfordians see a political allegory in the play, and “Alençon’s nose was so swollen and distorted that it seemed to be double. This prominent feature did not escape the sarcasms of his countrymen, who, among other gibes, were wont to observe that the man who always wore two faces, might be expected to have two noses also” (Motley, The Rise of the Dutch Republic, qtd. in Clark 559).
Cassio and others arrive with a summons for Othello on military matters: a Turkish threat to the island of Cyprus, a strategic defense point for Venice. Brabantio then arrives and a potential brawl is halted by the commanding authority of Othello’s command: “Keep up your bright swords, for the dew will rust them” (I.ii.59). (This sounds initially like an impressive threat, i.e., “Keep up your swords; you’ll never get a chance to use them and they’ll be rusting on the ground alongside your corpses come tomorrow morning.” But on closer consideration, shouldn’t Othello in that case be saying, “Put your swords down, lest the dew rust them”? Now I wonder if this isn’t at all a threat of violence but rather the insistence that nothing is amiss here, so we’re likely to remain with our swords raised for hours discussing it — long enough for them to rust if laid down.)
Brabantio insists that Othello must have used enchantment and magical charms, or drugs (I.ii.74), to persuade Desdemona to run away with the “sooty” likes of him (I.ii.70). But in any case, Othello has been summoned to the Duke on pressing “business of the state” (I.ii.90).
The Duke and other officers of Venice fret about the number of ships in the Turkish fleet. Note what characters say about the Turks, especially in light of what we know about Iago: their constantly being at war, their strategizing, their decoy techniques (I.iii.18-19), etc. (By the way, the Turks did attack Cyprus in 1570 and conquered it the following year.)
Before the Duke and the council, Brabantio brings up the sorrowful business of his daughter. They all ask if she’s dead (I.iii.59), which subtly points out Brabantio’s overreacting and deflates it. Brabantio pleads his case anyway, accusing Othello of witchcraft, since what else could explain his daughter’s behavior? Not only does he project his own racism onto his daughter (e.g., I.iii.98), but he lets personal business eclipse State affairs here, and looks all the worse for it. Othello has what appears to be the correct set of priorities — public business first, his own new marriage on hold. (Self-control is the virtue brought forth, and eventually all male characters lose self-control at some point in the play — except Iago!)
E.T. Clark reads the scene as allegorical for political events in the early 1580s: “Elizabeth and her Council used their power and influence with the Prince of Orange and the Estates-General to place Alençon at the head of the Netherland Provinces, and, very soon after, deeply regretted it” (560).
Othello’s defense is impressive; he claims, “Rude am I in my speech” (I.iii.81), but sounds eloquent. “The voice of the Moor has its own orotundity, verging, as some infer, on hollowness” (Kermode 1246). Othello seems noble now, though, and even proposes they listen to Desdemona herself! “Send for the lady to the Sagittary” (I.iii.115), he orders (cf. I.i.158). The OED at least inserts a parenthetical question mark about this, but footnotes in most editions of the play perpetuate the thoroughly extraneous notion that Sagittary refers to an inn or tavern under a sign depicting Sagittarius, the zodiacal archer. As Eva Turner Clark pointed out over 75 years ago, however, the reference is to the Saggiatore, Venice’s center of justice (Clark 571-572). The sense of the line is not “Fetch the lady from the bar,” but “Send for the lady [to come] to the Sagittary,” or “Let the lady be brought to the Sagittary.” And of course this is no general London tavern knowledge, nor even tourist information about Venice but, rather, evidence that the playwright has spent some significant time in the city. Another possibility came to light in a 1976 note in Shakespeare Quarterly: “sagittaria is the Venetian Low Latin name of a class of light and fast ships used in the Mediterranean from the twelfth through the seventeenth centuries” (Sipahigil 200). Othello seems to be living aboard, and the mention of his “house” (I.ii.48) might actually refer to a house on a ship, that is, a cabin (Sipahigil 201). So perhaps that’s where Desdemona must be fetched from, and why she seems so ready to accompany Othello on his seagoing expedition: she’s already settled in aboard. The article acknowledges: “although no direct source is known for Shakespeare’s use of the Venetian term, someone such as [the foremost Italian linguist in England] Florio might have glossed [the Italian form of the word] saettia for him or given its French equivalent” (201) — like Noam Chomsky lending a hand with an episode of Desperate Housewives. Whatever. But then while he was at it, why didn’t Florio fix the spelling of “gundolier”? One further note: the Italian term “saggiatore” has, not illogically, come to mean “tester” or “assayer,” but it can also refer specifically to a “cheese-tester.” And so too in Shakespeare studies and in editions of the play has the word proven its significance as a tester of scholarly cheesiness.
Othello bets his life on Desdemona, and then explains that he often in the company of both Desdemona and Brabantio would tell of his adventures, including encounters with “the Cannibals that each other eat, / The Anthropophagi, and men whose heads / Do grow beneath their shoulders” (I.iii.143-145), either revealing a potential hint of Othello’s own, eventually fatal, gullibility, or perhaps just a recounting of entertaining and “playful embroideries of truth” (Wells 248). (Montaigne’s Essays including “Des Cannibales” was first published in 1580.) There’s no certainty that even Desdemona believed these accounts; perhaps it was all entertainment and no one was a victim of deception here at all! Other adventures sound grim and real, such as Othello’s having been “sold into slavery” (I.iii.138).
She lov’d me for the dangers I had pass’d,
And I lov’d her that she did pity them.
This only is the witchcraft I have us’d.
Here comes the lady; let her witness it.
Desdemona agrees that she owes her father respect, but now owes her husband more. (Critics vary widely in their assessment of Desdemona, but she sounds mature and ideal here. And she defies authority successfully, in a way, in front of the most powerful male legislative group. The issue of divided loyalties of a wife also relates to biographical events in de Vere’s life.) The Duke advises Brabantio to let it go. Othello is needed in this campaign against the Turks. Desdemona will also journey to Cyprus, escorted by Iago, and Othello “promptly acknowledges that public duty takes precedence over private desires” (Carey 243). The Duke tells Brabantio, “If virtue no delighted beauty lack, / Your son-in-law is far more fair than black” (I.iii.289-290). But the old man warns Othello, “Look to her, Moor, if thou hast eyes to see; / She has deceiv’d her father, and may thee” (I.iii.292-293). “My life upon her faith,” says Othello, but then turns to “Honest Iago” in the same line (I.iii.294). Desdemona will be in the company of Iago’s wife after “but an hour / Of love, of wordly matter and direction, / … We must obey the time” (I.iii.298-300).
Roderigo is suicidal, but Iago, defining love as “merely a lust of the blood and a permission of the will” (I.iii.334-335), tries to bolster him up: “Come, be a man! Drown thyself? drown cats and blind puppies!” (I.iii.335-336). What a bastard. Iago gives him hope in this speech punctuated repeatedly by the instruction: “put money in thy purse.” It’s an odd gimmick, but seems to work sort of like subliminal seduction, except that Roderigo is either too obsessed or too stupid for it to need the subtlety of the subliminal. Iago promises vaguely, “There are many events in the womb of time which will be deliver’d” (I.iii.369-370), starting a pattern of birth imagery. Roderigo says, “I’ll sell all my land” (I.iii.382) — a masochistic line for de Vere to add in superfluously as he does.
When the dupe leaves, Iago sneers at what a fool Roderigo is and announces also, “I hate the Moor, / And it is thought abroad that ‘twixt my sheets / H’as done my office. I know not if’t be true, / But I, for mere suspicion in that kind, / Will do as if for surety” (I.iii.386-390). In other words, he plans to use this trumped up notion to justify, hollowly, his fraud. He comes up with a plot, saying, “It is engend’red. Hell and night / Must bring this monstrous birth to the world’s light” (I.iii.403-404).