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Articles Written For:


The University of Oxford's Bodleian Library & The Royal Shakespeare Company


Most Popular Posts:


1. Shakespeare's Shylock SOLVED 2. Shakespeare's Othello Finally Identified 3. Shakespeare In Love Sequel SOLVED 4. The Real Romeo and Juliet 5. Shakespeare's Schoolroom

Friday, March 1, 2013

Othello is Otho is King James



I am very excited to share with you a discovery I made.

This discovery not only changes our understanding of one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays, but it also deepens our understanding of who Shakespeare really was.


Othello


Most of Shakespeare’s plays were based on older stories, with character names that had already been established.

When he wrote his Hamlet play, he modeled it after an older story called “Amleth." The name Amleth is interchangeable with the name Hamlet. When he wrote Macbeth, he based it on a well-known story of “Macbeth” found in Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles.

When Shakespeare wrote the play The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice there was no Othello yet. 

The name “Othello” did not exist, and there was no precedent in history or literature for this name. 

Shakespeare’s primary source for his play -- about a soldier who is betrayed by his ensign into thinking that his wife is unfaithful, and then kills her -- was the story Un Capitano Moro  (“A Moorish Captain”) by an Italian writer named Cinthio.

Desdemona and Othello

Therefore, Shakespeare had a rare opportunity to invent the name of the character for the character of the Moorish captain. Shakespeare chose the name Othello.

He also invented the name Iago, for the evil ensign. The wife was Desdemona, a name which came from Cinthio’s story.

But why did Shakespeare choose the name Othello? Where did it come from? Was there a real Othello? 

I have discovered that Shakespeare’s Othello character is based on the Roman emperor Marcus Salvius Otho Caesar Augustus, whose cognomen (nickname) is Otho.

Otho was friends with Emperor Nero. 

Nero stole Otho’s wife, Poppea Sabina, and sent Otho away to serve in a distant Roman province. 

Not long after, Nero killed Poppea. 

Nero later committed suicide, when an insurrection was building against him.

Nero was succeeded by Galba, a former governor of a Spanish province, whom Otho had supported against Nero. 

Otho immediately plotted against Emperor Galba, who only ruled for 9 months. 

Otho had Galba killed. Then Otho became Emperor.

Otho was challenged by a military commander named Vitellius. There was a series of battles between them.

Otho decided to kill himself to prevent a civil war. 

He had been emperor for only 3 months.

Vitellius succeeded Otho, and only ruled for 8 months. Vitellius was succeeded by Vespasian, who only ruled for less than one year.

This tumultuous period in Roman history is known as the Year of the Four Emperors.

Emperor Otho


CONNECTIONS BETWEEN OTHO AND OTHELLO:


1. Infidelity:

Otho’s beautiful wife Poppea Sabina was stolen from him by Emperor Nero, who eventually killed her.

Shakespeare’s Othello character fears that his beautiful wife Desdemona has been unfaithful, and after his mind is poisoned with jealousy against her, he kills Desdemona. 


2. Nero:

Emperor Nero killed Otho’s wife Poppea. 

“Nero” is the Italian word for “black.”

Shakespeare’s Othello, commonly believed to be black, kills Desdemona.

In the context of Shakespeare’s play, “black” does not necessarily have a racial meaning. 

For example, Othello speaks of taking “black vengeance” against Desdemona.

Shakespeare may very well be using the race of the Othello character symbolically.


3. Suicide:

Otho committed suicide to prevent a civil war.

Othello commits suicide when he learns the truth of Desdemona’s innocence.


4. A noble suicide:

Otho killed himself with a knife. His suicide was considered a honourable and noble solution to the brewing war, and it was celebrated as such.

Othello kills himself with a knife. He was a noble and valiant soldier, and even after his suicide, Cassio says of him: “he was great of heart.”


These connections between Otho and Othello may seem superficial. They are. 

In writing this Othello play, Shakespeare had no interest in telling the story of an ancient Roman Emperor.

The connection between Otho and Othello served to make a connection to King James.

Shakespeare’s purpose in writing his Othello play was to paint a portrait of King James.

When James claimed the throne of England in 1603, he promoted Shakespeare and his fellow actors, who were the most popular acting company at the time. They became the King’s Men -- the official court players for the king.

Shakespeare was not just writing his Othello play for King James, but rather he wrote the play about King James.

It is important to know that the play’s first recorded performance was 1 November, 1604. It was performed in the Palace of Whitehall, in the Banqueting House, for the king himself.

This was 20 months after James became king.


King James


CONNECTIONS BETWEEN OTHO AND KING JAMES:


1. Lepanto:

Shakespeare used another source for his Othello play -- an epic poem entitled Lepanto. It told the story of the Battle of Lepanto (in Greece) where a Catholic Christian naval force defeated an invading Turkish fleet.

Shakespeare’s character Othello commands an army against an invading Turkish fleet.

Lepanto was written by King James himself.


2. Physical deformity:

Otho was “splay-footed and bandy-legged.” 

James suffered from rickets as a child. It made his steps uneven, and he had one foot turned permanently outwards. 


3. Sexuality:

Otho was described as “almost feminine in his care of his person” and had several sexual relationships with men.

James was effeminate, and is thought to have had sexual relationships with men, such as Esme Stuart Sieur d’Aubigny, Robert Carr, and George Villiers.


4. Beaten as a child:

When Otho was a boy, he was often flogged by his father.

Henry Stuart, James’s father, was killed not long after he was born. James had a tutor, George Buchanan, whose strict teaching method included physical abuse.


5. Extravagance:

Otho is described as “extravagant and reckless.” 

James’s extravagances and spending as king are infamous, he abused an already depleted royal treasury, and he fought frequently with his Parliament about finances.


6. Leadership:

Otho promised to govern equitably, and bring peace to the empire. 

King James promised to govern equitably, and bring peace and toleration between religious factions in the country.


7. Clemency:

As soon as Otho became emperor, he faced very strong opposition, and showed clemency to former supporters of Galba.

As soon as James became king, he faced very strong opposition, but showed little to no clemency towards those who were faithful to Queen Elizabeth. 

For example, King James foiled two plots against his life, the Bye and Main plots of 1603. 

One of Queen Elizabeth’s most famous courtiers, Sir Walter Raleigh, was implicated in the Main plot. He was tried and sentenced to death. His actual execution was delayed until 1616.


8. Civil War:

Otho’s peace was short-lived. He could not find a solution to the growing civil war, which did turn violent. 

During one incident, according to Suetonius: “then on a sudden all the soldiers hastened to the Palace without any particular leader, demanding the death of the senators.” Many people were killed.

King James’s greatest ambition was to unite England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales into a Great Britain. But he was met with fierce opposition, especially in Parliament. 

The religious and political turmoil resulted in the Gunpowder Plot on November 5, 1605. Conspirators attempted to blow up the houses of Parliament, and murder James, his family and as many people in his government as possible.

This Gunpowder Plot could very well have ignited a civil war. It did not, but the seeds of such a war were sown at this time. 

King James’s son Charles, who succeeded his father as king, did lead the country into a civil war in 1642, which lasted until 1651. King Charles was the first English king executed for treason by his parliament.


9. Suicide:

Otho killed himself to stop a civil war. He was 38 years old.

James seemed to ignore the growing problems in England, which could have turned into a war. In 1607, there was even a revolt in the Midlands, and a rebellion in Newton.

King James was 38 years old in 1604, the year Shakespeare wrote and performed Othello for him.


10. “Sheer Grief”:

When the news of Otho’s suicide spread, many of his soldiers killed themselves from “sheer grief.”

If James had died in 1604, it is hard to imagine that any of his courtiers or soldiers would have killed themselves.

This contrast would have been understood by King James, Shakespeare and their contemporaries.

In fact, there was a prejudice against King James, and the Scottish in general. They considered the Scots people to be "alien, dangerous and uncivilised."

These are words which could well describe a Moorish General who marries the daughter of a proud senator of Venice.



SHAKESPEARE’S SOURCES


Where did Shakespeare learn about Otho?


1. Plutarch:

Shakespeare read Sir Thomas North’s translation of the Greek historian Plutarch’s writings, which included the story of Otho

In fact, there was a third edition of the book in 1603.

Since the first recorded performance of Othello was on 1 November 1604, it would follow that Shakespeare may have seen the latest edition and used it as a source for his new play.

North’s translation of Plutarch also served as Shakespeare’s source for Julius Caesar, Coriolanus and Antony and Cleopatra.


2. The Mirror for Magistrates:

The Mirror for Magistrates was a very popular and widely read compendium of English poems by different writers, with editions released from 1559 to 1621. 

Each edition included stories and lives of famous historical figures such as King Richard II, Cordila (Cordelia), Julius Caesar among others.


2a. Otho: 

The Mirror for Magistrates edition from 1587 includes a poem about Otho.


2b. Iago:

The same 1587 edition includes an entry for Jago, or Iago (which in English is James) who was a mythical British King, according to Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain.

In The Mirror for Magistrates, Iago’s “life and government” were “vile.”

Why did Shakespeare represent King James as both the Othello character and the Iago character? I explore this question in my forthcoming version of Othello.


3. The Tale of Gamelyn:

The romance story The Tale of Gamelyn, written anonymously in circa 1350, was included in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, following the unfinished Cook’s Tale.

Shakespeare based his play As You Like It on a prose romance Rosalynde, written by Thomas Lodge, which was based on The Tale of Gamelyn.

The tale is about Gamelyn, the youngest of three sons who has to struggle to claim his share of land which his father had wanted to divide among his three sons.

Gamelyn is the protagonist. The oldest brother, Johan is the antagonist.

The middle brother, who helps Gamelyn, is named Otho.


There does not seem to be much relevance between the Otho of this tale and Shakespeare’s Othello play. 

However, it is clear that Shakespeare had this tale in mind when he wrote his King Lear play, which was yet another play written for the entertainment of King James.

King James, the real Othello


In conclusion, it is clear that Shakespeare invented the name Othello -- which has no precedent in history or literature -- to make a connection to the Roman Emperor Otho, and Otho has a clear connection to King James.

Shakespeare wrote the play not only for but about the king. 

As important as this discovery is, it is even more significant because it gives us a deeper understanding of Shakespeare’s raison d’etre, his reason for being.

Shakespeare was writing about King James. But the fact that he did this, and what he wrote in the play gives us a very unique understanding of the real Shakespeare. 

This discovery also serves as proof that Shakespeare did not write his plays divorced from the time and place in which he wrote. He was a product of Elizabethan London, and he did not write his plays as mere entertainment.

He was writing about his life and times, and if this Othello discovery is any indication, there is much more to be found in his plays that serve as commentary on the tumultuous social, political and religious changes he witnessed.

I am currently writing a new version of Othello, which explores all of these matters and gives more answers to the questions raised by this discovery.


What was Shakespeare really like?


On a personal note, I am inspired by the work of Stephen Greenblatt, James Shapiro, Stanley Wells, Germaine Greer, Samuel Schoenbaum, Jonathan Bate, J. Dover Wilson, Harold Bloom and many others whose books have taught me so much about Shakespeare. 

I hope that this discovery will inspire more people to learn more about not just Shakespeare’s plays and poetry, but also his life and times.



WHY?

Why did Shakespeare make a connection between Othello to Otho to James?

The answers are found in the history of the reign of King James, and his playwright William Shakespeare.

I am not a scholar. I am a writer, an artist. I write stories about Shakespeare, from his point of view, which try to make sense of his life and his art. 

I have written three versions of Shakespeare’s plays, which solve them for the first time by setting them in their original historical context. I present the plays as they would have been first performed, by Shakespeare himself and his company of actors. 

I have come to know that the only way to understand Shakespeare's plays is to try and understand his original audience in Elizabeth London -- the laborers, the merchants, the courtiers, and all the rest.

My versions of the plays puts us in the middle of this audience. When they laugh at what's funny, cry at what's sad, and heckle the actors, we the modern audience get a much better understanding of what the plays were really like. 

It is a fact that Shakespeare did not write his plays for us, and he would have had no idea that we would still be reading and performing his plays today. He wrote his plays for his audience. When we understand that audience, we understand Shakespeare.

"Shakespeare's Theatre" by Gustav Klimt

The Elizabethan theatres were very lively places

With this approach, I wrote my versions of his Hamlet, Richard III and The Merchant of Venice.

In my version of Hamlet, I solved the mysteries surrounding the play for the first time -- including who Hamlet really was, and when exactly the play was first performed. In my version of Richard III, I solved the play’s meaning for the first time, and show it to be his first great masterpiece, and it’s much funnier than you might think. In my version of The Merchant of Venice, I proved that the play is actually a bawdy farce, and that Shylock is not the villain but in fact the hero of the play.

Shakespeare was not a scholar, but an author of plays -- dialogue and action -- for performance on the stage.

My versions of his plays are written in a screenplay format -- dialogue and action -- for performance on film. 

It is my ambition to have these new versions of his plays made into films.

Shakespeare’s actors were some of the biggest box-office draws of the Elizabethan period.

It is my ambition to have dozens of the greatest actors and actresses come together to make a series of new films about some of the greatest stories ever written, and tell the true flesh and blood story of the man who wrote them.

The more people who read this blog, and read my versions of the plays, the more likely these films will become a reality.

Together, we have the power to get them made.

That is why I am promoting my work on a blog, on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and elsewhere. 

I am thrilled that so many thousands of people -- especially teenagers, who are just learning about Shakespeare for the first time -- are eager for a new way to see Shakespeare.

If you liked this article, please share this with as many people as possible.

Thank you!


Cheers,


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