Plays, Poems & New Writing Research article

Othello and the Ottomans

Although we never get to see them on stage, the ‘Turks’ are an ominous presence in Shakespeare’s Othello who trigger and drive events in the play. In the first scenes, when Brabantio storms into the Duke of Venice’s council chamber to lay his complaints against the union of his daughter Desdemona to Othello, the senator interrupts a strategy meeting around the rapidly developing Turkish invasion of Cyprus. Brabantio begrudgingly gives his blessing to Othello and Desdemona after the Duke finds their affections to be sincere. The latter then resumes military planning and sends the ‘Valiant Othello’ to Cyprus to confront the ‘enemy Ottoman’. This deployment foregrounds the respected position that Othello holds in Venetian society. However, it also helps to create the circumstances that lead to Othello’s downfall, by allowing him to become victim to Iago’s plots.

For Shakespeare’s audiences, the Venetians’ concerns for the Ottoman advance into Cyprus would have been familiar. Since their conquest of Byzantine Constantinople in 1453, the Ottoman dynasty – named after its founder Osman I (r.1299-1323/4) – had completely shifted religious and geopolitical dynamics in the Mediterranean. Over the course of the next few centuries, the Ottomans continued their activities of territorial expansion in Eastern Europe, Asia and North Africa. By the time Shakespeare’s plays were being staged in English theatres from the late sixteenth century, the Muslim Ottoman Empire was well-established as a global superpower, feared and admired across Europe for their thriving economy, military prowess and cultural and intellectual traditions.

Portrait in oil painting of Ira Aldridge as Othello by Léon Herbo (1850-1907).

Portrait in oil painting of Ira Aldridge as Othello by Léon Herbo (1850-1907).

Several European nations had productive diplomatic and commercial relations with the Ottomans, including England. Elizabeth I was especially proactive in cementing an alliance with the Ottomans and establishing strong ties with Sultan Murad III (r. 1574-1595) and consort Safiye Sultan (d. 1619). However, Christian Europeans were still generally intimidated by the Ottoman’s ever-growing empire, and anxious about their religious difference.

The Ottoman’s almost-invasion of Cyprus that forms the early backdrop of Othello was inspired by the historical War of Cyprus (1570-1573) between the Ottomans and the Venetians. Cyprus had been under Venetian rule since the end of the fifteenth century. The Republic of Venice profited from the production and trade of commodities such as sugar and cotton on the island, as well as its valuable location, which granted Venice some control over the Mediterranean. The island thus had obvious appeal to the Ottomans, who had recently regrouped after the decades-long war with the Habsburg monarchy over Hungary in 1568.

Portrait of Charles Kemble as Othello, lithograph with hand-colouring. Printed by Auguste de Valmont, 1827, published in France.

Portrait of Charles Kemble as Othello, lithograph with hand-colouring. Print by Auguste de Valmont, 1827, published in France.

The War of Cyprus had not been the first occasion of Ottoman-Venetian military encounter. From the mid-fifteenth century they had engaged in three other significant wars, which saw the Ottomans capture several territories, including Negroponte (in modern-day Euboea), the Cyclades, and the Sporades. However, in this fourth war, the Venetians and their Catholic allies enjoyed a fleeting but notable victory at the Battle of Lepanto (1571). The battle was regarded as a huge win for Christendom against the Turks. The Scottish King James VI even wrote a heroic poem, The Lepanto (1591), to commemorate the achievement. While the play doesn’t correspond directly with the incidents of the Battle, Cassio and Othello’s news about the defeat of the Turkish navy from a ‘storm’, and the celebrations that follow, recall the events of the famous and widely celebrated campaign.

The Turks role in the play might seem to be a way of establishing Othello as an admired military leader and integrated member of Venetian society, despite the racist and xenophobic antagonisms he experiences. However, the Turkish motif also complicates his character. Because of Islam’s synonymy with Ottoman identity in English minds, for Shakespeare’s audiences the word ‘Turk’, used throughout the play to signify the Ottomans, was widely understood to mean ‘Muslim’. The label ‘Moor’ assigned to Othello was similarly understood as ‘Muslim’, though it could also mean Black, (North) African, or East Indian. Othello’s identity as a ‘Moor’ then conspicuously connects him to the Ottoman Turks. By fighting for Venice against the Ottomans at the beginning of the play, Othello distinguishes himself from the Muslim ‘menace’ threatening Christian Europe. However, as he slowly succumbs to Iago’s manipulations, Othello comes ever closer to resembling Venice’s Ottoman enemy. In his final words of the play, before he claims his own life, he declares himself to be a ‘malignant and a turban’d Turk’. The noble Moor of Venice thus seemingly transforms into the Ottoman enemy, one whom he still defeats, leaving his identity contentious to the end.


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