Despite twenty-first century research advances regarding the role of Islam in Shakespeare’s plays, questions remain concerning the extent of William Shakespeare’s knowledge of Muslim culture and his use of that knowledge in writing Othello
. I suggest that the playwright had access to numerous sources that informed his depiction of Othello as a man divided between Christian faith and Islamic duty, a division which resulted in the Moor’s destruction. Sharia, a code of moral and legal conduct for Muslims based on the Qur’an’s teachings, appears to be a guiding force in Othello’s ultimate quest for honor. The advance of the Ottoman Empire into Europe with the threat of conquest and forced conversion to Islam was a source of fascination and fear to Elizabethan audiences. Yet, as knowledge increased, so did tolerance to a certain degree. But the defining line between Christian and Muslim remained a firm one that could not be breached without risking the loss of personal identity and spiritual sanctity. Denizens of the Middle East and followers of the Islamic faith, as well as travel encounters between eastern and western cultures, influenced Shakespeare’s treatment of this theme. His play Othello
is possibly the only drama of this time period to feature a Moor protagonist who wavers between Christian and Muslim beliefs. To better understand the impetus for Othello’s murder of his wife, the influence of Islamic culture is considered, and in particular, the system of Sharia that governs social, political, and religious conventions of Muslim life, as well as Othello’s conflicting loyalties between Islam as the religion of his youth, and Christianity, the faith to which he had been converted. From Act I celebrating his marriage through Act V recording his death, Othello is overshadowed by fears of who he really is—uncertainty bred of his conversion to Christian faith and his potential to revert to Islamic duty. Without indicating Sharia directly, Shakespeare hints at its subtle influence as Othello struggles between two faiths and two theologies. In killing Desdemona and orchestrating Michael Cassio’s death in response to their alleged adultery, Othello obeys the Old Testament injunction for personal sanctification. But in reverting to Muslim beliefs, he attempts to follow potential Sharia influence to reclaim personal and societal honor.
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