Inside take on a Folger, Bodleian, and Ransom Center exhibition on the creation and afterlife of the King James Bible on the 400th anniversary of its publication.

The Bible and Othello

Owiso Odera as Othello in Folger Theatre's 2011 production. Photo by James Kegley.

Like all of Shakespeare’s plays, Othello contains many significant allusions to the Bible, the book he could count on most members of his audience knowing best. Shakespeare most often alludes to the Geneva Bible, a copy of which he surely owned, but he also knew the Bishops’ Bible and the Coverdale Psalms from the Book of Common Prayer, since he heard them in church. (As noted in our Manifold Greatness website FAQs, Shakespeare was not influenced by the later King James Bible.)

Most people today think of Othello as a play about race. This has been a common view for decades. Indeed, U.S. President John Quincy Adams (1767-1848) thought the play a failure because of its representation of a young Venetian girl making “a runaway match with a blackamoor.” The play was a hit in the pre-Civil War South, since it offered, so it was believed, a lesson in the dangers of miscegenation. Audience react to the play differently today, but they still focus on race.

Tragedy of Othello (quarto). 1622. Folger.

In Shakespeare’s day, before the expansion of the transatlantic slave trade, what was most risqué about Othello was not race but religion. Othello is a Christian, it’s true, but he is descended from Muslims. Shakespeare’s subtitle The Moor of Venice would have suggested Islam as well as blackness. And the conflict that threatens Venice in the play is with the Muslim Turks.

One of the most overt biblical allusions in Othello is in Iago’s early speech, when he says to Roderigo, “I am not what I am.” At first hearing, this sounds like Viola’s coy remark in Twelfth Night, “I am not that I play.” But it’s more complex.

Iago’s statement is actually logically impossible. How can anyone not be what they are? The key is that Iago is parodying God’s naming of himself to Moses in Exodus: “I am that I am.” It’s not a name, really, but a statement of God’s eternal sameness and essential being. Iago inverts this, which implies something essential unstable or even empty about him.

Owiso Odera, Ian Merrill Peakes. Othello, Folger Theatre, 2011. Photo: James Kegley.

Another important reference to the Bible comes at the end of the play when Othello says that he, “like the base Judean, threw away a pearl richer than all his tribe.” (Though some editors argue for “Indian” rather than “Judean.”) The “Judean” in question is Judas, who, according to the note in the Geneva Bible (with the later “Tomson” New Testament), was of the tribe of Judah. The “pearl” Judas threw away was Jesus, whom he betrayed, and who was also of the tribe of Judah. Because he has betrayed and murdered Desdemona, Othello is thus likening himself to the greatest betrayer in Christian history.

Othello later says to Desdemona’s body, “I kiss’d thee ere I kill’d thee.” A biblical literature audience might hear this as an echo of Judas’s kiss, which identified Jesus to the chief priests and elders.

The Folger Theatre production of Othello opens October 18 and runs through November 27. Othello was performed at James I’s court in 1604, the year that work began on the 1611 King James Bible; scholars believe Shakespeare wrote the play in 1603 or 1604.

Hannibal Hamlin, associate professor of English at The Ohio State University, is co-curator of the Manifold Greatness exhibition at the Folger Shakespeare Library.

4 responses

  1. I really enjoy your post here. In my college course on Shakespeare I am doing a study of the play Othello right now and I am assigned to apply it to something important to me in life. As a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints the King James Bible is very important to us. I really like the connections between Othello and the gospel.

    In my blog about Shakespeare I posted about how he uses his plays as a way of teaching the masses about morality, it seems so evident because so many of his plays have such strong religious undercurrents. The ones that you found in Othello were especially intriguing. Especially the one about Iago’s play on words “I am not what I am” being a connection to God. Iago seems to think himself God in the play, judging who should be punished, what lives should be taken, and he has great power over the world of the play Othello. It shows how twisted Iago is to make that allusion. Unfortunately he is all of these without the love and mercy of our Heavenly Father.

    Othello as Judas, then that would make Iago Satan who “entered into Judas surnamed Iscariot” (Luke 22:3). This is one of the greatest tragedies Shakespeare wrote about, how a pure honest love could be so tainted and then destroyed as soon as one allows Satan and his lies into their mind. Judas allowing Satan in allowed his love for The Perfect Individual, Jesus Christ, to become tainted until it led to dead, and his subsequent suicide parallels well with Othello’s. This was a very interesting connection you made as well.

    October 21, 2011 at 5:43 pm

  2. LadyJane

    At the moment in my English class we are studying Othello and I couldn’t help but notice the similarities between the play and the Bible in not only the points mentioned above but also within the earlier scenes of the play through the scenarios and also through some of the lines said by the characters which are similar to some quotes within the New Testament.

    April 30, 2012 at 7:23 am

    • Glad to hear of your interest. Shakespeare alludes to the Bible in all of his plays, not just Othello. This isn’t necessarily for specifically religious reasons, and it certainly doesn’t imply anything one way or another about Shakespeare’s own faith. It’s just that the Bible was at he center of early modern English culture, and, since universal church attendance (and there was only one church — the Church of England) was required by law, he could count on everyone being able to recognize biblical allusions. The Bible was so pervasive in the culture that whenever people think of issues like love, or betrayal, or sacrifice (etc.) they naturally refer to biblical examples — like Judas or Satan or Jesus.

      April 30, 2012 at 2:16 pm

  3. Pingback: Biblical Allusions | ENGL 1302.03 Class Blog

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