R. M. Christofides discusses the politics of Cyprus, personal, historical and contemporary, in light of Othello. The omission of Cyprus from academic discussion of the play shows some important problems with English Literature but Christofides finds the potential for English Literature to assist us in this complex geopolitical issue.
Cyprus has unhappy recent memories of twentieth-century conflict, but division on the island goes all the way back to the sixteenth-century Cyprus Wars between the Venetians and the Ottomans. Shakespeare wrote this earlier conflict into Othello, a literary history that is rarely commented on. During the 1974 war the Cypriot people suffered ethnic cleansing and mass rape. Mass graves are still being uncovered today; missing persons are still unaccounted for. The forced division of the island in 1974 between Greek speakers and Turkish speakers persists to this day. Yet despite this, Shakespeare studies has treated the Mediterranean setting as a mere footnote to the study of Othello, while the tragic afterlife of the Cyprus Wars we find in the island’s bloody recent history has barely registered. Writing about Cyprus in relation to Othello is like uncovering a nefarious secret long hidden, a secret that reveals many fault lines in the discipline of English Literature.
To choose just one of the many striking critical omissions, one of the many instances of Cyprus kept secret, Emrys Jones considered the Cyprus Wars to be ‘very remote’ from what was on the mind of modern theatregoers in the 1960s. Let’s put Jones’s statement into some context. The war of 1974 was largely the result of unexorcised cultural and political demons that festered in the postcolonial era of Cypriot independence. Jones was writing in 1968, eight years after that independence from British rule, an independence won after a violent struggle between anti-colonial guerrillas and British colonial forces still, in those days, constituted by national servicemen. Geopolitically and on the level of everyday experience, Cyprus was on a lot of people’s minds back then, even if that concern did not register in English departments. To fail to connect the dual anxiety in Othello over the Turk invading from the sea and the secret, infiltrating Turk within with how that same dual anxiety has ripped the island to shreds since 1960 is some oversight, not just by Jones but institutionally, by Shakespeare studies as a whole. I do not look back on Jones’s words teleologically, enjoying the political gains made in literary studies as decades have passed. What is demonstrated by the occlusion of Cyprus when we talk about Othello is an example of the ongoing tendency of a predominantly Anglo-Saxon and middle-class discipline to pay lip service to difference and diversity in the form of a range of ‘isms’, yet nevertheless frequently to dismiss approaches that read Shakespeare’s plays from the ethnic, racial or religious margins.
The issue here is not only what subject matter we consider proper to a study of books and culture but how we addresses that subject matter. There has been a creeping tendency towards depoliticised and depersonalised critical writing. The result of this stultifying drive towards what I have heard described as – I kid you not – ‘descriptive criticism’ has been intellectual stagnation, a mechanisation of research that gives it less, not more, of an ‘impact’: what, after all, is the value of research in which nobody has a stake? For the sake of the discipline, to avoid its irrelevance in a landscape of reduced research funding, criticism needs to do more than just say ‘here’s what I found in a dusty corridor!’ It must interrogate, critique, theorise. Yes, theorise. Go big or go home.
So let me return to Othello and Cyprus. My father was detained and tortured by British officers in colonial Cyprus for his part in EOKA, the anti-colonial guerrilla group. EOKA, like Shakespeare’s Venetians, saw the Turks as barbarous fiends. My father would later turn full circle and, like Othello, be closely and lovingly associated with this once hated and homogenised Turk. Like Othello, my family has a mysterious provenance that acts as a cipher for a disavowed Cypriot polyculturalism that stands in opposition to the extremist forms of nationalism that brought tragedy to the island. And, like every Cypriot family, ours too was affected by the war of 1974 in lasting ways that include anxieties over ethnic identity – effects foreshadowed by Shakespeare’s unusually prescient play. The full story of historical, literary and poetic connections between Othello and Cyprus today is told in my book, Othello’s Secret: The Cyprus Problem. This story has never been more urgent, as a rare atmosphere of rapprochement has reinvigorated talks for peaceful reunification in Cyprus. It is a story that offers lovers of Shakespeare the chance to understand Othello differently and, more than that, it is a story that shows how English Literature can say something valuable and relevant about a complex geopolitical issue. It is, I hope, one small example of how the discipline can, once again, make valuable contributions to political debates. This critical force is, perhaps, Othello’s biggest secret.
The arguments of this essay can be found in full in R. M. Christofides, Othello’s Secret: The Cyprus Problem, The Arden Shakespeare (London: Bloomsbury, 2016).
R.M. Christofides is a Shakespeare scholar with interests in Cyprus and the Middle East. He is the author of Shakespeare and the Apocalypse: Visions of Doom from Early Modern Tragedy to Popular Culture (Bloomsbury) and numerous articles on the relationship between early modern culture and the present. His new book is called Othello’s Secret: The Cyprus Problem and is just out with Bloomsbury.
R.M. Chistofides’s previous HKRB Essay was on Prince and Postmodernism.
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