Friday, July 14, 1989

Othello’s Cyprus

Written in 1989 for Travel & Leisure magazine

"History in this island," wrote Robert Byron in 1937, "is almost too profuse. It gives one a sort of mental indigestion." And recent history—the 1974 division of the island into south (Greek) Cyprus and north (Turkish) Cyprus—is incomprehensible unless you have spent time there. (My family has kept a house in on the northern coast for nearly three decades.) As in most Levantine disputes, the outsider finds his feet sinking rapidly in complex explanations. Better to walk through the past, which is Cyprus's treasure and glory.

Few islands ride so firmly the twin tides of mythology and history. Aphrodite slipped from the sea near here, and her bed has rarely been cold. The island has been Cypriot, Persian, Roman, Byzantine, Lusignan, Venetian, Turkish, and British. Now it is Cypriot once again, which is to say divided. Until this century the island’s wealth came from copper—the word comes from Cyprus. In 1191, Richard the Lionhearted conquered and married not far from where I take my coffee every evening; a thousand years earlier, Antony presented this island to Cleopatra.

These are facts. A better story is that during Venetian days, according to Shakespeare, Othello the Moor strangled his lovely Desdemona just up the coast.

The play's principal setting, "a seaport in Cyprus" can only be Famagusta, in what is now Turkish Cyprus. During the three centuries of the Lusignans (a dynasty of French Crusaders), Famagusta had become one of the wealthiest towns in the world, prospering in the wily hands of competitive Genoan and Venetian traders. It probably resembled somewhat, in character, the Beirut of two decades ago, a little too knowing for its own good. (One wealthy merchant ground up jewels to use as a powdered spice at his dinner table.) In the 14th and 15th centuries it was the only safe, deep harbor that remained Christian in the Levant, and it got rich selling the East to the West.

Under the brief Venetian rule, from 1489 until the Ottoman invasion of 1570, Famagusta became the island’s capital. In the play Shakespeare aptly conveyed the military nature of the Venetian domination which brought the island to a rapid decline, abetted afterward by the Turks.

A visitor today finds a magnificent jumble of medieval ruins within, in Colin Thubron's words, Famagusta's "formidable and perfect heart. More complete than Istanbul or Antioch, stronger than Fez, Jerusalem or even Avila, this prince of walled cities dominates the port and on its landward sides, where the bastions go muscling into the meat its ramparts lift more than fifty feet from the living rock." (During British rule—like the Venetian, eight-two years, 1878-1960—a 1930s guidebook depicts golf played "over the ramparts," though the course demanded "an accuracy of direction which makes up for the comparative shortness of the holes.")

As in Shakespeare's tragedy, the old walled city still has the feel of a defensive environment; in places the walls are twenty-seven feet thick, with occasional cannonballs embedded from the Ottoman siege that lasted six months and ended in the Venetian garrison's annihilation.

The bridge through the Land Gate passes over a moat that follows the walls. These were the early days of cannon and sturdy, round towers. Ports like Famagusta (or Kyrenia, up the coast) were virtually seaside castles, defended from naval attack by great chains slung across the harbor mouth. Entering Famagusta through the Land Gate, you enter the mentality of that age, the fear of invasion while living in a walled city. The tragedy of the jealous Moor, commander of Venetian forces on the island, is pervaded by fear of the enemy getting in, and of course the enemy does get in—the enemy who's a friend, who has already entered, who is already intimately within, in the form of Iago.

Before approaching Famagusta from the point of view of the play, one should keep in mind that Shakespeare was writing about very recent history, since the tragedy dates from 1604. Its portrait of the Venetian and Turkish struggle for control of the Mediterranean stands up, and an unanswerable question is how Shakespeare got this aspect so right. One of the late plays, it is as rooted in place and politics as Shakespeare's English histories, but probably much more accurate. The difference here is that the physical setting (which Shakespeare never visited) has survived. The true setting of the play is not just Famagusta but a siege—or a besieged—mentality.

A first impression on entering Famagusta is that time has braked here somewhere around 1930 and, a few steps later, around 1530, and a few steps after that, around 1230. Narrow streets of modest stone houses give way suddenly to a square with the ruins of a dozen churches jumbling the view: Orthodox, Carmelite, Armenian, Nestorian basilicas, chapels side-by-side of the Knights Templar and Hospitaller, Latin and Franciscan shrines, all the bickering Christian orders from centuries ago, sometimes in hybrid Gothic Byzantine style, many ruined and half-rising, half-toppling hundreds of feet above the commanding walls. Because the old walled part of Famagusta was occupied in this century almost exclusively by Turkish—rather than Greek—Cypriots, its nature has probably changed less than anywhere else on the entire island.

As H. V. Morton, following the steps of St. Paul (a Cypriot) wrote, "Medieval Famagusta is one of the most remarkable ruins in the world, and it could be made one of the wonders of the world by one millionaire in search of immortality." Sadly, much of the damage came about in the mid-19th century when the Victorian builders of Port Said darted across the Mediterranean to lug back the stones of entire churches to build their wharves and hotels.

Dominating the square is the magnificent Cathedral of St. Nicholas, probably the greatest Gothic (14th century, French) building in the Mediterranean. Though it is used now, since Ottoman times, as a mosque, outside this is visible only via the tiny minaret crowding one high corner.

An odd historical footnote: knowing that the Greeks believed that Aphrodite died on Cyprus, the academic-minded Venetians unearthed a Roman sarcophagus and declared it to be that of the goddess herself, whom they believed to have been an actual ruler of the island. The so-called Tomb of Venus was placed in front of the cathedral, where it stayed until 1878 when the British put their dead high commissioner inside and moved it to an Orthodox cemetery.

A brief walk seaward leads to the massive walls that still defend the city. These walls, originally Lusignan, were widened and fortified by the Venetians. The carved stone lion and lion cub that guard the Sea Gate are pre-Venetian, and used to be credited by the locals with miraculous powers. The Sea Gate, with its raisable portcullis, is a masterpiece of military engineering that may owe something to Leonardo Da Vinci's visit to Cyprus in 1481. And, following the walls, one comes to the passage into the Venetian Citadel ("Othello's Tower") and the world of the play.

The principal character is Shakespeare's invention, but the play was set amid true historical events, and the Citadel was the military quarters of the Venetian Empire in Cyprus—the setting of the tragedy. The carved marble plaque above the entrance to the tower shows the winged Venetian lion of St. Mark, an image which is probably the most surviving aspect of Venetian rule. It still turns up on local carved chests.

This is probably the moment when the gatekeeper with the key to Othello's Tower, who has been negligently drinking coffee across the road, will come running up apologetically, let you in, and offer to show you the very room where Desdemona was strangled. It is perhaps worth paying a tip to hear the story returned to a word-of-mouth tale by someone who has probably never read it or seen it performed, since it might thus resemble its original form.

You enter the Citadel via a grassy courtyard piled with Ottoman and Venetian cannonballs and several old cannon lying this way and that. (King Lear was performed here a few years ago—mysterious choice.) The Citadel itself is a fortress of exposed stone staircases running everywhere, rather like the many anxious levels of the play, the soldierly quarrels and furtive messages. Unusually for Shakespeare, there are few scenes with more than two or three participants; it is action of an enclosed, claustrophobic impulse. Architecturally it would sit well here in the small rooms, the narrow staircases.

Othello: I shall not dine at home.
I meet the Captains at the Citadel.

The question arises, naturally, of where Shakespeare got the figure of Othello. The plot, or its bones, were lifted from a superficial version of the tale by an Italian writer name Cinthio, who names none of his characters save Desdemona. The Othello character is peanuts, a captain—not the general of Cyprus—but still a Moor. This begs the question of whether there was an actual, living inspiration for Othello via Cinthio.

There are two theories generally cited. One centers around Cristoforo Moro, a Venetian governor on Cyprus who in 1506 lost his wife just before leaving the island. This theory supposes that Shakespeare mistook the man's name to mean "the Moor," and is most satisfying to the notion that "black Othello" need not be dark-skinned. But Cristoforo Moro wasn't arrested, and apparently had nothing to do with his wife's death.

Recently another candidate has come to light, a professional soldier named Francesco de Sessa who was known familiarly as "Il Capitano Moro." He was neither Moorish nor African, but apparently very swarthy, thus the nickname. He remains a more likely candidate, perhaps, since he was not only a captain but also got arrested for some crime or other while on Cyprus in the Venetian Army.

It is possible, of course, that Cinthio knew of both men. Or got them confused.

In any case, Othello as we know him is Shakespeare's invention, and the master stroke of Shakespeare was to place this man wracked with jealousy and doubts in a tenuous military situation ("The Turk with a most mighty preparation makes for Cyprus.").

Mounting the walls brings the sea-world of the play into focus: the enclosed city seen from above, the sea which represented riches and great danger everywhere around.

For do but stand upon the foaming shore,
The chidden billow seems to pelt the clouds. . . .

The lesson of Famagusta's walls, its Citadel, its winged lions, is that it is indeed very distant from Shakespeare, or Shakespeare as we have come to know him. To us Shakespeare represents rarefied thought: a supple, muscular language in a theatrical world of sumptuous decor and gestures. What remains of Venetian Famagusta is far from that; any echoes of Shakespeare here are mostly our imagination. The walled medieval fortress still protects the half-ruined town, but seen from the ramparts of "Othello's Tower," it is a military bastion, obsessive in purpose, a place where thousands of men died bloodily, the very edge of the European Mediterranean and the beginning of the Middle Eastern Med. Its tone is almost anti-Shakespeare in terms of how we conceive of the poet. Yet this was a world closer to Shakespeare than our own; the play is saturated in subtle political and geographical thought.

The answer is not a production of the play in this Citadel, but a transportation of the Citadel's severity to a production of the play. We need to put aside any genteel ideas about what the settings and the atmospheres of our greatest playwright “ought” to suggest. Not in the name of historical exactitude—which is unnecessary—but to give life to a real world into which Shakespeare's imaginary world locks again and again. Otherwise, as Gratiano puts it near the end of the tragedy,

All that's spoke is marred.

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