William Shakespeare and terrorism seem like an odd combination. Yet, Shakespeare uses the threat of Turkish terrorism and Islamic conversion in nearly half his plays. Mention of “infidels” (King Richard III), “Mahomet” (King Henry VI—Part One), and “Turks” or “Turkish” (Hamlet, Othello) alerted audiences to the fearful advance of the Ottoman Empire in the 16th and 17th centuries.
Shakespeare’s Othello represents terrorist tensions that inspire theatergoers with fear and anxiety. Othello, a converted Moor, offers the provocative image of African native enslaved to Christian society—first Venice, and then Cyprus. Reminders of Othello’s racial “difference” underscore his original Muslim identity. Seeds of doubt sprout early about Othello’s acceptance in European society and Desdemona’s trustworthiness following her elopement. From tiny seeds will spring nettles and thorns to shred the couple’s delicate marriage.
Othello’s character is overshadowed by fears of who he really is and what he might become—a fear bred of his conversion to Christianity with the implication that he could return to Islam. Although the imminent Turkish naval invasion floats against the backdrop of the plot as a threat of war and conquest, that threat fails to materialize, buoyed, as it were, on the watery seas where a storm dismantles the fleet.
The conflict between East and West, Muslim and Christian, and man and wife underscore the human and yet foreign powers at play in this drama. Othello’s dualistic character is emphasized from the beginning. Although a general in charge of the Venetian navy and married to a senator’s daughter, Othello is mocked in barnyard language by Iago, his ensign. He is identified by race more often than by his name—“the Moor” versus “Othello.” And he is associated with magic as opposed to Christianity, when Brabantio accuses him of casting spells to win Desdemona’s love. We are maneuvered to view Othello with suspicion as a source of danger. Desdemona’s youth and innocence further contrast with Othello’s aged, dark features, stirring controversy. With such a net as this Shakespeare catches all in his trap of prejudice.
The real antagonist is Iago, master of deception and manipulation. Owing, as he believes, a grudge toward Othello for promoting Cassio, the ensign lays a trap of deceit that will ensnare everyone’s weaknesses to ensure their destruction. Iago is the true terrorist in this play, but being a Venetian, he escapes suspicion until the final revelations. He sets general against officer, husband against wife, and Christians against a Moor turned Turk. Othello accepts Iago’s lies about Desdemona’s alleged adultery with Cassio.
Finally, Othello turns Turk – a common expression in Shakespeare’s day – in performing an honor killing to punish Desdemona. Shocked to learn moments later of her innocence, Othello resumes his Christian identity to judge and execute himself, paying for her life with his.
Does Othello’s misguided sense of justice represent today’s terrorists? Those who shift identities and use violence to control others are terrorists. Othello’s correlation of Shakespeare and terrorism offers insight to 21st century readers grappling with the classic meaning of “terrorism.”