Biblical Allusions: Biblical allusions appear throughout Othello and many of Shakespeare’s other works as well. Shakespeare’s audience was well-acquainted with scripture, and so his use of biblical allusions adds to the richness of the text and extends its frame of reference.
- Iago’s line “I am not what I am” (1.1.65) is a reversal and bastardization of Exodus 3:14: “And God answered Moses, I am that I am.” Shakespeare is telling the audience that Iago is a dangerous dissembler who stands in direct opposition to the Christian God.
- The characterization of Iago as a foil to God resurfaces in act 5, scene 2 when Lodovico, calling for Iago, says, “Where is that Viper? Bring the villain forth” (5.2.328). The comparison of Iago to a snake is another, albeit veiled, comparison of Iago to Satan, who appears in serpent form in the Garden of Eden.
- Cassio reviles his own inebriated actions using a subtle biblical allusion. After his drunken brawl with Roderigo, Cassio remarks, “It hath pleased the devil drunkenness to give place to / the devil wrath: one unperfectness shows me another” (2.3.286–7). Cassio’s wording here is a play on Ephesians 4:27: “Neither give place to the devil.” The allusion suggests both the wickedness of Cassio’s actions as well as his assistance to the devil, embodied in Iago, the one who incited Cassio’s brawl in the first place.
Classical Allusions: Like many writers of the Renaissance, Shakespeare mined the stories of Roman and Greek mythology for allusions, which would have appealed to audiences who were knowledgeable of classical mythology. They also add to the richness and metaphorical range of the text.
- Diana, the goddess of the moon, hunting, chastity, and childbirth, is alluded to in Othello, chiefly due to her association with “chastity” and purity. Iago poisons Othello’s mind to the point that Othello is positive that the virtuous Desdemona has been unfaithful to him: “Her name, that was as fresh / As Dian’s visage, is now begrimed and black / As mine own face,” Othello remarks (3.3.383–90).
- Shakespeare alludes to the two-faced Roman god, Janus. Iago is similarly two-faced, portrayed again and again as someone who is duplicitous and not to be trusted. Throughout the play, Iago is revealed to be an adept liar capable of gaining the trust, however misplaced, of the people he wants to manipulate: “By Janus, I think no,” he says, evoking his own pantheistic counterpart (1.2.33).
- Because Othello is centered on the dynamics of erotic relationships, it is fitting that Shakespeare refers to Eros, or Cupid, the Greco-Roman god of desire. When Othello and Desdemona discuss their marriage before the Venetian court, Othello speaks of “when lightwing’d toys / Of feather’d Cupid seel with wanton dullness / My speculative and officed instruments” (1.3.284–6). The allusion illuminates the way erotic desires— represented by Cupid—can thoroughly redirect one’s attentions.
Roman Histories: Shakespeare’s exposure to other countries and cultures than that of Elizabethan England is a matter of critical debate. Specifically in Othello, it is apparent that much of his information regarding the cultures of the Mediterranean through which Othello has travelled is taken from Naturalis Historia, an encyclopedia about the world written by the Roman historian Pliny the Elder between 77 and 79 CE. Much of the information contained in Pliny’s Natural History (as it is frequently translated) as relates to anthropology is fictional.
- Othello’s speech to the Venetian council in act 1, scene 3, mentions “the Cannibals that each other eat, / The Anthropophagi, and men whose heads / Do grow beneath their shoulders.” This description...
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- fits two of the tribes inNaturalis Historia: the Anthropophagi and the Blemmyae.
- Throughout the play, Othello describes artifacts and aspects of distant lands in order to bolster his reputation as a well-traveled, foreign-born figure. Many of these are derived from Pliny as well, specifically from a 1601 English translation by Philemon Holland.
European History: By setting the narrative of Othello outside of England, Shakespeare allowed his audience to experience a larger world than might otherwise be available to them. Italy in particular was one of Shakespeare’s favorite settings for his plays, perhaps partly due to Italy’s status as both the epicenter of the Renaissance and one of the cradles of the classical world.
- Venice was a major naval power and center for trade in the 16th and early 17th centuries. As a multicultural republic, it would have been considered wildly liberal by Shakespeare’s English contemporaries, an attitude seen in Iago’s descriptions of the sexual indiscretion of Venetian wives. Othello takes place during the mid-16th century conflicts between the Venetian and Ottoman empires.
- Venetian Cyprus was conquered by the Ottoman Empire in 1570, following years of conflict over territory in the Mediterranean.