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Home :: Archive :: 2005 :: March ::
Othello's Name
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 16.0557  Thursday, 24 March 2005

From:           Frank Whigham <
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 >
Date:           Wednesday, 23 Mar 2005 12:25:29 -0600
Subject: 16.0546 Othello's Name
Comment:        Re: SHK 16.0546 Othello's Name

Lysbeth Benkert-Rasmussen <
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 >

 >>John W. Kennedy <
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 >argued that:
 >>
 >>"On the contrary, the "circumcised dog" is someone else:
 >>                    ..in Aleppo once,
 >>   Where a malignant, and a Turbond-Turke
 >>   Beate a Venetian, and traduc'd the State,
 >>   I tooke by th'throat the circumcised Dogge...."
 >>
 >>I would argue instead that Othello sees himself as both the "malignant
 >>and a Turbond-Turke" and the soldier who "took [him] by th' throat."
 >>Right after he says these lines, doesn't he take himself "by the throat"
 >>and kill himself?
 >
 >I cannot help thinking that if Shakespeare had wanted Othello's final
 >speech to turn on a point so wholly irrelevant to the plot, he could
 >have found something better. Perhaps "Invectives against holders of
 >Tithes" might do.
 >
 >Othello is a Moor, not a Turk, and he has traduced something quite other
 >than the State.

For my part I find Benkert-Rasmussen's view convincing:

(1) There's no question (it's quite literal) that Othello marks out some
active similarity between the Turk he killed in Aleppo and the Moor he
now kills. Why mention the former as he does the latter, if not to
suggest a parallel?

(2) There's linguistic reason to think that the words "Turk" and "Moor"
are not simply not words for the same thing, as OED suggests:

OED Turk 3. a. Often used as = Muslim.
   (The Turks being to Christian nations the typical Muslim power from c
1300.)

OED Moor 2. A Muslim; spec. a Muslim inhabitant of India or Ceylon (Sri
Lanka). Now arch.

(3) The point is hardly "wholly irrelevant to the plot." First off,
Othello is retained by Venice to protect the state from invasion by
Turks. The fact that he is also called (or hauled) before the council in
1.3 (by two posses) to answer the private charge of home-invasion and/or
daughter-theft as well as to answer the public challenge of the Turkish
invasion of Cyprus seems to me a programmatic fact: is Othello "really"
an invader or a native/denizen/citizen/Venetian? He is split by these
tensions. The question of his status as a Christian/Muslim is partly
congruent with this national-origin question. Jim Shapiro's discussion
of whether Shylock's (or anti-Semitism's) Judaism is a matter of race,
nation, or religion is useful here.

(4) Finally, Greenblatt's exploration of Othello's sexual troubles, esp.
re the "skillet for my helm" speech, raises the possibility that the
reference to circumcision in Othello's last words is a double allusion,
not only to insider/outsider status issues, but to a submerged phallic
content in "malignant and turbaned" that follows upon his "ice-brook"
sword, of which he says "a better [weapon] never did itself sustain /
Upon a soldier's thigh" (but now every puny whipster get it).

Frank Whigham

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