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 Abdullah Ohed ben Mazud, 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. 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.

The links to my publications “Shakespeare’s Qaballah”, a Companion to Shakespeare Studies and my anthology of poetry, “Pathenogenesis” are as follows:

https://www.amazon.com/dp/8182537193
https://www.cyberwit.net/publications/1721

Website: www.qudosacademy.org

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