Was Othello a controversial play to Elizabethan audiences? Was race an issue at that time?

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thanatassa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The background of Othello`s historical reception suggests that the play was always popular and that audiences were not disturbed by the treatment of race. Leading actors competed to play the part of Othello, the noble Moor, and the villainous Iago.

Elizabethan attitudes towards Moors (Arabs living primarily in Spain) were based on a combination of medieval admiration for their preservation of ancient Greek texts and medical knowledge, and anti-Islamic prejudice. Although 18th and 19th century critics might assimilate Othello into the `noble savage`, the Elizabethan model was more based on the historical contacts with Arabic civilization in Spain and Turkey, in which most Moors were regarded as tending towards cruelty and barbarity, but individuals could be exceptions. (Note that sub-Saharan Africans and Native Americans tended to be regarded as almost subhuman, but this was not true of Arabs and Asians, whose portrait was more complex).

Thus there was nothing particularly controversial for the original audiences about Shakespeare`s portrayal of Othello. It was relatively typical of the period.