The tragedy of othello the moor of venice
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The Tragedy of Othello the Moor of Venice. First lecture. The Renaissance Studies major. An interdisciplinary major for students interested in the literature, art, history, music of the 15 th , 16 th , 17 th centuries. See <english.ucsb.edu/faculty/oconnell/renstudies>

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The Tragedy of Othello the Moor of Venice

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The tragedy of othello the moor of venice

The Tragedy of Othello the Moor of Venice

First lecture


The renaissance studies major

The Renaissance Studies major

  • An interdisciplinary major for students interested in the literature, art, history, music of the 15th, 16th, 17th centuries. See <english.ucsb.edu/faculty/oconnell/renstudies>

  • We’ll have the occasional visit of other Early Modern faculty for mini-lectures.

  • Prof. Jon Snyder (Italian) will talk about the image of Venice in the early 1600s (next Thursday).

  • Prof. McGee (History) will talk about kingship and King James while we’re discussing Macbeth.

  • Prof. Fumerton (English) will talk about ballads in the context of The Winter’s Tale.

  • And if anyone is interested in learning to sing 17th cent. Ballads, check out Music A 70B being taught this quarter (Tues-Thurs, 4-5:20 in Music 2224) by Revell Carr, the Music Specialist for the Pepys Ballad Archive.


The tragedy s particular character

The tragedy’s particular character

  • The most painful of Shakespeare’s four “great” tragedies?

  • Like the mythical old lady in the theater, we want to shout, “Stop, you fool! She’s innocent!”

  • The fastest moving of the tragedies.

  • With a single line of action – no subplot, no distractions.

  • And no comedy (except the opening of Act III, scene 1; is this a bit lame? Would we advise Sh. to cut this?)

  • And a compressed time scheme – sometimes referred to as a “double time scheme.”


Dating text leading actor

Dating, text, leading actor

  • Perhaps written as early as 1603, but certainly by autumn of 1604 (November), when it was performed at court.

  • But not printed until 1622 – in quarto -- six years after Shakespeare’s death).

  • Then a text that differs somewhat from the quarto was published in the First Folio of 1624.

  • Folio is the better text; Pelican text is edited from the Folio. See “base Judean” (F) against “base Indian” (Q) in O’s final speech.

  • Role of Othello was written for Richard Burbage, the most powerful actor of the King’s Men, and the greatest tragedian of his day.

  • Burbage had played Hamlet and other leading roles for the King’s Men.


Source

Source

  • Shakespeare got the story from a collection of Italian stories, the Hecatommithi (One Hundred Tales) of Giradi Cinthio (1565).

  • Which had not been translated into English by 1603.

  • So it seems Shakespeare could read Italian. Did he travel to Italy in the 1580s?

  • In G.C., the valiant Moor is not named. Sh. Invented the name Othello.

  • And “Iago” (also not named in G.C.) has motivation for his actions: he had been in love with Disdemona, but was rejected by her. His plot is his vengeance.

  • And Disdemona’s death happens differently: in collusion with the Moor, “Iago” beats her with a sand-filled stocking, then he and the Moor make it appear that the ceiling has fallen on her.

  • The time scheme is less compressed in G.C.

  • It takes a while before the truth of the murder comes out.


The moor

The Moor

  • “The Moor”: scholars have gone around and around about what this means.

  • But it seems clear that a Moor was someone from North Africa.

  • And the play makes clear his racial difference: he is “black Othello.”

  • Iago calls him “an old black ram” (I, 1, 97), Roderigo refers to him as “the thick lips” (I, 1, 65), and Iago as “a Barbary horse” (I, 1, 110).

  • Brabantio refers to “the sooty bosom of such a thing as thou art” (I, 3, 70-71).

  • Moors were not a part of the London population, but Londoners had seen them in the embassies of N. African nations.

  • Moors were exotic, strange, were Muslim in religion.

  • And so racially and religiously “Other” from white, Christian Europeans.


Othello the moor

Othello the Moor

  • But Othello has converted to Christianity.

  • And devoted himself to the service of Venice.

  • I’m reminded of a Borges story, “The warrior and the captive,” where he tells of Droctulft, a Lombard warrior, who during the siege of Ravenna in the 6th or 8th century, went over to the Roman side.

  • Droctulft left his own companions, who were attacking the city, and joined the defense of Ravenna – converted by the beauty and symmetry of the Roman city. (Labyrinths, p. 128)

  • Can we similarly imagine Othello, also an outsider, the Other, converted by the beauty and the civility of Venice, and so “converted” in every sense to what it represents?

  • Like Droctulft for Ravenna, Othello seems to have a special reverence for Venice.


Othello the moor1

Othello the Moor

  • Portrayed in entirely negative terms in the first scene:

  • He’s foolish, Iago suggests,

  • having chosen Cassio, “a great arithmetician,” as his officer instead of the more experienced Iago.

  • And both Iago and Roderigo cover him with racially charged epithets.

  • Which is tinged with a sense of sexual distaste – or envy?

  • Desdemona has been brought “to the gross clasps of a lascivious Moor” (Roderigo).

  • “Your daughter and the Moor are making the beast with two backs” (Iago).

  • We’re led to believe that a monstrous black man has stolen a beautiful white girl.


And othello s actual appearance

And Othello’s actual appearance . .

  • In I, 1?

  • Quiet, confident, assured of his position with the signiory of Venice.

  • Revealing his own aristocratic background (“I fetch my life and being/ From men of royal siege, and my demerits/ May speak unbonneted . . . )

  • He has married Desdemona only because of his love for her.

  • His calm in the face of the armed crew that Brabantio brings.

  • “Keep up your bright swords, for the dew will rust them.”

  • His courtesy to Brabantio.

  • How does he handle the racial animus against him?


The othello music

The “Othello music”

  • Phrase comes from a famous essay by G. Wilson Knight.

  • I, 3, 81-82: “Rude am I in speech/ And little blessed with the soft phrase of peace . . .”

  • He’s a military man, not a poet or scholar.

  • But is his speech really “rude” (meaning unpolished, ineloquent), is he really “little blessed with the soft phrase”?

  • He seems to relish words, perhaps giving the impression of someone who has learned the language and loves its nuances.

  • “the cannibals that each other eat,/ The anthropophogi.”

  • His speech to the signiory: I,3,128ff.

  • Duke: “I think this tale would win my daughter too.”

  • See his love aria to Desdemona when they meet on Cyprus: II, 1, 182ff.

  • And Iago’s reply: “But I’ll set down the pegs that make this music.”

  • Othello’s farewell to his profession: III, 3, 347ff. The poetry of his soldiering.

  • Or 453, where the beauty of the lines gives a kind of horror to his vow of constancy in his “bloody thoughts.”

  • Why give Othello such eloquence?

  • And what happens to the “Othello music” at IV, 1, 35ff?


Othello and des

Othello and Des

  • What to make of their love/marriage?

  • “She loved me for the dangers I had passed.”

  • “And I loved her that she did pity them.”

  • And what she says at I, 3, 248-254.

  • “I saw Othello’s visage in his mind.”

  • Doesn’t cancel out the sexual attraction, but does it make it more complex, more brainy?

  • Do we ever doubt the potent character of their love?

  • Her boldness in eloping with him is clearly a factor in our judgment of their love.

  • She’s taking an immense chance; clearly no meek little Venetian girl.

  • Each of these elements is challenged by Iago’s formulations.

  • So how do we judge the matter?


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