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Home :: Archive :: 1996 :: March ::
Re: Othello's Religion and Origins
Shakespeare Electronic Conference, Vol. 7, No. 0197.  Monday, 11 March 1996.

From:           Sydney Kasten <
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Date:           Sunday, 10 Mar 1996 20:37:14 +0200 (IST)
Subject:        Othello's Religion and Origins

The text gives us no reason to challenge Othello's claim to "honour", so for
him to be anything other than the Christian he professes to be would be out of
character.  As has been pointed out, his marriage to be sanctioned must have
been Christian.  A rephrasing of the question might be in order: "Was he born
Christian, was he a convert or perhaps a "Converso?"  The latter are the
children of those who dealt with the Spanish Inquisition by adopting the full
practice of Roman Catholicism, while maintaining in secret certain basic
practices of Judaism.  To this day the Converso sees himself as a complete
Roman Catholic, but refrains from marriage out of the group and is buried in
converso cemeteries.  To this extent Othello could not have been a "good"
converso and at the same time marry Desdemona.

Nevertheless, the story of his social dislocations from boyhood on leaves room
for the thesis that he was born Armenian, Eastern Orthodox, pagan, Muslim, Jew
or whatever, and that the tenets of the confession into which he was born were
either never learned or forgotten with time and disuse. This would allow him to
accept without reservation the faith of his adoptive city.  All that would
remain of his origin would be a *sign* left on his body on his eighth day or
his thirteenth year if his birth were Jewish or Moslem.

Florence Amit's analysis of Othello's name is compelling to one who is a Member
Of the Tribe.  She doesn't tell us that the constellation she proposes is to be
found in yesterday's newspaper.  "Ayatollah", the title assumed by the Iranian
Muslim clergy is composed of *ayat*, the Arabic relative of the Hebrew *oth*,
and the name of the Diety.  Oth is the correct transliteration of the hebrew
word for sign, being composed of the letters aleph and thav, the first and last
letters - or, if you will, the alpha and omega - of the hebrew alphabet.  Make
something of that!

I had taken for granted that the -ello in Othello's name was a standard Latin
diminutive, as in Marcello.  I had never thought of cutting it off to leave the
*Oth*.  Incidentally the diminutive lives on in the Yiddish language,
presumably brought northward by them as various forces caused them to move from
the borders of the Roman Empire into regions where they adopted the German
lingua franca.  While Yiddish and German are strongly similar, this suffix is
one of the points of divergence between the two languages. e.g. Young girl =
German Maedchen = Yiddish maidele.

Ian Doescher tells us of the origin of the play, an Italian play called
Heccatommithi.  He doesn't let us know if the protagonist is called Othello,
leaving us in uncertainty as to the provenance of the name.  On the other hand,
as I look at the name of the Italian play, I see a word that is neither
Italian, Greek nor Latin.  What does spring out at me from the page is a group
of syllables which in Hebrew seem to say "That which is signed is in my
possession".  Is Ian in a position to tell us more about Heccatommithi?

They who believe Shakespeare's lack of Latin and general education disqualify
him from participation in the KJV project and even from being the author of the
opus attributed to him must be rolling on the floor to see all this Hebrew
being thrown around.  I do not think it absurd that one who had such a mastery
of such a complex language as English would have any trouble with any language
he had reason to learn.  I would presume that then as now Hebrew would be an
unavoidable part of a clerical education, that instruction would be freely
available for any motivated student.  Why he would want to inject a Hebrew
element, if in fact he did, might be the the basis of another discussion.

Syd Kasten
Jerusalem
 

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