Haremization of Desdemona: A Comparative Study of Shakespeare's Othello in the Ottoman Context

Tulin Ece Tosun, Purdue University


My dissertation takes a comparative approach by setting Shakespeare's Othello within the context of Ottoman history and the Ottoman harem to represent current Middle Eastern trends in the field of Comparative Literature. I argue that Othello paints a portrait of stereotypical Muslim characteristics drawn from the travel narratives of Richard Hakluyt, Richard Knolles, and Paul Rycaut. I use these travel narratives to identify cross-cultural relationships, comparisons, interactions, and psychology. In my final chapter, I argue that from a certain perspective, Othello is a Turk because Shakespeare turns the citadel in Cyprus into a harem. The word harem, stemming from the Arabic root h-r-m, does, in fact, mean "sacred" or "forbidden" (Sancar 44). Unlike Christian women, Muslim and non-Muslim women were supposed to live in harem. The citadel in Cyprus becomes, in effect, Othello's harem for Desdemona. In medieval epics, as we shall see, Muslim women are represented contradictorily. They are expected to be submissive yet they are often represented as uncontrollable trouble makers. The ideal woman is the one who does not interfere in men's space and who is not involved with any manly activities. She is the one who knows where to stand and protect her private sphere. In Othello, this contradiction centers on the Cyprus citadel. My thesis is that Desdemona's activities on behalf of Cassio contradict Othello's mental image of the haremlik, where a husband lives with his wife (and children). By focusing on geographical regions and highlighting Othello's Turkishness and Desdemona's haremlik life in the citadel of Cyprus, my dissertation opens up a dialogue across national, religious, and gender boundaries.




Ross, Purdue University.

Subject Area

Comparative literature|Middle Eastern history|Theater|British and Irish literature

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