Part II. Roman 23. The Tragedy of Othello the Moor of Venice

Of the plays included in this section, Othello is the only one to represent a major Shakespearean tragedy which will bear comparison to such plays as Hamlet, Macbeth, and King Lear. It seems to have been written in 1603, after Hamlet and before the other two.

Othello is remarkable in that its hero is a "Moor." To Shakespeare a Moor was not clearly distinguished from a black and, given the parochial feeling of Europeans of the time (and, to a large extent, since) concerning men who differed in religion (Moors) or skin color (blacks), these would serve as natural villains, with their mere difference sufficient to account for their villainy. In Titus Andronicus Aaron the Moor (see page I-401) is a villain of this sort, and in The Merchant of Venice the Prince of Morocco (see page I-520), while a valiant soldier, is scorned by Portia, who derides the color of his skin.

In Othello, however, the Moor is pictured in another fashion, as an exotic figure who exerts a powerful sexual attraction over a white girl, partly because of the wide difference between him and the men she is accustomed to. This is not so uncommon a thing. In the early 1920s Rudolph Valentine played the title role in the motion picture The Sheik and caused millions of women to swoon in ecstasy, despite (or possibly because of) the fact that he was a "Moor" and must be a Mohammedan.

The Moor, as an exotic and therefore romantic figure, was used by an Italian writer of tales, Giovanni Battista Giraldi, who wrote under the name of Cynthius. A hundred of his stories were collected into a book called Gli Hecatommithi (The Hundred Tales) and published in 1565. One of these stories begins: "There once lived in Venice a Moor, who was very valiant and of a handsome person..." No reason is given for a Moor living in Venice; no discussion as to his religion is brought out. What was needed for the story, apparently, was someone at once romantic and of a passionate southern nature.

This story was taken by Shakespeare, who kept close to many of the details of the plot.

... a Florentine

The play opens in the city of Venice (see page I-499) late at night. Two Venetians are having an earnest discussion over some point that is not immediately apparent. One of them, Roderigo, is rather petulant over what he feels to be a double cross on the part of the other, Iago.

Iago insists that he is not double-crossing, that he does indeed hate a person who is not yet identified. He gives his reasons. Influential men, it seems, have asked the unnamed to make Iago his lieutenant and have been refused. Another has been chosen for the post and he is

Forsooth, a great arithmetician,

One Michael Cassia, a Florentine,

(A fellow almost damned in a fair wife)

That never set a squadron in the field,

- Act I, scene i, lines 16-19

Iago is almost sick with anger at having been passed over for such a one. Cassio is an "arithmetician," that is, one who studied the art of war out of books, instead of in actual battle. And he is a Florentine rather than a Venetian, and Florence, in Shakespeare's time, was renowned for trade, rather than war.

The reference here to Cassio's "fair wife" is a puzzling one. This wife does not appear in the play nor is she ever referred to again. In the Cynthius original, the character who is equivalent to Cassio does have a wife and perhaps Shakespeare intended to use her at first. If he did, he abandoned the idea and did not bother to correct the line.

At Rhodes, at Cyprus. ..

Iago goes on, with gathering anger:

And I, of whom his eyes had seen the proof

At Rhodes, at Cyprus, and on other grounds

Christian and heathen, must be belee'd and calmed

- Act I, scene i, lines 25-27

When Venice gained territories in the eastern Mediterranean (see page I-592) she took on burdens as well, and the greatest of these was the task of opposing the Ottoman Turks, who became dominant in the Balkan peninsula and the eastern Mediterranean in the course of the fourteenth century.

Rhodes, an island off the southeast shores of Asia, Minor, was under the rule of Italian adventurers after the Crusaders' conquest of parts of the East. It remained under Western control for nearly three centuries while Turkish power spread over Asia Minor and into the Balkans.

In 1480 the Turkish sultan, Mohammed II, laid siege to Rhodes and was beaten off. In 1522 the later sultan, Suleiman I the Magnificent (see page I-520), finally took it.

Cyprus is a larger island, near the eastern end of the Mediterranean. It too was captured by Crusaders, but in 1489 it came under the control of Venice. Venice's expansion over some of the shores and islands of the eastern Mediterranean involved her in wars with the Turks, and over the space of two and a half centuries there were to be five of these.

The fourth of these wars was fought from 1570 to 1573. This was after Cynthius had written the tale Shakespeare used as model. It took place in Shakespeare's boyhood, however, and it may possibly have been in his mind as he wrote.

... his Moorship's ancient Still referring to Cassio, Iago says, bitterly:

He, in good time, must his lieutenant be,

And I-God bless the mark!-his Moorship's ancient.

- Act I, scene i, lines 29-30

Clearly now we are talking about Othello, the Moor of Venice, and Iago's scorn is seen in the twisting of "Worship" into "Moorship." An "ancient" is what we now call an "ensign" (see page II-398), a lesser position than that of lieutenant even in our own navy. We can be sure Iago is not the man to take this lying down.

... the thick-lips...

Roderigo comments discontentedly upon how everything seems to be going well for the Moor:

What a full fortune does the thick-lips owe [possess] //

he can carry't thus!

- Act I, scene i, lines 63-64

As we are soon to find out, what is bothering Roderigo is that the Moor is doing very well in his courtship of Desdemona, the lovely daughter of Brabantio, one of Venice's most powerful and wealthy senators. Roderigo would like to have Desdemona for himself.

The use of the term "thick-lips" is the first indication that Shakespeare is talking about a true black, rather than merely a Moor of north Africa, who, despite a swarthy complexion, would not be a black. (In Cynthius' story, on the other hand, there is no indication whatsoever that the Moor was a black.)

There are other such references. Thus, Iago's first impulse of revenge is to warn Brabantio in the coarsest possible way, so as to ensure he will take frantic action against the Moor. Before Brabantio's house they call and yell till the senator comes to the window. Then Iago shouts out his warning:

Zounds, sir, y'are robbed! For shame.

Put on your gown! Your heart is burst, you have lost half your soul

Even now, now, very now, an old black ram

Is tupping your white ewe.

- Act I, scene i, lines 83-86

It is to Othello, of course, that Iago refers with the phrase "old black ram."

... a Barbary horse. ..

When Brabantio proves hard to persuade that his daughter has eloped with Othello, Iago, impatient of his incredulity, says:

Because we come to do you service

and you think we are ruffians, you'll have

your daughter covered with a Barbary horse ...

- Act I, scene i, lines 106-9

To the ancient Greeks, all who did not speak Greek were "barbarians," and when Rome came to dominate the Mediterranean that was modified to include those who did not speak Greek or Latin. Since the most prominent barbarians in the last centuries of the Roman Empire were the German-speaking tribesmen to the north, the word came to take on a derogatory tinge and to mean "uncivilized" and "brutal" as well as merely "foreign."

The Italians of the Renaissance period, having rediscovered the Greco-Roman pagan past, picked up the habit. To them, the Europeans north of the Alps and the Africans south of the Mediterranean were barbarians. All Europe could agree with respect to the Africans anyway, and north Africa came to be called "Barbary." The people of north Africa are still called Berbers today, and that is but another form of the word.

Iago, in referring to Othello as a "Barbary horse," is now using Moor in its more correct sense, with reference to northern Africa rather than black Africa.

... to the Sagittary ...

Brabantio is finally persuaded to search through the house to see if his daughter is at home, and while he is doing so, Iago takes his leave so as not to be identified. Roderigo is to carry on himself and Iago leaves him instructions as to how to guide the search. He says:

Lead to the Sagittary the raised search;

And there will I be with him.

- Act I, scene i, lines 155-56

"Sagittary" might be the name of the inn at which Othello is lodging, but there is no clear indication of it. "Sagittary" is the equivalent of the Latin Sagittarius ("archer") and it is just possible that the name is that of an arsenal where weapons of war are stored. Venice did indeed have a famous one, and Othello, who is pictured in the play as Venice's most capable general, might well be engaged in inspection and stocktaking, even during his honeymoon.

... the Signiory

Brabantio, unable to find his daughter, rouses his family and friends to take revenge on Othello.

Meanwhile, Iago has reached Othello again and (with an appearance of bluff honesty) warns him of Brabantio's hostility. Othello, who has indeed eloped with and married Desdemona, shrugs it off, saying:

Let him do his spite.

My services which I have done the Signiory

Shall out-tongue his complaints.

- Act I, scene ii, lines 16-18

The Signiory is the ruling body of Venice. It comes from the same Latin root as "senior" or "senator," so that the name signifies it is a body of elders who put their experience and wisdom to the task of ruling the state.

The government of Venice was, in many ways, the admiration of Europe.

Although originally fairly democratic, it became a closed oligarchy about 1200. From then on for six hundred years a few great families ran the state according to a rigid ideal of duty. (Of course they took, as their reward, the lion's share of the city's wealth for themselves.) In all this time there was but one dangerous revolt against the oligarchy-in 1310-and that was firmly crushed.

Other states might have their extravagant royal families, their court intrigue, civil wars, broils, disruptions; Venice went on in the even tenor of its ways, trading, fighting, prospering, and making all its decisions in the cold light of self-interest.

It is not surprising, then, that Shakespeare in this play portrays the government of Venice to be unemotional and coldly rational at all times.

By Janus...

Othello calmly awaits the coming of Brabantio and his party. When a group of men enter with torches, it seems at first this must be they, but Iago, peering toward them, says:

By Janus, I think no.

- Act I, scene ii, line 32

Since Janus is commonly represented with two heads (see page I-502) and since the entire play is a demonstration of the two-facedness of Iago, it is entirely proper that he swear by Janus.

The Duke...

The party that has entered turns out to be under the leadership of Cassio, Othello's new lieutenant. Cassio says to Othello:

The Duke does greet you, general;

And he requires your haste-post haste appearance

Even on the instant.

- Act I, scene ii, lines 35-37

The north Italian word for "duke" is "doge," and this form of the word is associated primarily with Venice (though Genoa also had its doges).

The first Doge of Venice assumed the position possibly as early as 697. The last Doge stepped down in 1797, when Napoleon cavalierly put an end to the Venetian republic. There had been a continuous line of doges for eleven centuries, a most amazing record.

The most unusual doge on the whole list is Enrico Dandolo, who assumed the position in 1192 at the age of eighty-four. Not only was he old, but he was blind as well, yet in 1203 (when he was ninety-five!) he was the indomitable leader of the Crusaders' expedition against Constantinople and carried that expedition through to victory.

In later centuries, though, the Doge was pretty much a figurehead and it was the impersonal oligarchy, the Signiory, that ran the republic.

... the sooty bosom

Before Othello can answer the summons, Brabantio and his party arrive. Angrily, Brabantio accuses Othello of having used enchantment, as otherwise his daughter couldn't possibly have

Run from her guardage to the sooty bosom

Of such a thing as thou-to fear, not to delight.

- Act I, scene ii, lines 69-70

Again a reference to Othello as a black. Othello, noble, powerful, accomplished, high in all men's regard, would be a good match for the girl but for his skin color. Yet it is interesting that Brabantio makes no mention of religion. Nor is the matter of religion mentioned anywhere in the play.

And yet if we take Othello seriously and don't dismiss it as simply a romance in which we need not peer too closely at the details, we must suppose that Othello was born a Mohammedan. It is inconceivable that the Venetians would trust a Mohammedan to lead their armed forces against the Mohammedan Turks; we must therefore further assume that Othello was a converted Christian.

... the general enemy Ottoman

For a while it seems that fighting will break out, but Othello preserves a magnificent calm and, in any case, Brabantio too has been summoned to the Signiory.

In the council chamber, the Signiory is gravely considering the news that a Turkish fleet is at sea, with its destination uncertain. Calmly, they weigh what evidence they have and decide the Turks are aiming for Cyprus.

When Othello enters, the Duke says:

Valiant Othello, we must straight [immediately] employ you

Against the general enemy Ottoman.

- Act I, scene iii, lines 48-49

There have been numerous tribes of Turks who have made their mark in history, and those against whom the Crusaders fought in the twelfth century were the Seljuk Turks.

Two centuries later a group of Turks under Osman I (or Othman, in Arabic) began to win successes. The particular Turks under this ruler and under his successors were called Osmanli Turks or, more commonly, though incorrectly, Ottoman Turks. It was under the Ottoman rule that Turkish power reached its heights.

Under Orkhan I, the son of Osman I, all of Asia Minor was taken, and in 1345 Orkhan took advantage of a civil war among the Byzantines to cross over the Dardanelles. Thus the Turk entered Europe, never to leave.

In 1453 the Ottoman Turks took Constantinople and by Shakespeare's time they ruled a vast empire covering western Asia, northern Africa, and southeastern Europe. It had passed its peak at the time Othello was written but so slightly that the decline was not yet visible, and it still seemed (and was) the most powerful state in Europe.

The Anthropophagi ...

It is only after speaking to Othello that the Duke notices Brabantio, who instantly pours forth his tale of anger and woe, accusing the Moor once again of having used enchantment.

Othello offers to send for Desdemona so that she might bear witness herself and meanwhile gives his own account. He has often been a guest at Brabantio's house, he says, and at his host's request would tell of his adventurous life and the strange things he has seen:

.. .of the Cannibals that each other eat,

The Anthropophagi, and men whose heads

Grew beneath their shoulders.

- Act I, scene iii, lines 142-44

"Anthropophagi" is Greek for "man-eaters." The word "cannibal" came into use only after Columbus' voyage, when man-eating habits were discovered among a group of Indians inhabiting the smaller islands of what are now called the West Indies. One of the names given them was "Caniba," and from that came "cannibal."

Actually, Shakespeare is taking a little bit out of Pliny here.

Gaius Plinius Secundus (the full name of the writer commonly called Pliny the Elder) was a Roman scholar who lived in the first century a.d. He was a prolific writer who tried to prepare a one-man encyclopedia of human knowledge culled from all the writers he could get hold of. In a.d 77 he published a thirty-seven-volume book called Natural History which digested two thousand ancient books and which was translated into English in 1601 (just two years before Othello was written) by Philemon Holland.

Pliny accepted rumors and travelers' tales and much of what he included was a farrago of legend and distortion, but all was so wondrous and interesting that the volumes survived the vicissitudes that followed the fall of the ancient world when other, more serious volumes did not.

Othello explains how Desdemona listened to his tales and came first to admire him and then to love him. Desdemona arrives and bears out Othello's tale, and Brabantio must give in. But in doing so, he sardonically warns that since Desdemona has proven capable of deceiving her father, she might deceive her husband as well.

H'as done my office

All leave but Roderigo and Iago. Roderigo is in despair, for Othello seems to have won utterly. Iago, on the other hand, is not concerned. He has contempt for women and it seems to him that Desdemona cannot long remain in love with an old Moor. All Roderigo has to do is go to Cyprus with plenty of money (which, of course, Iago intends to charm into his own pockets) and wait his chance.

Then when Roderigo leaves too, Iago ruminates on the Moor and on his own plans for revenge, saying:

/ 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.

- Act I, scene iii, lines 377-81

This must be nonsense. From all we can guess about Othello from the picture Shakespeare paints, he is not this sort of man. But Iago, intent on revenge, is busy working up his sense of grievance and will seize upon anything to do so. The revenge must involve Cassio as well. He says:

Cassia's a proper [handsome] man.

Let me see now: To get his place...

- Act I, scene iii, lines 383-84

And he gets his idea.

... Our wars are done

The scene shifts to Cyprus, where Montano, the Venetian governor, is awaiting events. There has been a great storm, which two Gentlemen on watch have witnessed. That tempest has, however, also served to abort the Turkish menace. A Third Gentlemen enters and says:

News, lads! Our wars are done.

The desperate tempest hath so banged the Turks

That their designment [intention] halts.

- Act II, scene i, lines 20-22

There is no further mention of military matters and Othello has no chance to display his quality as a general. That is too bad, for thirty years before the play was written there had been a Venetian-Turkish war that would have offered a good model for a battle.

In 1570, when Shakespeare was six years old, Turkish forces had indeed invaded Cyprus, as in Othello they had merely threatened to do.

Venice, which controlled the island at the time, felt she could not face Turkey alone. She appealed for help to the Pope, who in turn appealed to the most dedicated of all the Catholic monarchs in Europe, Philip II of Spam.

While the Christian forces of Europe were slowly gathering for the counterattack, the Turks were advancing in Cyprus and were steadily beating back the Venetians. Nicosia, in the center of the island (and the capital of modern Cyprus), was taken on September 9, 1570, while Famagusta on the eastern shore was under siege. Turkish vessels penetrated the Adriatic.

It wasn't till the summer of 1571 that the Christian fleet was ready to sail and challenge the Turks. The fleet was put under the command of Don John of Austria, an illegitimate half brother of Philip II.

Famagusta had fallen, meanwhile, and in October 1571 the Turkish fleet was concentrated near a city on the northern shore of the Gulf of Corinth, a city which to Italian traders was known as Lepanto. It was six hundred miles northwest of Cyprus and seven hundred miles southeast of Venice itself.

On October 7, 1571, the allied fleet reached Lepanto and attacked the Turks in the last great battle to be fought with galleys, that is, by large ships driven by banks of oars. There were nearly 500 ships on both sides carrying over 60,000 soldiers in addition to the oarsmen. The Venetian ships distinguished themselves in the fighting that followed, and, in the end, it was a great Christian victory. About 50 Turkish galleys were destroyed and 117 captured. Thousands of Christian slaves were liberated, and the news that the invincible Turks had been catastrophically defeated electrified Europe.

And yet Shakespeare did not make use of such an event. He might have allowed Othello to defeat the Turks offstage and gain a Lepanto-like victory as easily as he allowed the storm to do the job.

But then Lepanto must surely have seemed less glorious in England than elsewhere. It was a victory for Philip II of Spain, who was England's great enemy in Shakespeare's time. In 1588, only seventeen years after Lepanto, he had launched a huge Armada against England. The English defeated it and what was left of the Spanish fleet was destroyed in a storm.

It was the storm that defeated Philip II, rather than the earlier battle that gave him victory, that may have been in Shakespeare's mind.

King Stephen...

One by one the Venetians arrive at Cyprus, having weathered the storm. First Cassio, then Desdemona, Iago, and Roderigo, and finally Othello. Othello, completely happy to be with his Desdemona, to have Cyprus safe, and the Turks gone, proclaims a holiday.

Now it is up to Iago to use that holiday as an excuse to get Cassio drunk -the first step in his plan.

Iago sets up a drinking party. Cassio protests he has a weak head for liquor but Iago will not listen. In no tune there is drinking, comic songs, and foolish prattle. At one point, Iago sings a song that begins:

King Stephen was and a worthy peer;

His breeches cost him but a crown;

- Act II, scene iii, lines 86-87

It is a nonsense song, brought to Iago's mind by talk of England, and England did indeed have a King Stephen.

In 1135 King Henry I died, leaving as an heir a single daughter named Matilda. The nobility did not approve of a woman ruler, however, and turned to the old King's nephew, Stephen.

Stephen was crowned and kept his throne till his death in 1154. His reign, however, was a disastrous one. There was almost continuous civil war, first with Matilda and then with her son, Henry. Scotland took advantage of England's troubles to extend her sway southward, and the English nobility grew turbulent and independent of the crown.

And yet Stephen was a genial, good-natured man who was popular with the people, especially the Londoners, and might well have inspired good-natured comic songs in his honor.

... ay many mouths as Hydra...

And now the plot begins to work. Cassio, quickly drunk, staggers away. Iago had earlier arranged with Roderigo to have him pick a fight with Cassio, and meanwhile he tells Montano, with apparent reluctance and great concern, that Cassio is often drunk.

Roderigo comes running back, with Cassio in clamorous pursuit. Montano tries to restrain Cassio and in no time they are fighting and Montano is wounded. Iago sends Roderigo to set the alarm bell ringing and soon Othello, roused from bed, is on the scene.

Othello wants to know what happened and Iago tells him accurately, omitting only the fact that he himself had arranged everything. Othello has no choice but to discharge Cassio.

Yet Iago's game is not over; it is merely beginning. Cassio's discharge is well and good and now Iago may become lieutenant in his place. By now, though, Iago is after bigger game and cannot be stopped.

Critics have often maintained that Iago lacks real motive for his villainy and continues out of "motiveless malignity." It seems to me, however, that this simply isn't so. To many people there is a fierce delight in pulling strings, in the feeling of power that comes out of making others into marionettes whom one can manipulate at will.

The excellent results of Iago's maneuvering, so far, had whetted his appetite for more of the same, and we might suppose that by this time Iago could even forget his own wrongs in the sheer delight of watching himself twitch those about him into annihilation.

Thus, he twitches another string and encourages Cassio to hope for rehabilitation. But poor Cassio is too abashed to approach Othello. He says:

/ will ask him for my place again:

he shall tell me 1 am a drunkard.

Had I as many mouths as Hydra, such an answer would stop them all.

- Act II, scene iii, lines 302-4

The Hydra is the many-headed monster whom Hercules slew in the second of his twelve labors (see page I-237).

Iago, however, has the cure for Cassio's pessimism and pulls another string. All Cassio need do is ask Desdemona to intercede with Othello, and he can reach Desdemona through her lady in waiting, Emilia, who happens to be Iago's wife. With the dawn of hope, Cassio agrees to try.

... the green-eyed monster. ..

The plan begins well. Cassio sees Emilia and then Desdemona, and the latter agrees to intercede with Othello.

As Cassio leaves Desdemona, however, Iago and Othello arrive on the scene and Iago, looking after Cassio, mutters:

Ha! I like not that.

- Act III, scene iii, line 34

He won't explain himself, but it is enough to insert the first uncertainty into Othello's mind concerning Desdemona and Cassio. Then, when Desdemona begins to plead for Cassio, that can but increase the uncertainty.

After Desdemona leaves, Iago, with infinite cleverness, manages to fire Othello into jealousy by the very manner in which he himself refuses to say anything. The very show of reluctance on Iago's part gives Othello the greater room for imagining the worse, and Iago warns him in terms that but feed his fear, saying:

O, beware, my lord, of jealousy!

It is the green-eyed monster, which doth mock

The meat it feeds on.

- Act III, scene iii, lines 165-67

Because of these verses, the expression "green-eyed monster" has become a common metaphor signifying jealousy and its mundane meaning is lost. The "green-eyed monster" is obviously the cat, which plays with the mouse it catches, releasing it only to catch it again, over and over. In the same way, jealousy torments the one who experiences it, for he cannot ever be made secure. Every proof to the contrary releases him only briefly, till some new incident rouses the jealousy again.

... her jesses...

Othello understands the torments of jealousy and he will not sit still to be a prey to it. He will have the matter put to the test, either to be proven or disproven. After Iago has left, he muses:

// I do prove her haggard,

Though that her jesses were my dear heartstrings,

I'd whistle her off and let her down the wind

- Act III, scene iii, lines 259-61

The language used here is that of falconry. In medieval times it was an aristocratic sport to train falcons, hawks, and other birds of prey to hunt game, and, like every other specialized activity, it developed its own vocabulary.

A haggard is an untamed hawk; one that is caught after it is adult so that any taming is superficial and so that there always remains a tendency to revert to the wild. Jesses are small leather straps around the hawk's leg which are usually supplied with a ring that can be attached to the glove on the hawker's hand. To whistle her off would be to let her go.

Actually, though, Othello is already convinced of Desdemona's infidelity. When she comes in to call him gaily to dinner, she sees something is wrong and asks if anything ails him. He answers, ominously:

/ have a pain upon my forehead, here.

- Act III, scene iii, line 283

He touches his forehead, and to the Elizabethan audience, any reference to the forehead means the horns that sprout there and signify cuckoldry.

The innocent Desdemona offers him her handkerchief to bind his head but he pushes it roughly away and it falls to the ground unnoticed by her.

The handkerchief is a very special one, a gift to Desdemona from Othello. Now it lies there and Emilia picks it up. Her husband, Iago, had often asked her to steal it for him (we are not told why) and now she can give it to him.

Iago is elated on receiving it. He sees how he can use it in his plan. When Othello enters, Iago muses with grim satisfaction on the perturbed appearance of the general. He says to himself, concerning Othello:

Not poppy nor mandragora,

Nor all the drowsy syrups of the world,

Shall ever medicine thee to that sweet sleep

Which thou owedst [possessed] yesterday.

- Act III, scene iii, lines 327-30

There has always been a use for the equivalent of tranquilizers, for there have always been tensions. Before the days of modern chemistry, tranquil-izing herbs were found in nature, and of these the chief was a certain species of poppy which was originally grown along the shores of the eastern Mediterranean for the sake of its edible seeds.

Undoubtedly, other parts of the plant were nibbled on and it must have been noticed that nibbling the fruit eased small pains and discomforts, reduced tension, and encouraged sleep. It was eventually discovered that one could express juice from the fruit and use that as a sedative. The Greek word opion is a diminutive form of the word for juice, and in Latin that becomes opium.

One wonders if the famous lotus-eaters in the Odyssey, who ate of the lotus and wished nothing more than to dream away their lives in tranquil content, were not really poppy-eaters.

There is a less exaggerated mention in the Odyssey of a tranquilizing drug. When Helen and Menelaus are hosts to Telemachus (the son of Ulysses) in Sparta, they serve wine to which Helen adds a drug "that banishes all care, sorrow, and ill humor." A little opium might do that too. In Greek, the name of the drug Helen uses is nepenthes, meaning "no sorrow."

As for mandragora, that is an older form of mandrake (see page I-336).

... the Pontic Sea

Othello's state of mind has brought Iago himself to danger, for in his present frenzy, he demands proof or he will have Iago's life. Without flinching, Iago makes up the necessary lie. He says he once shared a bed with Cassio, who talked in his sleep and revealed his affair with Desdemona. He then adds the climactic bit when he says that the handkerchief Othello gave Desdemona is now in the possession of Cassio.

That does it. Othello is reduced to such a pitch of mad fury that he cries for blood. Coolly, Iago urges Othello to be patient and his intentness on revenge may vanish. But Othello says:

Never, Iago. Like to the Pontic Sea,

Whose icy current and compulsive course

Nev'r keeps retiring ebb, but keeps due on

To the Propontic and the Hellespont,

Even so my bloody thoughts, with violent pace,

Shall nev'r look back, nev'r ebb to humble love,

- Act III, scene iii, lines 450-57

The "Pontic Sea" is the Black Sea, which is connected to the Mediterranean through narrow straits. At its southwest corner is the Bosporus, about twenty miles long and no more than half a mile wide at its narrowest. It runs just about north and south and at its southern end widens out into a small body of water which we call the Sea of Marmara. (The ancient Greeks called it the "Propontis," meaning "before the Pontus," since a Greek traveler leaving the Aegean Sea must travel through the Propontis before getting to the Pontus.)

The Propontis narrows to a second strait, the Dardanelles, or, to the Greeks, the Hellespont (see page I-466).

The Mediterranean Sea, into which the Hellespont opens, is a warm sea. The sun beats down upon it and sometimes the hot, dry winds blow northward out of the Sahara Desert. Much water is lost by evaporation and only a small part of it is replaced by river water. Only one major river flows into the Mediterranean and that is the Nile; and after its long trip through desert regions not as much water is delivered into the Mediterranean by the Nile as one might suppose from the length of the river. The other rivers that flow into the Mediterranean-the Ebro, Rhone, Po, Tiber -don't count for much, despite their historic associations.

The result is that if the Mediterranean were existing in isolation it would gradually dry and shrink to a smaller size than it is.

It is quite otherwise with the Black Sea, which is distinctly cooler than the Mediterranean and free of the Saharan winds. There is less evaporation, to begin with. This smaller amount of evaporation is more than made up for by the giant rivers that flow into it-the Danube, Dniester, Bug, Dnieper, and Don.

If the Black Sea existed in isolation, it would overflow.

The result is that the waters of the Black Sea pass constantly through the straits and pour ceaselessly into the Mediterranean without ever any ebb to this steady flow, and it is to this that Othello refers. (Water is also constantly pouring into the Mediterranean Sea from the Atlantic Ocean through the Strait of Gibraltar.)

... my lieutenant

Othello intends death now, as soon as the case is proved. He orders Iago to arrange the assassination of Cassio. Iago now has everything he wants. Cassio has been amply paid back for daring to move over his head-to the death. Othello has been destroyed; the noble general he once was he can never be again.

There remains Desdemona. She has not offended Iago. He seems to have a momentary qualm about her. When Othello orders him to kill Cassio, Iago says:

'Tis done at your request.

But let her live.

- Act III, scene iii, lines 471-72

Yet the immediate effect of this is to drive Othello further into his maddened rage, so that he cries out:

Damn her, lewd minx! O, damn her! Damn her!

Come, go with me apart. I will withdraw

To furnish me with some swift means of death

For the fair devil. Now art thou my lieutenant

- Act III, scene iii, lines 472-75

We might even imagine that Iago's soft request for mercy was designed to provoke this anger; that without any personal hatred for Desdemona at all, he nevertheless enjoyed pushing the buttons.

A sibyl.. .

Desdemona has by now realized she has lost her handkerchief and is very disturbed. Othello (testing whether she has given it to Cassio, as Iago said) asks for it, and the nervous Desdemona, forced to admit she doesn't have it on her person, is afraid to say she has lost it. Othello harshly warns her that the handkerchief is important; it has magic properties and is a love charm:

A sibyl that had numbered in the world

The sun to course two hundred compasses,

In her prophetic fury sewed the work;

- Act III, scene iv, lines 70-72

The aged sibyl is an image used often by Shakespeare (see page I-452), and we may well believe that Othello accepts the truth of sibyls as he does of Pliny's wonders.

Still Desdemona can't produce the handkerchief and still she fearfully denies it is lost. Othello stalks off in a rage.

... would prove a crocodile

Iago now sets about supplying the last touch. He has planted the handkerchief in Cassio's chambers. Cassio finds it, likes it, and gives it to his mistress, Bianca (a courtesan), to copy over so that he will have a similar handkerchief after he returns this one to its rightful owner, whoever that might be.

Iago then finds occasion to draw Cassio aside, with Othello watching from a place where he can see but not hear. Iago teases Cassio with the great love Bianca has for him. Cassio preens and smirks with the usual male self-satisfaction over such matters and Othello can only assume (in his fevered state) that he is laughing over his amour with Desdemona.

And then Bianca enters and throws the handkerchief back at Cassio, for she has decided it must belong to another one of his girlfriends. Of course, Othello recognizes it at once and the case is proven for him. The handkerchief he gave to Desdemona, she gave to Cassio, who thinks so little of it he passes it on to a courtesan. Othello is ready to kill Desdemona.

But the outside world intervenes. A deputation of important Venetian officials has arrived under the leadership of one Ludovico. They bring a message recalling Othello to Venice now that the war danger is gone and appointing Cassio as his successor.

Othello greets them with the necessary ceremony but is so far gone in his jealous madness that he cannot put a good face on matters even for the sake of the Venetian deputation. When Desdemona innocently tries to speak in Cassio's favor to the Venetians, Othello strikes her.

The horrified Ludovico upbraids Othello and exclaims at the sight of the weeping Desdemona. But the raving Othello says:

O devil, devil!

If that the earth could teem with woman's tears,

Each drop she falls would prove a crocodile.

- Act IV, scene i, lines 244-46

In other words, if tears falling to earth could act as semen to make the earth pregnant and bring forth life, Desdemona's tears would cause it to bring forth crocodiles.

This refers to a well-known legend concerning crocodiles. (Othello is a veritable compendium of legends.) Crocodiles were supposed to moan and sigh, so that passers-by might think human beings in distress were somewhere nearby. If any were softhearted enough, or curious enough, to turn aside in search of them, the crocodile's jaws snapped shut, and it would then continue to weep even while eating.

The story is quite untrue, but the phrase "crocodile tears" has entered the language to represent any form of hypocritical grief. The implication is that Desdemona's modesty and virtue are tissues of hypocrisy. The irony, of course, is that the play is filled with crocodile tears; they are all Iago's and Othello doesn't see them.

... into Mauritania.. .

When Othello stalks off, Ludovico wonders if he is sane, and Iago seizes the opportunity to encourage that thought of possible insanity without actually committing himself to it.

But by now Iago has almost more strings in his hand than he can properly handle. Thus, when Othello takes himself to Desdemona's chamber to give her a bitter tongue-lashing, Emilia openly wonders if Othello might not be the victim of malicious slander. Then too, Roderigo has been gulled and robbed by Iago to the point where he can take no more. He threatens to talk to Desdemona directly and request the return of his jewels.

We can be pretty sure that Desdemona has never received any jewels but that Iago, as go-between, has kept them. Iago, therefore, must begin to shut mouths.

He begins by promising Roderigo that he will have Desdemona the very next night if he can manage to keep Othello on the island that long. Iago explains that Othello has been recalled and ordered to a distant country (another lie). This is to force Roderigo to act, for it will seem to him that Desdemona is about to move utterly beyond his grasp. Iago says:

... he [Othello] goes into Mauritania

and taketh away with him the fair Desdemona,

unless his abode be lingered here by some accident;

- Act IV, scene ii, lines 224-26

Mauritania was the name given in ancient times to the northwest shoulder of Africa, the region now called Morocco. It may be used here as a vague term, meaning "land of the Moors," that is, north Africa generally.

Iago arranges to have Roderigo attempt to find occasion to kill Cassio, since the death of Othello's appointed successor would force the Moor to remain on the island for a while. (From Iago's standpoint, this will get rid of the hated Cassio, and Othello has ordered him to do that; and he will find occasion, we can well imagine, to take care of Roderigo too.)

... that Promethean heat

Matters now rush to their horrible climax. It is night and Desdemona, in almost unbearable depression, goes to bed.

Cassio, returning from time spent with his ladylove, is set upon by Roderigo. They fight and both are wounded. Men come running, and Iago, finding that Cassio is not dead, makes the best of matters by killing Roderigo and shutting his mouth at least.

While that is going on, Othello is trying to do his part. He comes upon Desdemona sleeping and even now finds he still hesitates. He looks from the candle he carries to the sleeping woman and says:

// / quench thee, thou flaming minister,

I can again thy former light restore,

Should I repent me; but once put out thy light,

Thou cunning'st pattern of excelling nature,

I know not where is that Promethean heat

That can thy light relume.

- Act V, scene ii, lines 8-13

Prometheus, in the Greek myths, had first made man the gift of fire, stealing it from the sun (see page I-437). A later myth also made him the creator of man. He was supposed to have made clay models into which he breathed life.

Othello's reference to "Promethean heat" is therefore a double-barreled allusion. It refers to Prometheus' connection with the sun's fire; not just ordinary fire but a special kind. Secondly, it refers to Prometheus' ability to infuse cold and lifeless clay with the warmth of a living human body; and that ability Othello lacks.

... the very error of the moon

Othello no longer raves. He goes about the task of killing with a cold sorrow. Desdemona wakes and Othello accuses her of having given the handkerchief to Cassio. He will not accept her denial but tells her Cassio is dead (he assumes Iago has done his work properly), and Desdemona's terror at that news seems to him to be the final admission.

He strangles her with her pillow and even while he is forcing his weight down on her fragile neck, there is a clamor at the door. Emilia demands entrance. Othello closes the bed curtains and lets her in. Emilia has come to tell of the deadly fight between Roderigo and Cassio.

Othello says calmly:

It is the very error of the moon.

She comes more nearer earth than she was wont

And makes men mad.

- Act V, scene ii, lines 108-10

It has always been tempting to think that changes in the heavens bring about analogous changes on the earth (something that is the basis of the pseudo science of astrology). The regular changes of the moon from new to full and back again would seem to imply that certain passions or foibles of men would wax and wane in sympathy.

In particular, mental abnormalities would wax with the moon, and there are the well-known legends that men turn into werewolves under the full moon, that witchcraft is most dangerous then, and so on. Spells of madness would vary with the moon's phases too by this line of thought, and the very word "lunatic" is derived from the Latin word for the moon.

And of course, if the moon approached more closely to the earth than usual, its effects would be multiplied.

... towards his feet. ..

But now Othello finds out Cassio is not killed, merely wounded. That staggers him.

A faint cry from the bed reveals that Desdemona is not quite dead, either. She lives only long enough to try one last time to shield Othello, and weakly claims she killed herself.

Othello, trying desperately to cling to the certainty that he did the right thing, boldly proclaims he killed her for her infidelity, and now Emilia comes into her own. She shrieks her utter faith in Desdemona's virtue.

Others, including Iago, come bursting in in response to Emilia's cries and find Desdemona dead. Iago must admit he told Othello of Desdemona's unfaithfulness, and now comes his doom. The matter of the handkerchief comes up and Emilia reveals the truth. She had found the handkerchief and given it to Iago.

Then-too late, too late-Othello understands. He tries to kill Iago, who evades him, stabs Emilia, and runs.

Emilia dies, but Iago is brought back a prisoner. Othello looks at him through the hellish mist that now surrounds him and says, brokenly:

/ look down towards his feet-but that's a fable.

- Act V, scene ii, line 282

This takes us back to one of the more joyous aspects of the pagan religions of the Greeks and Romans. They peopled the woods and wilds with spirits representing the free, animal fertility of life. The Greek satyrs and the Roman fauns were pictured as men with goats' horns and hindquarters, possibly because goats were always pictured as lustful animals. (Then too, goats may well have been the first creatures to be domesticated for meat and milk and it was important that they be lustful and multiply.) The most important of the satyrs was Pan himself.

The sexually strait-laced Jews (and, later, Christians) viewed all fertility deities with disapproval and suspicion, and to the Jews the satyrs (or similar creatures in Eastern cults) were sairrim, which the King James Bible translates as "devils." They tempted mankind to sin.

The devil, Satan, is usually pictured, even today, with horns, tail, and other goatish characteristics. He is still a satyr or, in particular, Pan. Medieval legends had it that the devil could take on many undevilish disguises, but that he could not abandon all his marks. Whatever he did, there remained one trace of goatishness; that is, a goat's cloven hoof. Hence the expression "to show the cloven hoof," meaning to reveal the hidden evil in one's character.

Othello looks toward Iago's feet to see the cloven hoof that would indicate the devil and interrupts himself mournfully with his "-but that's a fable."

He has learned! Till now he has believed the fables from Pliny, he has believed in magic handkerchiefs and sibyls, in crocodiles and moon-bred lunacy-and, of course, in Iago too.

Now, for the first time, he has discovered the necessity of skepticism-far too late.

Demand me nothing. ..

As all of Iago's lies and trickeries are exposed, the confused Othello wants to know but one thing. Why did Iago do it? The audience wants to know too, since the revenge went far beyond anything necessary to punish Iago's grievances. But Iago says:

Demand me nothing.

What you know, you know.

From this time forth I never will speak word.

- Act V, scene ii, lines 299-300

Ludovico threatens to make him talk under torture, but it seems reasonable to suppose that no torture will make Iago talk. This failure to say why has irritated many, but, in my opinion, it should not. Iago's pleasure at manipulating lives was intense and it is something we can all understand, for, in a much milder way, it is present in all men-and yet it is not something that can be easily explained.

... the base Judean...

Now it is only necessary to take Othello back to Venice so that he might be tried for murder.

Othello, however, has one last thing to say. With an effort, he manages to pull himself together into almost the man he once was and speaks once more, a little in self-pity, much more in self-hate. He asks them all to tell the tale honestly, saying:

Then must you speak

Of one that loved not wisely, but too well;

Of one not easily jealous, but, being wrought,

Perplexed in the extreme; of one whose hand,

Like the base Judean, threw a pearl away

Richer than all his tribe...

- Act V, scene ii, lines 339-44

In many editions of the play, the phrase "like the base Judean" is made to read "like the base Indian." It seems to me that "Judean" is much the more preferable. If "Indian" is used, the allusion is obscure; if "Judean" is used, it is brilliantly apparent.

In Matthew 13:45-46, Jesus is reported as saying "Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto a merchant man, seeking goodly pearls: Who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had, and bought it."

It is easy to envision Jesus (who, in the Christian view, represented the kingdom of heaven) as being the pearl of great price more valuable than all else in the world besides. The Jews, in rejecting Jesus as the Messiah, would then be pictured as throwing away the pearl of great price. In particular, Judas, who betrayed Jesus, would be the "base Judean."

From this point of view, the extent of Othello's self-hatred is clear. He compares his murder of Desdemona with the crucifixion of Jesus, and himself with Judas.

... in Aleppo once Othello goes on to say:

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 circumcised dog

And smote him-thus.

- Act V, scene ii, lines 348-52

With the last word, before anyone can stop him, Othello stabs himself, falls upon Desdemona in a final kiss, and dies.

This last pathetic passage cannot be taken literally. Aleppo is a city in what is now northwestern Syria, and (except for a brief period in 969) it has been Moslem for over thirteen centuries. If Othello killed a Turk in Aleppo, he was killing him in the midst of a city of Turks and it is not likely he would have got away alive.

He must mean something else...

The Moslems and Jews were marked off from the Christians by being circumcised; that is, a flap of skin at the end of the penis was removed. "Uncircumcised dog" was a common derogatory phrase for Christians among the Moslems, indicating that they were outside the pale of the true religion. Othello's use of the reverse phrase in his last agony is like a return to his origins.

After all, if Othello was Moslem originally, conversion to Christianity in later life could not utterly wipe out the tricks of speech he had learned as a young man. Furthermore, he would still be circumcised; baptism may cause one to be born again in the spiritual sense, but it cannot grow a new foreskin.

Othello therefore pictures himself as having returned to his origins, of having forgotten the Christian virtues of forgiveness, of having become "a malignant and a turbaned Turk." He beat a Venetian (Desdemona). He also traduced (defamed) himself; robbing himself of his own fame and reputation by his actions; and insofar as he was the representative of the state in Cyprus, he traduced the state.

So he took by the throat "the circumcised dog" (himself) and killed him.

O Spartan dog

It is the end. The destruction has been complete, and Iago's plot has worked itself out to the final bit. That Iago himself is trapped and is to be destroyed by torture must seem quite irrelevant to him. The victory is his.

Ludovico says to Iago bitterly:

O Spartan dog,

More jell than anguish, hunger, or the sea!

Look on the tragic loading of this bed.

This is thy work.

- Act V, scene ii, lines 357-60

A "Spartan dog" is a bloodhound, one that is trained to hunt and kill, and therefore a cruel and bloodthirsty person.

But does Ludovico expect Iago's conscience to be touched? It is precisely "the tragic loading of this bed" that is his victory, and one can imagine that Iago, wounded and pinioned and with the certainty of agonizing torture awaiting him, must, as he looks upon the bed, smile.

So the play ends-and the manner of its ending reflects history too, in a way, for all that the play is utter fiction from beginning to end.

The Battle of Lepanto, however much of a glorious victory it seemed to Europeans, and however much of a psychological boost it gave them, had no military value. Within a year the Turks had replaced their losses and were as powerful as ever at sea. The Christian allies, having won their victory, quarreled among themselves and did nothing more. The Venetians were left to face the Turks alone. The war on Cyprus continued to go against them, and in 1573 the Venetians yielded and ceded Cyprus to the Turks, who were to keep it for three centuries.

And so, just as Othello's coming to Cyprus may be compared to the victory at Lepanto, so his death seems to signify the valuelessness of that victory and the ultimate loss of Cyprus to the enemy.

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