In Giraldi Cinthio’s text, the central character is identified simply as “a Moor”. Shakespeare was already subversive in his naming the character ‘Othello’. He didn’t call him a name indicative of his racial or cultural heritage, much like Brabantio and Roderigo, but referred to his true character. He identified him through his name, not his status, reflecting how Shakespeare himself perhaps didn’t see Othello as the brave soldier the protagonist viewed himself as at the beginning and end of the play. Shakespeare even went as far to title the play ‘Othello’, demonstrating the significance placed on his true identity and not his perceived character. Likewise, Othello’s role as a hero is implemented, not through his achievements as a soldier, but through the levelling heroics of a common man, much like Willy Loman’s identity as a Salesman throughout Miller’s Death of a Salesman.
His name also alludes to ‘Othman’, the founder of the Ottoman Turkish Empire, lending irony to Othello’s final self-identification with the “malignant and… turbaned Turk” (5.2.351) whose killing is re-enacted in his own suicide. This is additionally symbolic, as it reflects Othello killing his own cultural and ethnic heritage, finally being consumed by Iago’s whiteness and fulfilling the tragedy of the play.
Regarding religious connotations, critics have long questioned the relation between Shakespeare’s choice of ‘Othello’ and ‘Desdemona’, as the former contains the word ‘hell’ and the latter ‘demon’, evoking strong demonic allusions, foreshadowing the tragic fates of the two lovers.
Iago and Roderigo:
Shakespeare’s choice of Spanish names for two Venetians full of chauvinistic, bigoted resentment against ‘strangers’ (whether they be Florentines or Moors) is surely a deliberate irony. Jacobean audiences, aware of the Venetian practice of employing mercenary officers, might easily have identified Iago as a Spaniard, particularly because his name was likely to have recalled that of Spain’s patron saint, known (fittingly enough for the play) as Sant’Iago Matamoros (St James, Hammer of the Moors). Moreover, Iago is identified as “a false Spaniard” in the ballad, Tragedie of Othello the Moore, usually supposed to be a forgery by J.P Collier. Significantly, Giraldi appears to identify Iago’s prototype, the Alfieri, as a foreigner when, at the end of the tale, he has him “return… to his country”.
The name derives from Giraldi, where the murdered heroine’s father is blamed for having given her “a name of unlucky augury”, ‘Disdemona’ being a version of the Greek ‘dusdaimon’, ‘unfortunate’. It is possible that Shakespeare also heard a punning reference to the demonic connotations of the name of Othello’s ‘fair devil’ i.e. the ‘demon’ in Desdemona’s name.
Bianca means ‘white’, perhaps being another name chosen for its ironic suggestiveness, one that complicated the contrast between her and the chaste heroine whose husband denounces her in the same language, (“whore”, “strumpet”) that Iago and Emilia direct towards Bianca. She is an amalgam of two anonymous characters in Giraldi’s source text, a serving woman who copies the embroidery on Disdemona’s purloined handkerchief, and the courtesan with whom the cap di squadra “used to amuse herself”. However, while Bianca is described as “courtesan” in the Folio’s list, there is little in the play’s description: although her anomalous position as a young woman living alone and willing to entertain a man to ‘supper’ will clearly have seemed suspicious, her love for Cassio appears entirely genuine. The Venetian institution of courtesans was well known from the reports of travellers like Thomas Coryat: as distinct from common prostitutes, courtesans were often cultured women of relatively high status, who frequently hired themselves for extended periods to a single lover.