The current wave of attacks in Paris, in Ankara, and in Brussels has reignited the ‘European-Muslim’ or the ‘Western-Muslim’ debate. And while the ‘Muslim’ identity will be dissected and judged, as it has been for the last decade, To look at this relationship of being Muslim and European we must turn to William Shakespeare and his Othello.
We all, of course, know how forbidden it is to try to deduce the author’s intention from his works. But we also know that, like all forbidden things, it is very tempting to do so. Thus, I want to begin by looking at the title page of the quartos to date Othello. Dating Othello is rather difficult (and dangerous, as Desdemona finds out) but critics suggest 1603 to be the year it was penned. And posthumously printed, in 1622, with the title: “The Tragedy of Othello; The Moor of Venice.”
“The Moor of Venice”, is something akin to an oxymoron. And oxymorons become very important to the play, as we later discover in the case of the phrase “Honest, Iago” - Othello's standard bearer, the play's main antagonist - that we keep getting so solemnly. The “Moor of Venice” is an oxymoron because “A Moor” is not of “Venice”; “A Moor” cannot be of “Venice.” And, indeed, in many ways the play is an exploration of this very paradox; of a man who both is, and is not, “of Venice.”
Moor is a word with dense associations. Two meanings, as the Oxford English Dictionary tells us, jostle: one is geographical, “the Moor is an inhabitant of North-Africa, Mauritania (present day Morocco), In the 8th century they conquered the Iberian peninsula, but were finally driven out of their last stronghold in Granada at the end of the 15th century.” The second meaning which is associated, is a more general designation: Moor meaning “a muslim of mixed Berber and Arab descent.” Of course, much ink has been spilled about whether Othello is an ethnically marked inhabitant of North-Africa, a noble Arab, or from Sub-Saharan Africa (as in the epithet “black” when Iago says “we will drink the health of black Othello”). This distinction is no more innocent now than then. For the generation of earlier critics who were brought up with the inferiority of black slaves in America, and the inferiority of the colonised people of the British Empire, the question of “what kind of Moor Othello was”, was crucial to the sympathy that the play might generate, and therefore crucial to the whole notion of tragedy. A racially marked black Othello was less sympathetic, and therefore less tragic than an Arabic one. The arguments that Othello is sympathetic have, therefore, tended to identify him as a noble of North Africa. A situation completely reversed in our times it seems, where sympathies for Muslims has hit rock-bottom. Thomas Rymer, one of the first critics of Shakespeare in his 17th century critique calls the play “the tragedy of a handkerchief” and “a bloody farce”. Therefore something unworthy of the designation of tragedy. Rhymer then helps in answering the question “Why did the Eiffel Tower not light up for Ankara, the same way it did for Brussels?” Because, ‘what is worthy for tragedy’ is a question we’re still finding an answer to.
So did Shakespeare intend Othello to be Muslim?
There are very references to Othello’s religion in the play. Although those that exist suggest him to be a recent Christian-convert, or somebody struggling with being both Christian and Muslim, a man torn between identities, as in the case of Muslims in Europe today. Othello uses the phrase “by heaven” - in fact, is the only character in the play to use this phrase. He accuses his brawling soldiers of having “turned Turk.” And he bids Desdemona “pray” before he murders her. Iago vows to make him “renounce his baptism.” While some productions, notably starring Lawrence Olivier, have marked Othello’s decline as a visible turning from his adopted Christianity. Olivier has Othello rip a prominent cross he’s been wearing his neck, at the point of his religious reconversion back to Islam. There are lots of problem, of course, implicit in this interpretation where Christianity equals self-control, rationality, lucidity. And Islam equals madness, murder, insane rage, and so on. Crucial to this interpretation is Othello’s last, long and final speech, famously dubbed, by G Wilson Knight, as “the Othello music”: “Drop tears as fast as the Arabian trees / Their medicinal gum / Set you down this / And say besides, that in Aleppo once / Where a malignant and a turban'd Turk / Beat a Venetian and traduced the state / I took by the throat the circumcised dog / And smote him, thus.”
This is a speech that captures Othello’s position best. He is “of Venice”, as the title told us, he is the defender against the “turbaned Turk”. But he is also the Turk himself: the gesture of killing that Turk has turned on himself in his suicide: “I took by the throat the circumcised dog / And smote him, thus (stage direction: Othello kills himself).” Thus, the play ends on a fissure; an incompatible religious-ethnic split, which ends up taking the life of its protagonist. It is quite that Shakespeare intended the protagonist’s name with a hard ’T’ (OT-tello) to recall a connection with the name we do get in the play “Ottoman Turk”, to reiterate his otherness. It is also true that the person who takes his name most is Othello himself, every other person calls him the “Moor.” It is indeed striking what Othello’s final speech mentions, but even more striking are the notions it leaves out. His speech doesn’t at all mention, for example, the small matter of the murder of his wife. Anti Othello critics, most notably, T.S.Elliot, have been shocked by the extreme self-centredness of this final speech. Elliot comments that “this is Othello cheering himself up.” What is more interesting to this Muslim reader of Othello, however, is that the ‘Self’, in Elliot’s own phrase, is much more complex and problematic than Elliot allows it to be. Indeed, any sense of Othello’s unified self seems to have been lost in this Shakespearian parable of multiple outsiderness. Thus, “is Othello a Muslim?” is a question the play asks more than it answers. This is perhaps true of most of Shakespeare’s plays; it generates the questions rather than answer them.
In Act I Scene II, two things happen. Firstly, Desdemona has eloped with the Moor with out her father’s consent, which puts him at fault. Secondly, an attack on Cyprus (which even today remains divided between ‘christendom’ and ‘ottoman-ness’) by the Turkish fleet has taken place, here Othello is the potential saviour. Hence, this serves to cement Othello’s insider-outsider identity;
Another aspect to consider the ethnicity of Othello is through the lens of Iago, whose motivation is famously opaque, his “motiveless malignity”, as Coleridge put it. Interestingly, Iago name comes from St. Iago was known as “the conquerer of the Moors”. Perhaps it allows that race and ethnicity is part of his hatred for Othello. The play also draws the audience unwittingly into racist assumptions about Othello by its clever creation of closeness and sympathy with Iago - the figure who talks to us, and draws us in. And its maintenance of distance from Othello, a lofty and aloof figure, who never really acknowledges that we’re there.
Othello then has to be characterised as a deeply race-oriented play, which explores notions of otherness and identity, especially a Muslim identity, in Europe. And as Europe and the West continue to deem the identity ‘Muslim’ incompatible with their own identities, staging the bard’s Othello then would be good way to offer clarification about Europe’s, and William Shakespeare’s, Muslim.
The writer is a free thinker.