Geography in Othello
While the focus of Shakespeare’s Othello is often on the domestic conflict of Othello and Desdemona, these events are purposefully fixed in specific geographic locations: Venice and Cyprus. Shakespeare creates a comparison of Venice with Cyprus that permeates the play, and the influence that geography has on the play can be vital to understanding why the plot progresses the way it does. The comparison begins, oddly enough, with the title of the play, The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice. ‘Othello’ as a name is neither Italian (which would be ‘Otello’) or Moorish.
In addition, while Othello could possibly be ‘the Moor of Venice’, the title does not identify him as the only Moor from Venice. It fixes him through geographical identification as a definite part of Venice, not as a native Venetian, but as a stranger in and of the city. Othello has adopted Venice as his city, their Christian code of behaviour as his code, his marriage to a white woman as his bond to this place. Nonetheless, Othello does not ‘belong’ to this culture, nor can he ever be considered a Venetian. Interestingly, the nationalism of the Venetians surfaces during Iago’s opening comments about Cassio.
Cassio is a Florentine, a fact that Iago takes as extremely distasteful. The comments cause us to wonder that if Iago can so hate a fellow Italian, then his antipathy towards a Moor is indeed frightening. The play opens in Venice, one of the most powerful city-states of 16th century Italy. Located in the northwest corner of the country on the Adriatic Sea, Venice was a thriving port and a very important exchange point for goods between Europe, north Africa, and the Near and Far East. It is without a doubt a formidable naval power to be called in to protect an island some distance away.
In addition to trade, Venice was noted for the pleasures it offered travellers in the way of arts, music, and freely available sex. From Shakespeare’s point of view, Venice was part of his own familiar world (the West), a world that did not include Cyprus (the East). Venice’s government is headed by a Duke and a council (or senate) comprised of nobles and wealthy merchants who brought their complaints and their squabbles to the Duke for resolution.
The Duke’s double function as leader and judge is succinctly presented in 1. , where Brabantio, Desdemona’s father, presents his charges against Othello while the Duke is commissioning Othello to fight the Turks. Furthermore, Venice is a city within certain, clearly defined boundaries (city walls). As long as Othello and Desdemona remain within these walls, their marriage will be influenced by the culture within. As the action of the play breaks these boundaries and move to Cyprus, an island in the Mediterranean, the relationship of this couple will reflect the upheaval such a move brings, only so intensely that neither can survive.
The dislocation of Venetian culture from West to East will ultimately prove to have tragic consequences for all the participants in the move. Geographically, they are moving away from the closed structure of Venice to a more open structure of society, and where the rules will change. Although the play emphasises Cyprus’ role by mentioning it more than twenty-four times, it does not give many details about the place. According to widely known legend, Venus (Aphrodite) rose from the sea near Cyprus’ west coast, earning it the designation as the island of Venus.
Shakespeare mentions the birthplace of Venus in Venus and Adonis (line 1193) and in The Tempest (4. 1. 93), but there is no mention of the goddess in Othello. This omission, therefore, focuses our attention not on love as personified in the Goddess of Love, but on love as a human frailty having more to do with human deception than divine intervention. Such a view is reflective of the humanist concerns of the late Renaissance. Shakespeare could not have known that eventually in 1669 the Turks would invade Cyprus, forcing the Venetians to withdraw and effectively ending their role as a major naval force.
What Shakespeare does do, however, is clearly establish Cyprus as an alternative to Venice. For Shakespeare’s audience, Cyprus, as well as Barbary, Egypt, Rhodes, and Aleppo among others, would have defined a foreign, strange, exotic place about which they could only dream. With no frame of reference in their every day lives for these places, just the names would make the events of the play very plausible. The persistent mention of other foreign places contextualises Cyprus as the mid-way point between civilisation and barbarism, a point made flesh in the character of Othello.
Furthermore, unlike Venice, militarism is the stable mechanism of the behavioural code. Cassio is dealt with according to this code, as is Iago, and it is the Venetian nobles who see to its implementation. Most notable is the lack of any Cypriots in the play while everyone is in Cyprus. It is as if they have all travelled to a different planet. This Cyprus, however, is different in that it is under the protection of Venice. It is almost an Italian colony, but it is not essentially an appendage to Venetian culture.
Although it does hold to a Christian code for the behaviour of its residents, it remains a place of extreme violence and the almost constant breaking of that code by the Venetians who have become the outsiders. The government is by a governor appointed by the Duke, and the Turks (also foreigners) threaten Cyprus with invasion. This incursion of non-Christian into Christian space will not be tolerated, regardless of Venice’s hypocritical stance. In Venice we see how business and other matters are conducted within city walls.
In the relatively open spaces of Cyprus, things change. Othello is not so foreign in this environment nor is he totally secure. It can be argued persuasively that being in the open spaces of Cyprus allows Othello’s insecurities to surface, insecurities about himself and Desdemona that he had successfully suppressed in Venice. This viewpoint may be justified when we consider the effect of geographical change on Othello and Desdemona’s marriage. In Venice, they secretly eloped, and the council, despite Brabantio’s passionate pleading, retains its focus on political events.
Once in Cyprus with the war finished before it began, the focus reverts to Othello and Desdemona, and political events are reduced to a series of inspections and state banquets. Shakespeare’s audience could have readily believed Othello capable of such intense passion because they held that the Four Humours (those bodily fluids that sustained the body) were influenced by the weather. The warm climate of Italy was supposed to render the blood warm with desire (much like the effect of Italian wine), and Italians were notorious for being ‘hot-blooded’. How much more would the warmth of Cyprus affect Othello!
Also to be considered is Venice’s reputation as a sexual paradise where courtesans were the normal marital addition. When Iago hints to Othello about Desdemona’s infidelity, it would not be thought unusual for Othello to arrive at a perfectly reasonable (though erroneous) conclusion: I took you for that cunning whore of Venice That married with Othello (4. 2. 91-92). The entire geography of the play and its blatant breaks in locale serve not only to gloss the dissolution of Othello and Desdemona’s marital problems, but also the ‘otherness’ of the two lovers.
Othello has no place in Desdemona’s world, no matter how many victories he wins, no matter how much he is trusted by the Duke, no matter how assimilated he thinks he may be. Alternatively, Desdemona can never be part of Othello’s world: she does not understand the demands of a soldier’s life; she only has Othello’s version of his military exploits; she has been raised in the shelter of Venice. Desdemona has been insulated from the man’s world that is Venice, and is now isolated by Cyprus. Although she has the dreams and hopes normal for a young newlywed, she is, in the eyes of the men, a property for barter.
Failing to recognise this about herself leads Desdemona to other serious misjudgements about men, their motives, and their tenacity. The play begins in Venice, moves to Cyprus, and ends with a return to Venice by Montano. Yet it would be unfair to assume that this geography imposes itself on the play to the exclusion of the other motifs. The geography is the canvas on which Shakespeare will fashion an absorbing tale, and it stays there, in the background, supporting, colouring, and subtly influencing our interpretations.