I am studying the play Othello, for the very first time, in my Shakespeare class. Since this is my first encounter with the famous play, I want to steep myself in the drama of it all. So, in addition to reading the play, I watched the 1995 film version (starring Laurence Fishburne as Othello and Kenneth Branagh as Iago) which, by the way, I highly recommend.
Simultaneously, I’m reading The Shakespeare Guide to Italy: Retracing the Bard’s Unknown Travels by Richard Paul Roe to enlighten me even further. Roe’s book is revolutionary because it challenges the traditional belief, held by orthodox Shakespearean scholars, that there are many inaccuracies in the details of the plays set in Italy.
In his book, Roe visits the actual geographical locations of scenes from Othello, Romeo and Juliet, The Merchant of Venice, and The Tempest, in addition to the other “Italian Plays.” He demonstrates through the evidence of recent archaeological discoveries, and his own extensive research, that the Bard actually did know his way around sixteenth century Italy.
Anyway, in our last class discussion, we fleshed out the villainous character of Iago. Our professor had us list specific character traits and show examples, as well as discuss what motives Iago had, real or imagined, for orchestrating the demise of Othello, the “Moor of Venice.” We covered attributes from calculated to manipulative. As far as motives, we acknowledged Iago’s anger at being passed over for the lieutenant’s position which was awarded, instead, to Cassio. Obviously, racism was another topic we discussed in depth.
However, one motive we did not discuss was something that smacked me in the head as I read Roe’s book this afternoon: “Iago” is a name of Spanish origin. Roe points out that “Iago, as a sixteenth-century Spaniard conditioned by his country’s history, would automatically nurture a hatred for any Moor” (161).
Indeed, the Spaniards’ conflict with the Muslims goes way, way back to the early eighth century when North African Moors conquered the Iberian Peninsula. Over the centuries, Christian kingdoms reclaimed this land.
By 1492, the marriage of King Ferdinand II of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castile, and the joining of their military forces, expelled the Muslims from their last stronghold in the Iberian Peninsula: Granada, south of present-day Spain.
Now take a look at Act II Scene 3 (line 144 in The Norton Shakespeare: Tragedies) when upon hearing the ringing of a bell, Iago questions: “Who’s that which rings the bell? Diablo, ho!”
Yet, traditional academics still assume that Iago is a Venetian. In his critical essay, “Othello and the ‘plain face’ of Racism,” Martin Orkin writes: “And Desdemona, also like Iago a Venetian…” (170). Apparently, he didn’t pick up on the textual evidence explored by Richard Paul Roe.
If the so-called “experts” continue to assume that Shakespeare never set foot outside of England, they are short-changing us in their teachings. Why not show us the evidence, rather than just feeding us a bunch of assumptions, and let us decide?
Thanks to my extracurricular research, I understand more clearly the magnitude of Iago’s hatred of Othello. This is just one example of why I continue to question the traditional views of Shakespeare’s canon.