Of Turks and Tempests

To follow up on Monday’s discussion of race and religion in Othello:

The use of the term Turk is interesting for a couple of reasons: it and its plural are used 24 times in 15 works in the Canon; and it’s used the most frequently in (you guessed it) Othello, with 10 usages (second place goes to Richard II with…two usages). But what I find really interesting is that like “Moor,” “Turk” had become Elizabethan shorthand for Muslim (“Turk, n.1; 3a” Oxford English Dictionary Online. Oxford University Press, December 2015. Web. 15 February 2016.).

As I mentioned in the previous entry, Othello slays the “turbaned Turk” (V.ii.353) he has reverted to in the play’s final moments. Earlier, when trying to prove his faux honesty, Iago makes a negative comparison to a truth-telling Christian and a lying “Turk” (II.i.114).

The vast majority of its usages, however, appear in the beginning of Act One, Scene Three, as the Duke of Venice and assorted senators debate military strategy against the Turkish forces. At this point, they don’t know if the Turks’ target is Cyprus or Rhodes, and there’s much consternation regarding conflicting messages they receive from the field (44 lines worth, in fact). From the dialogue, it seems almost impossible to know what is in the Turkish mind, one that “keep[s the Venetians] in false gaze” (I.iii.19). This Muslim strategy is one fiendish enough to keep the Christians looking in the wrong direction.

In the next scene, when we as an audience arrive at Cyprus, we get almost immediate word that the “wars are done” (II.i.20), with the Turks defeated by a “desperate tempest” (II.i.21). It’s odd that after so much build-up, the Turks are dispatched so easily, off-stage, and not by our military hero, “valiant Othello” (I.iii.48). But then there is some question of whether Othello, too, has been lost at sea; he doesn’t arrive until 180 lines into the scene.

I would argue that this is no mere accident of happenstance or a half-hearted attempt at building suspense.

If “the heavens” (II.i.34) had defeated Turks, is it possible that Othello, the once and future Turk (and whose very name is suggestive of the “Otto”man empire the Turks represent), may  come through not unscathed, either, but rather somewhat punished by “foul and violent tempest” (II.i.34).

Is this divine foreshadowing?

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