Othello: names

With every play, I like to take a look at the names used by Shakespeare for his characters. What does a look at Othello show us?

Othello is perhaps an Italian diminutive of Otho, who in history was a Roman Emperor (ruling for only three months, and then committing suicide). But this seems tenuous at best. The Italian Otello is seen as a version of the name Otto, meaning “rich and prosperous.” This feels closer to the character here, but still not quite right. Of course, the concept of “Otto” may less meaningful than suggestive. Leading up to Shakespeare’s day, the Ottoman Empire had reached the heights of its expansion and influence. It was Muslim (mostly) in religion, which could be linked to the subtitle of the play, “the Moor of Venice.” The Moors began as the Berber and Arab Muslims living in North Africa, Spain, Malta and Sicily in the Middle Ages, but by Shakespeare’s day, the term was shorthand for Muslim.

Desdemona, the only name actually used in the Cinthio source material (the other main characters are called by their positions), comes from the Greek, meaning “misery” or “unlucky.” Yeah, pretty much on the nose there.

There’s not much use of the name Brabantio before Shakespeare (at least none that I could find). However, Brabant was a region in northern Europe, roughly from Belgium up to the Netherlands. I’m assuming natives of this area would be very light-skinned…which would fit Desdemona, Brabantio’s daughter.

Iago is the Spanish version of Jacob, which mean “supplanter.” Nailed it.

Emilia is the feminine derivative of the Greek Aemilius, from the Latin aemulus meaning “to rival, to emulate.” Shot through this prism, motivations for any actress playing Emilia might be colored by a longing to be like or to compete against Desdemona.

Cassio is Italian for the Latin Cassius meaning “hollow, empty” with a connotation of “vain.” Again, this might help an actor in this role. Remember, however, Cassio is his last name. His first name is Michael, meaning the question “Who is like God?” The answer is no man.

Roderigo is from the Germanic Roderick meaning “famous leader.” Ironic.

Lodovico is a version of Ludovico, the Italian for the German Ludwig, meaning “famous in war or battle.” Haven’t a clue why this works for the character.

Gratiano can mean either “grace” or “thankful.” Again, haven’t a clue why this works for the character.

Montano means “of the mountains” which works as this character is the governor of Cyprus, a mountainous island.

Bianca is Italian for “white.” A casting direction, perhaps?

…there’s one more, but more on that one later…

5 thoughts on “Othello: names”

  1. Think not so much of ‘Iacobus’ meaning supplanter, but of Santiago de Compostella, the patron saint of Spain, who was said to appear fighting along side the Christians in battle against the Moors, hence his nickname ‘Matamoros’- ‘Moor Killer.’

  2. When it comes to Emilia’s name meaning “to rival, to emulate,” it is not only referring to her relationship with Desdemona. Emilia emulates (and even verbally imitates) Iago at various points in the play. Iago describes jealousy as “…the green eyed monster which doth mock/ The meat it feeds on” (3.3.196-197). In the very next scene, Emilia says that jealousy is, “…a monster/ Begot upon itself, born on itself” (3.4.182-183). Emilia is also the only rival capable of ruining Iago’s plan in the end (with Roderigo dead), and she actually does. It is Emilia who brings the truth to light, that she stole Desdemona’s handkerchief at the request of her husband and gave it to him, which was the physical proof Othello needed to believe his wife had been unfaithful.

  3. There are a few reasons that Shakespeare may have named Bianca, a courtesan, a name meaning “white.”
    It could have been meant to be ironic, as white is often associated with purity, and a woman who “by selling her desires/ Buys herself bread and clothes” certainly does not match that description (4.1.111-112).
    It could also be that Bianca is innocent of the accusations Iago makes against her after the attack of Cassio outside her house. Iago accuses Bianca of being “trash” that had a part in the attack of Cassio.
    Lastly, the play is full of black and white imagery. Her name could simply be part of that, especially with Cassio’s rude hint that Bianca could be black, referring to her as a “monkey” in a conversation with Iago. The Branagh version of the movie seems to pick up on that, with the casting of Bianca as a beautiful woman of color. So, perhaps it was Shakespeare giving a black woman a name meaning white.
    Perhaps it was all of the above.

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