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.
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.
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.
As the Folger Manifold Greatness exhibition gets ready to open to the public this Friday, a host of related Folger programs and events are on the way—right away—from this Saturday’s family program to concerts and plays, a major conference, lectures and conversations, and much more!
First out of the gate, this Saturday morning at 10 am, is a Folger family program in the Folger’s “Shake Up Your Saturdays!” series, tailored specifically to the King James Bible. Registration is required, but admission is free. To quote the organizers: “During the reign of King James I, Shakespeare wrote some of his best known work, including the witchy Macbeth. Join us to learn about the translation of the most famous book in the world, and how it still affects us today!”
But that Saturday wake-up call is just the beginning. Next week, the Folger Consort, the resident early music ensemble of the Folger Shakespeare Library, is holding an early music seminar on September 28 that considers its upcoming concert, A New Song: Celebrating the 400th Anniversary of the King James Bible.Concerts take place September 30 through October 2.
And at just about the same time, the Folger Institute—a consortium of 41 colleges and universities and the Folger Shakespeare Library—hosts a major academic conference on An Anglo-American History of the KJV, September 29 through October 1. Jill Lepore, a noted scholar and staff writer for The New Yorker, kicks off the conference with her keynote address, “KJV in the USA: The King’s Bible in a Country Without a King.”
And that’s just next week! Looking ahead:
On October 4, Folger director Michael Witmore introduces and moderates a conversation with former three-time US poet laureate Robert Pinsky inspired in part by the Manifold Greatness exhibition (the event is part of Folger Poetry’s prestigious O.B. Hardison Poetry Series, named after a former Folger director.)
On October 18, it’s the premiere of the Folger production of William Shakespeare’s Othello, written and performed about the time that King James came to the throne—more about that closer to opening night! We could go on (and there are already more events scheduled for November and December…) but you get the idea.
We’d love to have your family join us for Shake Up Your Saturdays! this Saturday morning. Just don’t think for a moment that there isn’t much more to come, for every audience and age.