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Shakespeare: Othello

3. Religion and Conversion

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About this Lecture


In this module, we explore the themes of religion and conversion in the play, focusing in particular on: (i) the play’s saturation with religious language, especially language related to the soul and damnation/perdition; (ii) the turbulent religious history of sixteenth-century England, which lurched from Catholicism to Protestantism and back again, before settling somewhere in the middle during the reign of Elizabeth; (iii) the threat represented by the Ottoman Empire in 1603/4, when the play was written/performed; (iv) the importance of the conflict between Venice and the Ottoman Empire in the play itself; (v) the importance of Othello as a soldier; (vi) the increased knowledge of (and interest in) the Islamic world in the early modern Europe – especially the fear of ‘turning Turk’, i.e. converting to Islam; (vii) the confusion of Venetian and Turkish identities during the drunken brawl in Act 2, Scene 3, after which Othello accuses the men of having “turned Turk”; (viii) the importance of the verb “to turn” to describe religious conversion (or apostasy, depending on your perspective) as well as something more sexual; (ix) the indeterminacy of Othello’s religion – was he born Christian or did he convert at some point?; (x) the anxiety throughout the play that Othello might give up his Christian religion; and (ix) Othello’s double-identity at the end of the play, where he identifies himself both as the “malignant and turbanned Turk” and the Venetian who “smote him – thus!”


In this course, Professor Helen Smith (University of York) explores Shakespeare’s Othello. In the first module, we provide a broad introduction to the play and some of its key themes. In the second module, we think about the theme of race and racial difference in the play before turning in the third module to the theme of religious conversion in the play – the idea of “turning Turk”. In the fourth module, we look in more detail at the importance of Desdemona’s handkerchief, while in the fifth module we provide an overview of the critical history of the play, from the focus on the character of Desdemona in the earliest criticism to the exploration of race and gender politics (and their intersection) in the most recent criticism.

Note: We use the Arden edition of the play (Third Series, Revised Edition, ed. E. A. J. Honigmann). Students using a different version of the play may encounter slight differences in both the text and line numbers.


A graduate of Glasgow and York, Helen taught at St Andrews and Hertfordshire before returning to York in 2004. Her wide-ranging interests embrace Renaissance poetry, drama, and prose; history of the book; feminist literary history and theory; religion and conversion; the history of reading; and materiality.

Helen has published more than thirty articles and chapters on topics ranging from the printing of Shakespeare’s early plays to the links between reading and digestion, the cultural and domestic presence of animals, the imaginative connections between physical illness and spiritual trial, and the many uses of early modern paper.

Her first monograph, Grossly Material Things: Women and Book Production in Early Modern England (Oxford University Press, 2012) was awarded the Roland H. Bainton Literature Prize and the DeLong Book History Prize. Helen is co-editor of Renaissance Paratexts (Cambridge University Press, 2011; paperback 2014), The Oxford Handbook of the Bible in Early Modern England, c. 1530-1700 (Oxford University Press, 2015; awarded the Roland H. Bainton Reference Prize), and Conversions: Gender and Religious Change in Early Modern Europe (Manchester University Press, 2017).

Cite this Lecture

APA style

Smith, H. (2021, January 04). Shakespeare: Othello - Religion and Conversion [Video]. MASSOLIT.

MLA style

Smith, H. "Shakespeare: Othello – Religion and Conversion." MASSOLIT, uploaded by MASSOLIT, 04 Jan 2021,