Othello, The Moor of Venice (1601-2)

The main or central source for Othello was the novella from Cinthio’s Hecatommithi (The Hundred Tales, published in 1565), an English translation of which was published by Thomas Watson in 1582 and dedicated to Edward de Vere. Cinthio being a pseudonym, he was also known as Giovanni Cinzio Batista Giraldi (1504-73 Book 2, 7th story of “Disdemona and the Moor”). Shakespeare could have read it in its original Italian or in a French translation dated 1584. In 1569 Thomas Underdowne also dedicated his translation of the Æthiopian History of Heliodorus of Emesa to the Earl of Oxford which would have been a useful literary source for the play Othello.  Knowledge or news of the Turkish invasion of Cyprus derives from Richard Knolles“History of the Turks” published on the 30th of September 1603. Edward de Vere was nicknamed at court by Queen Elizabeth as the “Turk” because of his fashion of wearing a turban-style headgear. The play coincides with Edward de Vere’s suspicions that his wife Anne Cecil had been unfaithful and become pregnant with some other nobleman’s child. The part of Iago was played by Henry Howard who accompanied the Earl of Oxford on his diplomatic visit to France and Italy and advised him that his wife, during his absence was being unfaithful. Queen Elizabeth was obliged to intervene to settle the matter. The play also coincides with a prolonged visit from the Moorish ambassador Abd al-Wahid bin Mas’ud bin Mohammed Anun, from the King of Barbary and his retinue to Queen Elizabeth’s court (1600-01). A portrait of the ambassador exists which no doubt the Earl would have seen either during or after completion.

Abd al-Wahid bin Mas’ud bin Mohammed Anun (Arabic: عبد الواحد بن مسعود بن محمد عنون) was principal secretary to the Moroccan ruler Mulay Ahmad al-Mansur, and ambassador to the court of Queen Elizabeth I of England in 1600

Presumed by Oxfordian academics to have been written anytime between 1584 and 1604, for some reason the play was not entered into the Stationer’s Office until the 6th of October 1621. Two earlier versions exist in a First Quarto format (1622) and that of the 1623 Folio which suggests numerous changes and redactions or revisions were made to the original (Q). Some of these changes were done probably in response to the Profanity Act (1606), while other additions, around 160 lines are absent from the Folio version. Also missing are punctuation, correct spellings, musical references and stage directions. The Turkish invasion took place in 1570 and the Cypriot Christians were conquered the following year. In the play itself the Turkish invasion meets with a storm and is destroyed well before Othello can engage his forces which echoes events of the Spanish Armada. Therefore, this play must have been written well before the conventional date presumed by those Stratfordian academics. However, the first recorded performance of the play was before King James 1st at the Banqueting House at Whitehall on the 1st November 1604. A record in Henslowe’s diary entitled “The Mawe” (14th December 1594) is suspected to be a reference to an earlier version or performance. By that time the Earl of Oxford had died of plague but no doubt several revisions of the play had been made probably by Ben Jonson or the Earl of Derby with for example the inclusion of the “Willow Song”. Other possible sources include Pliny the Elder (23-79). Naturalia Historia (Philemon Holland’s translation in 1601), and Leo Africanus, A Geographical History of Africa (English translation by John Pory, 1600). The social background of the play set in Cyprus, then a Venetian colony, might have been informed by Sir Lewis Lewkenor’s The Commonwealth and Government of Venice, a translation from the Latin text of Cardinal Contrarini published in 1599.

Synopsis of the Play:

In Venice the disreputable ensign Iago has been pretending to help a gentleman, Rodrigo in a hopeless attempt to win the hand of Desdemona. We soon discover that Othello, a Moorish mercenary in the pay of the Venetians has eloped with Desdemona. Rodrigo and Iago then move on to her father’s house to rouse Brabantio into retaliation. Iago has already told Othello’s lieutenant, Cassio where he can be found and then hastens to Othello on the pretext of warning him of possible reprisals and repercussions. Cassio enters to declare that the Duke of Venice request he attend the court immediately to discuss the despatch of troops to Cyprus. The Duke of Venice adjourns the meeting to the Council Chamber, and together with his Senators he plans to discuss their tactics in dealing with the planned Turkish attacks on Cyprus. But then Brabantio arrives with angry supporters to accuse Othello, in the presence of the Duke, of his unwarranted elopement with his daughter. Assailed by false accusations, Othello naturally denies any wrong, to which Desdemona arrives to back him up and request she accompany her intended new husband to Cyprus. The Duke acquits Othello of any injustice and then Iago reveals his own evil intent and devious machinations to Rodrigo threatening to usurp all who stand in his way. The action of the play then moves to Cyprus where the local governor, Montano learns that severe storms have wrecked the Turkish fleet and scattered the Venetians ships. However, we then witness Cassio’s ship docking safely, followed by Desdemona’s, with Iago in attendance and finally Othello’s ship reaches safe harbour. In the foreground Iago begins to spread rumours that Desdemona is now enamoured of Cassio, while in the background action of the play others celebrate a safe landing and hopeful return. On the ensuing evening a night of triumphal celebrations is arranged at the news of the Turkish wrecks at sea, while Othello retires for an early night in the bedroom with Desdemona. Elsewhere, a fight erupts between Cassio, now drunk while on guard and Roderigo, that is perfectly in accord with Iago’s scheme. Othello awakened by the ruckus finds them and demands an explanation. Iago and Rodrigo are quick to condemn Cassio and he requests forgiveness for his behaviour. Desdemona is driven into the situation of pleading for Cassio thereby furthering Othello’s suspicions. The secret intrigues become more and more convoluted until Othello and Desdemona meet again and Cassio meets his mistress. Iago then further arouse Othello’s suspicions of Desdemona until in a jealous rage he strangles her and then finally kills himself when he discovers she was innocent after all.

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The links to my publications 
“Shakespeare’s Qaballah”,
a Companion to Shakespeare Studies and my anthology of poetry,