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…