Critics have become increasingly sensitive to the political implications of Othello’s Venetian setting, often linking the play to Gasparo Contarini’s seminal account of Venice’s republican constitution. However, such criticism has not sufficiently reckoned with the fact that Contarini is taking a strong position in an intrarepublican debate over the relative merits of societies defended by citizen-soldiers and those (such as Venice) defended by mercenary professionals (such as Othello). In this sense, Othello criticism has implicitly replicated Venice’s formal sundering of political and military spheres but without any of the self-consciousness that characterizes its treatment in Renaissance republican thought and, I claim, in Shakespeare’s play. Othello does not depict Venice’s failure so much as it counts the cost of its having succeeded on its own terms: the tragedy leaves the city serene and unperturbed, but only because it has so completely severed the ligatures connecting the soldier’s actions to the mode of political life he is engaged to protect. I argue for reading the play in terms of the habitual sixteenth-century opposition between circumscribed, inviolable, disarmed Venice and the expansive, dynamic, militarized republic of Rome. This, I propose, offers a new way of contextualizing not only the play’s racial politics of inclusion and exclusion but also the epistemological crisis that overtakes Othello’s marriage, understood here as a confrontation between the two republics’ antithetical, and strongly gendered, kinds of virtue.


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pp. 137-166
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