Othello Historical and Social Context
by William Shakespeare

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Historical Background

The primary source for Othello is a short story from Gli Hecatommithi, a collection of tales published in 1565 by Geraldi Cinthio. The story from the collection dealing with “The Unfaithfulness of Husbands and Wives” provides an ideal place for an Elizabethan dramatist to look for a plot. Since no translation of this work is known to have appeared before 1753, scholars believe that Shakespeare either read the work in its original Italian, or that he was familiar with a French translation of Cinthio’s tales, published in 1585 by Gabriel Chappuys.

In Cinthio’s tale, the wife is known as Disdemona, but the other characters are designated by titles only. There are also significant differences in the length of time over which the drama takes place, details of setting, and characters’ actions.

Commentators have also suggested that Pliny’s Natural History provided Shakespeare with details to enhance Othello’s exotic adventures and his alien origins. It has even been suggested by Geoffrey Bullough that Shakespeare consulted John Pory’s translation of Leo Africanus’ A Geographical History of Africa, which distinguishes between Moors of northern and southern Africa and characterizes both groups as candid and unaffected, but prone to jealousy. Shakespeare was also familiar with fifteenth and early sixteenth century accounts of wars between Venice and Turkey, during which time Venice regained temporary control of Cyprus.

It is agreed by most scholars that Shakespeare wrote Othello in 1604, but some have suggested a composition date as early as 1603 or even 1602. The earliest recorded performance of the play was that by the King’s Men “in the Banketinge house at Whit Hall” on November 1, 1604. However, it is also possible that the play was performed earlier that year in a public theater.

Othello was first printed in quarto form in 1622, and then in the First Folio of 1623; however, there are many variations between the texts of Q1 and F1. The First Folio contains approximately 160 lines that are not in the First Quarto, but it has notably fewer stage directions. In contrast, the First Quarto contains about 13 lines or partial lines not found in the First Folio. Despite the differences, textual commentators generally agree that the folio edition was printed from a copy of the First Quarto, together with corrections and additions from some reliable manuscript, such as an acting company prompt-book.

During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Shakespearean tragedy was revived with leading actors such as Thomas Betterton and Barton Booth playing the role of Othello. Betterton was noted for the “moving and graceful energy with which Othello had addressed the Senate.” When Booth “wept, his tears broke from him perforce. He never whimpered, whined or blubbered; in his rage he never mouthed or ranted.”

In the nineteenth century, Edmund Kean was described by Samuel Taylor Coleridge as having brought “flashes of lightning” to the interpretation of Shakespeare. Ira Aldridge, the most famous figure in Black theater history, played Othello with Edmund Kean as his Iago. However natural a Black Othello seems, at that time, it was a novelty to audiences for whom the tradition of a Berber chieftain went virtually unchallenged. Aldridge’s performance made a deep impression in America and abroad.

The twentieth century includes notable performances by Paul Robeson, whose “tenderness, simplicity, and trust were deeply moving.” In 1964 Lawrence Olivier “took London by storm” with his portrayal of Othello. John Gielgud’s portrayal of “the disintegration of [Othello’s] character was traced with immense power and excellent variety.” Iago’s role as played by Christopher Plummer and Ian McKellen has been acclaimed.

Cinematic versions of Othello are impressive, as is Orson Welles’ 1952 interpretation, which has been described as “one of the screen’s sublime achievements” by Vincent Canby of The New York Times . The most...

(The entire section is 1,580 words.)