In William Shakespeare's Othello, what do the Cypriots think of Othello? Do their words (in Scene I) make him seem to us a lesser man or a larger one?
Part of the Venetian empire, and reflecting European (read: Caucasian) sensibilities, Cypriots viewed Othello through the prism of race. Othello, of course, is dark-skinned. He is often portrayed as black, but the Moors were North African mixed-heritage Arab-Berber, the latter Caucasian. As such, the character would presumably be Semitic as opposed to black (sub-Saharan). In any event, Othello is not Caucasian and is viewed as representative of an inferior race. In Act I, Scene I, Roderigo, jealous of Othello’s marriage to Desdemona, and Iago, bitter over being passed-over for promotion by his commanding officer in favor of a less-qualified colleague, plot Othello’s demise. Iago’s plan is to convince Othello that Michael Cassio, the officer promoted instead of Iago, is having an affair with Desdemona, assuming that such a rumor will prove sufficiently infuriating to the dark-skinned general that both his and Cassio’s demise will be assured. Desdemona’s father, aware of Roderigo’s desires for Desdemona, is initially wary of any information from these two individuals, but Roderigo and Iago know exactly what kind of buttons to push in the racist atmosphere of a continent divided between white Christians and dark-skinned Muslims:
BRABANTIO. What profane wretch art thou?
IAGO. I am one, sir, that comes to tell you your daughter and the Moor are now making the beast with two backs [meaning, the racially-inferior Othello is having sex with the fair Desdemona].
BRABANTIO. Thou art a villain.
IAGO. You are—a senator.
BRABANTIO. This thou shalt answer; I know thee, Roderigo.
RODERIGO. SiRABANTIOr, I will answer any thing. But, I beseech you, If’t be your pleasure and most wise consent, As partly I find it is, that your fair daughter, At this odd-even and dull watch o’ the night, Transported, with no worse nor better guard But with a knave of common hire, a gondolier, To the gross clasps of a lascivious Moor—
This exchange involving Venetians is intended to convey the atmosphere in which Shakespeare’s play takes place. Iago and Roderigo’s plot to destroy Othello, a much respected military tactician and leader, is grounded in primitive notions of racial superiority. The purpose of this discussion, then, is to illuminate the manner in which Cypriots, particularly those of ancient Greek ancestry, would view a prominent figure of Arab or Muslim, or Moorish, descent. Cyprus, however, has, for centuries, had a sizable Muslim population (it is, today, divided between Muslims supported by Turkey and Greek Cypriots supported by Greece), and answering the question – how do Cypriots view Othello – has to be qualified by reference to the relatively complex ethnicity of Cyprus.
The student’s question specifies “Scene I,” but doesn’t specify whether it is Act I or Act II, the distinction being important in that the action doesn’t move from Venice to Cyprus until Act II. That Othello is viewed by Greek and Venetian Cypriots through that same racial prism, though, is evident in the opening of Act II, Scene I, when several “gentlemen” stand on the shores of the island contemplating the Turkish invasion that is expected and the imminent arrival of Othello with the task of defending this Caucasian enclave from his fellow Muslims:
THIRD GENTLEMAN. The ship is here put in, A Veronesa; Michael Cassio, Lieutenant to the warlike Moor Othello, Is come on shore: the Moor himself at sea, And is in full commission here for Cyprus”
That identification of Othello by his ethnicity aside, these prominent Cypriots, joined by Othello’s aide, Cassio, noticeably comment on the Moor’s positive attributes, recognizing Othello’s courage and history of success as a military commander. Montano remarks upon that “brave Othello,” and Cassio, the loyal lieutenant, praises his superior’s valor while lamenting that the storm that will prove so instrumental to the battle’s outcome may threaten Othello:
CASSIO. “Thanks, you the valiant of this warlike isle, That so approve the Moor! O, let the heavens Give him defense against the elements, For I have lost us him on a dangerous sea.”
Perhaps the best indication of the view Cypriots have of Othello occurs in the very brief Scene II of Act II, which is comprised solely of a “herald” announcing Othello’s marriage:
HERALD. It is Othello’s pleasure, our noble and valiant general, that, upon certain tidings now arrived, importing the mere perdition of the Turkish fleet, every man put himself into triumph; some to dance, some to make bonfires, each man to what sport and revels his addiction leads him: for, besides these beneficial news, it is the celebration of his nuptial. So much was his pleasure should be proclaimed. All offices are open, and there is full liberty of feasting from this present hour of five till the bell have told eleven. Heaven bless the isle of Cyprus and our noble general Othello!
If this quote is any indication, Shakespeare’s own views of his protagonist, whom he depicts as noble, brave and loyal, are reflected in the manner in which he is announced to the public. It is Iago, the Caucasian, who is the play’s most vile character and Roderigo, another Caucasian, who is its most pathetic. Shakespeare did not disparage the character of Othello in his play; he lets his villains do that – an interesting indictment of English sensibilities and of Shakespeare’s own enlightenment.