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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 Sea. 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, until they were later forced to leave in 1609. Iago's reference to Othello as a "Barbary horse" may also link Othello with the Barbary people of North Africa. There is evidence that an ambassador from Barbary visited London in 1600 to advocate for an alliance against Spain, and Shakespeare may have been familiar with the event. At the time, it was noted that the ambassador and his attendants practiced religious rites that contrasted with Christianity and were likely Muslim. Alternatively, Shakespeare may use the term Moor to refer to a black African who was not necessarily from Spanish or North African Muslim descent. Yet, Queen Elizabeth, in 1601, referred to Spanish Moors when she tried to ban them from Britain.

Regardless of the specifics of Othello's ethnic background, he is set apart as something other in the mostly white European culture in which he resides. While his character bridges this divide with European traits such as Christianity, military success against a Muslim empire, and nobility, Othello's differences make him vulnerable to Iago's manipulations, which are based on racial tensions. 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, in reality, is innocent of any crime, and the blackness of Othello's jealousy comes not from his ethnicity but from the black manipulations of a white character, Iago.

Giraldi Cinthio's Hecatommithi

The main source for Shakespeare's Othello is Giraldi Cinthio's Hecatommithi, 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.

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