Try as much as you like, but it is hard to confine Shakespeare to the sphere of high culture or the classroom. For some reason the Bard has an uncanny way of running into the mainstream. It is a surreal experience to hear the name of the 16th century English playwright being quoted by a taxi driver in Cairo, and to hear that Shakespeare was an Arab called Sheikh ibn Jubayr. Shakespeare’s influence is found not only in Western writings, but also in modern Arab literature and other cultures where he is cited as an icon.
It seems there are some plays that possess a certain vitality of their own. Othello in particular comes to mind. Written around 1603, it tells the story of a Moor, Othello, and his Venetian wife, Desdemona. Othello, due to his Machiavellian ensign, Iago, begins to suspect his wife of infidelity and ends up smothering her. When her innocence
is revealed, Othello is heartbroken and commits suicide. The story deals with issues of race, sexuality, gender and status. Not surprisingly, it was used in South Africa to challenge Apartheid, and by Indian nationalists to challenge their colonial masters. Moreover, it seems that with our complex identities and experiences, Othello is still of consequence. It is hardly surprising then that AC Bradley, one of 20th century’s most noted literary critics, named Othello, Macbeth, King Lear and Hamlet as Shakespeare’s most important works.
So, what makes Othello so unique? The fact that the protagonist was a Moor was not unusual during the Elizabethan period. Shakespeare featured them in The Merchant of Venice and Titus Andronicus. After all, the 16th century was a period of conflict and interchange between Islam and Christian Europe, and it is worth remembering that before the accession of James I in 1603, the Ottoman empire was Protestant England’s ally against Catholic Spain. Even the plot itself was hardly original. Shakespeare unashamedly relied on Cinthio’s Italian version. Unlike his contemporaries, what Shakespeare does with Othello is to subvert the whole genre in such a studied way that one has to marvel at his self-knowledge and empathy. For he turns a play about a savage brute who kills a beautiful fair maiden in a fit of jealousy, into a play where that reading is not so obvious. He avoids depicting Othello as savage, like he had done with Aaron in Titus Adronicus. He does not follow the precedent of other great playwrights of his time like Marlowe’s Tamburlaine (1587), nor does he play on the blood-thirsty Orientalism of Robert Greene’s Selimus, The Emperor of the Turks (1594), the story of how the Ottoman Sultan, Selim I, murdered his way to power. It could have been so easy for Shakespeare to do so. Those types of stories were popular then as they are today.
Shakespeare’s Moor came out of The Description of Africa by Leo Africanus, the Andalusian diplomat and traveller brought to life in Amin Maalouf’s novel of the same name. His Moor could evoke dignity, fear and admiration just like Abdul Wahid, the Ambassador of Morocco, who visited Elizabeth I in 1600 to discuss commercial links between the two and a joint invasion of Spain. Thus, Shakespeare’s protagonist could love and be loved, be eloquent, noble, brave and yet suspicious and cruel. A Moor that one could appreciate and empathise with, despite his foreignness. A man who has to contend with the very real threat of imminent war with the Ottoman navy whilst dealing with the malicious whispers of Iago against his wife’s fidelity. Othello is not your average lustful oriental.
Perhaps more importantly, within a play set in Venice and Cyprus, is a modern tale with modern parallels. For are there not malicious Iago-esque forces able to turn something noble into something savage in our world? And are there not aspects of Othello in our reaction to these Iago-esque forces? Does the play not turn to those of immigrant background and ask soul-searching questions? The contrast is challenging: perhaps one is a Venetian, like Othello dressing, talking and thinking like them; but then one looks different. One is torn by the whispers of one’s forefathers that one stay true to one’s cultural heritage. An imbalance in identity then, could lead to implosion. Perhaps the question Othello asks us is something more fundamental: who art thou? And that is the secret of its vitality, and of its author too.