So, what do we know of Othello’s past:
- He has fought “at Rhodes, at Cyprus, and on other grounds // Christened and heathen” (I.i.28-29) according to Iago.
- He speaks of “services which [he has] done the signory” (I.ii.18), for which the duke calls him “valiant” (I.iii.48).
- He says he has been “in the tented field” (I.iii.85) from when his “arms … had seven years’ pith” (I.iii.83)–since he was only seven years old–until just “nine moons” (I.iii.84) ago.
- According to his own testimony, he had been “taken by the insolent foe // And sold to slavery” (I.iii.137-8), from which he had granted “redemption” (I.iii.138).
Using these milestones, can we devise a history for Othello, piece together the road that has brought him to Venice?
At the age of seven, he was taken from his Northern African family by the Turks, and sold into a kind of military slavery. He grew up a Muslim warrior for the Ottoman empire. At some point, he was captured by Venetian forces and converted to Christianity. He continued his martial profession, rising through the ranks, fighting the Turk, and earning a reputation for valor. During this time, he met Iago and together they have fought throughout the region. Only in the last year (nine months to be exact) has he had any length of peace, coming to settle in Venice.
It’s quite the story.
But is it just that, a story?
Iago says to Roderigo that Desdemona only fell in love with Othello because of his “bragging and telling her fantastical lies” (II.i.222). Othello’s own words lend some credence to this theory. He calls his story a “traveler’s history” (I.iii.139), which was a kind of storytelling in Shakespeare’s day. Recounting his account of being at Brabantio’s home, Othello says, “Such was my process” (I.iii.142), an interesting word choice given one of its meanings at the time Shakespeare was writing Othello was “a narration, a narrative; an account; a story” (“process, n.; 4a” Oxford English Dictionary Online. Oxford University Press, December 2015. Web. 28 January 2016.). It is Othello’s story, not the man himself, that “would woo [Desdemona]” (I.iii.166).
And if that story took some embellishment to make it fly, then so be it. If he added tales of “hairbreadth scapes” (I.iii.136), “cannibals that each other eat” (I.iii.143), and “men whose heads // Do grow beneath their shoulders” (I.iii.144-45), then it was just to “expand, amplify, or enlarge” (“dilate, v.2; Ia” OED Online) the tale of his “pilgrimage dilate[d]” (I.iii.153).
A warrior since seven? A “fantastical lie”? Maybe. “Bragging”? More likely.
Cannibals? Possible. Men whose head grown beneath their shoulders? Probably hyperbole.
And what of the story of the strawberry handkerchief:
Did an Egyptian to my mother give.
She was a charmer, and could almost read
The thoughts of people. She told her, while she kept it,
’Twould make her amiable and subdue my father
Entirely to her love. But if she lost it,
Or made a gift of it, my father’s eye
Should hold her loathèd, and his spirits should hunt
After new fancies. She, dying, gave it me,
And bid me, when my fate would have me wived,
To give it her.
That’s a pretty detailed story for a man to remember from before he was seven.
Othello: we know his story. But do we know his history?
Could he be more of a braggart and a liar than a man of war? Probably not, but he does seem to be have a way with words and know his way around a story…
“Rude…in [his] speech” (I.iii.81), my big fat white hairy butt.