Social and Historical context of Othello

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  • The Social and Historical context of Othello
    • Social /Elizabethan views to race
      • Elizabethans thought hierarchically; pale skin was the epitome of beaut, dark skin ranked below. Even Queen Elizabeth wore powder to look paler; darker skin meant you did manual labour outside and were of a lower status.
        • Suitable partners for women we decided through their social and economic ran.
      • The term 'Black' was used in a variety of texts to represent sin, filth, ugliness, evil and the Devil. They associated this with Black people therefore.
      • It was argued whether a black skin colour was a result of working in a hotter climate or a punishment for committing sin.
        • Due to the association of Black men and women with heat and sin, they were overly sexualised.
      • Elizabethan/ Jacobean society was very prejudice and fraught with racism, but this was a social norm of the era.
    • Historical
      • Closely resembles a 1565 story by the Italian writer Giovanni Battista Giraldi Cinzio: a Moorish general is tricked by one of his officers into thinking his wife has been unfaithful.
      • Iago is a Spanish name; Spain was England's greatest enemy, the biggest opponent in the colonisation. Shakespeare may have chosen this name to engender more distrust and hatred towards Iago as the villain of the play.
      • England was a patriarchal society; women marginalised as men made all the decisions for and about them, sexist society.
      • Father's would decide who their daughters would marry. This would be considered a 'business transaction', daughters treated like property. Matches were made based on who would  advance/uphold the family’s reputation
    • Othello examples and quotes
      • Stereotypical
        • "a barbary horse" -  (a North African breed of horse). Animalistic, plays into expectation that Black people are vicious. Also shows how they can't look past his North African roots and they hold it against him.
        • "or else the devil will make a grandsire of you"- Othello is referred to as the devil, linking to the collour Black being linked to the Devil and sin. The threatening phraseology of this suggests how even mixed race children are seen as evil and unwanted.
        • Desdemona in "the gross clasps of the lascivious Moor", meaning lustful. Highlights how Black people over-sexualised.
        • "An old black ram is tupping your white ewe"- graphic and sexualised. Makes Desdemona seem like a passive victim and Othello a sexual deviant.
        • "stol'n from me and corrupted by spells and medicines"        "witchcraft"    "beguiled (charmed) your daughter of herself" All these far-fetched suggestions imply that the Venetian men do not trust Othello because he is a black foreigner. They will make any excuse to justify Desdemona loving him.
      • Against the stereotype
        • "my parts, my title and my perfect soul shall manifest me rightly."   Moor characters were abound on the Elizabethan/ Jacobean stages, none had so major or heroic a role as Othello.
        • "Noble" and "valiant Moor". These show the respect that Othello has as a General and a good fighter. Even the Senator says he is valiant, approbation from such an authoritative figure is unusual for a 'Moor' in the Elizabethan era.
        • "your son-in-law is far more fair than black"- supposed to be a compliment; inadvertently still insults black people but not Othello. Shows how the Duke considers him with the same status as a white man than a black man who is ranked lower.


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