Othello Wins a Second Term

Let's press on then with the "Change We Need".

8) The symbolism of the handkerchief is extremely potent. Although Othello is old and incapable of giving Desdemona a child, she still keeps the handkerchief close, even kissing and talking to it. This of course reflects the reluctance of Elizabeth to encourage suitors. The characterization of Othello is very much consistent with a typical staunch but out-of-touch Habsburg Holy Roman Emperor such as Ferdinand or his son Maximillian II. Shakespeare even has him suffer from the "royal sickness" of epileptic seizures. The Habsburg Emperor Maximillan II (who died in 1597) shared many of the same interests as Elizabeth and refused to accept Catholic last rites or be buried specifically as either a Catholic or a Protestant. Shakespeare's Othello, although ostensibly a Moor, has contempt for the compulsory Muslim rite of circumcision.

9) Othello is the equivalent of Oberon in Midsummer Night's Dream. He is not an overbearing personality but has fearsome powers. In Midsummer Night's Dream, Elizabeth as the "Fairy Queen", deserts Oberon for a season to become mistress of the English people. In Othello, Desdemona is faithful but in the end it is Othello that is tricked into deserting her. It is the only thing that shatters her confidence. The marital union of Desdemona and Othello is stressed far more in Shakespeare's Othello than in Cinthio's original.

The handkerchief is an element of Cinthio's story but is modified and elaborated upon by Shakespeare, including the new detail of its mysterious origin in Egypt. Egypt had belonged to the Ottoman Turks for two generations, and the handkerchief is said to have belonged to Othello's mother as a young girl before her marriage to Othello's father. This is another clue to Othello's Ottoman association.

10) The expected scenario based on other sources used by Shakespeare involving handkerchieves, i.e., Warning to Fair Women (1599) and Arden of Faversham (1592), was for Desdemona and Cassio to become lovers and kill Desdemona's husband Othello only to later be brought to justice based on the evidence of a handkerchief. However, in Shakespeare's Othello the plot is altered (as usual). Instead, Cassio and Desdemona are framed by Iago using the handkerchief as false evidence of adultery. Iago then helps Othello murder Desdemona. An interesting implication is that Iago and Othello are not only murderers but also the actual lovers!

Note: Cassio (connoting "money, wealth" and making a play on Cosimo) comes off smelling like a rose, and even as the Medici figure Bassianus in Titus Andronicus and Bassanio of the Merchant of Venice. In the play, Cassio is not declared to be the actual lover of Desdemonia although he dreams of her and worships her as the Goddess Aphrodite returning to her native shores of Cyprus. The name Cassio however also alludes to the Roman "king-killer" Cassius, and this helps explain Othello's ready suspicion of him. Bianca was also the name of a famous and devoted mistress of Duke Francesco de Medici at the time of the early Shakespeare plays. (There were however far more lurid and disgraceful Medici love affairs involving murder and honor killings that Shakespeare could have alluded to instead of the generally approved one of Bianca and Francesco.),M1

11) Iago is in fact portrayed with homosexual urges. This was a known trait of King James of Scotland, but possibly not also of Philip II of Spain. Iago is also portrayed as a natural comedian, albeit a depraved one, which is again more consistent with James than Philip II. It is Philip however that was known more for treachery. "The Protestant 'black legend' of Philip II attributes to him and his 'creatures', especially the Duke of Alva, a lust for the most unspeakable cruelty and an inexhaustible capacity for deceit and duplicity." (Andrew Sheatcroft, The Habsburgs: Embodying Empire, p 168).

12) Philip prided himself on finishing the job of subduing the Moors of Andalusian Spain by either conversion to Catholicism or driving them into northern Africa. This certainly would have drawn a comparison with St. James (Santiago the "Moor Slayer"). Yet, there is also irony in Philip's characterization as "Iago the Moor" in Shakespeare's Othello. Such were the contradictions of multi-national kingship. In northern Africa, Philip II and his son Philip III after him was likely ruling Moors expelled from Spain and under a Moorish/Islamic identity. Exactly who was the "King of Barbary" (in North Africa) that sent a delegation to Elizabeth in 1601? And why did Elizabeth also become a kind of "Moor killer" by deporting Blacks and Moors from England to North Africa within months of that delegation's departure? This seems very consistent with the policy of Philip II.

13) The decision to meld James of Scotland with Philip of Spain (by calling the Ensign James but making him Spanish) must go even deeper, and indicates that we still don't know important details about the related political intrigue. It could indicate that the English court really did not know how the succession was going to play out and so the play Othello is hedging. More insight is possible when we study the plays 12th Night and As You Like It, which appeared at nearly the same time as Othello.

14) Disdemona ("evil spirit") is the name given by Cinthio. The father of Disdemona is partly blamed for her misfortunes for giving her such an ill-fated name. Shakespeare changes that name to Desdemona ("unlucky"). Othello was performed in the final days of Elizabeth and when she was no doubt in a cross mood. The name Elizabeth could also be construed as unfortunate or ill-fated in that her role model was the mother of the tragic figure John the Baptist. Elizabeth's sister Mary would have been expected to be the fortunate one ("blessed among women"), and mother of a new Jesus figure. By naming King James as her son and successor, she possibly was making him into a John the Baptist to "prepare the way" for Philip II's son (Philip III) or even one of her true sons to take the throne.

Note: The name Elizabeth was common in the Habsburg Dynasty, but not among Byzantine royalty. This may suggest that Ann Boleyn, the mother of Elizabeth, was a Habsburg rather than a Tudor.

Note: Elizabeth of Herodian times was the mother of two sons (John the Baptist and one older son), both of which were called by the Herodian name of Philip (I & II). There is at least some evidence to suggest that one of these two Philips had the Roman name of Claudius and went on to became the Emperor Claudius. But this will have to be subject of a separate discussion.

15) In Shakespeare's Othello the wife of Iago/James is called Emilia, who is the lady-in-waiting and confidante of Desdemona. She doesn't disclose to Desdemona the plot of Iago, but Iago kills Emilia anyway. The adopted daughter of Queen Elizabeth was also called Emilia (Bassano). She was for all practical purposes cut out of Elizabeth's will and lost her royal status upon Elizabeth's death.

16) In Shakespeare's Othello an entirely new character is introduced (not found in Cinthio's story) named Roderigo, who is conspicuously wealthy (as well as profligate) and threatens to expose the plot of Iago. He makes the mistake however of trying to win Desdemona over through gifts and is rejected by her. Roderigo nonetheless causes Iago to hasten his plot against Desdemona and Iago also sacrifices Roderigo for good measure. In real life, Roderigo is paralleled by Roderigo (Ruy) Lopez, who came from Portugal with rumored treasure with which to hatch a conspiracy in England. He was accused of treason and executed by Elizabeth on the insistence of Essex. Essex would have attacked Lopez as a suspected agent of Philip II king of Spain (and Portugal) and rival candidate to himself for the English throne. However, Shakespeare's Othello indicates there was more to the story.

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