Why did Shakespeare set Othello in Venice?

Quick answer:

Shakespeare set Othello in Venice because it allowed for the play to take place on an island and for a naval battle with the Turks. It is set in Venice because Shakespeare uses it to make the play more interesting

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As Shakespeareguru notes, Shakespeare based many of his plays on historical information. Interestingly, only Act 1 of Othello is set in Venice; Acts 2-5 are set on the island of Cyprus.  This setting isextremely important because it facilitates the action of the play. 

Between Acts 1 and 2, Othello, along with the other...

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characters in the play, make the journey from Venice to Cyprus in anticipation with a naval conflict with the Turks.  However, during that time, the Turkish fleet is shipwrecked in a storm.  Thus, Othello and the others arrive on the island of Cyprus, and since there will be no war, they have nothing left to do except celebrate. (They celebrate Othello's marriage and the fact that the Turks have been shipwrecked).   

Because the characters are away from their homes, and because they are relatively unable to just pick up and head back to Venice after such a long journey, Iago's pan is more effective.  On the island of Cyprus (during the celebration on the first night), Cassio gets drunk, gets in a fight with Roderigo/Montano, and is stripped of his lieutenancy.  Obviously, this incident facilitates Iago's plan. 

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Shakespeare wasn't, it seems, all that interested as a playwright, in inventing story and setting.  He often borrowed (or downright stole) his plots from other authors, and by extension, the story's setting.  Othello is no exception.  So, the simplest answer is that this is how he found the story, so this is the way he wrote the story.

Certainly it could also play in to his thinking that the audience was much more intrigued with the more exotic locales of Italy and the island of Cyprus as places and people to "visit" while attending the performance. This idea is not far off, by the way, from the modern inclination (especially in movies) to have futuristic (The Matirx) or imaginary (Avatar) worlds as settings  meant to entice large crowds of audience.  Shakespeare, we can assume, created his plays with the same sorts of enticement in mind.

So Shakespeare, on one level, took the path of least resistance and left the setting as he found it in the borrowed plot.  But on another level, he was very conscious of how intriguing it was for his audience members to see and experience locations that were very foreign and exotic to them.

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Why does Shakespeare choose Venice for the opening scenes of Othello?

Ha! Great question!

To call a woman a Venetian was akin to calling a man a senator: both were considered prostitutes of sorts.

In Shakespeare's time, Venice was considered the pleasure capital of Europe, and Venetians were known for their sexual licentiousness. The most talented courtesans were reputed to have lived in Venice. What is more, Venetian courtesans did not dress as we would picture prostitutes dressing. Instead, they were virtually indistinguishable from the average well (expensively) dressed woman.

Here is where it gets interesting. Desdemona is a virtuous woman (she finds it unthinkable that women would consider cheating on their husbands) and yet she is a Venetian by background. During the time period, Venetian women were stereotypically considered likely to cheat. Iago alludes to this repeatedly, and uses it to his advantage.

Part of the reason that this play works so well is that we are so busy looking at the racism directed towards Othello, we are almost blind-sided by the prejudice against Desdemona. The saddest part is that Othello is as blind as all the rest.

Arden Shakespeare. A.J. Honingmann ed. 2007

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