Fear of the Moors
Subtitled ‘The Moor of Venice’, Othello is one of Shakespeare’s greatest high tragedies, written either just before or after Queen Elizabeth’s death and King James VI and I’s accession in 1603. The play contained highly topical resonances for its English audience. ‘Moors’ came from Mauretania (as Iago says), in what’s now Morocco, and inspired both racial and religious anxieties for Elizabethans.
The region was predominantly Muslim, under the control of the Sa’adian dynasty. Elizabeth allied herself with Morocco, establishing the Barbary Company to trade English munitions for sugar (which wreaked such havoc on her teeth). In the summer of 1600 the Moroccan ambassador Muhammad al-Annuri and his retinue arrived in London and stayed for six months, negotiating treaties with Elizabeth. Al-Annuri, rumoured to be a Morisco (a Spanish-born Muslim forced to convert to Christianity, but who in this case then reverted) even had his portrait painted.
Was al-Annuri the model for Othello? Shakespeare’s Othello describes himself in ambiguous terms, speaking “Of being taken by the insolent foe”, which we assume to be the Ottomans, and then of being “sold to slavery”; his “redemption thence” suggests his conversion to Christianity. But by the end of the play, after killing Desdemona, he compares himself to “a malignant and a turbaned Turk”. His identity is clearly far more complex than that of being simply ‘black’, and suggests how conflicted the Elizabethans felt about the Muslim world.