Research Paper About The Play “Othello”

In a 5-6 page essay following MLA formatting, analyze some aspect of the play that intrigues you.  Your topic may be drawn from the list of topics for further study but can be any topic that interests you.

Part of this assignment is for you to find supportive material through library research.  As such, you are required to use at least two sources to support your analysis.

  • Of the two sources, one can be background information (about Elizabethan England or Cyprus, etc.),
  • One of them must be literary criticism/analysis of the play or of Shakespeare’s plays

For example, if you are researching/writing about the roles of women in Othello, you must include in your paper support from at least one source that discusses the literary interpretation of women’s roles in Shakespeare or in Othello.  The other source might be information about women’s roles in Elizabethan England (i.e. historical rather than literary sources).

You must use quotes from the play and from outside critical literary sources. Please include a works cited page at the end.

– Find one to two articles of literary criticism that shed light on your area of interest regarding the play.

– The thesis is a claim reflecting your interpretation of the play that is informed by the supporting criticism.   

Here is an example:


Sample topic:

Romeo and Juliet are iconic characters, in part because of their longevity in the literary canon, but also it can be argued that this is because of their roles as archetypal figures.  Using the critical approach of archetypal theory, how well do the characters of Romeo and Juliet fit the archetypes of the hero and damsel in distress?

Sample working thesis:

Although Romeo and Juliet may not appear to be the typical hero and heroine, because of Romeo’s romantic nature and Juliet’s independent actions, they still fit the archetypal roles closely enough to have a resonance that draws in readers and play goers alike.




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Cover image: Paul Robeson as Othello and Peggy Ashcroft as Desdemona in a stage production of Othello, London, 1930. © Bettmann/Corbis.

[back cover] Engraving of William Shakespeare from the First Folio, courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Shakespeare, William, 1564–1616.

Othello : the Moor of Venice / by William Shakespeare ; with related readings.

p. cm. – (The EMC masterpiece series access editions)

ISBN 0-8219-2956-9

1. Othello (Fictitious character)—Drama. 2. Shakespeare, William, 1564- 1616. Othello. 3. Othello (Fictitious character) 4. Venice (Italy)—Drama. 5. Jealousy—Drama. 6. Muslims—Drama. 7. Cyprus—Drama. I. Title. II. Series.

PR2829.A1 2004



ISBN 0-8219-2956-9

Copyright © 2005 by EMC Corporation

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be adapted, reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise without permission from the publisher.

Published by EMC/Paradigm Publishing 875 Montreal Way St. Paul, Minnesota 55102 800-328-1452 E-mail:

Printed in the United States of America. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 xxx 10 09 08 07 06 05

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Table of Contents

The Life and Works of William Shakespeare . . . . . . . . . . . iv Time Line of Shakespeare’s Life. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . x Background and Historical Context for

Shakespeare’s Plays . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . xii Background and Historical Context for Othello,

the Moor of Venice . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . xvi Echoes: Famous Lines from Othello . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . xxi Illustrations: Performances of Othello . . . . . . . . . . . . . . xxiii

Othello, the Moor of Venice . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1 Dramatis Personae. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 3 Act I . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 5

Respond to the Selection . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 44 Act II . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 47

Respond to the Selection . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 86 Act III . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 89

Respond to the Selection . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 134 Act IV. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 137

Respond to the Selection . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 176 Act V . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 179

Respond to the Selection . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 212

Plot Analysis of Othello, the Moor of Venice . . . . . . . . . . . 214 Related Readings

Source Material from Gli Hecatommithi by Giraldi Cinthio (1565) . . . 218 from The History and Description of Africa by Leo

Africanus (1526) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 231 Criticism from “Othello: A Bloody Farce” by Thomas

Rymer (1693). . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 238 Notes on Othello by Samuel Taylor

Coleridge (c.1836–39) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 245 from Shakespearean Tragedy by A. C. Bradley (1904) . . 250 Contemporary Poetry “Against Jealousy” by Ben Jonson (pub. 1640) . . . . . 258

Creative Writing Activities . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 260 Critical Writing Activities . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 261 Projects. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 264 Glossary of Words for Everyday Use . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 266 Glossary of Literary Terms. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 273

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William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare (1564–1616) may well be the greatest dramatist the world has ever known. Certainly he is the most famous writer in all of English literature. Today, nearly four hundred years after his death, Shakespeare’s plays are still being performed for audiences all over the world. As fellow poet Ben Jonson famously put it, Shakespeare’s art is “not of an age, but for all time.”

Little is known about Shakespeare’s early life. His mother, Mary Arden Shakespeare, was from a well-to-do, well-con- nected family. His father, John Shakespeare, was a prosperous glove maker and local politician. William’s exact birthdate is unknown, but he was baptized in his hometown of Stratford- upon-Avon on April 26, 1564, and tradition has assigned him a birthdate of April 23, which was also the day of his death and the feast day of Saint George, England’s patron saint.


Engraving of William Shakespeare from the First Folio. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Shakespeare’s birthplace in Stratford-upon-Avon. Photo by Melissa Baker.

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Shakespeare attended the Stratford grammar school, where he likely studied classical literature in Latin and Greek, as was typical for students of that era. However, he did not go on to a university. At the age of eighteen, he married Anne Hathaway, eight years his senior. At the time of their marriage, Anne was pregnant with their first child, a daughter whom they named Susanna. Several years later, in 1585, the couple had twins, Hamnet and Judith. There is no record of what Shakespeare did in the years after the twins were born. He may have worked for a while as a schoolteacher, as there are many references to teaching in his plays. However, it is clear that by 1592 he had moved to London, leaving his family behind while he pursued a life in the theater. Shakespeare continued to provide for his family and to expand his holdings in Stratford while living in London.

Shakespeare’s Professional Career Once in London, Shakespeare soon made himself known

as a successful actor and playwright. His history plays Henry the Sixth, Parts 1, 2, and 3 and The Tragedy of Richard the Third established him as a significant force in London the- ater. In 1593, however, all London theaters were forced to close due to an outbreak of the plague. During this time, Shakespeare turned to narrative poetry, producing Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece, both dedicated to a wealthy patron, the Earl of Southampton.

When the theaters reopened the following year, Shakespeare became a partner in a theater company known as the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. The group soon became the most popular acting troupe in London and performed regularly at the court of Queen Elizabeth I. In 1599, they were wealthy enough to build their own play- house, which they called “The Globe.” When Queen Elizabeth died in 1603, Shakespeare’s company found a new patron in her successor King James I, and their name was changed to the King’s Men.

While Shakespeare acted in the troupe, writing the material soon became his primary vocation. In the span of twenty years he penned at least thirty-seven plays, includ- ing comedies such as The Taming of the Shrew, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Merchant of Venice, Twelfth Night, and All’s Well That Ends Well; tragedies such as Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth, and King Lear; romances such as The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest; and histories such as The Tragedy of King Richard the Second.


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The last play Shakespeare wrote on his own was The Famous History of the Life of Henry the Eighth, which was performed in London in 1613. Later that same year, he col- laborated with John Fletcher on the romance The Two Noble Kinsmen. At that time Shakespeare was probably liv- ing again in Stratford, in a large house called New Place that he had bought in 1597. When he died at age 52, sur- vived by his wife and his two daughters, Shakespeare was a wealthy man. He was buried April 25, 1616 in the Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon. The stone over his grave reads:

Good frend for Jesus sake forbeare, To digg the dust encloased heare: Blest be the man that spares thes stones And curst be he that moves my bones.

The Publication of Shakespeare’s Plays Shakespeare himself never sought to have his plays pub-

lished; however, many individual plays were published during his lifetime in unauthorized editions known as quartos. These quartos are quite unreliable. Although some may have been based on final manuscript versions produced by the author, others were probably put together from actors’ memories of the scripts, or reprinted from so- called prompter’s copies used in production of the plays.

In 1623, seven years after Shakespeare’s death, his friends and fellow actors John Heminge and Henry Condell published a collected edition of thirty-five of Shakespeare’s plays. This collection is known to literary historians as the First Folio. In the centuries since 1623, and especially during the last century and a half, editors have worked diligently to compare the various early printed versions of Shakespeare’s works to determine which version or versions of each play best represent what Shakespeare intended. Editors have also updated Shakespeare’s spelling so that the the plays can be more easily understood by a modern audience. If you are inter- ested, you can view the texts of Shakespeare’s plays in their original spelling on the Internet.


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The Authorship of Shakespeare’s Plays The fact that Shakespeare was a commoner and led,

according to the few facts we have, a rather ordinary life, has led many people to doubt that he could have written such great works of literature. Over the years it has been suggested that the true author could have been someone else—such as the Earl of Oxford, Christopher Marlowe, or Ben Jonson. While there is no way to conclusively prove or disprove such theories, there are good reasons to believe that Shakespeare was, indeed, the true author of the plays attributed to him. For one thing, the plays show an under- standing of the lives of people in all stations of life, from the lowliest peasants to men and women of the court. We know that Shakespeare came from a common background and later moved in court circles; this fact is consistent with his understanding of people from all walks of life. At the very least, a careful reader must conclude that the plays attributed to Shakespeare are the work of a single author, for they have a distinct voice not to be found in the work of any other dramatist of his day—a voice that has enriched our language as none other has ever done.

Shakespeare’s Language Shakespeare used one of the largest vocabularies ever

employed by an author. In fact, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, Shakespeare actually introduced an esti- mated 3,000 new words into the English language, many of which are in common use today, including bedazzle, silli- ness, critical, obscene, hurry, and lonely. Numerous well-known phrases came from his plays, such as “wear my heart upon my sleeve” (Othello) and “the world is my oys- ter” (The Merry Wives of Windsor).

Shakespeare’s language tends to be dense, metaphorical, full of puns and wordplay, and yet natural, so that—to steal a line from Hamlet—it comes “trippingly off the tongue” of an actor. A scene of Shakespeare tears across the stage, riveting and dramatic, and yet it bears close reread- ing, revealing in that rereading astonishing depth and complexity.


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Shakespeare’s Poetic Technique Shakespeare used in his plays a combination of prose,

rhymed poetry, and blank verse. Blank verse is unrhymed, or “blank,” poetry with a distinct rhythm known as iambic pentameter. Each line of iambic pentameter con- sists of five iambs, rhythmic units made up of a weakly stressed syllable followed by a strongly stressed one as in the word fŏrgét. A simpler way of describing this type of verse is to say that it contains ten syllables per line, and every other syllable is stressed. The following are some typ- ical lines:

� ´

� ´

� ´

� ´

� ´Her fa ther lov’d me, oft in vi ted me

� ´

� ´

� ´

� ´

� ´Still ques tion’d me the sto ry of my life

(Othello, act I, scene iii, lines 28–29)

In order to maintain the verse, the lines of two or more characters are often combined to create one ten-syllable line. This accounts for the unusual line numbering and formatting in Shakespeare’s plays. In the following exam- ple, the words spoken by Cassio and Iago are all counted as one line:

CASSIO. I do not understand.

IAGO. He’s married.

CASSIO. To who?

(Othello, act I, scene ii, line 52)

If you scan the dialogue in Othello, you will find most of it is written in blank verse, although with some variations in stress and syllable count. Shakespeare and other playwrights of his time favored the use of blank verse in drama because they believed it captured the natural rhythms of English speech, yet had a noble, heroic quality that would not be possible with ordinary prose. (You will notice that when Shakespeare does use prose, it is because the characters are speaking informally or are from the lower class.) Blank iambic pentameter can also be used in poetry, although it is more often rhymed, as in Shakespeare’s sonnets.


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Reading Shakespeare Shakespeare wrote his plays about four hundred years

ago. Because the English language has changed consider- ably since then, you will find that reading Shakespeare presents some special challenges. Although the spelling has been modernized in this version of Othello, as in virtu- ally all contemporary editions of Shakespeare’s plays, there are still differences in style and vocabulary that could not be edited out without changing the flavor of the work. The editors of this text have provided footnotes to help you understand words and phrases that have changed in mean- ing or spelling since Shakespeare’s day. However, try not to get bogged down in the footnotes. Remember that a play is a dramatic action and should move quickly. Try first reading through each scene without looking at the foot- notes, so that you can get a general sense of what is happening. Then reread the scene, referring to the foot- notes to discern the details. If possible, you may want to listen to an audio version of the play, or better yet, view a production of the play on film or on stage. All drama comes alive when it is performed by actors and is best experienced in that way.


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Time Line of Shakespeare’s Life

William Shakespeare is born in Stratford-upon-Avon, to parents Mary Arden Shakespeare and John Shakespeare.

William Shakespeare is baptized.

William Shakespeare marries Anne Hathaway.

Shakespeare’s first daughter, Susanna, is born and christened.

Anne Hathaway Shakespeare gives birth to twins: a boy, Hamnet, and a girl, Judith.

Shakespeare’s first histories, Henry the Sixth, Parts 1 and 2, are produced.

The Tragedy of Richard the Third is produced. Not long afterward, the plague afflicts London and the theaters close. Shakespeare writes Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece.

Shakespeare’s first comedy, The Comedy of Errors, is produced.

Shakespeare begins writing a series, or cycle, of sonnets.

The Taming of the Shrew is produced.

Love’s Labor’s Lost is produced.

The Tragedy of King Richard the Second is produced.

The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream are produced.

The Merchant of Venice and Henry the Fourth, Part 1, are produced.

Shakespeare’s son, Hamnet, dies at age eleven.

Shakespeare acquires a fine home called New Place in Stratford- upon-Avon. He produces The Merry Wives of Windsor, possibly at the request of Queen Elizabeth I.

Shakespeare produces Henry the Fourth, Part 2.

Much Ado about Nothing is produced.

Shakespeare’s Globe Theater opens. The Life of Henry the Fifth, The Tragedy of Julius Cæsar, and As You Like It are produced.

The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark is produced.


April 23, 1564

April 26, 1564







c. 1593












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Twelfth Night, or What You Will and The History of Troilus and Cressida are produced.

All’s Well That Ends Well is produced.

Queen Elizabeth I dies. Shakespeare’s troupe, The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, is renamed The King’s Men in honor of their new king and sponsor, James I.

Measure for Measure and The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice are produced.

The Tragedy of King Lear is produced.

The Tragedy of Macbeth is produced.

The Tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra is produced.

The Tragedy of Coriolanus and Pericles, Prince of Tyre are produced.

Cymbeline is produced.

The Winter’s Tale is produced.

The Tempest is produced.

The Famous History of the Life of Henry the Eighth is produced.

Shakespeare collaborates with John Fletcher to write The Two Noble Kinsmen. On June 19, the Globe Theater is burned to the ground in a fire caused by a cannon shot during a performance of Henry the Eighth. Shakespeare retires to his home in New Place.

The Globe Theater rebuilt.

Shakespeare dies and is buried in Holy Trinity Church in Stratford- upon-Avon.
















April 23, 1616

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Shakespeare’s Plays

The Renaissance in England The word renaissance means “rebirth.” Historians use the

term to refer to the period between the fifteenth and early seventeenth centuries (1400s–1600s), when Europe was influenced by a rebirth of interest in Greek and Latin learn- ing and experienced a flowering of literature and the arts.

In England, the Renaissance did not truly begin until 1558, when Queen Elizabeth I ascended to the throne. Elizabeth was a great patron of the arts, and during her reign from 1558 to 1603—a period known as the Elizabethan Age—English literature reached what many people consider to be its zenith. Shakespeare wrote and produced his plays at the height of the Elizabethan period and throughout much of the Jacobean period, the period from 1603 to 1625 when James I ruled England.

Shakespeare’s writing is a good example of the spirit of the Renaissance—his plays often focus on memorable and complex characters, his plots often derive from classical sources, and his themes often involve challenges to author- ity. Although Shakespeare’s scholarly contemporary and fellow playwright Ben Jonson wrote of Shakespeare, “thou hadst small Latin, and less Greek,” Shakespeare knew far more of these languages than most people do today, and he probably read many of the classical works of Rome in their original Latin. He was inspired by classical works and by the history of Rome to write such plays as The Tragedy of Julius Cæsar and The Tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra, and all of his works contain allusions to classical subjects.

Renaissance Drama The two most common types of drama during the

English Renaissance were comedies and tragedies. The key difference between comedies and tragedies is that the former have happy endings and the latter have unhappy ones. (It is only a slight exaggeration to say that comedies end with wedding bells and tragedies with funeral bells.)

A comedy is typically lighthearted, though it may touch on serious themes. Action in a comedy usually progresses from initial order to humorous misunderstanding or con-


Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I. Courtesy the National Portrait Gallery of London.

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fusion and back to order again. Stock elements of comedy include mistaken identities, puns and word play, and coarse or exaggerated characters. Shakespeare’s comedies frequently end with one or more marriages.

A tragedy tells the story of the downfall of a person of high status. Often it celebrates the courage and dignity of its hero in the face of inevitable doom. The hero is typically neither completely good nor completely evil but lives and acts between these extremes. The hero’s fall may be brought about by some flaw in his or her character, known as a tragic flaw. In Macbeth that flaw was ambition; in Hamlet, indecisiveness. As you read this play, try to decide what tragic flaw, if any, you can find in the character of Othello.

Other kinds of plays produced during the period included histories—plays about events from the past—and romances—plays that contained highly fantastic elements, such as fairies and magic spells. Also popular were short plays called interludes, as well as elaborate entertainments, called masques, that featured acting, music, and dance.

Theater in Renaissance London In the late sixteenth century, London was a bustling city

of perhaps 150,000 people—the mercantile, political, and artistic center of England. The city proper was ruled by a mayor and alderman who frowned upon theater because it brought together large crowds of people, creating the potential for lawlessness and the spread of controversial ideas and disease. Many times, London city officials or Parliament ordered the theaters closed, once because they objected to the political content of a play called Isle of Dogs, and regularly because of outbreaks of plague. Parliament, which was dominated by Puritans, passed laws that made it possible for traveling actors and performers to be arrested as vagabonds and cruelly punished. For protec- tion, actors sought the patronage of members of the nobility. Actors would become, technically, servants of a famous lord, and troupes went by such names as The Lord Worcester’s Men.

Fortunately for actors and playwrights, Queen Elizabeth and other members of the nobility loved the theater and protected it. Elizabeth herself maintained two troupes of boy actors, connected to her royal chapels. In addition to such troupes, London boasted several professional troupes made up of men. In those days, women did not act, and women’s roles were played by men, a fact that further increased Puritan disapproval of the theaters. When the


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Puritans took control of England in 1642, theater was banned altogether.

The Renaissance Playhouse The first professional theater in England was built in 1576

by James Burbage. Burbage located his playhouse, which he called simply The Theater, just outside the northern bound- aries of the City of London, where he could avoid control by city authorities. Another professional theater, the Curtain, was built nearby shortly thereafter. In 1598, Burbage’s son Richard and other members of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men tore down the Theater and used its materials to build a new playhouse, called the Globe. One of the shareholders in this new venture was William Shakespeare.

The Globe Theater is described in one of Shakespeare’s plays as a “wooden O.” The theater was nearly circular. It had eight sides and was open in the middle. The stage jut- ted into the center of this open area. Poorer theatergoers called “groundlings,” who paid a penny apiece for admis- sion, stood around three sides of the stage. Wealthier playgoers could pay an additional penny or two to sit in one of the three galleries set in the walls of the theater.

The stage itself was partially covered by a canopy sup- ported by two pillars. Trapdoors in the stage floor made it possible for actors to appear or disappear. Backstage center was an area known as the “tiring house” in which actors could change costumes. This area could be opened for inte- rior scenes. A second-story playing area above the tiring

The Globe Theater.

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house could be used to represent a hilltop, a castle turret, or a balcony (perhaps used in the famous balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet). On the third level, above this bal- cony, was an area for musicians and sound-effects technicians. A cannon shot from this area during a perfor- mance of Shakespeare’s Henry the Eighth in 1613 caused a fire that burned the Globe to the ground.

Because the playhouse was open to the air, plays were presented in the daytime, and there was little or no artifi- cial lighting. Scenery in the modern sense was nonexistent, and very few props, or properties, were used. Audiences had to use their imaginations to create the scenes, and play- wrights helped them do this by writing descriptions into their characters’ speeches.

The Renaissance Audience Audiences at the Globe and similar theaters were quite

heterogeneous, or mixed. They included people from all stations of society: laboring people from the lower classes, middle-class merchants, members of Parliament, and lords and ladies. Pickpockets mingled among the noisy, raucous groundlings crowded around the stage. Noble men and women sat on cushioned seats in the first-tier balcony. The fanfare of trumpets that signaled the beginning of a play was heard by some twenty-five hundred people, a cross- section of the Elizabethan world. As noted in the preface to the First Folio, Shakespeare’s plays were written for everyone, from “the most able, to him that can but spell.” That may explain why even today, they have such a uni- versal appeal.


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Othello, the Moor of Venice

Shakespeare probably wrote The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice, in 1603 or 1604, since we know that it was first performed at court on November 1, 1604. A classic story of love, jealousy, and betrayal, Othello is considered one of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies. It tells the story of Othello, a Moorish (North African) general who marries a Venetian lady and then is cruelly tricked into believing that his wife is unfaithful.

The plot itself was taken from a novella by Italian writer Giraldi Cinthio, which was published in 1565. (See page 218 for a translation of this tale.) This should not be con- sidered plagiarism; in Shakespeare’s day, it was common for playwrights to borrow subjects and storylines from other works and then adapt them for the stage. Furthermore, although Shakespeare’s plot was not original, his gift for dialogue, characterization, and poetic imagery and phrasing transformed the story into something alto- gether his own.

Venice, Cyprus, and the Ottoman Empire The setting of Othello must have seemed very exotic to

Shakespeare’s audience in London. The first act of the play is set in Venice, a city-state in northern Italy, and the fol- lowing four acts in Cyprus, an island in the Mediterranean Sea. (See the map on the facing page.)

Today, Venice is a part of the modern nation of Italy, but in the 1500s, it was a powerful seafaring empire ruled by a Duke, or doge, and a council of noblemen. Seated in a lagoon on the Adriatic Sea, Venice was a major trade port with control over strategic points in the Mediterranean such as the islands of Crete and Cyprus.

The Venetians’ main rivals were the Turks, or Ottomans, who controlled a vast empire stretching from the Persian Gulf in the East to Hungary in the West, including the ter- ritories of Greece and Egypt. The Ottoman Empire and Venice were constantly at war. The objective was power and land, of course, but religion entered into the equation as well. The Venetians were Christian, and the Turks were Muslim. To Venice and indeed to Shakespeare’s England, the Turks were the hated enemy whom Christians had fought during the Crusades. This conflict between


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Christian and Muslim, European and foreign, “civilized” and “barbarian,” is a major theme that runs throughout Othello.

In the play, Othello is sent to Cyprus to fend off a Turkish invasion of the island. This incident is probably inspired by an actual battle that took place in 1571. However, in real life the Turks were successful in capturing Cyprus, whereas in the play, they are held off by a storm. Although it has a small part in the plot, the battle at sea serves an important role, as it provides a backdrop and a mirror for the smaller conflict brewing between Iago and Othello. The play asks us to examine which man, the Christian European Iago, or the Muslim-born, “barbarian” foreigner Othello, is the true enemy of civilization.

There is no record of Shakespeare having traveled to Venice, so it is likely that he relied on books to help him cre- ate an accurate picture of Venetian life. One source he


Map showing territories held by Venice and the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century.



Aegean Sea

M e d i t e r r a n e a n S e a

Black Sea (Pontus)











Territories held by Venice

Territories held by the Ottoman Empire


Red Sea

Tyrrhenian Sea

Adriatic Sea

Ionian Sea

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almost certainly used was The Commonwealth and Government of Venice (De magistratibus et republica Venetorum) by Italian author Gasparo Contarini, written in 1543 and translated into English by Lewis Lewkenor in 1599.

The Moors and Race in Othello The Moors were a Muslim people who lived on the

northern coast of Africa, an area the Europeans called Barbary. These people had a mixed heritage: they were descended from the Berbers (a Caucasian people native to north Africa) and the Arabs, who came from the east. In the eighth century, the Moors invaded Spain and brought it under Islamic rule, in the process bringing to Western Europe their vast knowledge of art, architecture, medicine,


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and science, much of which they inherited from the Arabs and ancient Greeks. The Moors ruled over various parts of Spain for several centuries. Today, Moorish architecture and art can be seen all over Spain, especially in the cities of Toledo, Cordoba, and Seville.

When Shakespeare wrote about “the Moor of Venice,” therefore, he was envisioning a north African man, well- educated, and raised in the Muslim faith (although baptized Christian as an adult). It is unclear, however, whether Shakespeare meant us to see Othello as a black man, or one more Arab in appearance. The Moors of Barbary were a dark- skinned people compared to Europeans, but they were not black. However, in Shakespeare’s day, the term Moor was often used broadly, to refer to any person with dark or black skin, including black Africans. Several references in the play seem to describe Othello as a black African. But no matter what the exact color of his skin, the important point is that Othello was an outsider in Venice, an exotic figure who, while being admired and valued for his military prowess, more often provoked curiosity, fear, and even hatred.

These same feelings toward Africans were probably shared by the members of Shakespeare’s audience. To the English of Shakespeare’s time, Africans were strange and foreign enemies of Christianity, given to heathen practices such as witchcraft and voodoo. In the literature of the time, they were invariably portrayed as villains. The Africans who came to England were viewed with suspicion and hostility. In 1596, Queen Elizabeth I issued an edict against these unlucky foreigners, reading as follows: “Her Majesty under- standing that several blackamoors have lately been brought into this realm, of which kind of people there are already too many here . . . her Majesty’s pleasure therefore is that those kind of people should be expelled from the land.” Considering this climate, it is rather suprising that Shakespeare should have written a play in which the hero was an African, and a very noble character at that.

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