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Othello | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Othello | Context


Venice and the Ottoman Empire

The play is set in the 16th century, at a time when Venice was in constant conflict with the Ottoman Empire over control of the Adriatic and eastern Mediterranean. The Ottomans are the "Turks" of the play, and the Ottoman Empire became what is modern-day Turkey. Cyprus, a small island off the coast of Greece, was a profitable location for trade and had been under the influence of Venice since Caterina Cornaro, a Venetian noblewoman, married James II, the king of Cyprus, in the late 1400s. After the death of James II, she became ruler of the island but eventually abdicated, allowing Venice full control of Cyprus. The island was strategically placed for the Venetian military to launch attacks against the Ottomans. In the play, Othello's military successes on behalf of Venice are set within this conflict—even though by Shakespeare's time, Cyprus was already part of the Ottoman Empire, which had taken it in a 1570 military action.

Shakespeare's Treatment of Race

Othello's identity as a Moor may link him with Arab and Berber North Africans who lived in medieval Spain and remained there after the fall of Granada in 1492, which ended Muslim rule on the Iberian peninsula. Iago's denigrating reference to Othello as a "Barbary horse" links Othello with these North African ethnic groups. Shakespeare was almost certainly familiar with the six-month visit of an ambassador from Morocco (Abd el-Ouahed ben Messaoud) who visited London in 1600 to advocate for an alliance against Spain. The trade relationship between England and Morocco had been thriving at that point for almost fifty years (cloth and munitions going southeast, sugar and saltpeter northwest). Moors were enough of an issue around this time that Queen Elizabeth, in 1601, tried to ban "Spanish Moors" from Britain.

Regardless of the specifics of Othello's ethnic background, he is set apart as an other in the mostly white European culture in which he resides. While his character bridges this divide via his military status in the war against a Muslim empire, Othello's differences make him vulnerable to Iago's manipulations, which are based on racist ideas. Iago plays on cultural fears regarding racial mixing when he characterizes for Brabantio the marriage between Othello and Desdemona in black-and-white sexual terms: "an old black ram/is tupping your white ewe." As both Othello's and Desdemona's behaviors, thoughts, and feelings are called into question, the motif of blackness recurs. Othello's jealousy is thought to be influenced by black bile, and Desdemona's reputation becomes "begrimed and black." On the surface, it seems that blackness is to blame for the loss of innocence or purity within Othello and Desdemona's relationship. Yet, in a twist on the motif, Desdemona is innocent of any crime, and the destructiveness of Othello's jealousy comes not from his ethnicity but from the cruel manipulations of a white character, Iago.

Cinthio's Hecatommithi

The main source for Shakespeare's Othello is the Hecatommithi by Giovanni Battista Giraldi (nicknamed "Cinthio"), which tells the story of a valiant and handsome Moor living in Venice who falls in love with a virtuous and beautiful lady, Disdemona. She returns his love in kind. They marry and are happy together, when the Moor is given a military appointment that will either take him far from Disdemona or require she embark with him on the dangerous voyage across the sea. Disdemona agrees to accompany him to his new post. A "wicked Ensign" also falls in love with Disdemona and plots to make the Moor believe she is unfaithful. His plan is successful, and he and the Moor conspire together to kill Disdemona. The Ensign carries out the killing, but later claims the Moor confessed to killing his wife. The Moor is arrested and tortured. Later, the Ensign is also tortured, and he dies.

Shakespeare would have read this story in the original Italian or in French translation, as it had not been translated into English at the time Othello was written. A few differences are quite significant. In the original story, neither the Ensign nor the Moor have names. Shakespeare makes them more personal: Iago and Othello. In the original, it is the Ensign who kills Disdemona with the Moor's consent, yet Shakespeare chose to have Othello do this deed, with Iago as manipulator.

Early Performances

The earliest records suggest Othello was first performed in 1604 under the title The Moor of Venice; it was popular throughout the 1600s and remained so well into the 18th century. Early versions of the play include the sworn oaths S'blood ("God's blood") and Zounds ("God's wounds"), but these were later removed in accordance with an act of Parliament in 1606 that made such uses of God's name in plays illegal. In 1660, actress Margaret Hughes, playing Desdemona, became the first woman to perform on the English stage. Before this time, all roles—male and female—were performed by men.

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