A couple of weeks back, I took a look at Heaven and Hell. Not physically, of course. I’m just going to one of those (and it’s not the one with the rarely used stairway, it’s the one with the packed highway). No, I meant a view of Othello, shot through the prism of a concordance. For those who don’t know, a concordance is an exhaustive listing of the uses of any word within a given body of work. And if you’ve been following along for any length of time (or have just checked out the not-so-digital tools of the trade), I love the one over at OpenSource Shakespeare, I like to take a dive into it for words like “nothing” in Much Ado About Nothing, “gulling” in Twelfth Night, “man” and “play” inAs You Like It, “noble” and “honor” in Julius Caesar, “play” (again) in Hamlet, and “mercy” in Measure for Measure. And as I said, earlier in the month, I took a look at Heaven and Hell in Othello.
Yesterday, when I was discussing the perversity of Othello‘s ending (or the perversion of audience expectations by Shakespeare [or what you will]), I mentioned that another (along with the sexual connotation) post-Shakespeare definition of “perverse” was “against the weight of evidence or the direction of the judge on a point of law” (“perverse, adj.; 4” Oxford English Dictionary Online. Oxford University Press, December 2015. Web. 14 February 2016.).
I also mentioned that I’d riff upon that on another day. Well, with apologies to Margaret Mitchell, yesterday’s tomorrow is another day.
In Shakespeare’s day, the word “perverse” had–for the most part–meanings similar to what we have today: “disposed to go against what is reasonable, logical, expected, or required,” “adverse, unfavorable, untimely,” “Contrary to what is morally right or good,” “Contrary to an accepted standard or practice” (“perverse, adj. 1a, 1b, 2a, 2b, respectively” Oxford English Dictionary Online. Oxford University Press, December 2015. Web. 14 February 2016.).
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’ve mentioned before, “Moor” was Elizabethan shorthand for Muslim (though through the Middle Ages, “the Moors were widely supposed to be mostly black or very dark-skinned” [“moor” Oxford English Dictionary Online. Oxford University Press, December 2015. Web. 13 February 2016.]). Though we know that Othello is black (or at least black-er than the other major characters on stage)–because of some descriptive (and descriptively racist) references–how important is his Muslim-ness?
What is “moor” important (bad pun, I know) within the play, being black or being Muslim?
In Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s personal copy of Shakespeare, in the margins near the end of the first act of Othello, he wrote the note “the motive-hunting of motiveless Malignity.” And thus was started an entire cottage industry:
The past couple of weeks, I’ve been discussing soliloquies in Othello. I’ve mentioned before the lack of balance between the number of solo speeches Iago has compared to that of the Moor. Of the major characters, only Desdemona doesn’t have a soliloquy. She doesn’t have an inner monologue. We have no insight into her.
Obviously, this is by choice (if Shakespeare wanted to, he could have given her more soliloquies than even Iago…but of course, that would be a different play [maybe from a different century, definitely a different writer]). When discussing the inequality of male soliloquies, I pondered her total lack, wondering “Can we never know what is in Desdemona’s head or heart because she loves such a man as Othello?” I felt, and still feel, that that would be a horrifying thought.