THE OUTER LIMITS OF THE WORLD OF OTHELLO are defined by the Turks—the infidels, the unbelievers, the ‘general enemy’. They are just over the horizon, ready to trick and confuse Christians in order to invade their territory and destroy them.
Out beyond the horizon, reported but unseen, are also those ‘anters vast and deserts ide’ of which Othello speaks. Out there is a land of ‘rough quarries, rocks, and hills whose heads touch heaven’ inhabited by ‘cannibals that each other eat’ and monstrous forms of men ‘whose heads grow beneath their shoulders.’ On the edges of this land is the raging ocean with its ‘high seas, and howling winds’, its ‘guttered rocks and congregated sands’ hidden beneath the waters to ‘enclog the guiltless keel’.
Within the circle formed by barbarism, monstrosity, sterility and the brute power of nature lie the two Christian strongholds of Venice and Cyprus.
Renaissance Venice was known for its wealth acquired by trade, its political cunning, and its courtesans; but Shakespeare makes Venice over into the form of The City, the ageless image of government, of reason, of law, and of social concord. The solemn presence and ordering power of the Senate is the most powerful of all.
So, in summary…
At the far edge of the world of Othello are the Turks—barbarism, disorder, amoral destructive powers.
VENICE, THE CITY
Closer, more familiar, is Venice, The City—order, law and reason. (Iago’s attempts to create civic chaos are frustrated by Othello’s calm management of himself and the orderly legal proceedings of the Senate.)
Standing on the frontier between barbarism and The City, is Cyprus—an outpost, weakly defended and far out in the raging ocean, close to the ‘general enemy’. (Society is less secure than Venice—the island is more exposed to the Turks—and Othello alone is responsible for finding truth and maintaining order.)
MOVEMENT OF THE PLAY
From Venice to Cyprus, from The City to the outpost, from organised society to a condition much closer to raw nature, from collective life to the life of the solitary individual.
At the end of the play the movement is back towards Venice, the Turk defeated; but Desdemona, Othello, Emilia and Roderigo do not returen. Their deaths are the price paid for the return.