Othello - (1601-02) Context

  • Created by: cj2013
  • Created on: 29-04-19 17:39

Othello - Setting and Source Material

Setting and Source Material:

  • Othello was written in the seventeenth century for audiences in Elizabethan England.
  • It is set against the backdrop of the sixteenth century wars between Venice and the Turks.


  • In the sixteenth century, Cyprus was governed by Venice and was constantly threatened by the Turks, mirroring the conflict that unfolds there in the play.


  • The play is partially based on a sixteenth century tale by Italian writer Giraldi Cinthio, called 'Un Capitano Moro', but there are three key differences:
  • 1. Cinthio's ensign is clearly motivated by unrequited love for Desdemona whereas Shakespeare's Iago's motives are more ambiguous and Coleridge argues he is a 'motiveless' villain.
  • 2. Shakespeare adding the backdrop of the conflict between The Turks and Venice extends the wider societal impact of the tragedy.
  • 3. Shakespeare's replacement, in Desdemona's death, of a sock full of sand with a pillow and addition of Othello's suicide increase the chances of the audience feeling the key Aristotelian tragedy emotions of 'pity and fear'.
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Othello - Race

Race & Racial Stereotypes:

  • 1. Moors as immoral influenced by the tradition of the devil being depicted as having black skin, dating back to medieval woodcuts.
  • 2. Moors as sexually deviant and being driven by irrational lust.
  • 3. Moors as intellectually inferior and credulous.
  • 4. Moors as prone to violence, anger and jealousy influenced by the stereotypical descriptions of Moors made by Moorish scholar Leo Africanus in A Geographical Historie of Africa (1600).
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Othello - Race Continued

Race, Events & Moors viewed as a threat to society:

  • '[Elizabethan] England was increasingly hostile to foreigners [Xenophobia] ... and in London there were many riots against foreign residents and artisans' (Ania Loomba).
  • Queen Elizabeth I issued a decree [order] demanding the removal of all 'negars and blackamoores' who had 'crept into the realm' to the 'annoyance of her ... people'.
  • Shakespeare's presentation of Iago's exploitation of Elizabethan fears of miscegenation [interbreeding between races] may have been influenced by Elizabethan England views of Venice as a dangerous 'melting pot' of different cultures and races.

'Yok[ing] together and reshap[ing] [stereotypical] images of Moors (Ania Loomba):

  • Shakespeare's presentation of Othello as an eloquent, erudite [intelligent] Moor of 'noble lineage' may have been influenced by the visit of the Moorish ambassador of the King of Barbary to Queen Elizabeth I's court in 1600. However, his comment on being 'sold to slavery' aligns him with a more stereotypical narrative of enslavement, influenced by Leo Africanus.
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Othello - Elizabethan Views on Venice

Elizabethan Views on Venice:

  • Venice was Europe's main trade link with Africa and the East and was both admired and envied as a cosmopolitan [culturally diverse] city and a hub of international trade.
  • As much as it was admired for its 'mercantile openness', some people viewed this mixing of cultures as dangerous.
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Othello - Venetian Women

Venetian Women:

  • Venice was the pleasure capital of Europe and was renowned for its many courtesans [high-class prostitutes] and sexual deviance [drift away from accpted Christian moral values].
  • High-class Venetian women were often thought to be indistinguishable, in terms of dress and behaviour, from courtesans and therefore all Venetian women were perceived to be both promiscuous and duplicitous.
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Othello - Iago as a Machiavellian Malcontent

Iago as a Machiavellian Malcontent:

  • Iago is a stereotypical malcontent (a stock character from Elizabethan drama - an outsider who was discontented with and voiced criticisms of society).
  • Iago sees himself as the victim of the culture of nepotism [favouritism] in Venetian society.
  • Iago can be seen as a stereotypical Machiavellian villain - he uses duplicity and manipulation to gain power over others in the style recommended by Renaissance political strategist Niccolo Machiavelli.
  • Some critics argue Iago can be seen as a 'Vice' figure - a stereotypical character from medieval morality plays who was the embodiment of pure satanic evil.
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Othello - Aristotelian and Shakespearean Models of

Aristotelian & Shakespearean Models of Tragedy:

  • 1. '[tragedy arouses] pity and fear] - Aristotle.
  • 2. 'calamity and suffering are contrasted with previous happiness or glory' - A C Bradley.
  • 3. '[a] fall from prosperity to wretchedness' - the traditional Medieval definition of tragedy as outlined by David Kastan.
  • 4. 'is it capricious fate? ... For Shakespeare the uncertainty is the cause.' - Kastan.
  • 5. 'Anagnorisis: a moment of tragic recognition and a move from ignorance to knowledge' - Aristotle.
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Othello - Cuckolds


  • There was a significant stigma around being cuckolded in seventeenth century Elizabethan England, as a man who was a cuckold [a man whose wife had an affair] was said to have or depicted as having horns, linking to the stags and their mating ritual in which two males fought and if they lost gave up their wife.
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