Othello - Context & Setting


Shakespeare & the Renaissance

Renaissance literature challenged old assumptions & traditions. This is seen though Shakespeare's literature as it questions the beliefs, assumptions and politics upon which Elizabethan society was founded. 

In Othello Shakespeare subverts traditional values although the play concludes in a restoration of order & stability 

= The tragic hero is a black man & the heroine is an assertive young woman 

Was Shakespeare a conservative or a revolutionary

Direct criticism of the monarch was not tolerated = muted views & sets plays in the past or abroad

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Shakespeare's inspiration

1600 - John Pory published a translation of John Leo's A Geographical Historie of Africa 

= Leo was a Moor brought up in Barbary 

= described his countrymen as honest 'proud and high minded' and that 'no nation in the world is so subject unto jealously; for they will rather lose their lives than put up any disgrace in the behalf of their women' 

= Othello & Leo show similar traits (proud, honest, loses his life because of his jealously & because he realises Desdemona was true to him) 

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Italy had what Norman Sanders has called a 'double image'

On the one hand

= Italy was a land of refinment & romance, a model of civilisation 

= Venice, Europe's centre of capitalism, was a free state and reowned as one of the most beautiful cities in Italy 

On the other hand 

= Italy was a country associated with decadence, villainy and vice

= Elizabethan's were against mixed marriage & viewed black people with suspicion

= Elizabeth the first issued edicts demaning the removal of black people from England becasue they were considered an 'annoyance'. 

= Many people believed black people were fit only to be slaves 

What we see now as racist were very common. 

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Henry VIII had broken with Rome in the 1530s & in Shakespeare's time there was an independent Protestant state church.

Shakespeare's plays are free from direct religious sentiment, but their emphases are Protestant. 

Othello = converted to Christianity & the preoccupation with good & evil in the play suggests its religious context.

Central figures in the play are frequently beset by temptation & the lure of evil

Othello is haunted by his conscience, he agonises over his actions & follows what can be understood as a spirtual progress towards heaven or hell (psychological journey). 

Othello's tormented conscience = both before and after he kills his wife 

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Female positions #1

Females remained in subordinate roles, their lives controlled by patriarchy during the Renaissance.

Women =

  • few legal rights
  • expected to be ruled by a man (Desdemona's submission to Othello) 
  • entitled to inherit property, but if they married, everything they owned passed to their husbands
  • seen as possessions
  • fathers expected to choose husbands for thier daughters (as Brabantio expected to do)
  • intellectually, women were thought to be inferior to men & incapable of rational thought
  • rarely recieved an education
  • assertive & arguementative women seen as a threat to the social order & were punished for their behaviour with forms of torture such as 'carting' (being carted round town and publicly mocked) 
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Female positions #2

European visitors to England commented that English women had more freedom than was the case in many other European countries. 

Shakespeare's wife = successfully managed a home & property as well as her family for 20 years while Shakespeare pursed his career in London 

Shakespeare's audience included women & he wrote a large number of parts for stong-minded female characters, like Desdemona & Emilia.

Although Othello's violence against Desdemona is shocking, it needs to be considered in context - The Elizabethans lived in a violent world, domestic abuse was not uncommon and in except in cases of extreme cruelty, not considered unacceptable. 

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Theatre (audience)

Some of the audience stood in the yard (or pit) to watch the play = These 'groundlings' paid only a penny to get it - accessible for the lower class 

Seats in three covered teirs between the inner & outer walls of the buidling, which held about 3000 guests - where the wealthier/upper class would be seated

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Staging practices

  • Verry little scenery or props being used 
  • Descriptions of places are used to create a specific dramatic mood or situation 
  • The storm in Cyprus that opens Act II is described verbally by the characters on the stage, to create a mood of tension for the audience
  • During night-time scenes characters may mention they cannot see what is going on to establish a sense of danger (Acts I and V) 
  • Candles and torches would have been used to signify night to the audience
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  • Italianate settings were often used for plays about intigue, secret love affairs & revenge.
  • Foreign courts were stereotyped as being full of villainy & sexual perversion. Venice had a reputation as a city of wealth & sophistication, but was also percieved as a place of loose morals.
  • Shakespeare is able to use the Ventetian setting to establish Othello as an outsider.
  • Although he serves the senate, Othello is not Italian, unlike his adversary, Iago.
  • Iago is a typical Italianate villian: scheming, selfish & amoral. Iago is able to make much of Othello's outsider status, convincing him that he does not understand the society he serves.
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  • The conflict & danger of the setting are mirrored in the tragic events that unfold there.
  • Away from the 'civilisation' of Venice, Iago's evil schemes prosper.
  • Cyprus is threatened by the Turks = Othello's peace of mind and marriage are threatened by Iago.
  • Othello is sent to Cyprus to govern & restore peaace, instead of bringing peace, Othello destroys his wife & then himself.
  • Cyprus is an isolated setting, which is psychologically appropriate.
  • Secure in their love in Venice, Othello & Desdemona are wrenched apart in Cyprus. It is tragically ironic that a once great soldier should die for love in a war zone.
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