The Storms of Othello in 1613

In the opening landscape of Ben Jonson’s first Jacobean entertainment, Masque of Blackness (1605), the playwright, with the assistance of Inigo Jones, presented an artificial sea with waves that seemed to move, billow, and break, “imitating,” Jonson writes, that “orderly disorder which is common in nature.” Shakespeare offers something similar in Act 2, scene 1 of Othello, an orderly sea storm in Cyprus that leads to the disorder and destruction of the Turkish ships. This storm, unlike those in Shakespeare’s other plays, does not adversely affect the principal characters, only the Turks. The Venetians on shore watch in orderly fashion the disorder of the sea and recognize that the weather has defeated the enemy. I will argue that the tempestuous weather of late 1612 and early 1613 provided a vivid context for the court spectators who watched the King’s Men perform Othello in early 1613. Weather, leading to destruction in actuality and in the play’s fiction, also summons up recollections of the battles of Lepanto (1571) and the Spanish Armada (1588), both affected by unexpected weather, which assisted the Christians at Lepanto and the English in 1588.

Shakespeare’s main source for the play, Cinthio’s Gli Hecatommithi, does not include such a storm nor any anticipated danger on Cyprus. Shakespeare inserts the destructive storm as a way of solving an emerging narrative problem: the Turkish invasion of Cyprus, to which Othello has been sent by the Venetian Senate. The playwright would have known of the impact of weather on Lepanto probably from King James’s poem Lepanto or Richard Knolles’s recent Generall Historie of the Turkes and about the Armada in numerous recollections of the battle, such as Merlin’s speech in Prince Henry’s Barriers, prepared by Jonson and performed at court in 1610, the first entertainment for the eventual creation of Henry as Prince of Wales that year.

The fullest account of tempestuous weather in 1612-13 can be found in the anonymous The Wonders of this windie winter (London, 1613). This pamphlet of 17 pages recounts numerous storms and tempests that caused shipwrecks and destruction of land across England, ranging from October until early January. That is, the time immediately before the performance of Othello at court as part of the dramatic entertainments leading to the wedding of Princess Elizabeth and Prince Frederick on 14 February. The boisterous entertainments on the Thames immediately before the wedding also provoke images of storm and recollections of both Lepanto and the Armada. The title page of the anonymous document characterizes the weather: “The like by Sea and Land, hath not beene seene, nor heard of in this age of the World.” Quite a claim, but hard to dispute, given the evidence presented. John Webster in A Monumental Columne, an elegy written in memory of Prince Henry, seizes upon the violent weather to create a metaphor for his death.

Thus, the Jacobean court, watching the performance of Othello in 1613 would have known first-hand from recent experience the horrendous potential effects of tempestuous weather. As the Venetians, with the help of weather, defeat the Turks, these spectators could have recalled past examples of the impact of weather on military exploits. Shakespeare’s fiction underscores the orderly disorder function of nature.

David M. Bergeron (University of Kansas) 

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