The Truth of the Turks and the Moor in Othello: Notes on Representation, Rationality, and Facts

     We need to ask what Venice would have done with Othello...I venture that he seeks  to forestall what might have been their politic decision:                      to preserve him until he  might be of high use again...the state has no replacement for the Moor.  (1)

Aristotle determined that truth could only be found by using a system of syllogistic logic.  Truth was something to be discovered rather than assumed in the essential form of the being.  Thus truth became a problem that could be asked of all entities:  What is your truth?  What allows your truth to be?  Those entities that could not respond to questions such as these were designated as truthful through correspondence: a stone is a stone if it looks like, feels like, acts like the other stone over there in the corner.  Truth became something that could statistically and empirically be derived through methods and formulas.  Aristotelian logic became the language of truth, the designator of what is considered true and what is considered false.   Heidegger , I think, rightly says that logic exists as a study only because "truth and its possession, or non-possession, are what make us uneasy, happy, or disappointed, and only for that reason does the assertion [proposition], as a place of truth, receive special attention..." (2)    Logic takes over the study of truth by using designators of propositions: p &~p, if p then q, and so on.  Logic takes away from the richness and complexity the question of truth has and replaces it within a system that presents truth as a problem.  Once truth becomes a problem rather than a question, we begin to see truth as lying outside of beings/entities/things and housed within a contrived formulaic system that lies outside, beyond the contingencies of space and time.  The language of logic is predictable.  It has rules that have been predetermined so that anything and everything can be easily and synthetically placed within the system and can have its 'truth value' deduced according to its presentation as a proposition.  This leads to all sorts of political-ethical dilemmas (3)   that, unfortunately, cannot be discussed here.  With Aristotle we can see the emerging importance of language as scientifically and dogmatically enforced truth--truth according to what is conceived as true within a system.
The logic of Aristotle was rather simple in its design and its function.  As Heidegger simply explains, an assertion (proposition, subject, form of knowledge) is true insofar as it conforms to its object.  Truth becomes correctness (adequateness, assimilation, correspondence).  Aristotle then conceives of truth as assimilation, which has "its home in the logos." (4)    Aristotle then extends his definition of truth to representation as well.  A thing (being, entity, stone, car, computer, etc.) must conform to its being (truth) in an assertion.  "Correctness [truth] is the standard and measure even for incorrectness[un-truth]" so that essentially, "truth is the correspondence of knowledge (representation, thought, judgment, assertion) with the object." (5)    Under this formula, language as the expositor of truth becomes key in understanding how truth works;  language becomes the representation of not only beings (entities, things) but of being itself.  Thus language refers to the truth determined by its appropriate correctness or incorrectness within the system of logic.  Things correspond to their truth by being referred, by being placed aside and thought about (reflection, speculation), by plugging things into artificially created systems.

I believe this formulation of truth within Aristotelian syllogistic logic is key in understanding not only social constructions of self, but of the representations subjects have of other subjects--people perceiving people.  Since Aristotleís logic continued unquestioned for eighteen hundred years, I see it being the foundation from which cultures in Western Europe, under the influence of the Church, determined truth and untruth, along with representation and rationality, from the birth of Christ up through Boolean logic in the late Nineteenth Century.  It was seen (and in the humanities, syllogistic logic is still viewed as the only available method) as the basis from which all other inquiries into the truth and untruth of things arise.  The question that arises now is,  are all beings also determined/determinable within this system?  Aristotle would say yes.  Thus all identities are formed through this framework, though I am sure in a much more humanistic weltanschauung.  These ideas will form the environment from which the main topic of this paper will rest in:  What was the truth of Othello (the Moor) and the Turks in Shakespeare's Othello?  How were they seen from the West as being from the East, as being other to the ethnocentrism of English society during Elizabethís reign?  How does Shakespeare represent and rationalize the truth of these two other ethnic groups?  In answering these questions, I hope to provide an interesting historiographical path towards understanding Othello and the Turks, and also provided a necessary counter balance to Saidean "Orientalism."  This will allow for a more philosophical discussion of truth and its relation to self-identity and group identity (Othello and the Turks respectively).

the "black Othello" (6)

Much of the scholarship on Othello's racial and ethnic origins tend to focus on the binary duality between ideas of color (black vs. white), ideas of race (Morocco vs. Syria), and ideas of place (North African vs. Sub-Sahara African).  These develop into discussions of how ocular perception, biological determinism, and geographic contingency have either hindered or helped readers and critics in understanding the true nature of just who Othello is. These context clues are supposed to help us understand his truth based upon known and true characteristics of Othello.  Many passages allude to physical appearance as determining factors, as the audience is supposed to know what these generalizations refer to.  As Philip Butcher states, "it appears that neither he [Shakespeare] nor other Elizabethans made careful distinctions between Moors and Negroes." (7) This leads to the inevitable conclusion that the populace of England at the time not only had frequent and intensive mixing with people of color, but they tended to generalize the race, ethnicity, and actual color of peoples in England.  This was an accepted practice during that time.  Shakespeare's practice to use adjectives to describe the physical attributes of various races and nationalities was an accepted method to generalize and characterize certain peoples.  thus if a playgoer heard these allusions, they would already know who Shakespeare was talking about.  The distinction between "Moor" and "Negroe" was not one that needed to be flushed out into any specific detail.  In general, as Butcher notes "[t]he Elizabethans held no high opinion of foreigners and seem to have had a particular aversion for the peoples they class as Moors," (8)   which is amply supported by historical data.  But the knowledge of these peoples by the English was based mainly on travel into the heart of Africa by explorers and what they wrote on return to England.  These travelogues were then read by the public which formed the popular caricatures of these 'others.'  But their knowledge of 'others' was superficial, inauthentic, and rather cliched images of what it was to be black or a Moor.  This was due to the rather simple mindset when it came to questions of how one became black.  Blacks were black because they were exposed to a higher intensity of sunlight due to geographical location, and this in turn provided misconceptions on how blacks behaved as well:

    Africans, whether 'Moors' or Negroes, were depicted as idle, carefree, lustful, and  treacherous.  They led lives of ease and sensuality [...] Images of burning heat, of mysterious darkness and evil, hovered over the continent; and although the English  had some firsthand experience of North African piracy, capture, and slavery, they  made little distinction between the dusky ("tawny") Moor and the black African, even  though numbers of both North Africans and west-coast Africans could be seen in  London. (9)

These misconceptions were held quite widely by the public in England also because of the increasing amount of African slaves that were being brought into London at the time.  Africans were prize slaves because they were well-built men, could work long hours and not tire, and were able to acclimate well to the environs of Northern Europe.  But in 1596, "the Acts of Privy Council stated:

    Her Majestie understanding that there are of late divers blackamoors brought to this  realm, of which kinde of people there are already too manie,  considering how God  hath blessed this land with great increase of people of our own nation...this kinde of  people should be sent forth of the  land.... (10)

The general lumping together of Moors and Negroes in England was based specifically on these rather general misconceptions.  Thus we can see, returning to the critique of logic, that alikes are alike and unalikes are unalike.  The propositions make no real difference in the systematic nature of syllogistic logic, but from the outside, or when a person was actually the ostensive definition of that proposition, we can clearly see the ramifications the simplicity inherent in logic caused.  Since the public of London viewed Africans by color, they were able to easily class them together, as Elizabeth did, and present a simple binary opposition that provided the structure from which the English could classify and compartmentalize very deep racial and ethnic differentiations.  Thus logic worked.  It did its job and returned safely back into its theoretical realm.  The advantage of having a system that works so easily is that its main operation is to level distinctions that are irrelevant such as racial and ethnic difference.  Since the color was black, then all of the Africans can easily be clumped into one category.

Othello himself though is specifically a caricature of the "Moor" per se as Shakespeare has constructed him.  Othello is a brilliant military leader who possesses  the virtues of chivalry, honesty, fortitude in face of dangerous enemies, the discipline granted only a Turk (more about this later), and the speaking skills of an experienced orator. His brilliant defense of himself in front of the Duke and the Venetian senators (I.iii.128-170) shows the audience that Othello is no ordinary "Moor."  As Butcher comments, "in making Othello undeniably black and in giving this black man heroic stature quite in disagreement with the literary and social practice of his time, in making him profoundly human in his strengths and weaknesses," Shakespeare had presented to the audience both the true virtue that goes beyond the logic of his time, and yet at the same time, almost a contrived brilliance, one that is hard to believe. (11)    Would playgoers react sympathetically to a tragic hero that is a break from the caricature of Africans in their society?  Shakespeare obviously gambled with this and was handily rewarded for the risk.   I believe that they were turned towards accepting Othello as a virtuous character because of not only his military valor and prowess, but because of his ability to conjure the heart of fair Desdemona into his hands.  Othello was able to use the "magic" of seduction, the magic of language, as the Duke so heartily agrees:

     I think this tale would win my daughter too.
     Good Brabantio,
     Take up this mangled matter at the best;
     Men do their broken weapons rather use
     Than their bare hands.            (I.iii.171-75)

This is also verified by Desdemona, the white, fair object of Othello's desire:

     That I [did] love the Moor to live with him,
     My downright violence, and storm of fortunes,
     May trumpet to the world.  My heartís subduíd
     Even to the very quality of my lord.    (I.iii.248-51)

This is in stark contrast to the caricatures we receive of Othello from Iago, who obviously has reasons, made up or not, why he should slander and refer to Othello in as many disparaging words as possible.  Iago himself buys directly into the commonplace cliches of logical representation, though his motivation remains one of jealousy and disgust towards Othello.  Iago is upset and, though we do not exactly why, Iago believes it is because of a suspected infidelity his wife had with Othello, thus confirming and extending the misconceptions of the lascivious nature of the Moor.  Iago speaks of Othello as "the devil" (I.i.91), which comported to Elizabethan superstition that African practiced magic and polluted innocent peopleís minds.  Iago calls Othello "a Barbary horse" (I.i.112) alluding to the Moor's origin from Morocco.  Iago speaks of Othello's and Desdemona's marriage as "a frail vow between an erring barbarian and a super-subtle Venetian" (I.iii.361-63) implying the callousness of Othello's heritage in stark opposition to the urbane, cosmopolitan Desdemona, who quite possibly fell under the Moor's "witchcraft."  When Iago is telling Othello of Desdemona's suspected infidelity, Iago employs this distinction between truth as correspondence and problem to be solved:

    Not to affect many proposed matches
     Of her own clime, complexion, and degree,
     Whereto we see in all things nature tends--
     Foh! one may smell in such a will most rank,
     Foul disproportion, thoughts unnatural.

Othello also recognizes the unusualness of his marriage to Desdemona, quietly acquiescing to Iagoís desperate logic:

    Nor from my own weak merits will I draw
     The smallest fear or doubt of her revolt;
     For she had eyes, and chose me.

This calculated usage of the racial misconceptions and superficialities bring more of a counterpoint into the tragic nature of Othello's character--the more Shakespeare can present him as being different than the 'usual' African, the more we can see his demise at the hands of Iago as being a inherent character flaw in all Africans.  Whether Shakespeare plotted in this manner would be interesting to uncover.  Though I do not think that his goal was to produce even more misconceptions.  I do believe that Shakespeare was interested in presenting the prominent and popular view and showing that superficialities only go so far in the judgment of character.  The intensity and the honorable nature of Othello's character is much more Western European than African in caricature.  But Shakespeare might have wanted that imagery to remain with the audience so that when Othello does do a one hundred and eighty degree turn in functional mentality, we can possibly see this as being indicative of what happens to marginalized, 'other-ized' peoples.  Here we have a former slave who has risen the ranks (your American capitalist success story) in a system structured differently than his own, achieves valor on the battlefield, is a very respected leader, yet he fails to control his most volatile emotions towards the rumors concocted by Iago regarding Desdemona's infidelities.  Has Othello, even as assimilated as he is (his truth), 'mastered' the rationality of the West?  Has Othello understood the intrinsic differentiation between himself and the Venetians?  Othello I think is just as complicit in perpetuating misconceptions as the public in England.  He plays into their misrepresentations by accepting the methodological system of discerning truth and untruth.  Shakespeare might have purposely done this to indeed show what happens to a superficial acculturation into a society that is different and remains racially intolerant of others.  As Arthur Sewell comments:

    it is the separateness of Othello's world from that to which all the other characters  equally belong.  It must now be suggested that Iagoís world is the  world of Venice,  to which all Venetians were born in and  in which they were imagined. The central  recommendation of society, so conceived, is cynically summed up in Iago's "Put  money in thy purse." It is a world in which lust flaunts its finery and is not abashed.  It  is a world, indeed, from which spirit has been drained, and all is measured by use  and entertainment and position.  It is a kingdom of means, not ends. (12)

Thus recasting our ideas of what the nature, if any, the Venetians have of their own culture.  the separateness that is alluded to by Sewell remains one of place, but psychic and physical.  The Moor is a stranger forced to accept, for whatever reasons, the  social system that dominates rationale in Venice--Othello always speaks from a place outside of Venice, even though he is in Venice physically. He is a borderland case of someone who is unsure of his place within a new system that says one thing (honesty, honor, valor, etc.) but acts another way (capricious, selfish, dishonest, corrupt).  This could also lead to a larger question of what Shakespeare might have been implicitly arguing:  that the rise of capitalism was allowing the corruption of morality and the destruction of the "noble, good, and fair" forces that had once graced England's history.  Shakespeare might be commenting on, as Raymond Williams so succinctly says it, the emergence of a capitalist system of economic relationships that uses language (thus logic) as a malleable system of signals and signs within the matrix of a ever expanding system of communication, transportation, trade, and political dealings.  This would then represent characters like Othello as being only one choice among many, only one possibility among the many, with Iago really being one of the characters that are able to control the flow of information in such a way as to impact the greater forces of power at play within the larger environment.  Williams says:

    [T]he dramatic forms were not anticipations or reflections of more general social  processes; or rather they are not to be reduced to
     anticipations or reflections.  For it  was in the deep formal qualities of the dramatic mode itself, and in the specific  qualities of these
     forms, that the real social relations were specifically disclosed. (13)

The logic behind Othello being just one choice among many is not a return to Aristotelian logic, but a break from which logic ceases to have a real ability to control what occurs in the propositions of a system.  The chaotic aspect of this idea relies on the idea that as systems emerge and become more logical, they fall, as they get closer to a perfect state of operation, into deeper chaos.  Thus truth itself would cease to be something determinable by formulas, and would instead become a question with many possible answers.  As Othello himself becomes more and more convinced that his union with Desdemona is a true and logical union, the more he becomes aware, through manipulation of represented information by Iago, that his union is in complete contradiction with the contingencies of his situation--blackness in a white world, honor in a commodified, selfish world, value in a world of use.  The more Othello struggles for a semblance of truth, the more he falls prey to the fact that besides momentary action and decisions one makes, truth is as illusory as the system it resides in--logic.

"The Turk with a most mighty preparation/makes for Cyprus."       (I.iii.221-22)

The Turkish "menace" that stands above the plot of Othello and hangs ominously over everything is in a similar relationship with historical and social evidence of Elizabethan England as the representation of Othello by Shakespeare.  Aristotelian logic is again used to provide the foundational basis from which a political binary is formed between Elizabeth's monarchy and the Sultan of Turkey, whom, during much of Elizabeth's reign, was Murad III (1574-95).  There is a double parallel between the relationship the Venetians have with the Turks (war) in the play and the relationship the Turks had with Elizabethan England.  The Turks had long been at war with Venice in the quest to secure exclusive hegemony over Mediterranean trade routes.  Most of Western Europe had always despised the power of the Turks, the ruthlessness of the Turks over the rest of Europe at that time.  They were, as Fernand Braudel stated, "more a world than a state."  For most of the sixteenth century, the Ottoman Empire had strict control over much of what used to be the Holy Roman Empire.  Their Empire extended well into West Asia, controlled all of the Mediterranean, and were knocking on the walls of Vienna, almost ready to take control of the entire European landmass.  The Turks, with their fierce naval galleys, strictly disciplined armies, and vast sources of raw materials and resources, held onto Europe with a ominous rule.  Most of Europe was quite afraid of the Ottoman Empire, as they had ravaged, plundered, and disrupted the economic and political structures of the nation-state.  As Valensi reminds us, "individually, none of the European states could prevail over against the Turk." (14)

For my purposes within the scope of this paper, I would like to concentrate on how Shakespeare himself would have know about what the truth of the Turks were, and how this truth allowed him to present a picture of Turks to Elizabethan England in Othello.  The plot of the play provides us with constant reminders that the Turks are coming, the Turks are coming.  The Venetians are very afraid and disheartened by the fact that they might have to engage the Turkish galleys as they make their way towards Cyprus:

    yet do they all confirm
     A Turkish fleet, and bearing down on Cyprus.
         Duke . nay, it is possible enough to judgment.
     I do not secure me in the error
     But the main article I do approve
     in fearful sense.

But we receive conflicting reports when the sailor runs in with new news:

    Duke . Now? whatís the business?
     Sail.  The Turkish preparation makes for Rhodes,
     So was I bid report here to the state
     By Signor Angelo.

The Venetian senate, receiving conflicting information, must now decide whether to commit their forces to the defense of Rhodes or the defense of Cyprus.  Shakespeare, as Geoffrey Bullough has mentioned, "probably read in Richard Knolles's The History of the Turks (1603)," (15) Thus Shakespeare would have had a rather current or at least contemporary history of the Turks at his disposal for him to concoct an interesting subplot that would add more pressure upon Othelloís self-identity--his truth.  Othello is a soldierís soldier.  His life is based upon the military ideals that started with the Spartan city-state, through the Romans, and into the Byzantine Empire.  He was well trained, well equipped, and his discipline and leadership skills were excellent.  The Duke, knowing all of this, uses the Turkish invasion as a way to get Othello out of trouble with Brabantio for taking Desdemonaís hand, and have Othello concentrate now at the dangerous enemies threatening the sovereignty of Cyprus.  The key, I think, is to see how Shakespeare juxtaposes an outside threat to internal cohesiveness.  The same can be said about Othello as an outside threat to many Venetian men who were interested in Desdemona's hand, especially Iago, who see the outsider status of Othello and strives on exposing the internal contradiction of being a stranger in a strange land.  Othello on the otherhand is very worried about the imminent Turkish invasion and wants to set off at one to defend the island.  But he has the marriage night vows to fulfill.  The Duke allows Othello to consummate for a few hours before daylight at which time the Venetian galleys will set off to rendezvous with the Turkish armada.

Shakespeare enjoys very much the ability to use historical data from his contemporary period to construct dualities that hasten the tragic fall of the protagonist, while at the same time allows him to compromise the virtues of that man with these historical facts (though, as we all know, Shakespeare enjoys bending the truth to fit his agenda).  The Turks were good plot devices to place strategically to always remind Othello of his duty as a soldier to the Venetian state.  Even as he is arguing his case of his love for Desdemona, we are constantly reminded of the impending exterior threat to the territory of Venice.

Historically, there is plenty of evidence that suggests that Shakespeare knew or at least encountered many Turks, especially when he arrived in London.  As S. A. Skilliter describes:

   Anglo-Ottoman diplomatic relations were first established in 1583 when William  Harborne arrived in Constantinople as Queen
    Elizabethís ambassador, carrying her  letters and delivering the royal present, due at the installation of every ambassador,  to the
    Sultan [Murad III]. (16)

This allowed an opening up of England for traders and diplomats from Turkey to have free travel within London to conduct business of state and economics.  The English with their simple ethnocentric worldviews,

   established in their popular and widely read works the stereotype of the Muslim--[...]  The "Turk" was cruel and tyrannical, deviant,
    and deceiving.  The Muslim was  all  that an Englishman and a Christian was not:  he was the Other with whom where  could be only
    holy war. (17)

This caused even more racial stereotyping by the English with their Turkish and Muslim visitors.  The key thing to remember here is that Shakespeare was complicit in the framing of Turks as "cruel and tyrannical, deviant, and deceiving."  His version of the Turks was no better than any of the other popular, widely read texts.  Othello himself, even as an outsider to Venetian and Western logical systems, views the infidelity of the Turks as even lower than his own positioning:

    Why, how now, ho! from whence arises this?
     Are we turn'd Turks, and to ourselves of that
     Which heaven has forbid the Ottomites?
     For Christian shame, put by this barbarous brawl;
     He that sirs next, to carve for his own rage,
     Holds his soul light, he dies upon his motion;...

Othello is implying here that even the Turks would not fight amongst themselves, they would never turn against themselves.  Othello, valiant military leader, wants the soldiers to know about how disciplined the Turkish troops are.  That is the reason they are so successful in battle because they are well trained, disciplined and view each other as brothers on the battle field.  As Rodney Poisson states:

   Othello, instead of referring to the storm by which Heaven had prevented the Turks  from striking, may be reminding his officers that
    even their enemies, the Ottomites,  are expressly forbidden such behavior by their religion, whereas Christians, to their  shame, turn
    against each other by this disgraceful habit of duelling.  Turkish military  discipline was both feared and admired in Shakespeare's
    day, and the thought  would be topical as well as characteristic of the man  [Othello] conceived as having  spent a large part of his life
    engaged against the Turks. (18)

Othello understands the logic of war and the military.  It is simple and has empirical proof in the fact that the results are either life or death--a simple creed to live by.  On the contrary, the logic of emerging capitalism is ideological by its "nature."  Othello does not understand this since he does not understand use.  There is value in life and death, as he is well aware.  I believe that the Turks were his past calling for him to come and take his place amongst the valiant in battle for territory and power.  Othello understands the intrinsic nature of those as well, though I am sure he would much rather leave those areas up to the politicians deciding the strategic moves, while he is with his men fighting on the front lines against the massive enemy.  The Turks provide that for him.  The Turks, though tyrannical and deviant, are at least codified in the logic of war which has it rules inherent in the biological mechanisms of the natural world.

The fact remains that Othello really never assumes any real position at all both geographical and psychically.  He is left in that border zone that remains not here, yet not there.  He has the hand of Desdemona, yet it does not feel correct.  He has his enemy in the Turks, though that itself seems far away.  The pressing issue of logic, of truth and correctness in representation and identity remains hidden from him because he has to always choose one or the other.  He cannot be left alone to allow the contingencies of self-made truth to take their course.  Othello is trapped in a vicious cycle of stereotypical ethnocentric and racial "borderlands" (to borrow Gloria Anzaldua's phrase), where the pressures of obligation to state and the obligations to mate are subjugated by the intervention and distortion of the rules of logic--Iago and the rise of selfish subjectivity.  Unfortunately, racial and ethnic stereo types are as prevalent today as they were in the 16th century, along with the question of truth, which contemporary Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk calls, the "impossibility to know what was what as to the origins [truth] of any story any more than the origins [truth] of any life." (19)

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