How would our view of Othello change if we knew he were a Muslim? Not merely the Moor of Venice – the slave-convert to Christianity – but an actual believer. What if, to protect his life and true faith, Othello learns to adapt and navigate the foreign ways of his Venetian masters so convincingly that he becomes the general of their armies – armies that bear the cross and seek conquest over their Turkish (read “Muslim”) enemies? In contemporary lingo, Othello is English literature’s first code-switcher.
To assert Othello’s Islam is far more subversive than it may seem at first. In Othello’s time, like our own, faith is not merely a religious confession – it is a communal and political identity. It is tied up with power and conquest. It is the basis for social acceptance and rejection. It carries with it culture and practice.
This production isn’t the first time that Othello has been portrayed as a Muslim, but it hasn’t happened often. His religious and cultural past are certainly referred to in Shakespeare’s text, but most interpretations have been crass, equating – whether they intend to or not – Othello’s “Moorishness” with a proclivity to violence and anger.
I’m certain that Othello has never been portrayed as a Muslim in a time quite like this. We watch this Othello in a period of profound unease. Brexit. Trump. Populism. Refugees. Terror. The very desirability of an inclusive, pluralistic, global society is under scrutiny. Our diversity is no longer considered a strength. We turn over in our heads (and hearts, if we’re honest) the possibility that there are some people who are just too different to be “us”.
And what about those of “us” who are immigrants and – like me – are children of immigrants and – like me – are the grandchildren of immigrants? We, who like Othello, carry many nations, languages, identities, homes and ethnicities in us? We, who like Othello, have had their lives shaped by conquest and shifting borders, even before we were born? Is pledging fealty before God to the Queen and her heirs not enough to prove our belonging?
After all, in the end it wasn’t enough for Othello to have pledged his allegiance to the most potent, grave and reverend signiors of Venice to avoid the accusation of having wielded his Moorish magic or seduced Venice’s most desirable debutante. How quickly does Brabantio’s love for Othello collapse when he is informed an old black ram/ Is tupping your white ewe? It is enough for him to revert to the demonic mythology that European Christendom created about the heathen “Mahometans” who were in league with the devil and practitioners of black magic. Othello becomes an abuser of the world, a practicer/ Of arts inhibited and out of warrant.
Othello as a resident of Venice would have known that, in 1516, the city established the (first ever) Jewish ghetto whose inhabitants had to wear special identification, were restricted to a few professions and were locked into the neighbourhood at night under armed guard. He might also have known that while Jews eventually built synagogues and were allowed some form of community, Muslim traders to the city were sequestered in buildings away from the local population and denied a proper place to congregate for prayer. In fact, no mosque has ever been built in Venice. Attempts by an Icelandic artist to establish a mosque as an artistic installation during the 2015 Venice Biennale was shut down within two weeks of its opening. Another #MuslimBan of sorts.
Othello understands what all marginalised people do in varying degrees: to survive, you have to assimilate, you have to mask your true self. To act Venetian, to act white, to act Christian is the only way to make yourself consequential. It is the only way for your life to matter. He knows how to self-deprecate. He knows how to appear an insider, whilst knowing he can never be one. He makes sure the cross around his neck is clearly seen in public, his Muslim prayer beads hidden in his pocket . He knows not to appear the Moor.
The image of Victor Oshin’s Othello, hands raised in prayer is arresting. It is Muslim custom to raise the palms of the hand upwards as a symbol of penitence and humility. It is the physical embodiment of the anticipation that God’s mercy and compassion will soon be received. One imagines being cleansed and blessed by divine mercy.
There is something urgent in this picture. Othello is in this private moment is expressing an aspect of his truest self. He has dropped the artifice of the Venetian general and warrior. Here he is with his God. Other than his love and marriage to Desdemona, we can imagine that this is Othello at his most authentic.
It must be exhausting to maintain the high-wire act of hiding one’s true identity. We can only imagine the cognitive discord that Othello has to endure. Just as he strikes down his brother Turk on the battlefields of Aleppo and Cyprus, he has to strike down his true self to survive.
Imagining that Othello is a Muslim also gives his speech the possibility of double meanings. When he speaks of being taken by the insolent foe, who is he speaking of, the Arab slave traders – or the Venetian ones?
Yet, Othello is compelling because he appears to us as upright, honourable and straightforward. Perhaps it is because of the Muslim society he was born into, the noble birth of which he speaks and the education he acquired from his travels in the Maghreb and beyond. He is not too quick to violence. He’s not impulsive. He is not a little Venetian islander, but a cosmopolitan Moor.
So it’s all the more distressing that the person with whom he shares the greatest confidence undoes him. In poisoning others against him, Iago is not only the most devious nemesis to Othello, but also a representation of the rot at the heart of Venetian society itself.
Venice might be the city of art, learning and martial power, but it is a city forged by conquest and colonialism, a city of ghettos and exclusion, a place of superstition and xenophobia. “Honest” Iago is the product of Venice’s wars, its politics and its morality (speaking about the pranks of Venetian women, he declares their best conscience/ Is not to leave’t undone, but keep’t unknown). He is the voice of, what we might call in our time, “white supremacy”.
Iago is the master of “alternative facts”. The manufacturer of false scenario and story. His tactics are at once familiar to us. They are today used in the highest political offices in the world.
In corrupting Othello’s morality and poisoning his heart against Desdemona, Iago is not unleashing some buried savage temperament in Othello. He is wearing down Othello’s moral compass, which we can imagine – knowing his hidden devotion – is grounded in his faith. Othello becomes the murderer not because he has proclivity to murder, but that his ethics are undermined by the compelling jealousy and hate Iago cultivates in him. It is Iago who carefully, methodically unleashes the worst aspects of men in him.
Iago is the one who calls to honour violence, not Othello. It is a misogyny that exists under the surface of Venetian society’s graces and order (in all societies truthfully). Othello initially rejects it, but Iago excites the worst of his human natures. Even Desdemona’s murder, carried out in fits and starts, reveals the internal conflict that remains in Othello. Yet, he falls prey to the toxic patriarchy that Iago peddles and that lurks deep in men’s veins.
When he takes his own life, Othello isn’t just punishing himself for his grievous act, but for not living up to his true love, his true faith and his God. He has laid waste to his own morality. He has become malignant. He is a circumcised dog because others’ hatreds have become his own. He has become bestial. He has been deceived.
It is a sign of the depth of his faith. His breaking the divine moral code demands the ultimate atonement. It could also be an indication that he has also abandoned faith. Maybe, he no longer believes in God’s mercy – the most emblematic attribute of the divine in Islam. He is now convinced that human hands alone must carry out justice. Iago’s scheme has borne its intended bitter fruit.
It is sobering reminder of the impact of psychological violence on the spirit. Hiding, assimilating and adapting exhausts our spiritual and moral capital, which has deadly consequences.
Othello is a play for our time. To imagine him a Muslim is to affix a fresh lens to our understanding of this story, allowing us to see the drama anew. Today, we debate the spectre of the Muslim other, we question whether black lives matter and the long poisonous legacy of colonisation and conquest. Othello confronts all these whilst laying bare how these political and social arguments impact on our humanity.
Shakespeare could not have imagined the power and prescience that Othello holds for us today. The greatest works of art are not only a reflection of their times, but they speak to the timeless – human strengths, human weaknesses, human struggles. That oft-cited “human condition” doesn’t seem to waver much over time. It is driven by the same passions and lusts, aspirations and desires, wants and needs that drive all human stories. Perhaps it is because of this sense of timelessness that Othello is able to offer us an even greater gift: a rich narrative canvas on which to draw the contemporary faultlines of identity, power, privilege, religion and race.