Contemporary audiences know Othello and the tragedy that comes from villainy, ignorance, and racism. The repeated slurs against Othello’s blackness and the insecurities that difference prompts among Shakespeare’s white Venetians speak to our culture’s own disquieting history. Scholarship on the play consistently notes that the Moor’s foreignness would, to Shakespeare’s original audiences, result as much from his faith as it would his color. Scholar Kim Hall writes, “religion was the dominant means by which early moderns understood and ordered their world” (Othello: Texts and Contexts 171). Othello’s non-Christian origin is, in the world of the play, the darkest thing about him.
Director Robert Richmond’s decision to cast Othello as a Templar Knight and to set the action during the Crusades emphasizes Othello’s extraordinary journey and unexpected success within Christian ranks. What’s more, it forces our attention to complications of faith and to the actions of the faithful when threatened by disbelief. Othello is the ultimate medieval Christian paradox; he is both crusader and infidel.
The emblem of the cross Othello wears marks his allegiance to the Church and his language underscores faith similarly. There’s a lot of holy talk in this play, and much of it belongs to Othello. Shakespeare’s Moor seems to have internalized the beliefs that connote a Christian truly. These principles show themselves most when Othello confronts Desdemona’s infidelity, or rather, the suggestion of it. He marvels that Desdemona can be the whore Iago describes and “yet can kneel and pray” (4.2.25); his remedy for his wife’s too-hot hand is “fasting and prayer… exercise devout” (3.4.46-7). In these moments Othello’s understanding of virtue is informed by Christian signs and practices: “Was this… most goodly book/Made to write 'whore' upon?” (4.2.83-4). The suggestion is that Othello’s experience of betrayal goes beyond his wife’s unfaithfulness and extends to faith itself. His devotion to Desdemona is tied to the Christian virtues she exemplifies; his flawed perception finds duplicity in both. It is faith in a variety of things foreign that leaves this Templar Knight vulnerable to devilish manipulations. Othello’s current state stands in contrast to the “unhoused free condition” that describes his circumstance prior to the play’s action (1.2.29).
And yet, a certain freedom was conferred upon early defenders of the faith. In urging Christian men of fighting age to join the Holy Wars, Pope Urban II promised complete remission of their sins. It’s a remarkable proposition and hints at a purposeful distortion of the boundaries between good and evil. Othello’s inexperience negotiating these boundaries contributes to his tragedy. He punishes Desdemona as an act of righteousness, but his misdirected justice suggests that infidels are not so easily known. Othello recognizes this, but his pursuit of them continues. And when faced with the magnitude of his crimes, Othello does what any crusading knight might do: he destroys the nearest “turban’d Turk” and aspires to heaven (5.2.414).
— Michele Osherow