Here's my initial notes on Othello. An update to follow.
1) Othello was adapted from an original Italian story (by Cinthio) about a Venetian noblewoman who against the wishes of her father and family marries a high-ranking Moor in the military service of Venice. Under Othello are two other Moors, an Ensign and a Corporal, which are not distinguished with names. In Cinthio’s story Cyprus is still a Venetian possession, but it has become clear that Venice can no longer depend on its Moorish Commander to help hold it, therefore Othello has to be recalled. The name Othello is a variant of Ottoman/Athman/Osman, as well as the German/Habsburg name Otto. Othello is no longer of any use to Venice against the Turks, because this particular Moor has essentially become a Turk.
2) Shakespeare’s Othello makes the curious remark, “Are we becoming Turks?”. Certainly Othello already has, and when he attempts to strike a Turk he therefore also wounds himself. Shakespeare makes a number of other additions to Cinthio’s short story to better reflect the latest political realities. Despite the victory at Lepanto in 1571, by the 1590’s Venice had long since lost Cyprus and was standing virtually alone against the Ottoman Turks. Venice could expect no genuine help from the West, which was in league with the new Islamic East of the Ottomans. The Holy Roman Empire (as reflected in the name Othello, "Little Otto"), the Spanish Empire of Philip II (as reflected in the name Iago), and the Medici Empire (as reflected in the name Michael Cassio of Florence) were aligned with each other and with the Ottoman Empire based in Istanbul, the fallen Constantinople.
3) The Medici Dynasty, although having lost a leg like the Shakespeare character Cassio (representing the first Medici line of Popes who were supplanted by a collateral line through the influence of the Habsburgs), had fully recovered with its remaining leg (representing the new Medici Duke of Florence, Cosimo II). The new Medici were also in the process of replacing the old Medici in France (as Catherine de Medici and sons were giving way to a new Queen of France, Maria de Medici.)
4) Furthermore, Habsburg and Medici ruling families were also aggressively extending their direct control over traditional Moorish kingdoms and consequently were effectively doubling as Moorish rulers of those kingdoms. The situation must have looked extraordinarily bleak for the remaining independent Christian rulers of kingdoms such as England and Venice, which had no choice but to band together against “The Empire”. In 1600-1601, Queen Elizabeth lavishly entertained a North African Moorish delegation in London, but it is not clear whether she was courting an alliance with a hold-out of “old Moor” stock or normalizing relations with a “new-Moor” (Ottoman) administration.
5) After Cyprus the Turks were positioned to take Tunis and the rest of North Africa, adding it to Egypt which fell in 1517. What started from scratch as a Habsburg project in the East had become a dominant power. The only real Ottoman set-back had been its defeat in 1402 by the Mongol Great Khan Timur the Lame/Tamerlane, who not surprisingly received very good press in Elizabethan England as “Tamberlaine”. After a succession battle among the surviving sons of Habsburg Leopold III, the Ottoman kingdom was again thriving during the reign of the long-lived Habsburg Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick III, during whose lifetime Constantinople fell to the Turks and was retained (and cherished) as capital of the Eastern Empire. During the reign of Elizabeth, the Ottomans were still not functioning independently, but as an Islamic extension of the Holy Roman Empire. However, it would not have been entirely clear where the new boundary between Christian and Muslim territory would be drawn across the Mediterranean, and what would be the division between the two Habsburg dynasties of Philip II and his cousin Maximillian II (the current Holy Roman Emperor).
6) The Ottoman Empire represented the second major reorganization of the Islamic World, the first having been the replacement of Umayyads (relatives of Byzantine Heraclius) with Abassids (a dynastic refresh from Byzantium). The cycle of unification and division between East and West would run its course once again. Inevitably the two sister-kingdoms would split apart and become enemies - with Ottomans pitted against Habsburgs. Othello would have to die, so to speak, one way or another.
7) In the original story, Othello is banished and then murdered by the family of Disdemona. Shakespeare’s Desdemona (the name is only slightly altered, perhaps to rhyme with Bess) does not ask to be avenged, however Othello, broken up over his careless discarding of a “pearl” (worth more than the entire West-Indian/American continent) commits suicide. In the postscript of Cinthio’s story, Iago meets a horrific death, but in Shakespeare his fate still hangs in the balance, even as the outcome of James’ succession in England (and perhaps also Philip III’s succession in Spain).
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