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Home :: Archive :: 2005 :: March ::
Othello's Name
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 16.0482  Tuesday, 15 March 2005

[1]     From:   Alberto Cacicedo <
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        Date:   Monday, 14 Mar 2005 19:04:06 -0500
        Subj:   Re: SHK 16.0471 Othello's Name

[2]     From:   David Basch <
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        Date:   Monday, 14 Mar 2005 20:52:31 -0500
        Subj:   Re: SHK 16.0471 Othello's Name


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Alberto Cacicedo <
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Date:           Monday, 14 Mar 2005 19:04:06 -0500
Subject: 16.0471 Othello's Name
Comment:        Re: SHK 16.0471 Othello's Name

Thanks to all who've responded on Othello's name.  The exchange about
the source of the name has been interesting to my students, particularly
by its variety.  Different people have argued for Arabic (two different
sources), Italian, Greek, and Spanish provenances.  And then there's
Jonson's Thorello, to which several people have made reference.  On
Iago's name I'd like to add that during the reconquista St. Iago, St.
James, was known as Santiago Matamoros, St. James the Moor Killer.

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           David Basch <
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Date:           Monday, 14 Mar 2005 20:52:31 -0500
Subject: 16.0471 Othello's Name
Comment:        Re: SHK 16.0471 Othello's Name

I question the use of the name Iago as an allusion to Jacob, the
Biblical Patriarch. On the name Jacob, Don Bloom writes:

"Although Jacob is somewhat problematic for his craftiness (like many
scriptural figures), he remains venerated as the immediate father of
'the Children Of Israel'-his other name, of course...."
The circumstances of the alleged "craftiness" needs to be explained. In
an episode with Esau, Esau sells his birthright to Jacob for a mess of
pottage. The Biblical commentator writes of this act, "Thus did Esau
despise his birthright."

Sure, Esau came home from the fields ravenous but no one ever died from
missing a meal or two. The story reveals that he was a slave to his
appetites, unable to defer gratification, the sine qua non of being an
adult and capable of working for distant goals at the expense of
immediate pleasures. This story sets the stage for what happens when
their father, Isaac, wants to confer the blessing of the firstborn on
Esau. It seems that Esau had eaten up the pottage but had neglected to
tell his father that he had denigrated and sold his birthright to his
brother.

And so we then get into the Biblical episodes of Isaac about to bless
Esau and how Jacob managed to get the blessing to which he had the right
without making an ugly scene of denouncing his brother, which might not
have the intended effect since Isaac was very fond of Esau. Jacob has to
be talked into standing in for Esau by his mother, being loth to run the
risk of offending his father. This hardly shows a conniving type, merely
a person dealing with a difficult, mixed situation. When Isaac asks him,
"Is that you, Esau, my first born?" Jacob answers literally, "It is I.
Esau IS your first born." In the Hebrew, since the verb "is" is
understood and not expressed, these very words can also mean, "It is I,
Esau, your first born." Here is equivocation, misleading, but not an out
and out lie.

The other act of Jacob alleged to be conniving is his setting up of
poles marked with spots to be seen while the cattle were mating, a means
imagined by the inexperienced to affect the color of the next generation
of the cattle born. It seems likely that Jacob thought that this could
influence the outcome and that this would help him somewhat to build his
own wealth, but he would not have known that he would have assistance
from Heaven in this enterprise. Even Antonio in The Merchant of Venice
confirms this, noting that Jacob could not have brought this to pass
without the help of the Lord.

The upshot is that if one wishes to use the name Iago as reflecting
someone really sinister, Jacob the Patriarch is hardly the reference to
use. Perhaps at Shakespeare's time there were experiences with persons
named Iago who were horrible criminals and murderers. The latter would
be a better bet.

Concerning the derivation of Othello's name, I think that a number
people on this list have given credible allusions and it may have been
multiple allusions that led to the name that Shakespeare chose. Florence
Amit in particular had something when she translated Othello into Hebrew
as Ot Ha'El lo, "his sign of God," which refers to his circumcision.

As a converted Moor, Othello had of course been circumcised as a Muslim
and, in his last speech he refers to this when he remembers how he came
to the rescue of a Christian in Aleppo, "I took the circumcised dog and
smote him thus," killing himself in a replay of his earlier moment of
heroism, both episodes having involved a circumcised person who attacked
a Christian.

David Basch

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