Chapter 40

“William Shakes-speare”
Man of the Renaissance
by Dorothy and Charlton Ogburn

Chapter Forty


ALHOUGH IT TAKES US ahead of our story, we must speak of the tensity of the international situation in 1585, in order to explain Lord Oxford’s motive in revising Othello and thereby doing “the state some service.”

In 1580, Philip of Spain had seized the crown of Portugal; and Drake–El Draque, the Spaniards’ bete noir– had captured the San Filipe with treasure said by some authorities to have been worth over 300,000 pounds ($12,000,000 in our money) off the coast of Chile. The outraged Philip, balked in his demands to have the treasure returned and Drake executed as a pirate, began methodically to build his Armada.

During this same year William of Orange had issued his Apology, which has been called “one of the most important state documents of the whole 16th Century,” because it led up to the declaration of independence by the States of Holland in 1582. This Apology, which was William the Silent’s caustic reply to Philip’s accusations against him, was sent to every court in Europe.

In 1584, William of Orange was assassinated; and England was faced with the danger of the Netherlands’ immediate collapse, which would promptly expose her to the horrors of a Spanish invasion. Henry VIII had left only a small navy, comprising more or less antiquated ships, of which many vessels used in trade and exploration had been lost. (1) Already work had begun on the creation of a new navy–the tap-tap-tap of shipwrights’ hammers was heard far and wide–but the situation was rapidly growing acute, and much needed to be done before England could parry a Spanish attack.

The Earl of Oxford was eager for active service, and began writing his father-in-law for aid in getting a command. Meanwhile, he revised and adapted Othello, a play which, when presented to the public, did far more toward defeating Philip than any man’s martial service could have done; for it helped to arouse the English fighting spirit, without which even the great Sir Francis Drake might not have been able to combat the might of Spain.

In order to make it clear at the outset that we are not exaggerating the symbolic implications, and thus the immense propaganda value, which this play had for Elizabethan audiences, we shall quote Lilian Winstanley’s paraphrased translation of an Italian political pamphlet by Tassoni, published circa 1615. (2)

The hero is a certain Moorish soldier of fortune; he is the native of a desert land where the sun’s heat is intense and where there is hardly a water-spring or a village to be found in a day’s journey. Owing to the barrenness and heat of this land its people have lived remote from civilization; they are terrific in their passions and, when they are enraged, no laws of God or man can restrain them. He–the soldier of fortune–is jealous and suspicious to a degree. He is exceedingly valorous; he has travelled to shed blood in the most distant countries; he has wandered among savages and anthropophagi and across the most stormy seas of the globe. His sword is the most famous sword on earth.

He woos a lovely lady, described sometimes as an Italian lady, sometimes as a Venetian lady; she is, however, of a nature wholly diverse from his own; she is more highly civilized; she obeys the laws of God and man; she does right not by restraint and compulsion but from her own inward goodness. She is the most modest of ladies, wholly pure and trustful, very generous, ready to welcome strangers, ready to give affection to all men, but polluting herself with none and never false to her word. Unfortunately, she has a fatal gift: she admires strangers more than her own people; this admiration of strangers is the one fatal flaw in her otherwise lovely character.

She is fascinated by the Moorish hero; but if she weds him, it will be to her ruin and his own. He cannot understand her purity; he will be filled with jealousy and suspicion; he will accuse her of defiling herself; he will murder her, and, little as he may think it, her murder will bring about his own death. He will fall dead by her dead body, and there will be nothing left of these two who were both so noble and so great but corruption and ruin.

It goes without saying that Tassoni is telling Oxford’s story of Othello, the Moor, who represents Spain, and Desdemona, who represents Venice. The Venetian painters of the Renaissance portrayed their city as a beautiful woman–Miss Winstanley speaks of Veronese’s “Venice Crowned”; and in his Apology of 1580, William of Orange compared the Spaniards to Moors for their “ferocity and jealousy”; after which both Philip and Spain itself were so depicted in innumerable political tracts and literary works. (We have already spoken of the symbolism employed by the political pamphleteers in our discussion of The Merchant of Venice.) Miss Winstanley declares that “the peculiar greatness of Othello is due to the fact that he [the man himself] incarnates the supreme type of the Spanish nation, the ‘idea’ of Spain, as it were, rather than anyone individual” This is what makes the drama and the characters–for so Desdemona incarnates Venice–larger than”‘life. It was thus that the sixteenth-century audiences saw them.

For the people of that era were imbued with symbolic representation: not only the English, but the Europeans’ as well. The great Huguenot poets and even historians wrote of the French Civil Wars in the most elevated symbolic language: D’Aubigne in Les Tragiques, Pierre Mathieu, in The Glorious Life and Deplorable Death of the Most Christian King Henry the Fourth, de Thou, and so on; likewise the Italians, Boccalini and Tassoni. Spenser wrote pure allegory; and so did many other Elizabethans. Miss Winstanley cites Drayton’s Polybion, the Masques of Beaumont and Jonson, the Pageants of Thomas Middleton, the panegyrical poems of George Peele–specifically his Installation Ode for the Knights of the Garter–Thomas Watson, the Earl of Essex, Thomas Dekker in The Whore of Babylon, the complimentary poems written for the Chancellors of Oxford and Cambridge, pamphlets on the Union of the Crowns, elegies on Sir Philip Sidney; and even, she adds, “most amazing of all, many of the proclamations are written in pure mythology,”

In writing of the French Civil Wars, Agrippa D’Aubigne tells a story which is actually that of Gloucester and his two sons: of a blind father representing France, a legitimate son (Edgar) standing for Henry of Navarre, and an ambitious, scheming illegitimate son (Edmund) for Henry, Duke of Guise; he carries it out in detail, with France arriving at the brink of the precipice, ready to plunge to destruction. In Les Tragiques this distinguished Huguenot poet (who was, as we have suggested before, almost certainly a friend of the Earl of Oxford) also speaks of the Protestant Church of France as “a woman of heroic heart. . . imprisoned or put to death either by the cord or the sword.” Compare Othello’s words (III.3.387-91):

                 Her name, that was as fresh
As Dian’s visage, is now begrim’d and black
As mine own face. If there be cords or knives,
Poison or fire or suffocating streams,
I’ll not endure it. . . .

Lord Oxford was a great and influential dramatist, closely connected with the Queen and with the events of his time. It had to be so. No creative artist exists in a vacuum: he exemplifies his period and his vision illuminates it. Although ahead of his time in many ways, yet his psychology was essentially that of his period. So was the Queen’s. De Thou wrote of Elizabeth:

She had the weakness to like to be courted and loved for her beauty; and even when she was no longer young, she yet affected to have lovers. It seemed as if she made it a diversion to herself to renew the remembrance of those fabulous islands, where noblemen and famous knights wandered and piqued themselves on loving. . . . (3)

Tracts V and VII of the Philippics, quoted by Miss Winstanley, speak of “the terrible dangers that the occupation of Venice by Spain will bring upon both of them: the ‘African licence of Spain will certainly put an end to the life of Venice.’ . . . It was the Catholic doctrine of Spain and her wars against the infidels which attracted Venice; but with incredible lies Spain maligned Venice.” And there is a further suggestion that the writer of the tracts was familiar with the dramas of Lord Oxford when he adds that “Spain, if it falls, will fall like Lucifer.”–“Quomodo cecidisti de caelo Lucifer.”

Tassoni describes Venice as “modest, tranquil. . . most chaste, yet loving to all men,” welcoming strangers with gladness; while Iago’s words about Desdemona (II.3.338-9) seem more applicable to the opulent and accessible Venice than to a woman:

. . . she’s fram’d as fruitful
As the free elements.

Tassoni describes Spain as “the Moorish barbarian, equally great by land and sea,” as Spain certainly was at that time, and emphasizes the “African barbarian’s outrageous violence when. . . roused.”

Iago expresses the same contrast when he speaks of

an erring barbarian and a super-subtle Venetian. (I.3.357.)

Miss Winstanley found that almost all the anti-Spanish tracts referred to Spain as a “desert-country. . . baked by the sun. . .. It is because the Spaniard is a Moor by race, because he inhabits such a . . . desert land that he has never fully acquired the arts of civilization, that he remains untamed, furious, and capable of cruel insults.”

Since Desdemona, like Venice, was receptive to strangers, she listened with enchantment to Othello-Spain’s adventures on land and sea, including the story of his captivity (I.3.137.) One of the pamphlets quoted by Miss Winstanley asserts that the Spanish had once been captive to the barbarians, the Moors, and had “inflicted that same Moorish captivity upon Europe.” (4)

All the Christian world wonders [continues Tassoni] at the way in which Venice has been outraged and insulted and at the patience with which she has borne her wrongs. . . [showing] herself the very model of Christian piety and patience, concealing the. . . wrongs. . . . She is helpless before the cruel and enraged wolves. Spain accuses her of such crimes [as tolerating the Adriatic pirates], and she has no defence, though she is most pure in heart and most virtuous.

An interesting parallel with Elizabeth occurs here, for Philip had accused her of sanctioning the “piracy” of Drake. All this brought the mythology home very vividly to the English, who, during the months of alarm preceding Spain’s attack, were in just such dread as Venice is pictured a prey to, regarding Spain–and in just such dread as the defenseless Desdemona feels when she realizes Othello’s terrible purpose. (V.2.)

As Venice was the last great Italian state which was free–the Spaniards having taken control of Sicily, Naples, Milan, with Genoa almost wholly subdued–so England stood alone in the face of Spain’s impending assault. It does not require much imagination to visualize the tense excitement with which the subtle and ardent Elizabethans would have followed this drama in the theatres, to say nothing of its impact upon the sophisticated audiences at court.

But the political implications go further. At the Battle of Lepanto, in 1571, Don John of Austria had defeated the Turks, winning back the Island of Cyprus. When Othello says, in his final speech, that he has smitten “a turban’d Turk” who “beat a Venetian and traduc’d the state,” he is referring, historically, to Spain’s victory over the Turk at Lepanto; the Venetian who had been beaten was the Venetian Admiral “whose skin was flayed from his body and stuffed with straw as an insult to Venice.”

By some historians–Brantome, for example–Philip is said to have grown violently jealous of Don John’s military glory after Lepanto, and of the “impassioned admiration” the Venetians and other Italians felt for him. Because he suspected his half-brother of wishing to become King of Flanders and parts of Italy, Philip is said to have murdered Don John. There seems to be some question about this. And apparently Oxford believed he had only been induced by false reports to connive against Don John’s life, as Othello did against Cassio’s.

For topically Cassia represents Don John. As Miss Winstanley so astutely points out, Cassia’s intrigue with Bianca is instrumental in bringing about the tragedy, while Don John, whose well-known penchant for light women easily completes his identification with Cassio, would have been obliged to ally himself with the Bianchi–or Whites–who were the national party of Italy, if he planned to make himself king.

There is another marked analogy in the importance given to Cyprus in the play. And regarding this, Miss Winstanley has been extraordinarily perceptive. “The Senate,” she observes, “was obliged to sanction Desdemona’s marriage to Othello because the threat at Cyprus demanded Othello’s presence. . . . It was because the Turks had taken Cyprus that the treaty of alliance [or marriage] between Venice and Spain became imperative.” And it had, of course, to be ratified by the Senate.

Second Senator. . . . yet do they all confirm
A Turkish fleet, and bearing up to Cyprus. (I.3.7-8.)

Here we must pause to note the application to the Spanish Armada which is expected to bear down upon England. Miss Winstanley, not suspecting that this highly topical play was written in the middle 1580’S, saw only the Spanish-Venetian symbolism. But for the English, the Spanish-Venetian symbolism only heightened their sense of their own threatened extinction.

A further correspondence exists between the conflicting reports of the size of the Turkish fleet in Othello and those about the Spanish Armada–July 1588–in England. Lord Admiral Howard reported the strength to Walsingham as 210 sail. The number was actually nearer 130 of which approximately 120 arrived in the English Channel. (5) In the play it goes thus (I.3.1-12):

Duke. There is no composition in these news
That gives them credit.
First Senator. Indeed they are disproportion’d;
My letters say a hundred and seven galleys.
Duke. And mine, a hundred and forty.
Second Senator. And mine, two hundred:
But though they jump not on a just account,–
As in these cases, where the aim reports,
‘Tis oft with difference,–yet do they all confirm
A Turkish fleet, and bearing up to Cyprus.
Duke. Nay, it is possible enough to judgment:
I do not so secure me in the error,
But the main article I do approve
In fearful sense.

In 1588, the Governorship of Harwich was offered to the Earl of Oxford; and this makes the Duke’s speech to Othello (I.3.221 et seq.) personal to him, especially since he declined the post as being of no distinction or honor:

Duke. The Turk with a most mighty preparation makes for Cyprus. Othello, the fortitude of the place is best known to you; . . . you must therefore be content to slubber the gloss of your new fortunes with this more stubborn and boisterous expedition.

Oxford felt that, after he had commanded his own ship, this commission was too much of a “slubber” to his “gloss.”

There are further similarities–particularly in II.1, where the “war-like Moor Othello” stands for Philip; but they must not detain us here.

Miss Winstanley makes the striking point that “the State of Venice is officially present at all the great crises of Desdemona’s life: the Doge and Senate ratify her marriage and give her permission to go to Cyprus. When Othello strikes and insults her, it is in the presence of the Venetian ambassador, Lodovico, who at once rebukes Othello and endeavours to protect Desdemona (IV.1) and announces that Othello’s commission from the Senate is withdrawn. Lodovico is present at her deathbed (V.2). . . . The formal treaty of alliance between Spain and Venice (1571) . . . was celebrated as a religious ceremony, sworn as perpetual, and symbolized by uniting the Spanish and Venetian coats-of-arms with a chain.” This is the historical significance, of course, of the marriage of Desdemona and Othello in the later version.

The loss of Cyprus to the Turks had caused Venice to appeal to the Christian powers; and it was when Spain came to the rescue that the treaty of alliance was signed.

“Spanish veterans were accustomed to live so completely in the field that they were permitted to take their wives with them,” as Othello was allowed to take Desdemona. When Othello bids farewell to

. . . the neighing steed, and the shrill trump,
The spirit-stirring drum, the ear-piercing fife,
The royal banner. . . (III.3.352 et seq.),

he is referring to “the royal banner” of Spain, and to the Spanish custom of fighting to the sound of the “fife” and “drum.”

It is amazing with what scope and skill the dramatist has made the Moor so complex a figure, yet so vivid in every aspect of his symbolic personality. He has the qualities of sixteenth-century Spain in his presentment as a noble and brave warrior, and as a jealous, “morally dense savage.”

I’ll tear her all to pieces,

he says (III.3.432); and afterwards, Desdemona, quailing before him, protests (V.2.37-44):

And yet I fear you; for you are fatal then
When your eyes roll so. Why I should fear I know not,
Since guiltiness I know not; but yet I feel I fear.
.   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .  .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .
Alas! why gnaw you so your nether lip?
Some bloody passion shakes your very frame. . . .

There are surely no words at once more hopeless and more poignant in all the literature of the dramas than Othello’s (V.2.7) when he enters the bed-chamber where Desdemona lies asleep. Taken as applying to the lovely bride of the sea, Venice, they are as moving as when applied to the exquisite and noble Desdemona:

Put out the light, and then put out the light. . . .

It is the passionate fanatic, blind to the higher spiritual values, who comes to crush what he cannot appreciate and cherish. Lord Oxford’s audience would have responded with a thrilling resolution to save their beloved England from such brutality. Visualizing Desdemona as their Queen, as well as their country, they would have been deeply stirred.

Philip has no doubt been grievously maligned by history. His two worst enemies, William the Silent and Antonio Perez, are said by Bratli to have fixed his character, created his legend. He had undeniably fine personal qualities; but his fanaticism overrode them, giving him an obtuseness and a goading purpose which led him into appalling cruelties and blind mistakes.

It is significant that Othello stabs himself with a Spanish sword.

I have another weapon in this chamber;
It is a sword of Spain. . . .
.   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .    .   .   .
I have seen the day
That with this little arm, and this good sword,
I have made my way through more impediments
Than twenty times your stop; but, O vain boast!
Who can control his fate? ’tis not so now. (V.2.251-64.)

No more intrinsically Spanish name could have been chosen than that of Iago, for the great national shrine is St. Iago of Compostella. Yet, in the play, Iago is said by Cassio to be a Florentine (III.1.42). Since it is the prototype of Don John who makes the remark, we think of Lepanto and recall that in 1571, the year of Don John’s victory, the famous Catholic conspiracy known as the Ridolfi plot was put down in England, and that the man from whom it took its name was a Florentine. Cassio is evidently made a Florentine to relate him to Iago for the Oxford-Howard analogy.

One of the most striking statements quoted by Miss Winstanley is taken from the Hollander Edward Daunce’s A Brief Discourse on the Spanish State, which was published in England in 1590–two years after Othello had been put into final form, seven years after it had been first written–which, following the characterization of the Spanish as “being of Moorish descent,” reads as follows:

All other creatures and even beasts spare those of their own family; but the family of the Othmani and the Spaniards alone are distinguished by this: that they will kill even their own children and their chaste wives. (6)

To Miss Winstanley’s suggestion that the dramatist made his title from the first syllable of “Othmani,” we should like to add that he appended “hell” and his own initial “O,” since in the play he stresses both, as when the Moor, crazed with jealousy, exclaims (III.3-448):

Arise, black vengeance, from the hollow hell!

So we have Oth-hell-o. It would seem the logical derivation.

Before leaving this play, we must speak briefly of still another phase of the Spanish symbolism: less exalted, more personal. Here we have Philip the man as Othello; Elisabeth de Valois, his beautiful young wife, as Desdemona; the cunning, unscrupulous Antonio Perez, plus the spirit of the corrupt, treacherous court of Spain, as Iago; a certain gallant named Pozzi superimposed upon Don John as Cassio; and Ana de Mendoza, Princess of Eboli, as Emilia.

It seems that history has exonerated Philip of the murder of his third wife, but the people of the sixteenth century believed profoundly in his guilt. In defending himself against Philip’s accusations, William of Orange had retorted, in his famous Apology (7) of 1580:

Impute them to the rage and desperate madness of the enemies of God, the enemies of Christendom. . . . He (I say) upbraided me with my marriage, who hath cruelly murdered his own wife, the daughter and sister of the Kings of France. . . yea, his lawful wife.

Philip married Elisabeth de Valois in 1559, when she was barely fifteen. (This was precisely Anne Cecil’s age when she was married to the Earl of Oxford.) Bratli states:

Elle savait mieux que tout autre se conformer aux vues de son royal époux, et, dans ses lettres autographes et les rapports sécrets des ambassadeurs français, nous possédons les mains equivoques de son parfait bonheur. (8)

She was docile too. The King, whose age was more than double hers, had been married twice before. By the time of the Armada he was well past fifty. Now there was no reason save a topical one why Othello should have been a great deal older than Desdemona. Yet he says his request to have his young wife accompany him is not made

To please the palate of my appetite,
Not to comply with heat,–the young affects
In me defunct. . . . (I.3.263-5);

and later that he is declin’d

Into the vale of years. (III.3.265-6.)

A man of fifty was considered elderly in the sixteenth century.

Philip’s biographers declare that Elisabeth de Valois was the love of his life, that he had “a mad passion for her”; and although, at first sight of him, she had “felt terrors and presentiments,” she “soon became deeply attached to him. . . . Famous throughout Europe for his intense jealousy,” however, Philip was played upon by mischief-makers at his court. Elisabeth is described as having been obedient–of a “sweet submission”–with a deeply compassionate nature which induced her to “plead for victims of his severity,” often so persistently as to anger him.

This explains why Desdemona seems somewhat to overdo her concern for Cassio’s reinstatement.

There was a clever and distinguished woman at the Spanish court, Ana de Mendoza, Princess of Eboli, who was supposed to have been at one time the King’s mistress: she certainly had some sort of personal ascendancy over him and “never relaxed her attitude of pride and scorn” towards him. She was put into close relationship with the Queen to spy upon her for Philip; but the two women became fast friends. Later the Princess of Eboli became the mistress of Antonio Perez, a plausible but diabolical villain; and Philip’s jealous possessiveness was outraged here too. He seems to have had a dog-in-the-manger attitude about Ana de Mendoza.

So we have Iago, the husband, rather than the lover, of Emilia, suspecting her of having had an amorous intrigue with Othello:

Iago. . . . I hate the Moor,
And it is thought abroad that ‘twixt my sheets
He has done my office (1.3.385-7);
But partly led to diet my revenge,
For that 1 do suspect the lusty Moor
Hath leap’d into my seat; the thought whereof
Doth like a poisonous mineral gnaw my inwards. (II.1.297-300.)

Antonio Perez, then, had at least in part the same motive for hating Philip; and he is said to have aroused Don John against the King, as Iago made trouble between Cassio and the Moor. Whether he brought malicious reports to Philip about the Queen we do not know, but someone at court did, inflaming Philip’s jealousy.

From the beginning, the courtiers had been almost afraid “to raise their eyes to the Queen’s face,” for fear of arousing his suspicions. Then an exceedingly unfortunate thing happened. One of the Queen’s ladies had an affair with a courtier, the Marquis del Pozzi, and indiscreetly admitted him to the royal apartments. Philip, being apprised of this and suspecting the Queen, had the Marquis watched. As ill luck would have it, the Queen had carelessly dropped her handkerchief, the gallant picked it up (as Cassio picked up Desdemona’s), and Philip saw it in his hands. The story goes that Philip had del Pozzi murdered “in the street” (Cassia was attacked and almost killed in the street), and then murdered the Queen with his own hands.

How much truth there is in all this we cannot say; the point is that it was absolutely true for the Elizabethans. The story was told all over Europe later by Antonio Perez; and William of Orange had stoutly asserted that Philip had murdered his wife.

It seems that Antonio Perez had so inflamed the King against Don John that Philip had either murdered, or attempted to murder, him; whereas it is certain that Don John’s secretary, Escovedo, was murdered by Perez “in a street brawl,” with the connivance of the King. (Roderigo was killed in a street brawl: V.l.)

The reason Philip showed confidence in Perez so long as he did is because the latter was the son of the King’s old and trusted servant, Gonzalo Perez. And it is of incidental but rather striking import that, in Oxford’s next play, the old-counsellor aspect of Burghley will be named Gonzalo.

We see the hold Antonio Perez had upon the Princess of Eboli repeated in Emilia’s desire to please Iago when she plans to give him the handkerchief Desdemona has dropped (III.3.290 et seq.):

Emilia. I am glad I have found this napkin;
.   .   .   .    .   .   .   .    .   .    .   .   .   .   .   .   .
My wayward husband hath a hundred times
Woo’d me to steal it. . . .

She decides to have the work copied and then give the handkerchief to Iago.

What he will do with it heaven knows, not I;
I nothing but to Please his fantasy.

She tells him that Desdemona had “let it drop by negligence.” Iago, of course, lays his devilish plot:

I will in Cassia’s lodging lose this napkin,
And let him find it. (III.3.322-3.)

The dramatist seems to have adhered very closely to the accepted version. Of course, he has telescoped the action, as well as altering the sequence of events. Escovedo was murdered ten years after the Queen’s death, in 1578; and it was long after this that Philip discovered Antonio Perez’s perfidy. But the facts are those of the Spanish story which were believed by “half of Europe.” (9)

It should not be overlooked that Oxford gave Philip credit for many fine qualities; but he shows him victimized and destroyed by his passionate jealousy and his blind fanaticism. Far from sitting in judgment on the older man, he actually couples his own disastrous jealous credulity with that of the Moor, as has been seen. There is much bitter disillusionment in the words he gives Lodovico to say (IV.1.266-70):

Is this the noble Moor whom our full senate
Call all-in-all sufficient? is this the noble nature
Whom passion could not shake? whose solid virtue
The shot of accident nor dart of chance
Could neither graze nor pierce?

Through his own mistakes he had learned tolerance for those of other men. But he saw that Philip’s unforgivable weakness was his moral obtuseness, really his fanaticism.

It is Emilia who pronounces the final verdict. She sees through Othello, as the Princess of Eboli saw through Philip. She has assured him of Desdemona’s innocence. (IV.2.1-18.) When she realizes what he has done, she turns upon him, crying:

O gull! O dolt!
As ignorant as dirt. (V.2.161-2.)

O thou dull Moor! (223.)

Trajano Boccalini, in his New-Found Politik, states that Philip became “so stupid and gullish” that he believed the “manifest and insolent tyranny of his base servant [Perez] a vigilant regard for his service. . . a disburthening of him from cares.” (10)

Philip ultimately condemned Antonio Perez to excruciating tortures, but Perez managed to escape from Spain. Lodovico says, regarding Iago:

To you, lord governor,
Remains the censure of this hellish villain,
The time, the place, the torture. O enforce it. (V.2.366-8.)

Philip was believed to have intended poisoning his wife, then smothered her. Othello says (IV.1.207):

Get me some poison, Iago.

But in the end, he smothers Desdemona.

Now, it is a curious fact, as noted by Miss Winstanley, that Catherine de’ Medici, the mother of Philip’s wife, wrote pleading letters to him, insisting that her daughter be given more air, that she might be allowed occasionally to go out. And the historian, Forneron, sees in this a clue to Philip’s whole system, which was based upon jealousy and suspicion. “He stifled his wife, he stifled the Princess of Eboli, he stifled freedom of thought, he stifled political liberty, he stifled every country under his rule, he stifled. . . all Italy, he stifled even Spain itself.” Forneron reiterates the word “étouffer,” inadvertently falling into the sixteenth-century symbolism, as Miss Winstanley suggests, because it is so appropriate to Spanish tyranny. (11)

No wonder Philip was infuriated by this play. It was, significantly, in the year 1586 that the Venetian Ambassador in Spain wrote to the Doge and Senate, on July 20:

But what enraged him [the King of Spain] more than all else, and caused him to show a resentment he has never before displayed in all his life, is the account of the masquerades and comedies which the Queen of England orders to be enacted at his expense.

Because we have already allotted so much space to this study of Othello, we shall have to forego citing a dozen phrases and allusions which relate the text to certain books published in 1587 and to events of 1586-88; but we must permit ourselves one quotation from Admiral Holland, whose knowledge of astronomy lends special weight to his pronouncement that the play belongs to 1588–as we fully agree that the version we know today does. He takes his lead from the following passages:

The wind-shak’d surge, with high and monstrous mane,
Seems to cast water on the Burning Bear
And quench the guards of the ever-fixed pole. (II.1.13-15.)

All offices are open, and there is full liberty of feasting from this present hour of five till the bell have told eleven. (II.2.8-10.)
Desdemona. Shall ‘t be tonight at supper?
Othello. No, not tonight.
Desdemona. Tomorrow dinner, then?
Othello. I shall not dine at home;
I meet the Captains at the citadel.
Desdemona. Why, then tomorrow night; or Tuesday morn;
Or Tuesday noon or night; or Wednesday morn.
I prithee name the time. (III.3.57-62.)

Othello. It is the very error of the moon;
She comes more near the earth than she was wont,
And makes men mad. (V.2.107-9.)

The last passage [writes Admiral Holland] informs us that it is a time of an unusual perigee. As the moon moves round the earth monthly in an ellipse, a normal perigee occurs once a month, but the nearer the time of perigee coincides with the time of the new or full moon, the shorter the distance of the moon from the earth. For ordinary calendar purposes, or as likely to be known to Elizabethan astrologers, out of twenty-eight times of perigee, or out of twenty-eight months, unusual perigee will occur twice, once when the moon is full and once when it is new, on the day of perigee. In other words, this phenomenon occurs every fourteen months on an average.

Now let us consider the first two passages. The first, which describes a condition presumably occurring a few minutes before the opening scene of Act II, clearly tells us that the stars are shining, for nobody could notice the heavy sea rising up and blotting out. . . the low-lying stars–the pointers of the Great Bear–unless they were visible. Act I, Sc. 1 lasts about twenty-five minutes, and we are then told, at the beginning of Sc. 2, that it is five o’clock. It was therefore starlight at 4:40 in the afternoon. This is quite impossible except in the two months of the depth of winter, and I am erring on the side of moderation; I think it is much nearer one month. Accepting it as two months–that is, one particular couple of months out of six couples of months–we have now a combined phenomenon which occurs every 6 times 14 months, or once every seven years. . . .

And now for the last paragraph but one which occurs on the same day as that mentioning the unusual perigee. “If not tomorrow, then Tuesday, if not Tuesday, Wednesday,” clearly shows that the day is Sunday. . . . The whole combined phenomenon is one which occurs only once on an average in 7 times 7, or 49 years, and it did occur on Suntlay, December 8, I588. As December 8, old style, corresponds in hours of daylight to December 18, new style, it will be noted that actually it was almost the shortest day. On this day the moon was a new one, and it was also in perigee. (12)

That Queen Elizabeth saw the immense propaganda value of this play she gave impressive evidence in 1586, which was of course before its final revision in the year of the Armada. Of this we shall presently speak.

Before, during, and after Lord Oxford’s time there were, as we have said, masques in which symbolic mythology was employed; there were allegorical poems and prose works of all sorts couched in symbolic language. But he was the first dramatist to make use of symbolism and mythology on the grand scale; and he was the first to record contemporary history in what Benedick called a “high style.” Not the least part of his magnificent achievement is that he recorded many of the great and dramatic events of the sixteenth century with an epic power which has given them a philosophic universality and truth, and this in poetry that has never been surpassed.

Times have not changed so much as we are prone to believe. The Earl of Oxford used the theatre for propaganda; but the Russians are doing that very thing today. Perhaps four hundred years from now, the capitalist villain will have to be interpreted through study of old records and the Marxist fanaticism will not be altogether clear to the student without an examination of contemporary documents. Even today, moreover, we have symbolic ballets. As this chapter is written we read in The New York Times (13) a review of a current British ballet called Checkmate, explaining that “Love and Death play a cosmic game, which ends in the victory of the Black Queen over the Red King. [The choreographer] has given her chess men sharp characterizations, keeping them well off the lines of human reality, yet endowing them with dominating human drives.” So we may well say, “Plus ça change, plus c’ est la meme chose.”

Only we have not yet been able to match the greatest of the Elizabethans.

One more comment should be made, in conclusion, apropos of a play by Thomas Dekker, Match-Mee in London, which was published in 1631, “as it hath been often presented,” etc. Although this play has merely a tangential connection with Othello, it has the same prosy correspondence with its plot that Lodge’s Rosalynd has with As You Like It; and we may be sure that, if it had been printed before 1602, it would have been pronounced the partial source of the masterpiece. The interesting points for us are that in Dekker’s pedestrian work the characters are frankly named “King Philip of Spain, Don John, Iago,” etc.; and that after the King has ordered the Queen murdered, he is told that her last words were, “Commend me to the King. . .” (The dying Desdemona’s are, “Commend me to my kind lord.”) By an absurd fluke, she is restored, Don John is forgiven, and a happy ending achieved.

It may be that the playwrights of the day sought to capitalize upon Oxford’s perennial successes. Jonson did this, of course, but far more sourly than the others, and in a spiteful spirit, by satirizing the dramatist himself. It may even be that the Earl of Oxford himself sponsored the stories of the plays put out by his proteges, Lodge, Dekker, Greene, Peele. As Lodge admitted that his Rosalynd was “Euphues’ Golden Legacie” –thus testifying that he took the story from As You Like It, instead of its having been the other way round–so Dekker would no doubt willingly have declared that his play derived from the same general source, as he and Chettle would have acknowledged their indebtedness for their Troilus and Cressida (altered to Agamemnon). When therefore we find Greene’s Pandosto being published in the year following the production of The Winter’s Tale and relating the same story in prose, we cannot fail to detect a purpose in these seemingly innocent objective renditions of romantic tales which, in their dramatic forms, are so dangerously replete with secret significance.

The secondary works must have been what we should nowadays call smoke screens. By the time the plays were published–Othello initially in 1622, As You Like It and The Winter’s Tale in 1623–the stories were already established as pleasant fictions and could pass as the source of the dramas, thus diverting suspicion, in some degree, regarding their meaningful origin. If this were, indeed, the purpose–and no other explanation seems so well to fit the case–it was, as the test of centuries has demonstrated, highly effective.


1 In Hawkins of Plymouth (pp. 232, 240) Williamson says: “Henry VIII’s Navy was a home-waters force. . . . The same was true. . . [through] the first half of Elizabeth’s reign. . . . When the Queen [Mary Tudor] died in 1558 there were twenty-six royal ships, or fifty per cent fewer than Henry’s total. The total tonnage was 7,110 tons. . . some. . . in fact unserviceable.”

2 From Othello, as the Tragedy at Italy; pp. 18-19. A specialist in sixteenth century literature, Miss Winstanley made translations of portions of two rare books, entitled Filippiche Contra Gli Spagnuoli, preserved in the British Museum. Of the twelve tracts included, two are ascribed to Alessandro Tassoni. The supposed date is circa 1615.

3 Jacques Auguste de Thou: Histoire Universe lie; vol. XIV; p. 46; quat. by F. Chamberlin: The Priv. Char. ot Q. Eliz.; p. 271.

4 Or. cit.; pp. 72 and 93.

5 Holland; p. 106.

6 Or. cit.; p. 150.

7 The Apology, once supposed to have been written by Languet (who, it will be recalled, was at this time writing Philip Sidney about the tennis-court quarrel), was later attributed to Duplessis-Mornay.

8 Philippe II, roi d’Espagne; p. 116.

9 We follow Miss Winstanley’s account in much of this, augmented and occasionally modified by our own reading.

10 Winstanley: op. cit.; p. 111.

11 An excellent modern novel, For One Sweet Grape, by Kate O’Brien, tells of Philip’s jealousy of the Princess of Eboli in her affair with Antonio Perez, and of his imprisoning her and slowly stifling her to death.

12 pp. 103-5.

13 Nov. 3, 1949; the author, John Martin.

Contents | Chapter Forty-One