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The Moral Geography of Othello

By Michael Flachmann


The concept of geography plays a major role in Shakespeare’s Othello, as it does in many of his plays. Caught between the two markedly different locales of Venice and Cyprus, the events of the script give proof to the old adage that “people change places, and places change people.” Such characters as Othello, Desdemona, and Iago are forever transformed by their journey through these disparate worlds, just as these dramatic places are permanently altered by the characters’ presence.

One of these locations, Venice, was the crown jewel of sixteenth-century Italy. A major Mediterranean seaport and center of commerce, it was also home to the incredible richness of literature, painting, architecture, music, and all the other art forms that flourished during the Italian Renaissance. At the same time, it symbolized the depths of political intrigue, decadence, and moral depravity that were unfortunately typical of Italy during the same time period. Characterized, on one hand, by Baldassare Castiglione’s The Courtier (1528), a testament to the importance of civilized, courtly demeanor, it also produced Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince (1514), a cynical, pragmatic, amoral treatise on the uses and abuses of political power. Polluted by prostitution and other social ills, Venice was an over-civilized, licentious, ingrown society that carried with it the potential for its own destruction.

The other, Cyprus, a fortified outpost on the edge of Christian territory, is a very different world than Venice. Infinitely more barbarous, it is a bastion of male power where Desdemona, alone and isolated from her Venetian support system, is vulnerable to the machinations of a highly skilled manipulator like Iago. This is a savage, warlike milieu in which such admirable military virtues as quick decision making and an inflated sense of honor work strongly against Othello and his bride. Ironically, Cyprus was also revered as the birthplace of Venus Aphrodite, the goddess of love, who was reputedly born in ocean foam and washed ashore near Nicosia. Inspired by this amorous deity, Cyprus provides the perfect location for Iago to convince Othello of his wife’s sexual infidelity.

Because of this geographical dichotomy between Venice and Cyprus, Othello and Desdemona move from an urbane, civilized, and somewhat depraved Italian city-state to a barren military encampment whose claustrophobic confines intensify Iago’s unrelenting psychological assault. Also conspiring against the lovers is Othello’s naivete concerning the subtle charms of Venetian ladies. Like the city itself, Desdemona carries with her the seeds of her own demise. Transplanted into the new terrain of Cyprus, her innocent sophistication confirms her as a “cunning whore of Venice” (4.2.87). In the same fashion, after the Turkish fleet is destroyed by storm, Othello becomes that perfect oxymoron, a miles amores or “soldier of love,” whose warlike nature is dangerously out of place on an island devoted to Venus.

The physical geography of Othello is underscored by a deeper, more symbolic moral geography in which the characters Iago and Desdemona fight over the soul of the hero. Torn between these two extremes—the evil of Iago and the goodness of Desdemona—Othello undergoes a “psychomachia” or “soul struggle,” during which his mind slowly degenerates into murderous passion. As Bernard Spivack argues in Shakespeare and the Allegory of Evil, Iago descends from the medieval Vice character, whose role in such well-known morality plays as Mankind and The Castle of Perseverance was to beguile the hero into acts of depravity that would eventually endanger his immortal soul. In these early plays, as in Othello itself, evil starts with a tiny seedling of doubt or jealousy, then proliferates into a forest of trees until the moral landscape of the play is choked with sin.

The physical and moral geography of Othello is supported by a vast number of important themes and images that help bring currency and realism to the play’s symbolic landscape. Chief among these are the relatively small cast of characters, the compressed storyline, the lack of a sub-plot, and the vivid contemporary setting: The Turks attacked Cyprus in 1570, approximately thirty-three years before Shakespeare’s play was written and first produced. An additional topical influence was the fact that the newly crowned King James I of England was fascinated with Turkish history, while his wife, Queen Anne, once asked Ben Jonson to write a play about Moors (The Masque of Blackness) in which she played a role in “dusky” makeup.

Enlivened by such other significant topics as contemporary racism, the uses of verbal and psychological poison, the changing roles of women, the lust for revenge, images of foreignness, the tempest on sea and in Othello’s mind, the isolation of an island universe, the reversion to brutish behavior, and the ironic importance of the handkerchief, Shakespeare’s play takes us on a geographic and psychological journey into the wilderness of the human heart. If we truly give ourselves over to the mystical experience of theatre, we can become one with Othello—navigating through the landscape of the play, alternately seduced by good and evil—and thereby change the world we live in as it inexorably changes us.

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