From Venice, Italy to a warring Cyprus; Shakespeare’s iconic novel Othello: The Moor of Venice grabs the reader through betrayal, manipulation, and tragedy.
Most, if not all, of Shakespeare’s plays are considered a once-in-a-lifetime body of work from an unparalleled talent. Not only was his command of the English language exceptional, but the stories he crafted were uniquely powerful, particularly his tragedies. One of his best being Othello: The Moor of Venice.
The play follows Othello, a Venetian general leading an army during the War of Cyprus. Instead of centering the military conflict, the narrative follows the battle within him and other characters. This series of feuds is ignited by his senior officer, Iago, after warning him about a possible infidelity by his wife Desdemona.
Shakespeare’s masterful depiction of the unraveling of a man’s psyche resulting in tragic consequences captivates the audience from the beginning and keeps you hooked until the inevitable and brutal end.
Shakespeare establishes early that Othello’s appearance sets him apart from the other characters, but his country of origin is never explicitly stated, which leaves the reader to fill in the gaps surrounding his identity.
The play was written during the early 17th century before Britain officially began participating in the Transatlantic Slave Trade. The contemporary concept of race didn’t exist during this time, which means that on the few occasions when Othello refers to himself as “black,” he is almost certainly referencing the color of his skin in comparison to the fairer Venetians. In reality, he could have been from North Africa, the Middle East, or Spain.
The best guess at his ethnic identity is African or Moroccan after the man he was likely inspired by Abd el-Ouahed ben Messaoud ben Mohammed Anoun, an ambassador to England from modern-day Morocco on a mission to establish an alliance between the two countries. This plan would never come to fruition as he was discovered to be a convert to Islam and lost his status. Given Shakespeare’s elevated reputation due to his theatre, he likely met and performed for the ambassador at the Globe Theater before he left England and wrote the play in the following couple years, pulling on the themes of being an outsider and assimilation from Anoun’s life experience.
Venice is only the setting of the first act. It is, however, the perfect city to reflect the amount of conflict Othello has experienced before the start of the play and throughout the current plot. Venice’s culture is as rich as its history. After the fall of the Roman Empire in the West, the city was created in 584 A.D. It survived the struggles for power, political conflict within Italy, and shifting boundaries of territories. Likewise, Othello has also experienced a great deal of war and turmoil in his life. Though his experiences lead him to the opportunity of becoming a general, his mind has been altered and remains unchecked resulting in the demise of those around him.
Even though this is the setting of a tragic story, Italy is still a happy destination for more lighthearted travelers. There are plenty of breathtaking sights and experiences, including the Church of S. Maria della Pietà, where concerts are regularly hosted to celebrate the composer Vivaldi, gondola rides in one of the city’s iconic canals, and Doge’s Palace.
Image by Secret Travel Guide via Unsplash
Though Cyprus is the setting for the majority of story, the audience barely sees it, because Othello’s attention is continually drawn away from the war effort to the perceived infidelity of his wife. The secluded feeling that the island brings to the story serves as a pressure cooker feeding the tension between characters. The military context of the plot provides the sense of urgency that drives Othello deeper into his insecurities. The tragic end is made even more bleak considering the island houses Petra tou Romiou which is considered to be the birthplace of Aphrodite. Travelers can also enjoy the Bellapais Abbey in Northern Cyprus and Timios Stavros Monastery in Southern Cyprus.
Othello is a great place to start for new Shakespeare readers who are interested in long-game manipulation with devastating consequences. Furthermore, flipping through the pages can also be the first stop through the Mediterranean Sea.