Historical Background

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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,...

(This entire section contains 640 words.)

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as is Orson Welles’ 1952 interpretation, which has been described as “one of the screen’s sublime achievements” by Vincent Canby ofThe New York Times. The most recent interpretation of Othello is a film that includes Laurence Fishburne as Othello and Kenneth Branagh as Iago.

Modern Connections

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While there are a number of issues in Othello that twentieth-century audiences can connect with (crimes of passion are not new to today's society; just turn on the evening news), modern audiences often come away from Othello feeling uncomfortable with the racism they see in the treatment Othello receives from the other characters in the play. And just as we are well aware of the racism in our own society, it may be that Shakespeare was writing about the racism in his own society, not just the racism in the Venetian society depicted in the play. Shakespeare's Othello is set in Venice and Cyprus, but the Venetian society's fear of cultural difference, manifested in its racism, may be viewed as an indicator of Elizabethan England's concern to maintain its cultural identity in the face of extensive exploration and initial colonization of the New World. The Turk and the Moor, two traditional symbols of cultural values different from those of Western culture, threaten Venetian society but may be read as the embodiments of Elizabethan England's fear that its cultural values will be lost through colonization and the intermingling of different cultural values. In the same way, the depiction of Desdemona as the flower of Venetian society, the ideal of virtuous fidelity, is perhaps less a description of Venetian gender expectations than it is a depiction of woman designed to allay English fears that miscegenation (procreation between a man and a woman of different races) would threaten the order and culture of English society.

On one level, adultery in Othello can be seen as an individual infidelity that destroys both Iago and Othello as jealousy is incited in Othello by the promptings of his only confidante, "honest Iago." On another level, adultery may be viewed by some as destructive to a whole society. As some people in Shakespeare's time may have felt, and as some people in modern times may feel, the society that fails to limit the sexual activity of women runs the risk of losing a paternal identification—we can never be certain who the father is in cases of infidelity—but also losing cultural identity in miscegenation. Iago claims to hate Othello because Othello has passed him over for promotion and slept with his wife, Emilia, but a third motive for his behavior is, perhaps, one that he does not or cannot explicitly state: the motive to preserve the racial and cultural identity of his society. Or, perhaps, Iago is motivated by his own more personal feelings of racism (rather than his society's), which come to the fore as Iago deals with the fact that his superior is a Black man.

When Iago's schemes have been revealed by Emilia, he is encouraged by the others to reveal his motives. This would certainly seem to be the perfect opportunity to reveal his anger at the loss of promotion and his jealous suspicions of Othello. But instead, he says, "Demand me nothing; what you know, you know: / From this time forth I never will speak word" (V.ii.303-04). In one sense, this exclamation continues his power and control to the end. But in another sense, perhaps he cannot articulate his motives because they are the deep and unidentified racist feelings of his society in general. He is a functionary agent of a state that has irreconcilable misgivings about the marriage of a Black Moor to a White woman.

Iago is arguably the voice of racial intolerance: he cries out to Brabantio, "your daughter and the Moor are [now] making the beast with two backs" (I.i.116-17) and "Even now, now, very now, an old black ram / Is tupping your white ewe" (I.i.88-89). These are metaphors calculated to alarm Brabantio and arouse his most primal fears. Racism and woman's unchecked sexuality are themes that resonate throughout the play and ignite the most confusion and fear when they are conceptualized as the offspring of a union between Desdemona and Othello. Thus, Iago makes his fiercest appeal when he cries out to Brabantio: "you'll have your daughter covered with a Barbary horse, you'll have your nephews neigh to you; you'll have coursers for cousins, and gennets for germans" (I.i. 111-13). Although Iago takes it upon himself to repair the grievous cultural rupture caused by the marriage of Desdemona and Othello, he is not alone. Desdemona's own father cannot believe his daughter would be one

To fall in love with what she fear'd to look! It is a judgment maim'd, and most imperfect, That will confess perfection so could err Against all rules of nature…. (I.iii.98-101)

Brabantio believes that Othello has caused her to stray from such perfection by using magic potions and witchcraft to sway her affections.

Iago confesses that he, too, loves Desdemona (II.i.295). But it is a love constituted by neither lust nor an attraction to inner beauty. What he loves is the construction of Desdemona as the "perfect" woman, a perfection of sensibilities that must not be allowed to err. The audience knows full well that Desdemona has not been unfaithful to Othello. However, in the eyes of Iago and the others, she is guilty of a greater betrayal: her marriage to Othello.

Othello brings us closer to an understanding of Greek tragedy than any other of Shakespeare's plays. Othello perhaps never fully realizes how he has erred. What he has blundered into in ignorance is swiftly avenged by powerful and unstoppable forces. What excites fear and pity in the modern reader is an identification with Othello's frailty and the suspicion that those unstoppable forces are produced by the fears and ignorance in society.


Style, Form, and Literary Elements


Connections and Further Reading