It’s easy to read, perform, or teach Othello as Shakespeare’s race play—with, I should say, good cause. In this regard, he may well have written a play that speaks more strongly to today’s America than to his own country. This is also the play of jealousy, possession, and romance’s dark side: If Othello is guilty of anything, it is giving way to a deeply misogynistic violent impulse.
Indeed, approaching Othello as a play about “race” in the abstract obscures the particular historical circumstances of the play’s action: Catholic Venice is at war with the Muslim Ottoman Empire and Othello, the Moorish general, is sent to fortify the key economic and strategic ports of Cyprus. These wars began in the early fifteenth century and continued through the early eighteenth; conflict and contention over Turkish or “European” claims to the island continue to this day.
Shakespeare’s play was mostly likely first performed in 1603, within living memory of the Battle of Lepanto (1571), in which the Catholic Spanish Armada defeated the Ottomans and prevented their influence from advancing through the Mediterranean into Europe. The provocation for the battle? Papal desire to rescue a Venetian colony on Ottoman-controlled Cyprus, the firewall between East and West.
This is also the context for discussing questions of meaning and degree of Othello’s dark skin. He is clearly an ethnic outsider—but whether he is a darker, “African” Moor or a lighter, “Arab” Moor affects the type of outsider he is, as well as the degree and type of suspicion in which he might be held. Even the implications of the most likely reading— that he is of Sub-Saharan, rather than North African, descent—are affected by this.
From this perspective, lighter skin might make him the “wrong” type of non-European. Being clearly outside the ethnic and racial category of a Venetian or European Christian leaves open the possibility—the suspicion—that he may be dangerously close to a particular category of “Other”: the Turks. After establishing Venetian camps, the great general is abruptly recalled from his post as battle nears. He will offer advice from Venice, but the unambiguously Christian Cassio will lead the troops in battle.
Has Othello converted to the religion of Venice? Would such a conversion be accepted by his peers—or is he, like Dreyfus, always under suspicion for being of too international an extraction? In his dying words, Othello casts himself as both Venetian and Turk, the Christian soldier and the “circumcised dog”:
And say besides, that in Aleppo once,
Where a malignant and a turban’d Turk
Beat a Venetian and traduc’d the state,
I took by th’ throat the circumcised dog,
And smote him—thus. [Stabs himself.]
These questions aren’t clarified by the text, but operate in a nexus of religious warfare and suspicion with parallels in our own time. We, too, experience religious tensions and heated debates over whether we ought to aid a small, contested, Western enclave challenged by Muslim populations. In reading Othello, we must think not just of race but also of the geopolitics of his day and ours.