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Where Worlds Collide

In Othello, Shakespeare ostensibly presents us with two very different worlds. For an English audience in the seventeenth century, Venice represented thriving capitalism where wealthy merchants controlled the state, buying powerful military forces to protect their colonial interests. In Shakespeare’s play, Venice appears to be the place of urbanity and civilization, reason and light, the archetypal Renaissance city. In 1.3, although the action takes place at night, the Senators meet in a brightly lit chamber, where light symbolizes the search for control and order.

Ludovico Marchetti. Othello, act 4, scene 3: "Shall I go fetch..." Watercolor, 19th century or early 20th century

On the other hand, Cyprus, the borderland, appears to be a place of wildness, passion, and rebellion. The island is beset with "desperate tempest" (2.1.21) and "high seas, and howling winds" (2.1 68), and our introduction to the island is a violent storm where the natural boundaries between sky and sea are blurred. However, as with many of Shakespeare’s plays, it may be that the playwright layers into the text a more subtle connection between the two locations. Despite its apparent self-confidence, Venice itself may conceal a suppressed version of Cyprus, revealed through the action of the play. In the opening scene outside Brabantio’s palace, elements of disorder, jealousy, bestiality, theft, and deception are presented to us and prompt us to wonder, long before Othello lands there, whether or not "Cyprus" is already in Venice.


Classical Roots


The name Cyprus comes from one of the names of the goddess Venus, Kypris, for whom the island was supposedly named. In fact, the story of Venus underlies the plot of Othello. Venus’ husband was  the god called Vulcan, a blacksmith with a lame leg. She also had a lover, Mars, the god of war. In his jealousy, Vulcan created a net of gold mesh to catch them in the act. One day when Venus and Mars were together, Vulcan sprang the trap and caught the lovers in the net. He held them up to be ridiculed by all the other gods for their behavior. In Shakespeare’s play, Iago often refers to nets and snares and traps he has set for Othello and Desdemona. Othello is a dramatic reworking of the tale of Vulcan and Venus which would have been familiar to Shakespeare’s audiences.

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