Othello and the Turks

The “Moor” Othello and the “malignant” Ottoman Turks represent the barbarian “other” in Shakespeare’s Othello. However, Othello represents a barbarian who tries to live with the “civilized” white Venetians to overcome his role as barbarian. The play appears to be set during the clashes of the two most powerful civilizations of the “early modern eastern Mediterranean” -the Venetian and the Ottoman Empires. Daniel Goffman writes that “the two states seem to have been forever on the brink of war or actually fighting” (138). While Goffman plays down the actual amount of violent clashes, the these powerful rivals must have created an image of their enemy as a barbarian other.

The Turks first emerge in the play as a savior to Othello. Brabantio desires retribution against him for marrying his daughter without his knowledge or consent and for possibly forcing his daughter into the arrangement. However, Cassio arrives with a message from the duke demanding Othello’s “hate-post-haste appearance” (1.2). The urgency: “A Turkish fleet, and bearing up to Cyprus” (1.3, line 8). The Duke requires Othello’s help in repelling the Turks- “Valiant Othello, we must straight employ you/ Against the enemy Ottoman” (1.3, line 49-50). The “Moor” is used against his barbarian brothers- the Turks. Due to the military exigency and Othello’s military value, the Duke and the Senators give Othello more of a chance to prove himself than they may have otherwise given to a “Moor” given the societal prejudices. In this situation, he has overcome suspicion and prejudice, as in “lascivious Moor” (1.1, line 124) and the belief that the only way Desdemona, white woman, would want to marry him was if he had “practised on her with foul charms/ Abused her delicate youth with drugs or minerals” (1.2, lines 73, 74). He, from the lands of the barbarians, fights for the white men against other barbarians- the Turks.

However, at the end, Othello kills himself while recounting a story wherein he killed a “malignant and a turbanned Turk [who had]/ Beat a Venetian and traduced the state.” He says “I took by th’throat the circumscised dog/ And smote him- thus!” as he kills himself (5.2). By killing himself the way he had formerly killed a (barbarian) Turk who had murdered a (civilized) Venetian, he shows that he is as Barbaric as the Turks and implies that he has failed to overcome his barbaric nature.

Works Cited

Goffman, Daniel. “The Ottoman-Venetian Association.” The Ottoman Empire and Early Modern Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2009. Print.

Shakespeare, William. Othello. Ed. E. A. J. Honigmann. London: Arden Shakespeare, 2001. Print.

Published in: on September 18, 2011 at 10:40 pm Comments (0)

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