“The Tragedy of Othello and the Whore of Venice…”

Another lost Shakespeare play?

This is an interesting title. The first thing it reveals is that the student never actually set eyes on the play. Back in my own student days, I confess, I didn’t read every word of every assignment, and on several occasions I went into class with a book that looked read only because I had carefully thumbed the pages, dog-eared a few, and broken the spine before rushing to class. But—and I don’t say this with any particular pride, it’s just a fact—I always knew the title of the assigned piece. The student writing on Othello here has more in common with his schoolmate who wrote a critical paper on The Twelfth Knight than he has with the sometimes-under-prepared me.

So, chalk it up to trying to write a paper based on things heard (or mis-heard) in class.

Now, as to that whore. As you may or may not remember, depending on what you majored in and how long ago it was, the full title of the play we refer to as Othello is The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice.

“Moor” may be an unfamiliar term to modern students; those who read a little Brontë in high school may think of the landscape feature even if, like Emily Dickinson, they never actually saw one of those moors. Unless they’ve studied medieval European history they may not have a clear idea of the Moors, those dark-skinned Arabs who conquered parts of Europe and terrified everybody with their fierce battle skills, horsemanship, non-latinate language, ornately wailing music, and exotic architecture (Spain, anyone?). Othello, the Moor of Venice, is referred to as one of them, not a landscape feature. But, because when we hear an unfamiliar word we are likely to “hear” instead a word in our own vocabulary that sounds like it, I assume that the word “moor” in any sense was new to this student…

And so he heard “whore.” Now, not all of us pronounce “whore” to sound like, or rhyme with, “Moor,” but some of us do: “Whoo-uh,” in Brooklynese, for example, and “whoor” possibly among those too fastidious or virtuous to speak the word “whore.” So “Whore” gets into the title of the play.

Music groups today aren’t so fond of putting “and the” in their names, but in My Day it was a commonplace: Little Anthony and the Imperials, Paul Revere and the Raiders, Bill Haley and the Comets, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, Diana Ross and the Supremes, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Booker T. and the MGs, Gerry and the Pacemakers, Sly and the Family Stone, Country Joe and the Fish (I know my point was made long before I ended this list, but I thought you and I deserved a little trip down Memory Lane…). In grad school we made up fantasy ones: Diggory Venn and the Reddle Men stands out as one of the best, with Juno and the Paycocks and Leda and the Swans coming up close behind. If my student had any tendency toward comfort with this pattern, he might have added that “and,” making the subject of Shakespeare’s play a rock ‘n’ roll group (or at least duo).

The Whore of Venice might also have gotten in there by way of the Whore of Babylon, if my student had been hearing any anti-Catholic propaganda or studying the Book of Revelation.

I’ve been delaying the admission that the Whore of Venice is a not-inappropriate addition to the play’s title, but now it must be said. Desdemona, a young Lady of Venice, is a pure and faithful and loving wife to Othello for the brief days that she is his wife, and Othello holds fast to his belief in her until Iago manages a little dumb-show that persuades him otherwise; but Iago has been insinuating throughout the play that Desdemona is not, cannot be, faithful to “the Moor,” and when Othello kills her he has been persuaded that he is removing a whore from the world lest she “betray more men.” The play is not a tragedy for Desdemona in the sense that we use the term “tragedy” in literature, but she certainly suffers and she certainly dies. I like that my student sticks her into the title along with Othello, although he doesn’t do so very respectfully.

But I don’t like that he has the temerity to write about a play he hasn’t read, and his error in the title makes pretty plain that he hasn’t. Poor lad: if only he had been content to refer to the play as Othello, as most people do, I might never have known.

Right.

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About RAB

Teacher of English writing and literature (college-level); academic-freedom activist; editor and copy editor; theater director, costumer, actress, playwright. View all posts by RAB

7 responses to ““The Tragedy of Othello and the Whore of Venice…”

  • englishteacherconfessions

    Is there a chance he was being ironic in his title? punning?

    I know–I know. Doubtful.

    I encourage my students to have some fun/be creative with essay titles. Before they hand in their papers, we go through a sort of ritual, the first part involving a title contest. Each student reads his/her title aloud and we choose the best. The Whore of Venice would have been a finalist!

  • RAB

    Oh, I wish. But this is the way he referred to the play, not his own essay title; and the essay itself didn’t show much in the way of wit.

    I do like to imagine the best, so I will secretly hope there was intentional punning going on, despite evidence to the contrary.

  • Mary Jane Schaefer

    “I cry you mercy, then. I took you for that cunning whore of Venice who married with Othello.” Could that quote have been in Cliff Notes, or whatever they’re called now, and hit your student as his chance to prove he HAD read the play?

    When I was a grader, lo these many years ago, for Michael Goldman’s excellent course in Shakespeare at Queens College, I had the ecstatic misfortune to grade an essay on “the haunting dogs” in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Misty moor included! (“Nay, then, Theseus, ’twas the shape of a phantasmagorical hound!”) All the question asked about was the music the hunting dogs made, guys.

  • Pat Skene

    I do enjoy your posts. And I find myself thinking of your blog when I bump into phrases like the one in today’s paper.
    Headline: “Yemen death toll of 2000 dwarfs rights groups estimates.” Amazing what a simple little coma would have done to clarify this statement. Gave me a good laugh though.

  • Katrina Clinton

    Funny, you had me fooled, too. I thought you read every assignment thoroughly. I thought you were the model student at Dickinson. Oh – oh, the pedestal is crumbling.
    Love, Casey Clinton

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