Biblical Allusion and the Meaning of Othello

Understanding Shakespeare’s Biblical references is vital for the interpretation of many, if not all, of Shakespeare’s plays. For Othello, it is especially important, not only because the interpretation of the play is contested among various approaches — feminist, homosexual, post-colonial, Marxist, Freudian, new historical, and others — but also and more importantly because, as I believe I can demonstrate, Shakespeare called attention to his Biblical references in a way that a contemporary audience would not have missed. I believe Shakespeare chose Biblical references that place the play in a specific framework, essential for appreciating its meaning.

Of course, for many scholars in our day, meaning is what the reader/viewer imposes on the text, not some unchangeable something that he finds already there.1 If we were to take such a view, there would be no real point in asking what Shakespeare might have been trying to do or how his original audience would have understood the play. We would be free to exploit the text for whatever cause we wished to endorse: Marxism, feminism, gay rights, or whatever. But if we think we ought to seek Shakespeare’s meaning — to the degree that it is possible — we will have to consult his Biblical references, among other things. How so? Because the Biblical references in Othello were all added by Shakespeare to the original story he found in Cinthio. In addition, he significantly modified the story itself in order to fit the Biblically profound picture he drew.

Taking Biblical references into account also solves two basic and related problems that have plagued 20th century interpretation of the play. One, how can Othello be a great tragedy? Two, is Othello a noble Moor or just a fool? The two questions are obviously related. If, in the end, Othello is a mere fool duped by his “ancient,” then the story of his fall can hardly be “great tragedy.” But if Othello is great tragedy, we must be able to find a way to understand the Moor that does not reduce him to a rash dolt.

First, then, does Othello have the elements that go into making a great tragedy, tragedy with a capital “T”? Consider it in contrast with the Shakespeare’s other great tragedies. Hamlet, Lear, and Macbeth all concern the murder of kings and the fall of kingdoms. As in the Biblical story of Adam, in each of these plays a single man’s sin wreaks havoc in the “whole world.” Othello, however, seems to lack that dimension. It is true that Venice and Cyprus are endangered by the Turks, but that threat is removed the first scene of Act II. When Othello finally falls into his tragic sin, there is no international crisis as a result, no kingdom in danger, no great loss of lives and property through war. Helen Gardner observed the following in 1967.

“Much of the criticism of Othello in this century has been marked by an uneasiness which was first voiced by Bradley. This was partly a consequence of his endeavour to discover and define the ‘substance’ of a Shakespearean Tragedy. Unable to deny that Othello was a masterpiece, and that if we are to distinguish certain of Shakespeare’s tragedies as ‘great tragedies’ we must place Othello among them, he had in honesty to recognize that the vision of the world given by Othello did not conform to his conception of the vision of the world that the great tragedies present. . . . The reservation over the play’s claim to supreme greatness he ascribed to the ‘comparative confinement of the imaginative atmosphere.’ ‘Othello has not . . . the power of dilating the imagination by vague suggestions of huge universal powers working in the world of individual fate and passion.’ Compared with the other three ‘great tragedies,’ ‘it is, in a sense, less “symbolic.”’ It leaves us with the impression that we are not ‘in contact with the whole of Shakespeare;’ and ‘it is perhaps significant in this respect that the hero himself strikes us has having, probably, less of the poet’s personality in him than many characters far inferior both as dramatic creations and as men.’2

Gardner goes on to say that “many have shared his [Bradley’s] sense that the play lacks universal significance and a larger ‘meaning’ . . . .”3 The story seems to be limited to the domestic realm, with nothing transcendent, nothing universal suggested. The specific phrase “less symbolic” is particularly noteworthy. How, then, could it be tragedy with a capital “T”?4
This entire way of viewing and reading Othello, this way of “problematizing” the play comes in part from ignoring Shakespeare’s Elizabethan Christian worldview and the Scripture references that place the whole story within a specific symbolic context that make the play large with meaning. For Othello is an unusual but sophisticated version of the often-told story of the Fall — a favorite topic for plays from the Middle Ages onward. But modern audiences and even Shakespearean critics are not attuned to Biblical references or Biblical stories that resonate in the background of Othello.

“You don’t know what you don’t know. The popular adage has ramifications not only for realms of knowledge, but for ways of knowing. You don’t know what you can’t know because it is beyond your ways of knowing. In his influential book of a half-century ago, from which I have drawn my epigraph, Bernard Spivack presented a modulation of this idea: you don’t see what you don’t know. You can’t perceive that which is beyond your modes of perception. In Spivack’s account, a critical tradition of understanding the Shakespearean stage through the lens of naturalism had rendered certain elements of the plays invisible to the scholarly eye. In particular, critics were blind to the drama’s affiliations with elements of supernaturalism carried forward from earlier religious drama, such as the Vice figure which, Spivack argues, underlies the character of Iago.”5

Modern viewers of Othello do not see or hear some of what would have been loud-sounding and blatantly obvious to an Elizabethan viewer — the idea that the play is a story of the Fall of Man being perhaps highest on the list. The story of the fall is so far from the modern consciousness that we cannot see it, even if it is right in front of us in bold letters or sounded out in loudest tones. In Shakespeare’s day, the story of Adam’s fall was a paradigm story that was part of the everyday experiences of English people — in music, in Scripture reading, in pictures in churches, even in conversations about politics or history.

Perhaps some in our day may doubt that it would be possible for a “black” man6 to play the role of “everyman” in Elizabethan England. Although Othello’s blackness marks him out as foreign, it does not necessarily suggest “inferior” in Shakespeare’s day. Moreover, it was apparently the custom in Venice to hire foreigners.

“For Cinthio and his readers, as for the Venetians in the play, the spectacle of a foreign commander of Italian forces was nothing remarkable. Indeed, according to Contarino’s study of the Republic, by long custom the city ‘held it a better course to defend their dominions upon the Continent with foreign mercenary soldiers, than with their homeborn citizens;’ and there was even a law that ensured that the general of the army was always foreign born.”7

In addition, Othello’s position at the head of the Venetian military would have been one of considerable prestige in a society in which the military retained a respect and social status quite different from our day.8 Keeping in mind the military background, there was one man only in the Geneva Bible that viewers of the play could have associated with Othello: “Ebed-melech ye blacke More” (Jer. 38:7 ff.) The “blacke More” in the story of Jeremiah 38 is a heroic figure who bravely stands up for the persecuted Jeremiah and saves his life.9 As his reward, God saves “Ebed-melech the blacke More” (Jer. 39:16) in the day of the Babylonian invasion. Only the Geneva translation of the Bible renders these verses as “blacke More,” but since it was the most popular translation of Shakespeare’s day, it is certainly possible for the association with Othello to be made. Even if Elizabethan viewers and readers of the play would not have directly associated the hero from Jeremiah, the fact remains that there is a “blacke More” hero in the Bible, as well as Solomon’s black wife (Song 1:5)10 and the possibility of Moses’ black wife (Num. 12:1). While none of this means that it is not unusual to have a black Moor placed in the role of an “everyman” who falls into sin through the devil’s temptation, it still provides background for our understanding and aids in appreciating Ludovico’s summary statement of the story. We should read the word “Fallen” here with full theological meaning.

Lodovico. O thou Othello, that wert once so good,
Fallen in the practice of a damned slave
What shall be said to thee? (5.2.287-89)

Thus, although Othello is “black” and foreign, he can be and is set forth as a symbol of “everyman.”11 This appears strikingly in the second scene of the first act when Shakespeare invents a scene that is not in Cinthio and includes a clear allusion to the Biblical story of the arrest of Christ in the Garden of Gesthemene. The specific language which alludes to the Biblical story is Othello’s command: “Keep up your bright swords” (1.2.59).12 Naseeb Shaheen offers the following illuminating comments.

“The setting closely parallels the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ arrest. A band with torches and armed with swords comes by night to arrest Othello. The stage direction in the Quarto (1622) says: “Enters Brabantio, Roderigo, and others with lights and weapons.” The stage direction in the Folio is: “Enter Brabantio, Roderigo, with Officers and Torches.” The circumstances of Jesus arrest are much the same. Matthew 26.47; John 18.3.”13
As allusions go, this is clear enough in itself, but the fact that Shakespeare here added an incident that is not only not found in Cinthio’s original story but even contradicts Cinthio’s story line14 indicates clearly that this incident and its Biblical associations are important for what Shakespeare is doing in this play. All the more so, in that it is this scene in which we are finally introduced to the man that Iago had previously described at length in the most unflattering terms (1.1.9ff.). Othello’s calm bearing and courage in the face of extreme danger, like Christ’s in the Bible, draws attention to his dignity and offers dramatic refutation of Iago’s slanders. That impression is only augmented by the trial scene that naturally follows the arrest. Though Othello is more loquacious at his trial than Christ was, his display of dignity, calm rationality, and courage is analogous.15

In fact, since the arrest scene is associated with Othello’s marriage to Desdemona, it suggests that Othello is a Christ-like husband to his bride — alluding to the well-known Biblical picture of Christ and His church. Though it may seem too much to regard the marriage of Othello and Desdemona as a picture of the marriage of Christ and the Church, in Elizabethan times the Anglican marriage rite included specific reference to the fact that all marriages signify “unto us the mystical union that is betwixt Christ and his Church.”16 By making specific allusion to Christ at the very time that Othello and Desdemona are wed, Shakespeare ensures that we take note of the symbolism of marriage.

Two references to the Bible with regard to Desdemona confirm this allusive matrix. First, Brabantio, during Othello’s trial, describes Desdemona as “A maiden never bold; Of spirit so still and quiet that her motion Blushed at herself” (1.3.94-96), alluding to 1 Peter 3:4-5. This suggests that she is an ideal Christian woman. Shortly after this, as Othello offers his defense against Brababtio’s accusation, he describes Desdemona in language that recalls the Gospel story of Martha and Mary.

. . . This to hear
Would Desdemona seriously incline;
But still the house affairs would draw her thence,
Which ever as she could with haste dispatch
She’d come again, and with a greedy ear
Devour up my discourse; . . . (1.3.144-49)

In these two allusions to Scripture, then, Shakespeare suggests that Desdemona is a woman of exemplary character, as if she were a combination of Mary and Martha.17 This also associates her with the story of Christ, reinforcing the parallel between Othello’s marriage to her with Christ’s to the church. Thus, to evoke Biblical associations with both Othello and Desdemona, Shakespeare modified Cinthio’s story to add allusions that connect the Biblical story of Jesus with his Othello and to suggest the relationship between Christ and the church. This gives a transcendent dimension to the domestic realities of the play and makes the story of Othello a story of “Everyman.” This qualifies as great tragedy because it is a retelling of the Fall of Man in the fall of Christ-like Othello.

Ralph Smith is Pastor of Mitaka Evangelical Church.

References   [ + ]

1. There are, of course, problems with the idea of “unchangeable” meaning, but I do not have time to go into that in this essay. Suffice it to say that while certain aspects of a play’s meaning necessarily change, there are other aspects that remain. “In many respects, then, meaning changes with the times because texts and their meanings are like events in several respects. The original writing and publication of a text is an event; my reading of that text is an event, or a series of events, caused by the text; and public interpretation and discussion of a text is another event caused by the original text.” Peter Leithart, Deep Exegesis: The Mystery of Reading Scripture (Waco, Texas: Baylor University Press, 2009), p. 51. Leithart thoroughly explains the notion of meaning changing over time in the chapter titled “Texts Are Events.”
2. Helen Gardner, “‘Othello:’ A Retrospect, 1900-1967” in Shakespeare Survey: An Annual Survey of Shakespeare Study and Production, no. 21, edited by Kenneth Muir (Cambridge: University Press, 1968), p. 1.
3. Ibid.
4. M. R. Ridley offers a partial answer to the problem when he suggests that because Othello has a clearly developed and dramatically powerful plot, it may be Shakespeare’s best play — “in the narrow sense of ‘theatre’ probably much his best” — even though it is not his greatest work. He opines, “It has neither the variety nor the depth of Hamlet, none of the overwhelming power of Lear, none of that atmosphere which in Macbeth keeps us awfully hovering on the confines of a world outside that of our normal experience . . . But its grip upon the emotions of the audience is more relentless and sustained than that of the others. . . . from the moment of the landing in Cyprus the action moves fast, and the tension steadily mounts, with hardly an instant’s relaxation, till the moment at which Othello kills himself . . .” He also comments that Aristotle’s view that one of the features of great tragedy is “implication followed by explication” which is not found in the other three great tragedies, but is in Othello. Shakespeare, Othello, Arden edition, ed. M.R. Ridley (London: Meuthen, 1958), pp. xlv-xlvi.
5. Kristen Poole, Supernatural Environments in Shakespeare’s England: Spaces of Demonism, Divinity, and Drama (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press: 2011), pp. 58-59.
6. Othello’s race is another controversial topic. Norman Sanders writes: “For the modern reader all of these indications of colour and race would almost certainly point to a Negro; but for the seventeenth-century Londoner they could apply equally well to an Arab. Iago’s derogatory comparison of Othello to a ‘Barbary horse’ ( 1.1.111-12) would not be taken by any member of the Blackfriars audience to be other than to an Arabian steed; and his scornful use of the term ‘barbarian’ (1.3.343) is exactly that used by Elizabeth’s courtiers to refer to Abd el-Ouahed and his entourage. Even in the lie he tells Roderigo about Othello’s demotion, it is Mauritania (i.e. the land of the Moors) he selects for the imaginary posting (4.2.217). More generally, it was the north African races that were popularly associated with the kinds of reactions that Othello manifests in the play . . .” Othello (The New Cambridge Shakespeare), p. 14. It seems to me that Sanders’ conclusion here suggests strongly an Arabic Othello, but Sanders himself concludes that for people in our day, the role demands a Negroid Othello.
7. Norman Sanders, Othello, p. 10.
8. “Whether he is facing Desdemona’s irate father and her armed relatives, or answering the accusation of witchcraft before the full Senate, or dealing with a disciplinary problem on the watch, he demonstrates a capacity for swift decision, a monumental authority and a calm self-confidence that are characteristic of his kind. Unless we give the fullest emphasis to the ideal that lies behind these qualities and accept as valid Othello’s view of himself as military man, the great farewell speech to his profession, with its spectacular sense of the glory and grandeur of war, becomes merely a mindless exercise in the glamorising of a peculiarly beastly job.” Sanders, Othello, p. 22.
9. Altogether the expression “blacke More” appears in eight verses of the Geneva Bible (Jer 13:23; 38:7, 10, 12; 39:16; 46:9; Ezek 29:10; Dan 11:43), though only once in the Bishops Bible (2 Kgs 19:9).
10. In the Song of Solomon, the Geneva Bible has a note on the race of Solomon’s bride, because she says she is “comely as the tentes of Kedar” which the Geneva Bible notes was in Arabia — another indication that in Shakespeare’s day, Arabians were considered “black.”
11. “The debt to the old drama runs even deeper. Shakespeare found in it not only a model for individual characters but also a structural inspiration for some of his greatest scenes. Emrys Jones once identified Jesus’s apprehension by torchlight in the Garden of Gethsemane—a set-piece in almost every mystery cycle—as the basis for the Venetian posse that hunts down Othello at the Sagittary Inn. On an even larger scale of influence, Iago’s and Desdemona’s competition for Othello’s soul exposes the whole play as a tragic Mankind or Everyman in which the Vice triumphs.” From the “Introduction” in Shakespeare and the Middle Ages, edited by Curtis Perry and John Watkins (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), p. 4.
12. Compare with Matthew 26:52: “Put up thy sword into his place.” and John 18:11: “Put up thy sword into the sheath.”
13. Naseeb Shaheen, Biblical References in Shakespeare’s Plays (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1999), p. 583. The two passages Shaheen cites follow: “While he was still speaking, Judas came, one of the twelve, and with him a great crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests and the elders of the people. (Mat. 26:47); “So Judas, having procured a band of soldiers and some officers from the chief priests and the Pharisees, went there with lanterns and torches and weapons.” (Joh. 18:3). My entire discussion here is indebted to Shaheen.
14. Shaheen points out that in Cinthio there is no elopement and no attempt to arrest Othello. Desdemona and the Moor marry against the parents wishes, but without the complications in Shakespeare. They even live together happily for some time in Venice. Ibid.
15. Again, there is no trial scene in Cinthio’s story. Though, of course, after an arrest, as is necessary, it is part of Shakespeare’s Biblical allusion.
16. From the 1559 Anglican Book of Common Prayer. Online:
17. Both of the references here are noted by Shaheen, who suggested that Shakespeare combines Martha and Mary into one and points out that nothing like this is found in Cinthio’s story. Shaheen, Op. Cit., p. 584.