Saturday, 16 February 2008

Put out the light, and then put out the light

It was during the Third Crusade (1191) that Cyprus was wrested from Byzantine control – from the reprehensible rebel governor of the island, Isaac Komnenos – initiating 300 years of Lusignan (French) rule, during which Cyprus – or the Kingdom of Cyprus, as it was known – became a Western base for continuing Crusader campaigns in the Holy Land, noted for the wealth and sybaritic living of the Latin royal court and ruling class, which imposed the Western feudal system on the unhappy Greek population and persecuted the Orthodox church in favour of the alien Roman Catholic dogma.

In 1489, the exhausted Lusignan dynasty sold Cyprus to the Venetians, who turned the island into a military bastion to protect Venetian interests in the Eastern Mediterranean against the Turks and Egyptians. The Venetians squandered the island’s reputation for prosperity and continued the repression of the island’s Greek population.

From the start of Venetian rule, Cyprus was the target of Ottoman raids – the Turks attacked the Karpasia peninsula in 1489, while in 1539 the Turkish fleet attacked and destroyed Limassol.

In 1570, a full-scale Ottoman invasion of the island was mounted. The capital, Nicosia, was captured, sacked, and 20,000 Greeks and Venetians massacred; but in the port city of Famagusta, 8,000 Greek and Venetian defenders, under the leadership of Marcantonio Bragadino, held out against the 60,000 besieging Turks for nine months, until August 1571, when Bragadino surrendered to the Turkish commander Mustafa Lala under terms that would leave the local population unmolested and allow the Venetian garrison safe-conduct to Crete; a meaningless agreement it transpired since as soon as the surrender was confirmed, Turkish troops went on the rampage in Famagusta and across the island and Lala had the heroic Bragadino seized, tortured, mutilated, flayed alive, his skin stuffed with straw then paraded on an ox in a mock procession in the streets of Famagusta, before the remains were sent to Constantinople as a gift for Sultan Selim II, otherwise known, because of his predilection for drunken debauchery, as Selim the Sot.

Outraged by the sadism and perfidy of the Turks and inspired by the tragic resistance at Famagusta, two months later Europe united to defeat the Turkish fleet at the Battle of Lepanto (Nafpaktos), one of the most significant engagements in world history, which ended Turkish expansion westwards.

The Turkish defeat at Lepanto came too late for Cyprus, and for 300 years – until the British took over in 1878 – the island suffered the usual depredations associated with Ottoman rule. Indeed, repression and decline were so acute in Cyprus that frequent rebellions and uprisings often involved both Christian and Muslim Cypriots.

Anyway, it is during these Ottoman-Venetian wars over Cyprus that the action of Shakespeare’s Othello (1603) takes place.

Othello is sent to Cyprus to command the Venetian forces against the threat of Turkish invasion, and though the Turkish fleet is destroyed by storms as it approaches the island, the Moor is overwhelmed and destroyed by a different sort of tempest, brought on by fear, paranoia, self-doubt, self-loathing and stupidity, as he is led to believe that his young bride, Desdemona – from the Greek, δυστυχισμένοι/distihismenoi/ill-fated one – has cuckolded him with his trusted lieutenant, Michael Cassio.

Orson Welles’ superb version of Othello can be seen here while below is the most famous soliloquy from the play.

Othello approaches his wife’s bed with murder – or ‘sacrifice’, as the Moor says – in mind, preparing to inflict on her ‘a guiltless death,’ as Desdemona says, though I’m not convinced by her protestations of innocence:

‘It is the cause, it is the cause, my soul:
Let me not name it to you, you chaste stars!
It is the cause. Yet I'll not shed her blood,
Nor scar that whiter skin of hers than snow,
And smooth as monumental alabaster:
Yet she must die, else she'll betray more men.
Put out the light, and then put out the light:
If I quench thee, thou flaming minister,
I can again thy former light restore,
Should I repent me; but once put out thy light,
Thou cunning'st pattern of excelling nature,
I know not where is that Promethean heat
That can thy light relume.’

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