By David Aitken
SHAKESPEARE visited Cyprus in 1589, when he was twenty-five. There is no other possible explanation.
Over the years, as I have tussled with the Bard, I have become convinced that his intimate knowledge of Cyprus was the result of a first-hand on-site inspection rather than the fruit of scholarly research.
Because, let’s face it, Shakespeare was no great shakes as a researcher. He made Macbeth a villain, when actually Macbeth was a just and equitable king with a better claim to the throne than the usurper Duncan.
The proof of the pudding is in the plays, although scrupulous textual criticism suggests that he also penned the odd sonnet in and around Paphos.
In Measure for Measure he mentions the Bunch of Grapes, which wasn’t nearly as famous in the 16th century as it is now, making it unlikely that Will was quoting hearsay.
And while on the subject of taverns, another clear reference to Shakespeare’s visit comes in The Taming of the Shrew, where he states, “We were lodgers at the Pegasus” — which is now located in Kato Paphos, of course, although they no longer take in paying guests.
“We were lodgers,” is intriguing. Could his companion have been Emilia Lanier, the Dark Lady of the sonnets? And might that explain the dewy-eyed remark in Antony and Cleopatra that “the beds i’ the east are soft”? Antony, remember, made Cleo the “absolute queen of Cyprus.”
I know a hawk from a handsaw when the wind is southerly, and it has frequently occurred to me when poring over the First Folio that two things are self-evident. One is that when the Swan of Avon penned the line, “This castle hath a pleasant seat,” he had in mind the castle at Kolossi. If you have been there, you’ll know the seat to which Shakespearewas referring, it’s a godsend after all those stairs.
The second glaringly obvious fact is that the word crossed out in the third act of The Winter’s Tale is ‘moufflon’, so that the stage direction originally said, “Exit, pursued by a moufflon.” But of course moufflon would not have been a word that was familiar to the rank-scented many who comprised the groundlings in the theatre pits in Shakespeare’s day, and he was forced to change it to the more pedestrian “bear.” That’s showbiz
What else? Well, in Love’s Labour’s Lost, there is “the salt wave of the Mediterranean, it rejoiceth my intellect.” A song in Winter’s Tale contains the line, “Cyprus black as e’er was crow.” The Duke of Suffolk in Henry VI Part 2 curses his enemies by hoping that “their sweetest shade might be a grove of cypress trees.”
The cypress tree in my garden in Marathounda was a devil, it cast no shadow.
n The Tempest there is a description of Aphrodite “cutting the clouds towards Paphos” (pulling the crowds, we would say nowadays) and in one of the verses he composed in Cyprus, Venus and Adonis, Shakespeare again refers to Aphrodite’s “silver doves holding their course to Paphos,” where “their queen means to immure herself and not be seen.”
All royal personages eventually become weary of the cameras pointed at them.
The dove of Paphos also merits a mention in Pericles, but when it comes to proving that Shakespeare holidayed in Cyprus — or at least took a working holiday on the island — the incontrovertible evidence lies in Othello.
Speaking as someone who was never able to visit Famagusta, the “Sea-port in Cyprus,” reading Othello breaks my heart. It makes me wish I were Shakespeare, do you know that feeling? For one thing, Will is eternally topical. Othello is “in full commission” for the island to take over the governorship because “a Turkish fleet is bearing up to Cyprus. It is a business of some heat.”
The casual familiarity with which the Bard refers to all things Cypriot in Othello betokens a personal and intimate knowledge of the “state disjoint,” where thanks to the Moor, “every man shall eat in safety under his own vine.”
Some scholars argue that the principal source for Othello is a story in Cinthio’s Hecatommithi, but Shakespeare had already used that story in Measure for Measure, written in the same year, 1604.
A far more likely explanation is that Shakespeare heard the tale of the Moor of Venice being told in some village coffee shop while he was on holiday. Anyone who knows anything about Cyprus will tell you what inveterate storytellers Cypriots are. Is it any wonder Shakespeare came to see what he could learn?
David Aitken is a Scotsman, and retired French/German/English teacher who worked in West Germany, Qatar, Cyprus and Hong Kong. He is the author of two novels, A Dundee Detective and Sleeping with Jane Austen and has been a freelance journalist for papers like The Gulf Times and the Scottish Courier for which he still writes