Season 05-06 Season

A Cultural Context for Othello


Scholars disagree as to when Shakespeare finished writing Othello, but we can date the play from its first performance by the King's Men on November 1, 1604, at the court of James I. Multiple productions followed at the Globe and Blackfriars theatres, and the play was mounted at court again in 1612–1613 in honor of Princess Elizabeth's wedding. Shakespeare's principal source for the plot was a short story by the Italian writer Cinthio Giambattista Giraldi (1504-1574), who included it in a collection of 100 domestic stories titled Hecatommithi, published in Venice in 1566. No English translation is believed to have existed before 1753, so Shakespeare may have read it in either the original Italian or in a French translation published in 1584. A handful of lines from Shakespeare's text recall phrases from the Italian and French versions, suggesting that he may have read it in both languages.

The plotof Cinthio's story centers on four characters, all of whomShakespeare borrowed for his tragedy: the Moor, the Ensign, the Captain and the Moor's wife, Disdemona. The events and key players are similar, but important differences emerge with respect to the characters' actions and each author's intent. Cinthio's Moor reflects certain racial stereotypes of the day, such as a proclivity toward jealousy and passion, whereas Shakespeare takes pains to establish Othello's heroic qualities alongside his blind spots. Disdemona offers a moral later in the original story, urging Italian women to obey their parents when they forbid them to marry foreigners. In Shakepeare's telling, however, Desdemona takes no such stand, opting not to implicate Othello, even when Emilia asks her dying mistress, “O, who has done this deed?” Cinthio's Ensign and Moor conspire to kill Disdemona, while Shakespeare assigns the murderous act to Othello alone. Cinthio's Moor refuses to confess his guilt, but in Shakespeare's version, Othello earns his place as a tragic hero by recognizing his tragic mistake and atoning for it magnificently.

Early17th-century English attitudes toward non-Europeans were largelyshaped by the government's diplomatic policies and, to a lesserextent, by exotic stories brought back by travelers overseas.The term “moor” was derived from the name of the country Mauritania but was used to refer to North Africans, West Africans or, even more loosely, for non-whites or Muslims of any origin. North and West Africans living in Elizabethan England were frequently singled out for their unusual dress, behavior and customs and were commonly referred to as “devils” or “villains.” Moors were commonly stereotyped as sexually overactive, prone to jealousy and generally wicked. The public associated “blackness” with moral corruption, citing examples from Christian theology to support the view that whiteness was the sign of purity, just as blackness indicated sin.

AlthoughQueen Elizabeth granted the Moors “full diplomatic recognition” out of gratitude for their help in conquering Spain, in 1601 she deported them, citing concerns about their irregular behavior and a fear that allowing them to stay in England would lead to overpopulation. Blacks were not typically associated with slavery at that time, since the slave trade would not be fully established until the late 17th century. Instead, the Elizabethan portrait of the dark-skinned “other” clearly established him as a bestial force, dangerous because of his sexuality, temper and magical powers.

In hisadaptation, Shakespeare incorporates these racial stereotypesinto the dialogue, assigning them to characters like Iago,Roderigo and Brabantio at the top of the play. Their slursand accusations provide the backdrop against which viewersmust formulate impressions of a man they do not know. OnceOthello enters, however, the audience must judge him—his calculated actions and eloquent speech—not in the abstract, but in person. Through the theatrical medium, Shakespeare helps the public see his protagonist in three dimensions: the Moor from Cinthio's story transformed from an exotic and passionate stereotype into a tragic figure in flesh and blood. The play's action reveals the depth of affection shared by Othello and Desdemona, the enchanting power of the general's poetry and, finally, Iago's easy manipulations of collegial and marital trust. Through the treachery of a surprising white devil, Shakespeare challenges his audiences to spot the true color of villainy.

Some scholars have speculated that Shakespeare wrote Othello toplease James I, who had a keen interest in the history of theTurks and their defeat by the Christians in the Battle of Lepantoin 1571. In assigning Othello, the Christian general, the roleof defending Cyprus against the Turks, Shakespeare gives anod to recent military history but also signals to the Elizabethans that his hero is a “civilized” (non-Muslim) African and, therefore, worthy of their empathy.

As the setting for the original story (and substitute for Shakespeare's London), Venice provides a natural environment for the figure of the Moor to be both revered and despised. According to Venetian law, the Venetian Republic's army general was required to be a foreigner. Since Shakespeare's Venetians reflect the mores of English society, it follows that Venetian society would admire Othello for his valor and leadership but still recoil at the notion of his marrying into its families. Shakespeare chose the same city for another of his most famous portraits of otherness,The Merchant of Venice (1596–1597), challenging his audiences to consider “Hath not a Jew eyes? …” In both plays, Shakespeare calls on his audiences to consider the person before them, complex as he may be, rather than judging him by inherited assumptions used to dismiss a maligned people in the abstract. Shakespeare makes the stage a venue for closer examination, a place where audiences may begin to relate to “others,” not all at once, but one extraordinary example at a time. In adapting Cinthio, Shakespeare sets up familiar stereotypes to explode them and to teach his audiences compassion for those whom society uses but never fully embraces as countrymen.


Kristin Johnsen-Neshati is Associate Professor of Theatre at GeorgeMason University, where she teaches theatre history, dramaturgyand dramatic criticism.



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