Humanism and the Early Modern Renaissance: Shakespeare wrote in the late 16th and early 17th centuries when humanism was a dominant philosophical ideology in England. The humanist movement—part of the broader Renaissance sweeping across much of Europe—turned away from medieval religious scholasticism to revive ancient Greek and Roman literature as sources of wisdom. Compared to works of medieval thought, these classical texts emphasized human thoughts, feelings, and motivations over divine or supernatural matters. Like his fellow Renaissance artists and thinkers, Shakespeare considered the individual to be the center of human experience.
- Othello reflects humanist perspectives in several ways. The soliloquies throughout the play attempt to convey the complex individual experiences of the various characters. The characters are ultimately answerable to one another for their actions rather than to a divine doctrine. Finally, the play makes multiple allusions to the Greco-Roman world, a common source of inspiration for Renaissance humanists.
Disreputable Early Modern Theaters: In Shakespeare’s time, theater was considered low-brow entertainment. The Globe Theater and Blackfriars, the two main theaters where his plays were performed, were located outside the city walls of London. This meant they were able to challenge and subvert the crown’s laws more securely. Audiences could be rowdy and disruptive, and other disreputable forms of entertainment, such as prostitution and bear baiting, surrounded the theaters.
- Like many of Shakespeare’s plays, Othello features a combination of the high and the low: elegant speeches as well as bawdy slang, philosophical meditations as well as insouciant punnery. Shakespeare approached the dramatic form as an opportunity for both serious artistry and broad entertainment.
Shakespeare’s Source Text: Shakespeare based Othello on Giovanni Battista Giraldi Cinthio’s short story collection Gli Hecatommithi, published in Italian in 1565. The only character given a name in the short story “Disdemona and the Moor” is Disdemona, whose name means “ill-fated or unfortunate.” The villain in Cinthio’s story is driven by his lust for Disdemona, but Shakespeare’s Iago holds no desire for Desdemona. This motivation is shifted onto the character of Roderigo, an example of how Shakespeare altered and expanded the plots of his sources to better suit his needs. The plots of many of his other plays also have literary sources, both contemporary and historical.