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Othello's Island 2015

at the Severis Foundation • Nicosia • Cyprus


Speaker: Dr. Lieke Stelling (University of Leiden, The Netherlands)

Title: "Tragic Success: Othello´s Assimilation into Venice"




While Othello (1604) lacks any religious conversions, it is a fine example of a conversion play. Othello suggests in several ways that its titular hero was not born a Christian but baptized before the action of the play begins, and thus presents Othello as a convert. Virtually all research into this topic, however, departs from the understandings of Othello as a former Muslim and Othello as a “Turk Play.” In this paper I will demonstrate that Othello’s conversion has a much wider significance. Othello is the only play in early modern English drama that revolves entirely around the fortunes of a character after his adoption of a new religious identity, regardless of specific religions.


The play thus offers answers to the questions raised by the interfaith conversion plays of the period, which refrain from depicting the new Christian identity of stage converts or their entrance into their new religious society. Examples are Robert Greene’s Selimus (1592), The Merchant of Venice (1596), Robert Daborne’s A Christian Turned Turk (1610) and Thomas Dekker and Philip Massinger’s The Virgin Martyr (1620). Providing an analysis of the play in a broad context of conversion theatre, this paper argues that Othello’s downfall is not so much the result of his racial or perceived religious difference, or, indeed Venetian xenophobia itself, but the tragic consequence of his success as a convert who fully adopts and internalizes Venetian understandings of religious identity as an inherent and inalienable part of the self.





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