Venice in Othello’s time

STEPHEN GREENBLATT: Shakespeare’s Othello opens in Venice, where we’re standing now. It opens in the darkness, under the windows of a house, where Iago and Roderigo are trying to stir up trouble by telling the master of the house, the important senator, Brabanzio, that his daughter has eloped with a Moor. They start shouting up in the darkness, thieves! Iago says, make it sound like there’s a fire in the populous city, and so forth. And Brabanzio comes and says indignantly, this is Venice! My house is not a grange. I’m not in the country, in a farm house. This is Venice, he says. It’s a way of not simply of telling the audience where the play is located, but saying something about the nature of the city– its power, its security, its grandeur, the absence of threat, the ridiculousness of trying to frighten him. And then he learns that he should indeed, as a father, be frightened. His daughter has eloped. And not only has she eloped, she’s eloped with the Moor, Othello, someone that Brabanzio, the senator, had invited to his house to tell the story of his life. And there, Othello and the senator’s only child, his daughter, Desdemona, have made their acquaintance, which has developed into a love, and which has now led to her elopement. That’s the opening situation. Brabanzio, the father, outraged, says he will rush off to the doge of Venice, the duke, the ruler of the whole republic, the senior figure. And he’ll demand legal satisfaction, the annulment, in effect, of the marriage. And he declares that he has the kind of power to do this. He’s one of the most powerful figures– Brabanzio– in the city. Venice was an oligarchy. That’s to say, it was ruled by a small number of noblemen. And Brabanzio is one of them. So he goes off, confident that his complaint will be heard. Where does he go? He goes to find the duke in the duke’s palace, the doge’s palace. And that’s where we are, at the moment, in front of the great Ducal Palace in Venice. Now, it happens that we also learn that Brabanzio is not the only one rushing off to the Ducal Palace. They have sent messages from the Ducal Palace trying to find Othello. Why are they trying to find Othello, who is in fact, at that moment, in an inn with his bride, Desdemona? They’re trying to find him because there’s a political crisis. On the one hand, we have Venice, the city, in all of its grandeur and security. On the other hand, we have a threatened empire. Venice was a very powerful republic. It controlled territory, not only in its immediate surroundings, but throughout the Mediterranean, as far east as the eastern Mediterranean, places like Rhodes and Cyprus. And there’s a crisis– a crisis with the people at the outer edge of Venetian power, namely the other great power in the Mediterranean, the Turks, the Muslim power under the Turkish sultan. The background of Shakespeare’s tragedy is what happens at the outer edge of a great empire, when the forces of Venice have to meet and encounter the forces of the enemy Turk. For that encounter, Venice relies on its navy and on its military leaders. Those military leaders were not, by any means, always Venetians. On the contrary, for the most part, they were people from outside of Venice, hired by the Venetians especially to conduct their battles. In Venice, there are very, very few statues of Venetian-born military leaders. The greatest statue in Venice of a military leader is of Bartolomeo Colleoni, a great condottiero as they call it, a great military commander. And that statue is a celebration of a man who was from Bergamo, a different city in Italy, hired by the Venetians to lead its forces. And that’s the situation we find at the beginning of Othello, when we enter the rooms in the doge’s palace, find the Venetian senators anxiously talking to each other about the threat out at the edge of their empire, in Cyprus. That’s the situation that is evoked at the beginning of Othello, in which the Venetian senate tries to decide whom it should send to command its garrison in Cyprus. The Venetians are powerful, one of the most powerful states in Europe. They have a great city. They have wealth. They have confidence. But they need military power, and their military power depends upon foreigners– foreigners like Othello; like the character of Marcus Luccicos, who seems to have a Greek name and is in Florence; like the Florentine Cassio; like Iago, who has a Spanish name. Virtually all of the Venetian military figures appear to be foreigners, mercenaries in the employment of Venice. So on the one hand, we have a tight, cozy, wealthy, confident oligarchy in Venice. On the other hand, we have military leaders who are from outside of Venice, and who help the Venetians oppose their deep enemies, their frightening enemies, the Turks, the Muslim forces. And all of that works more or less fine, until we have the critical moment that’s depicted in the play, in which one of these outsiders, namely Othello, gets alarmingly close to the center of Venice, namely the daughter of one of the leading senators of the city, Brabanzio’s daughter, Desdemona. And at that moment, the outsiders in the employment of Venice suddenly seem as frightening or more frightening than the enemy Turks out there at the edge of the republic.

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