Cervantes, the Moors of Spain, and the Moor of Venice

Othello, the Moor of Venice. Desdemona loved to hear him tell the story of his adventures [graphic] / Louis Rhead. Folger Shakespeare Library.
Othello, the Moor of Venice. Desdemona loved to hear him tell the story of his adventures [graphic] / Louis Rhead. Folger Shakespeare Library.
Of all Shakespeare’s plays, Othello is the one that is most frequently compared to Spanish literature in the age of Cervantes.

This is due in large part to the role that jealousy plays in driving Othello to kill Desdemona. We might recall Iago’s famous warning: “O, beware, my lord, of jealousy; / It is the green eyed monster which doth mock / the meat it feeds on.” Like Othello, jealous husbands in numerous early modern Spanish plays conclude that they must kill their wives because her questionable virtue threatens the husband’s honor. Cervantes examines jealousy as a destroyer of marriages in stories like the novella “El celoso extremeño” (The jealous man from Extremadura) and the dramatic interlude “El viejo celoso” (The jealous old man).

We can see connections between Cervantes and Othello not only in these themes of jealousy and honor, but also in Spain’s Moorish history and even Cervantes’ own life experiences.

Beginning early in the 8th century, Moors controlled large swaths of Spain and fostered a culture of relative religious tolerance. After the Reconquista, which lasted from the 11th through the 15th century, Moors who remained in Spain faced compulsory conversion to Catholicism. These converts, known as Moriscos, continued to live in Spain until their expulsion was ordered in 1609. Cide Hamete Benengeli, the fictional narrator of Don Quijote, is a Moor. The novel’s fictional translator is a Morisco. In Othello, Iago’s name comes from Santiago Matamoros, a.k.a. Saint James the Moor-killer, who was the patron saint of Spain until the 18th century.

The source material for Othello comes primarily from Cinzio’s Hecatommithi (1565), but Shakespeare would also have drawn inspiration from recent accounts of travel in the Mediterranean world, including North Africa and Venice.

Although there is no direct link between Othello and Don Quijote, Cervantes’ own life experiences, particularly his military service and African captivity, coincide with the kind of accounts that would have made up Shakespeare’s “research” reading for Othello.

Othello, like Cervantes, travels the seas as part of his military career. Cervantes served in the Spanish navy, and fought as part of a coalition with the Republic of Venice to defeat the Ottomans at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571. Three years later, on his way from Italy to Spain, Cervantes was captured by Barbary pirates and held captive in Algiers for five years until his family, with help from the Barefoot Trinitarians, was able to buy his freedom.

Echoes of occurrences from this time in Cervantes’ life show up in Don Quijote and many of the Novelas ejemplares. Coincidentally, parallel tales of heroics and hardship are featured in Othello’s biography. Desdemona falls in love with Othello listening to the stories of the hardships he has passed, including battles he fought, and being sold into slavery and delivered from it.

This is the third blog post by Kathryn Swanton in a 2016 series for the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare and Cervantes.