September: Shakespeare, Othello and the Arabic Language

In 1603, William Shakespeare wrote Othello, The Moor of Venice. Three hundred years later, it was celebrated in A. C. Bradley’s Shakespearean Tragedy: Lectures on Hamlet, Othello, King Lear and Macbeth as one of the four plays that were the ultimate demonstration of Shakespeare’s greatness. They were the works that put William Shakespeare not on the level of Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripides but beyond them, beyond the achievement of the Ancient Greeks.

There was some Edwardian nationalism in Bradley’s boosting of Shakespeare, but A. C. Bradley’s evaluation made in his Oxford lectures at the beginning of the twentieth century no more than reflected the evaluation made at the beginning of the nineteenth century by August Wilhelm Schlegel in his Viennese lectures.

Through the course of the nineteenth century, Hamlet was the tragedy revered above all others, and that may have been because of the complexity with which Shakespeare and his nineteenth-century critics worked up the complexity of Hamlet’s character. Twentieth-century critics shifted attention to King Lear seeing in it a pre-Christian, godless world prefiguring the world of World Wars.

It might be in the twenty-first century that Othello or Macbeth comes to be primus inter pares of the four  great tragedies. If it is Othello, it will be because this tragedy turns on the hatred that men bear each another on account of their race. Racial conflict working out in so many ways in the twentieth century was never finally worked out. It remains a sickness on every continent.

Othello, the Moor of Venice, is a black man. His adversary, Iago, is a white man. Othello is a general. Iago is an ensign. Iago appears to Othello to be Othello’s loyal man, but at the first opportunity Iago lets the audience know otherwise:

                I hate the Moor:
            And it is thought abroad, that 'twixt my sheets
            He has done my office: I know not if't be true;
            But I, for mere suspicion in that kind,
            Will do as if for surety. He holds me well;
            The better shall my purpose work on him.
            Cassio's a proper man: let me see now:
            To get his place and to plume up my will
            In double knavery--How, how? Let's see:-
            After some time, to abuse Othello's ear
            That he is too familiar with his wife.
            He hath a person and a smooth dispose
            To be suspected, framed to make women false.
            The Moor is of a free and open nature,
            That thinks men honest that but seem to be so,
            And will as tenderly be led by the nose
            As asses are.
            I have't. It is engender'd. Hell and night
            Must bring this monstrous birth to the world's light.

(Othello Act 1, Scene 3)

The most memorable reaction to this soliloquy is Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s. He scribbled the following note in the margin of his copy of Othello:

The last Speech, the motive-hunting of motiveless Malignity--how awful! In itself fiendish--while yet he was allowed to bear the divine image, too fiendish for his own steady View.--A being next to Devil--only not quite Devil--& this Shakespeare has attempted-- executed--without disgust, without Scandal!

The phrase ‘the motive-hunting of motiveless Malignity’ intrigued generations of Shakespeare scholars. Iago hunts about to find reasons why he should destroy Othello. He considers, accepts and denies the idea that Othello has slept with his wife. Iago then plans to involve Cassio, Othello’s lieutenant, by pretending that Cassio is sleeping with Othello’s wife. Iago does not believe any of this. Getting rid of Cassio and taking his place is no more than a pretext for destroying Othello. Iago mocks his own motives, and Coleridge concluded that Iago was motivelessly motivated to do evil.

For the twenty-first-century reader, Coleridge has missed Iago’s frank admission: ‘I hate the Moor’. Othello is a Moor, a black man. There are people who hate a black man for being a black man. Blackness motivates malignity. But Coleridge was no fool, and the argument has to be whether or not such a thing as racism can be ascribed to Jacobean thinking. Many would say not.

The evidence from Othello is conflicting. The first time that the work ‘black’ is heard in the play, Iago is telling Brabantio, the father of Desdemona:

            Even now, now, very now, an old black ram
            Is tupping your white ewe.

(Othello Act 1, Scene 1)

’The ‘white ewe’ is Desdemona. The ‘old black ram’ is Othello. Iago uses the work ‘black’ as an insult, but Othello and others use the term simply to describe the colour of Othello’s skin.  Othello’s blackness disturbs Iago, but it does not disturb the Duke of Venice or the Venetian Senate.

Every mark of honour and respect is paid to Othello. He is given charge of the Venetian army; he is heard respectfully; he is permitted to take a white woman as his wife.  In the early seventeenth century, European racism was not expressed explicitly. It was expressed tacitly through military conquest, missionary conversion and the slave trade.  The first expressions of recognizably modern racism did not appear until the late eighteenth century in America (in the works of Thomas Jefferson) and Germany (in the works of Johann Friedrich Blumenbach). Coleridge was thinking and writing as racialist science was being formulated but, if he knew about it, he does not refer to it.

In the title of the play, Othello is called ‘the Moor of Venice’. Two kinds of Moor were known in the Elizabethan and Jacobean world, the Tawny Moor and the Blackamoor; they distinguished the Arab and the African inhabitants of North Africa. Othello’s blackness and his Christianity are emphasised so he is neither an Arab nor a Muslim. Nonetheless, Othello, the Moor of Venice has attracted strong interest in the Arab world.

Khayal al-rijal (The Wiles of Men), the first Arabic adaptation of Othello, was performed in Cairo in 1898, and numerous adaptations have followed. In 1991, Othello became Atallah in Mahmud lsmai'l Jad’s reworking of the play in a festive tradition ‘concerned’ says The Oxford Companion, ‘mainly with jealousy and violence’. Arab versions of the play have focused on the ‘honour-killing’ of Desdemona, making that the pivot of its meaning. Western readings have not made honour-killing the pivot, but if Arab readings make too much of her murder, Western readings make too little. 

When Othello is translated into Arabic, Shakespeare’s language is not being translated into a close cognate language like German or even into a distant cognate language like French. Arabic is not related to English in any way that any linguist has discovered. Arabic is a member of the Afro-Asiatic language family and English is a member of the Indo-European language family. Languages evolve over time and the families have separate histories. However, though there are no linguistic evolutionary links between Arabic and English, that does not mean that they have not borrowed words from each other. From Arabic, English has taken some 2000 or more words. Arabic may well have taken more words from English.

Those 2000 loan words from Arabic are identified and analysed in Garland Cannon’s The Arabic Contributions to the English Language. The first Arabic word to enter the English language, Cannon says, was ‘myrrh’, found in an early ninth-century manuscript and imported, by way of Latin, to tell the Christmas story in English. The crusades brought many more words into English, this time the vehicle language was French, and it was not only military and everyday words that arrived. Learned words were imported, too. 

Cannon believes that the greatest intellectual debt of English to Arabic is in the language of mathematics, not in terms of numbers of word but in terms of their weight. Among them are algebra, algorithm, cipher, sine, surd, tariff, and zero. The route to English was usually through Spanish and French. Some, like ‘zero’, we all know; some like ‘surd’ – ‘the irrational root of an integer’ – are for the specialist. ‘Surd’ arrived in English in the second half of the sixteenth century. ‘Zero’ arrived in the first half of the seventeenth century.

Between 1550 and 1649, Cannon counts 318 Arabic arriving in the English language, and their great range and often high intellectual level shows the impact the Islamic world was having in Shakespeare’s century. He does not use ‘zero’ but he does use ‘cipher’ to mean the same thing: ‘To prove you a cipher’ (meaning ‘To prove you a nothing) says Moth to Amado in Love’s Labours Lost (Act 1 Scene 2).    

It is usual for one language to take words from another language for things particular to a particular world. ‘Mosque’ and ‘madrasa’, for example, are needed to talk about religion and education in the Arab world. By contrast, it is unusual for English to take words for higher learning from any languages but French, Latin and Greek. The fact that English has a significant vocabulary formed of Arabic words for astronomy, chemistry, and mathematics reflects the respect in Europe for Arab culture in the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance.

French has given English 20,000 words and Latin has given 20,000 more. By comparison with those numbers, the 2000 words that English has taken from Arabic may not seem like a lot. However, most of the world’s language have contributed no words to English. A European language like Magyar has contributed perhaps forty, maybe fifty words. By that count, Arabic’s 2000 words make it a major contributor to the English lexicon.

Like Latin or Sanskrit, Arabic is a sacred language, a language used for the expression and the spread of a religion. It is also a sacred language because believers believe it expresses the Word of God. The Voice of Allah is preserved in The Koran, and, therefore, written Arabic resists the tendency of language to evolve. Preservation in this way results in what is called the classical form of a language. In the street and the home, the language changes; in the mosque and the madrasa, it remains unchanged.

Classical Arabic, says Robert Graves, ‘admits no word of later date than Mohammed’s time.’ That would be as if English had preserved itself in the form that it takes in Beowulf, the seventh-century epic of the Anglo-Saxons:

Hwæt We Gar-Dena in gear-dagum
þeod-cyninga þrym gefrunon
hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon

Those are the opening lines of the poem, not easy reading today.  

Modern formal Arabic has had to adapt to the modern world to discuss everything from electricity to oil. Nonetheless, the underlying rigour of its sacred status does mean that, for the educated person, Arabic works as an effective means of communication in those many countries where Islam is the dominant religion. From Morocco to Indonesia, classical Arabic is an international language, a lingua franca widely used by people who do not speak each other’s tongues.

Along with Othello, the Arab world has also had a particular love of Romeo and Juliet and of Hamlet. As these plays were translated into Arabic towards the end of the nineteenth century, Shakespeare began to be seen as one who voiced Arab thought and worldview. The impulse that had led Germans to think that Shakespeare was a German was repeated in the Arab world. Originally, says Professor Margaret Litvin, Director of Middle East & North Africa Studies at Boston University, it was repeated as a joke but more than once it has been repeated as a serious proposition.

In 1989, Colonel Qaddafi declared that a sixteenth-century Arab sheik, Zubayr bin William, was the true Shakespeare. National and ethnic adoption of Shakespeare is only a more extreme example of the personal, professional and class identifications that were set in motion by Delia Bacon’s belief that Shakespeare must have been her ancestor Sir Francis Bacon. Her fantasy set in train a succession of lawyers claiming that Shakespeare was a lawyer, of sailors claiming he was a sailor, of aristocrats claiming he was an aristocrat, of women claiming he was a woman.

All of these conjectures have been fully explored on the net, and, though Shakespeare might have been any one of those persons, he could not have been all of them. It is easier to believe that William Shakespeare was a playwright of that name born in Stratford in England in 1564. Samuel Schoenbaum’s William Shakespeare: A Documentary Life shows beyond reasonable doubt that William Shakespeare of Stratford wrote the plays that were published under his name in 1623.

Nonetheless, the passionate advocacy of so many to claim Shakespeare as their own speaks powerfully of Shakespeare’s capacity to enter into the mode and mind and language of men and women of every sort and description. Perhaps the best explanation is Coleridge’s explanation. Shakespeare was ‘myriad-minded’ – ‘the greatest genius, that nature has yet produced.’

Next Month’s English Project Language: In October we shall look at A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the Japanese Language.


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