Social and Historical Context of Othello

HideShow resource information

General Information

Othello was first performed by the King's Men at the court of Kind James I on November 1st 1604.

The war between the Turks and Christians (Venetian state) provides a symbolic backdrop to Othello's tragedy. Cyprus is vulnerable and isolated, like Othello.

Most Elizabethans believed in the devil and accepted evil was hard to detect, thus making Iago's deceptions both plausible and terrifying.


1 of 7

Original Story

The story of Othello is derived from an Italian prose tale written in 1565 by Giovanni Battista Giraldi Cinzio (usually referred to as Cinthio).

The original story contains the bare bones of Shakespeare’s plot: a Moorish general is deceived by his ensign into believing his wife is unfaithful.

To Cinthio’s story, Shakespeare added supporting characters such as the rich young dupe Roderigo and the outraged and grief-stricken Brabanzio, Desdemona’s father.

Shakespeare compressed the action into the space of a few days and set it against the backdrop of military conflict and, most memorably, he turned the ensign, a minor villain, into the arch-villain Iago.

2 of 7

The Moor

The word Moor now refers to the Islamic Arabic inhabitants of North Africa who conquered Spain in the eighth century, but the term was used rather broadly in the period and was sometimes applied to Africans from other regions.

George Abbott, for example, in his A Brief Description of the Whole World of 1599, made distinctions between “blackish Moors” and “black Negroes”; a 1600 translation of John Leo’s The History and Description of Africa distinguishes “white or tawny Moors” of the Mediterranean coast of Africa from the “Negroes or black Moors” of the south. 

During the 16th century European countries were beginning to expand their trade routes thus coming into contact with new cultures.  One new culture was Mauretania, found in Northern Africa.  As a result Europeans during Shakespeare’s time referred to people from this area as Moors.  Othello, the play’s protagonist, is referred to as “the Moor”.

3 of 7

Othello's Race

Othello’s darkness or blackness is alluded to many times in the play, but Shakespeare and other Elizabethans frequently described brunette or darker than average Europeans as black.

The opposition of black and white imagery that runs throughout Othello is certainly a marker of difference between Othello and his European peers, but the difference is never quite so racially specific as a modern reader might imagine it to be.

4 of 7

Heroes and Villains

Perhaps the most vividly stereotypical black character of the period is Aaron, the villain of Shakespeare’s early play Titus Andronicus. The antithesis of Othello, Aaron is lecherous, cunning, and vicious; his final words are: “If one good deed in all my life I did / I do repent it to my very soul” (Titus Andronicus, V.iii.188–189).

Othello, by contrast, is a noble figure of great authority, respected and admired by the duke and senate of Venice as well as by those who serve him, such as Cassio, Montano, and Lodovico. Only Iago voices an explicitly stereotypical view of Othello, depicting him from the beginning as an animalistic, barbarous, foolish outsider.

Iago, a central character in the play, is a Spanish name.  During Shakespeare’s time Spain was England’s greatest enemy as they were their biggest competition in colonization.  

5 of 7

The Army

General – Othello is the General of the Venetian army.  Only thosethought to be logical, loyal, brave, trustworthy and courageous were promoted to this position. 

Lieutenant – Cassio is promoted to this rank by Othello.  It’s title literally means “place-holder” which means the lieutenant is second in command to the general and holds this place in the general’s absence.  As a result the lieutenant was thought to have the same qualities as the general.

Ancient Also known as the ensign, this man was responsible for carrying the flag on the battlefield.  Since the flag identified the locations of the army in battle, it was crucial to allowing the soldiers to find their position.  The ancient/ensign had to be extremely courageous and loyal, maintaining his position in the face of death.  The ancient/ensign is third in command, under the lieutenant and general.

6 of 7

Women and Marriage

During the 16th century the rules of dating and marriage were much different than today’s practices. 

England was a patriarchal society.  This meant that men made all of the decisions for the family members in their household. 

Women were expected to be subservient. As a result fathers would often choose who and when their daughters would marry. 

Suitable partners were selected from men of common or higher social and economic rank and age was not a factor. 

Marriages were often treated as a business transaction, as a means for improving a family’s status.  Once a woman was married she was expected to obey her husband’s choices and decisions.

Thus, when Desdemona weds Othello without her father’s knowledge or permission she breaks several social codes.

7 of 7


No comments have yet been made

Similar English Language & Literature resources:

See all English Language & Literature resources »See all Othello resources »