Skip to 0 minutes and 6 seconds When Othello talks about turning Turk, or towards the end of the play when he refers to a malignant and turbaned Turk, it’s very easy to get the idea that there was a simple, stereotypical view in the play and in Shakespeare’s England, that Christianity was a good thing and the Turks, who are, of course, Islamic, is a bad thing. But, actually, both in the play and in Shakespeare’s world, more generally, the story’s much more complicated than that. Here, in the collections of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford-upon-Avon, one of the most lovely objects is this dish. It’s from a traditional form of Turkish ceramic design known as Iznik.
Skip to 0 minutes and 57 seconds It’s got a glaze on it and then this beautiful painted design with flowers and leaves in blue and green and red. The red’s faded a little over time. But it’s a beautiful, symmetrical object. It’s made in Shakespeare’s lifetime. Sometime between 1575 and 1625. And to me it’s a fascinating object to give us a focus on questions of the encounter between Turkish culture, Islamic art indeed, and Shakespeare’s England. A man called Thomas Platter, who was a Swiss traveller, visited London in 1599 .
Skip to 1 minute and 44 seconds He went to the theatre and left an account of a performance of Julius Caesar, one of the very few eyewitness accounts we have of a Shakespeare play, but he also went to the home of a wealthy London gentleman called, Walter Cope who had what was known as a cabinet of curiosities. That’s to say a collection of paintings, objects, and all sorts of different things from different places. Platter makes a note of what was in Cope’s collection. And one thing he notes is a Turkish dish. It wasn’t this one, but one imagines, something very like this. A Turkish dish then was something precious, exotic, worth keeping in a cabinet of curiosities, something rare, something sophisticated.
Skip to 2 minutes and 31 seconds It’s a sign that in Shakespeare’s London, the Ottomans were associated with great sophistication, with beautiful art, as well as with some of the more savage practises for which they were pilloried.
Skip to 2 minutes and 49 seconds Turkish traders did, indeed, visit London at the time. This is the period where world trade, what we now call globalisation, is beginning to take off. And Shakespeare’s plays reflect the cross-currents between different cultures. By the same account, Christian traders went out into the Mediterranean, into the Ottoman Empire. Some of them, indeed, found themselves living in Nicaea, the district of Western Turkey, where is Isnik ceramics were made. Although they were very much a minority. There was a census taken in Nicaea in 1520, which said there were 379 Muslim households and 23 Christian ones. A century later, in 1624, another census recorded about the same number of Muslim households, 351 and only 10 Christian ones.
Skip to 3 minutes and 47 seconds But Shakespeare, in London, would have met travellers and traders who had been into the heart of the Ottoman Empire, who had been in the position of being a Christian minority in a world dominated by Islam. Just as those traders who came to London were a Moorish or Islamic minority, in the Christian world. There were moments of hostility, particularly when it came to questions of religious conversion. But there were other moments where trade took place and the different cultures rubbed along together. In Othello, Shakespeare does something very bold, he takes the character of a Moor, a Muslim, who he tells us comes from North Africa. Moor suggests Mauritania, which was one of the Islamic client states in North Africa.
Skip to 4 minutes and 41 seconds There are references also to Barbary. The Barbary coast, was again, a place renowned for the Moorish culture. Although it was also renowned for pirates, a place where people might be kidnapped and sold into slavery. That character goes from North Africa, this Islamic background, to Venice where he’s employed by the state, by the Christian Venetian state, and comes to be general of the Venetian army, but there’s always a fear that he might revert to his Barbary, his barbaric origin. That’s the fear that Iago plays upon. But the brilliantly sophisticated thing about the play, a sophistication, perhaps, akin to that of this work of art, is that nothing is quite as you expected.
Skip to 5 minutes and 38 seconds You can look at this dish one way and the flowers appear to be in the shape of a heart, Look at them another way, and they don’t. It repays endless attention. That’s what a great work of art always does. So too with Othello. Look at it one way and it looks as though the threat is of the Turk, but look at it another way, and you see that the threat comes from within. In the end, what brings about the tragedy Othello’s downfall, his barbarism, is not some outside force, some other culture, some alien, but Iago, the super-sophisticated Venetian.